As usual, Stephen woke first, blinking into the grey half-light of the morning. To his left, Tony was still asleep, breaths deep and even. They had changed positions and gravitated together overnight, Stephen now supine with Tony’s arm thrown halfway across his chest. Tony’s forehead was once again pressed into the jut of his shoulder, warm breath ghosting across his arm.
Oddly enough, he didn’t mind it. This was no longer a new development; he woke up to this every time they shared a bed. That was every night these days, even though it wasn’t absolutely necessary. At baseline, Tony Stark was already a tactile person, a fact Stephen quickly learned; Stephen himself was touch-starved owing to his mostly lonely life. So he didn’t question it because truth be told, staying close to each other was calming. It felt right, and he could tell that Tony felt the same. After all, Tony didn’t insist on his own privacy, instead opting to share literally everything, not the least of which was personal space. Stephen never thought he would ever admit to it but living in each other’s pockets wasn’t such a bad idea.
He turned his head and closed his eyes. Last night, Loki came to them in a dream, a reassuring development. They could now proceed with confidence that Asgard was being prepared for what was to come. A weight he had been consciously carrying lifted from his shoulders. The risk he took betting on Loki was paying off.
“Stephen,” JARVIS spoke quietly so as not to wake Tony, “Colonel Rhodes is in the kitchen inquiring if you are awake. He is preparing breakfast and would like to know if you or sir have any particular requests. What would you like me to tell him?”
“French toast for Tony, if he can make it,” Stephen responded just as quietly.
“Sir’s preferred comfort food for breakfast,” JARVIS noted approvingly. “The care you take with sir’s wellbeing is much appreciated.”
Stephen smiled. “Mutual investments, JARVIS.”
“Indeed. Breakfast should be ready in under an hour.”
Stephen remained in bed and meditated, attuning himself to the even metronome of Tony’s breaths. For a time, there was nothing but their breathing and the slow, strong pulse of his own heart. He lost himself in the swirls and eddies of the dimensional power around him.
There is time, the world told him. There is time.
When he returned to awareness, Tony was rousing next to him.
“Mmph,” his erstwhile partner eloquently said, briefly lifting his face from Stephen’s shoulder only to come back down. The cut above his left eyebrow was only slightly swollen.
“Good morning,” Stephen said.
Tony only huffed, hand curling into Stephen’s flank. Stephen waited another minute.
“It is 8:43 in the morning, sir, Saturday, May 22nd,” JARVIS dutifully responded. “Breakfast is almost ready.”
Tony turned his head to ask, “Who’s cookin’? Babe’s in bed.”
“Colonel Rhodes has taken the liberty, sir, and now Miss Potts, Mr. Hogan, and Dr. Palmer are helping him.”
“Oh,” Tony murmured then. Stephen felt him blinking, his eyelashes brushing against skin. “Oh, right. Vanko. Ugh.”
“And Loki,” Stephen added.
“And Loki,” Tony sighed, “so I didn’t dream that alone after all.”
“It’s a good development. We have less to worry about on Asgard’s account.”
“Yeah, but now we gotta find out what’s happening with Thor,” Tony said. “He landed in the middle of the desert in New Mexico in the last life. I never did get what the whole ordeal was, something about banishment and a trial of worth? Fuck if I know what that means, Asgardians are special.”
“The royal family even more so,” Stephen drolly remarked. “Be thankful you never had to directly deal with Odin.”
At that, Tony reared back, finally fully awake. “What, you did? What was he like?”
“A shriveled, tired old god. Still powerful when compared against mortals, make no mistake, but tired. I met him after the death of his wife. He was grieving and in shock. I think his arrogance made him underestimate how much the fracturing of his family would hurt. That same arrogance also blinded him to Loki’s true capacity, otherwise Loki would not have been able to cast such a spell on him and get away with it.”
Tony blinked at him several times, before shaking his head. “Okay, it’s too early for talk of gods and spells. Can we have coffee first?”
They got up. Their morning routine was quick and spent in mutual silence. Stephen took a moment to murmur a mild healing spell over the cut above Tony’s eyebrow, after which they changed out of sleeping clothes. Ordinarily they wouldn’t have bothered, but there were guests in the house today, so they made an effort to be presentable. Tony emerged in jeans, Converse sneakers, and a Nirvana t-shirt while Stephen wore soft chino pants, loafers, and a linen button-down with sleeves rolled up. The button-down he had to fetch from one of the two remaining unpacked boxes in their closet. Tucked next to the shirts somehow, he fetched a familiar pair of shades.
“Ready, babycakes? I’m hungry,” Tony asked from the bedroom.
Stephen stood and stepped out, holding the shades in his hand. He had entirely forgotten about them. How it made it to the box, he had no clue. “Tony,” he said, “I forgot to give you this.”
Tony turned, question clear on his face, before his expression blew open in surprise when Stephen handed him the shades. “Wait, what? How did you get this?”
“It’s yours. From the future.” Stephen inhaled and explained, “I found it in the Sanctum, I don’t know how it made it there. I seem to recall you taking it off right before you fought that guy—”
“Yes, him,” Stephen had to smile at the admittedly amusing nickname. “I was going to give it to Peter.”
At the mention of Peter’s name, the surprise on Tony’s face gave way to a bitter sort of joy. “Was he—was he okay? Peter, I mean. After—everything.”
Swallowing, Stephen steeled himself for honesty. He had promised Tony that much, hadn’t he? “Not… not really. Not after you—passed. He took it hard, he and your daughter both.”
Tears shimmered in Tony’s eyes, tears which he fought back by blinking and breathing hard. Silence yawned between them for a good minute.
“You would’ve done right, giving this to Peter,” Tony finally said once he had himself under control. He put the shades on and tapped its frame once. “It’s still functional but needs reprogramming. Peter would have had control over TILDA’s counterpart through these.”
“You made TILDA in the future? I thought she was a new idea.”
“Well, she’s a significant upgrade to EDITH, which was what these shades had access to. Doesn’t matter now, EDITH is nonexistent here,” Tony took the shades off with a wry smile. “Thanks for watching over Peter after I was gone.”
“I didn’t really do much,” Stephen had to admit, unable to meet Tony’s eyes because he left that reality precisely when Peter’s world began falling apart. That was a guilt he would continue to carry in this reality they now had to reshape. Perhaps this time, he could help stop Peter from suffering the world’s ire in such a way. “He came to the Sanctum a couple of times to, ah, explore. I just babysat him to make sure he didn’t trip over a relic and unleash a demon or something.”
Tony barked a laugh. “That sounds like something he would do!”
“Especially when fueled with a gallon of Stark Raving Hazelnuts.”
They shared a brief smile, memories overlapping although Stephen’s acquaintance with Peter was admittedly short.
A heartbeat later, the smile slid off Tony’s face, replaced with a serious, imploring look. “Stephen, promise me something.”
“Within reason,” Stephen cautiously responded.
That eked a smile from Tony again, albeit a smaller one this time. He said, “Don’t tell me any more about my daughter. Don’t tell me her name, or what she was like, or how she did without me. Because I don’t think I can take it. Please.”
The breath caught in Stephen’s throat. This time, it was he who had to briefly fight tears, and although he didn’t often cry, the urge was sudden and strong. He looked down and blinked furiously. He swallowed and asked, “I’m guessing you really don’t plan on marrying Pepper this time?”
“Nope,” Tony confirmed. “It’s better this way. Less messy, less complicated. She’s safer and happier in the long run.”
“You don’t know that,” Stephen argued.
“But I do,” Tony retorted, “because can either of us guarantee that we’ll survive the coming war? We’ll fight to survive until then, but when shit hits the fan, all bets are off.”
Stephen couldn’t argue that. He said the only thing he knew to be remotely appropriate. “I’m sorry.”
Fourteen million six hundred and five, plus yet another one. Stephen was tired of this painful repetition. How much more would Tony Stark have to sacrifice for an ungrateful universe?
“Hey,” Tony softly said, putting a palm on Stephen’s chest, “I’m the one demanding all these promises from you.”
“And I’m the one who took you away from the future you were building with a family.”
“For another, what, four years? And then I die, leaving that family behind,” Tony countered, pushing very lightly on Stephen’s chest. “But then you came back and bought me more time. Bought us more time. Technically, the universe and I owe you big time.”
Stephen looked back up to ascertain how serious Tony was being. “You really don’t want to know?”
“I don’t,” Tony said, evenly meeting his gaze.
“I promise not to tell you anything about her anymore.”
It wouldn’t be that hard; Stephen didn’t know that much about Morgan Stark beyond the fact that she loved her father more than three thousand.
Tension bleeding from his frame, Tony gave him a soft smile, the kind that lit up his eyes. “Thank you. And since I know you’ll keep feeling guilty about Pepper no matter what I tell you, let’s do this: you stay by my side and we’ll call it even. How’s that sound?”
Stephen breathed out, shoulders settling. “I believe I already made that promise.”
“Then we’re good,” Tony nodded with the beginnings of a grin. “Now come on, before Pepper runs in here again to fetch us.”
This time, when Tony took his hand and led him forward, Stephen didn’t fight it and followed.
“There you are,” Rhodes said in lieu of good morning, wiping his hands with a kitchen towel as he stepped out from behind the island. “I was beginning to wonder whether you were both gonna sleep in. I made French toast and all.”
“Aw, I love you too, honeybear!” Tony threw himself forward for a hug, which Rhodes good-naturedly indulged.
Rhodes stepped back and held him at arm’s length. “How’re you feeling? Not too banged up?”
“I mean, depends on what kinda banged up we’re talkin’ about,” Tony slyly quipped, making Christine splutter on her coffee. Rhodes, Happy, and Pepper, well used to Tony’s antics, only rolled their eyes in tandem.
“Sit,” Stephen ordered. Tony sat with a smile. “Eat.” Tony picked up his cutlery.
“Wow,” Pepper commended.
“Okay,” Rhodes raised both eyebrows at Stephen, sliding the plate of French toast towards Tony. “I’m actually really okay with this.”
Stephen poured coffee for himself and Tony, adding the customary two cubes of sugar for Tony’s cup. The five of them sat at one end of the frankly excessive dining table and communed over Rhodes’ stellar cooking.
“How’s the media doing today?” Tony asked between bites of bacon.
“Not bad, actually,” Pepper shrugged, “JARVIS can show you?”
Obediently, JARVIS displayed hovering holograms of the most pertinent articles above the table. Christine made a sound of surprise.
Majority of them were about the incident, although a few paparazzi shots of the six of them at the restaurant made it to some articles. A bystander’s shaky cam caught the brief scuffle between Iron Man and the man now identified as Ivan Vanko. Vanko was taken to the hospital after the incident and later pronounced dead.
“The most popular opinion seems to be ‘that’s what you get for challenging Iron Man, idiot’,” Rhodes remarked. “CNN ran a profile on the dude, Vanko—”
“—worked with Howard, at least Anton Vanko did,” Tony sighed. “Yeah, I know the story, I kinda get where this goes.”
“Was he just jealous, or…?” Christine wondered aloud.
“Anton Vanko was a Russian scientist who defected to the US after the war and worked with my dad to create the original arc reactor,” Tony explained. “That didn’t last long. They had an ideological disagreement. Vanko wanted to sell the tech for profit; my dad wanted to keep it secret and perfect it. Vanko started selling secrets to the USSR again; my dad found out and snitched on him. Vanko got deported and I’m assuming his son, this Ivan Vanko, wanted revenge. Can’t have been easy, being kicked back to the country you betrayed and watching your partner take all the credit for the work you helped with. Long story short, they were both assholes and fucked up both of their sons.”
“Tones,” Rhodes sighed.
“What? It’s true! If anything, I and I alone am entitled to call Howard Stark an absolute asshole, given I experienced the brunt of his assholishness,” Tony sniffed, nose in the air. “It’s a privilege I refuse to relinquish.”
Stephen chuckled and said, “It’s one of the best privileges of being an asshole’s child.”
“Exactly,” Tony bumped shoulders with him. “See, babe gets me.”
“Are you sure you still want to go forward with selling the reactor, then?” Rhodes questioned with worry. “This is the sort of asshole who would try to steal the tech and use it for all sorts of shit.”
“Yes, because I’ll be around to mitigate the shit,” Tony took another bite of bacon. “If we keep holding back because the risks are high, the world won’t change. The sale and use of each reactor will be highly regulated. They’ll power cities, not private entities. If someone tries to break that clause, I will know. If someone tries to steal the tech, I will know. And if someone tries to copy it…” Tony chuckled, “well, I’d like to see them try. There are no notes, honeybear. It’s all in here,” he tapped his temple with a grin.
There was silence for a moment, punctuated with the clink of their cutlery against china.
After a sip of coffee, Pepper turned to Christine and said, “You’ll have to sign NDAs now. Sorry for the paperwork.”
Christine blinked and shrugged, “Yeah, of course, that’s fine.”
“She uses the same lawyer,” Stephen said, to which Pepper responded, “Excellent.”
“What about the gossip rags, anything interesting?” Tony then asked, swiping at the holo with a finger. “J, why is FOX on here? You know I hate them.”
“A balanced perspective requires insight on both sides of the spectrum, sir,” JARVIS haughtily replied. “It would be unbecoming of you to exist in an echo chamber.”
“Well said, JARVIS.”
“Thank you, Stephen.”
Christine, continually surprised this morning, stuttered out, “Wait, what is, is that, is he—”
“A fully independent AI with functional ontological reasoning, natural language processing, transfer learning, and even social intelligence,” Stephen confirmed with a look he knew Christine would understand. “A consciousness, Christine. Tony created a consciousness.”
“Impossible?” Rhodes completed for her. “Yeah, Tony likes that word. Specifically, he likes breaking it.”
“The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances,” JARVIS quoted smartly. “I thank you, Stephen. Your compliments are indeed high and very flattering.”
“You’re welcome.” When Stephen turned to offer him a refill of coffee, Tony’s grin was wide and bright. “Do you need another dose? You look chipper enough.”
“Please!” Tony handed his mug over. “Thanks, babe!” Stephen was beginning to notice a pattern here: it made Tony incredibly happy when people treated JARVIS as more than just a machine.
“Oh my god, I don’t think I’ll ever get over this whole babe business,” Christine shook her head as if to clear it.
Tony laughed, “Why not? Stephen’s totally a babe!”
“I mean, okay? If you say so,” Christine began to giggle. Never a good sign.
Stephen cut the train of that conversation and said to Tony, “Weren’t you wanting to show Pepper something?”
“Oh!” Tony shot out of his seat, “Oh, Pep, come on, let’s go!”
“Wait, what? Tony, what, okay, okay, I’m coming!” Pepper hastily hopped out of her seat to prevent herself from being hauled off of it.
“You should probably follow if you want to keep him from giving Pepper an ulcer,” Stephen said to Rhodes. “I’ll take care of clean-up.”
“I think Pepper already has a Tony-shaped ulcer, but okay, a little help can’t hurt. Thanks, doc,” Rhodes pushed off from the island and walked after his two friends. Happy excused himself as well, following to check out the attached property and how it would impact his job. That left Stephen alone with Christine, who sat nursing her second cup of coffee with a look of complete bewilderment.
“What is your life, Stephen Strange?” she asked with no small amount of awe.
“I’ll take that as a rhetorical question.”
Truth be told, even Stephen didn’t know anymore.
Pepper was floored and delighted with her brownstone. Tony predictably knew her well; she was very complimentary of the security without having to sacrifice her privacy. “It’s so cozy, I love it,” she gushed, hanging on to Tony’s arm with a wide smile. On Tony’s face was a reciprocal expression of joy; it made him happy to make her happy.
Stephen had to look away and remind himself of what he promised.
“And honeybear, you can keep your room if you like it,” Tony slung an arm around his friend. “You know you always have a place to crash whenever you’re up here. DC’s not that far, so you have no excuse not to visit more often.”
Rhodes smiled and clapped Tony on the back. “Thanks, man.”
Tony turned and said, “Christine!”
“I don’t need a room, I have an apartment,” she held up both of her hands, alarmed at Tony’s excessive generosity.
“Positive,” Christine nodded, shooting a look at Stephen. “No offense, but uh, living with you guys would be super awkward, considering I used to date Stephen.”
“Wait, you did?” Pepper blinked in surprise.
“Awkward,” Rhodes raised both of his eyebrows, “wow, Tones, what the hell?”
“But you don’t have the vibe,” Pepper said to Christine, the two of them dipping their heads together in that way women did when they had something of importance to communicate to each other. “How long ago?”
Christine shrugged, “That’s why we broke up, uh, maybe two years ago now?”
“A little less than,” Stephen confirmed. “Apparently, I’m too clingy.”
Tony burst out in bright laughter. “Don’t worry, babe,” he winked at Stephen, “you can cling all you like, I don’t mind.”
“Please hit on each other where I can’t see or hear you,” Rhodes sighed. When he leveled Stephen with an imploring look, Stephen noncommittally shrugged. He could curb Tony to an extent, but even he couldn’t stop Tony’s sense of mischief, and sometimes he didn’t want to.
Christine left around noon, excusing herself after signing a round of paperwork for Pepper. “I have a mound of laundry to do and I think there’s nothing left in my fridge. I’m back to work tomorrow, so as much fun as this is, I have to go and be an adult for a hot second.”
“Bo-ring,” Tony declared.
“Shush, Tony,” Pepper scolded, giving Christine a one-armed hug. “It was so nice to meet you! Stay in touch and let’s hang out again, okay?”
“I’ll drop you,” Happy said, an offer Christine tried to refuse unsuccessfully. They left with orders for Happy to fetch Pepper’s things from her reserved hotel.
Rhodes then turned to Tony and said, “I don’t mean to sound unfriendly, but now that they’ve left, can I ask what in the world that suit was that you used last night? Because that was new.”
“Brand spankin’ new!” Tony nodded, “In fact, last night was its debut. J, did anyone get the suit initiation on camera?”
“No, sir,” JARVIS said with assurance, “I have not found trace of it on the internet and there were no bystanders filming at the time. The first bystander camera was turned on when you were already walking into the street.”
“That’s what I thought,” Tony stood and beckoned them along. “To the workshop, then! Pep, you can pick out furniture for your place, JARVIS can help you out.”
Rhodes was appropriately impressed with the modular Mark 32. It was easy to forget that the man was also an aeronautical engineer who graduated from MIT until moments like these when his technical know-how was on display.
While the two engineers made excited noises in the workshop, Pepper retreated to explore her brownstone. She and JARVIS were already deep in discussion about color palettes as she made her way to her new home.
Stephen likewise retreated to his library. He needed to return the borrowed tomes to Kamar-Taj at some point this weekend. The Ancient One provisionally allowed him into Kamar-Taj’s vast repository, but if he kept taking out tomes on high-level techniques like this one, the other Masters would begin to notice. Wong surely, if Mordo didn’t beat him to it.
No time like the present, Stephen considered, looking around him at the quiet library. Tony was going to be occupied with his friends for the better part of the afternoon, giving him some time. They needed to talk—about the timeline, about what Vanko meant for their plans, about Loki—but there would be no talking until Rhodes and Pepper both left; it was too risky. Their talks usually ran hours long, and while Tony’s workshop could be sealed, the secrecy would elicit his friends’ suspicion. So Stephen could take care of this now while Tony was occupied—and maybe borrow another set of books about dreamwalking if the Ancient One will allow it.
“JARVIS, please let Tony know that I’m stepping out for an errand. I have my phone on me.” Stephen picked up the books under one arm and slipped on the sling ring.
“Sir bids your errand success and asks when you should be expected home,” JARVIS responded.
“Two hours tops. I’ll text if I’ll be delayed.”
“Very well, Stephen. We shall see you in time for dinner.”
Stephen spun a portal into Kamar-Taj’s central courtyard and stepped through.
It was past midnight in Kathmandu.
A half-moon was high in the sky, ghostly moonlight spilling over the courtyard between shadows cast by small clouds. Stephen quietly made his way towards the library, where the doors opened with a touch of his hand. They always did for the Sorcerer Supreme.
He summoned a magelight to his palm and went down to the third underground level to return what he borrowed. The shelves around him held everything Kamar-Taj had about keystones, warding, and static shields: all things Stephen could not profess an expertise within. Master Aurora had been their foremost warding expert in the future past; he wondered if she was already a Master here, now, or if she was still an acolyte in training. She was quite young.
Stephen’s expertise as a Master was in combat spellcasting, astral projection, and dimensional manipulation; he was one of the very few sorcerers capable of opening portals without a sling ring. (Not a recommended experience, very painful and exhausting, but it was a useful skill to have.) He was also the Order’s single most powerful sorcerer by the time of Thanos’ arrival, at least in terms of sheer magical strength. Wielding an Infinity Stone tended to do that to a person: each time he did, his magical core was forced open to accommodate more power, allowing him to use the stone to larger effect the next time.
Wong had very vocally disapproved. Wong was smarter than him that way.
Dreamwalking shouldn’t be too difficult in light of my astral mastery, he thought as he went one level deeper into repository’s bowels. Can’t be too far removed from projection. Does it require a focus? Loki had used water as a conduit, maybe I can replicate that. Asgard is quite far, and I can’t afford to exhaust myself with each effort.
After browsing for a time, he took two volumes with him, one a very rare written record of Native American dream rituals and the other a treatise on dream magics written by the prodigious ancient Japanese sorcerer Abe no Seimei. He left the library just as quietly as he came and was through the doors when he was accosted.
“Stealing away with books in the middle of the night? Unbecoming of an old friend of the Ancient One, wouldn’t you say?” Mordo emerged from under the shadow cast by a wooden pillar. In his dark eyes was cold suspicion.
Was there ever a universe in which he and Mordo fell on the same side? They seemed forever doomed to become each other’s enemy. It would be a stretch to shake Mordo’s suspicion now, in this reality, considering the way they met. Perhaps with time, Stephen thought, even as Wong came up to him from the other side.
“I’m afraid I will have to ask you to relinquish those books,” Wong calmly intoned. “They are only for the Masters.” At least he wasn’t attacking Stephen outright.
“I am a Master,” Stephen replied, “just not one you know yet.” To prove his point, he turned and laid a hand on the library’s locks, which once again fell open with a single touch.
Wong did a doubletake. “Impossible. You did not use the keys.”
“I don’t need them.”
“It must be a trick,” Mordo frowned, stepping forward to reengage the locks, this time with the proper key sigils.
“It cannot be a trick,” Wong argued, “the library’s wards are ancient and powerful, they are sentient, they are not so easily tricked. You know this. They only open like that for the Tomekeeper and—and for the Sorcerer Supreme.” Wong looked up at him in confusion and a sizable amount of apprehension. “Who are you?”
“He is my successor,” the Ancient One answered for Stephen, appearing in the courtyard from an adjacent garden she tended herself. “One day, when my time has passed, he will inherit the title and continue leading the Order in protecting our reality. Only, he has arrived a little bit early,” she added with a mischievous smile.
“Master,” Stephen bowed, granting her the due deference, “I apologize for the disturbance. I merely came for more study material.”
“I can see that. Perhaps a warning in the future, so that our Tomekeeper does not attack you in the dark.” There was laughter lingering underneath her words. Of course this would amuse her.
“I’ll try my best to come during business hours, but I can’t make any promises. You’re many hours ahead of me, after all.” Stephen turned to Wong and said, “Stephen Strange is my name. It’s good to meet you again, Master Wong.”
“Again? I’m pretty sure I haven’t met you before,” Wong said.
“Not in this universe, you haven’t.”
Understanding broke over Wong’s face like dawn. “You’re visiting from another universe, another worldline. You must be in need of some help.”
“What is it that you need aid for?” Mordo was now very intrigued, stepping forward to look at Stephen with less hostile intent. “It must be of great importance for you to come all this way.”
Stephen exchanged a long, laden look with the Ancient One, who stood motionless under the moonlight with her mischievous smile. Unbidden, he remembered the conversation he had with Tony—the more we change, the less we know—and in a flash, he made up his mind.
Whatever needs to be done, by whatever means necessary, and with whatever resources are available—well, the Order was a resource, and sorcerers made for powerful protectors.
Besides, Mordo was determined to push. He tried a different tack and asked, “You came here with Tony Stark. What does Stark have to do with your quest?”
“Everything,” Stephen responded with gravity. “Tony is the key to everything.”
It was a lengthy discussion that Stephen had to handle with great care. They retreated to a tearoom that overlooked the sprawl of Kathmandu and an angle of Xixabangma towering in the distance. As they sat down, he pulled out his StarkPhone and shot a text to Tony over Kamar-Taj’s wi-fi.
Delayed. Not an emergency. Talking with Masters at KT.
The response was almost immediate.
k say hi 2 galadriel 4 me & be safe
Stephen snorted. Galadriel, indeed.
Be back by dinner. Behave.
“A successful relationship is built upon communication,” the Ancient One approved as she poured tea for them. Stephen leveled her with a scowl that fazed her not one bit. “How goes your—oh, what did the BBC call it last month?—your strange affair?”
“That was the Atlantic,” Stephen sighed, tucking the phone away, “and Tony’s fine, he says hi.”
“Please extend my greetings likewise,” she smiled. “Now, I think you have a story to tell.” She looked towards the other Masters, who were settling themselves into the room. Masters Geffrey, Hamir, Sol Rama, Drumm, and Minoru had been called in addition to Wong and Mordo. Indeed Mordo was the lowest-ranking Master in the room, the rest of them all Sanctum Masters and senior instructors at Kamar-Taj.
Stephen wet his throat with aromatic tea and then began, “As Master Wong has already deduced, I am not from this worldline. I am Stephen Strange, and in this universe, I am still a practicing neurosurgeon in New York, where I now live with Tony Stark. In my original universe, I was the Sorcerer Supreme who failed to save him, and as a result, I failed that universe.”
“Failed…” Sol Rama quietly led, “means that you tried.”
“Oh, try I did. I even used the Eye of Agamotto—” scandalized gasps, “—multiple times and in various situations. I had to. In that universe, more than half of you were dead and the Order was not as strong as it is now.”
“That cannot be allowed to happen,” Minoru interjected with alarm. “The Sanctums need us to maintain the wards. They must continue to stand.”
Stephen nodded. “Agreed. I can’t tell you every variation of important events—not the least because I don’t have that kind of time—but what remains the same is that we, all of us, face a greater threat that will come to us regardless of what we do here on Earth. Our collective success as a species hinges on Tony Stark’s survival.”
“Our success,” Sol Rama murmured. “You said our success.”
Wong’s eyes went wide. “You’re not here to visit and get help. You’re here to help us.”
“Astute as ever, old friend,” Stephen gave him a small smile. “My universe is no more. That is the magnitude of our defeat. I am its only survivor, and as Master Mordo has witnessed from an earlier visit, I have already made contact with Tony Stark. We revolve in similar circles, he and I. It wasn’t difficult for me to find him.”
“How are you able to maintain your presence in this worldline without upsetting the natural order of time and space?” Mordo exclaimed, almost too loud in his indignation. He always was a stickler for rules.
“The natural order can be broken,” Stephen noncommittally shrugged, “but to answer your question in specifics, I killed my counterpart and took his place.”
That momentarily shut them up.
“Unorthodox,” Stephen tilted his head.
“Ruthless,” Hamir frowned, stroking his long white beard. “You are not willing to be persuaded from your goal, are you, Master Strange? Perhaps the Ancient One has already tried.”
Stephen had always respected Hamir out of all the Masters, but in this instance, he leveled the older man with a determined look and allowed a surge of his own core to the surface. “I do not wish to fight you, but I will if I have to. Tony’s survival takes precedence above all.”
“You are arrogant if you think you can take on the entire Order,” Mordo scoffed.
“Perhaps I am,” Stephen acknowledged, before adding solemnly, “but I’m not wrong.” He could take them all down. He knew spells none of them but the Ancient One was willing to touch. She and Stephen were alike in that way: nothing to them was forbidden. One could call it a prerequisite mentality for the Sorcerer Supreme.
“Fighting would be counterproductive,” the ever-pacific Wong intoned. “You are already here; you have done this much. Tell us, then, about this threat that we face and why Stark is so integral to your plan. It seems in our best interest to help you if we all want to survive.”
Stephen looked to the Ancient One, who knew the Masters better than Stephen ever did. She trained them all, including elderly Master Hamir, whereas Stephen knew them for but a handful of years, some of them spent as their student. She would know best how to handle their temperaments.
“A madman seeks to gather the Infinity Stones,” the Ancient One quietly sighed, “to harness their power to remake the universe into an image he deems more fit… more just.”
A horrified Minoru turned to Stephen with wide eyes. “You don’t mean to say that this madman succeeded in your universe? That he used the Stones to—to destroy—”
“That doesn’t explain why Stark is so integral to your cause,” Mordo interrupted with an even more severe frown. “If Infinity Stones are involved, what can he do to help?”
Stephen took a sip of tea again, using the moment to pick his words with care. “He harnesses an energy source derived from the Space Stone. In time, he will be able to obtain said stone, and I intend to help him protect it. But beyond that, he is Earth’s foremost defender—soon to become its greatest one—and he has the capacity to reshape our planet’s disparate societies into one united whole. He has resources, money, technology, and time. If you think this will be fought on a single battlefield with only magic at play, Masters, you are gravely mistaken. This will be one invasion after another. Waves of galactic conflict with Earth on the front line. There will be no running from it, for there are two stones on Earth already. We need a united planet that is prepared to fight and defend itself. The Order will be integral, but we alone will not be enough.”
They all fell silent after that, Stephen tending to the last of his tea. Dregs swam in the bottom of his cup. He tilted it a particular way and observed the patterns they made against the porcelain. The signs portended a time of great upheaval.
“As we have agreed, you will continue your course with Tony Stark,” the Ancient One said, calling Stephen’s attention back. She sat cross-legged and smiling ever so slightly, much like a satisfied cat after a mischief successfully managed. “Have you established contact with Asgard?”
The other Masters jerked in surprise but did not interfere. Stephen nodded. “Last night, in a dream.”
“Excellent. You are then aware that one of their Princes is on Earth as we speak.”
“New Mexico. Tony and I can deal with it, but first we need to talk. Tony’s occupied today so it’ll have to be tomorrow.” Stephen shot a look at Master Drumm and said, “You must have felt our residence’s wards go up earlier this week. I apologize; I meant to visit and give you warning, but it was finished ahead of time. Tony works fast and we needed a secure base.”
Master Drumm, already imposing on a good day, gave him a look of stern intent. The Stephen Strange of old might have quailed, but this Stephen stood before Dormammu, Odin, and Thanos—and lived to tell the tale. He returned the look with an even eye.
An appropriate fraction of forever passed before Drumm’s face suddenly broke into an amused grin. “Apology accepted, but I’ll have it on record that you’re still a cocky piece of shit, throwing your weight around like you already own the place.”
Stephen turned his nose up with a sniff. “I give due deference to the Ancient One.”
“Only the Ancient One, eh?” Drumm crossed his arms, “You’re not Sorcerer Supreme yet.”
“It is well, Master Drumm,” the Ancient One chuckled, “he is young, and even you must admit that his hubris is refreshing.”
Stephen did a doubletake. “Hubris?”
“I know you, Stephen Strange,” smiled the Ancient One, “perhaps better than you know yourself.”
“Ugh, quit being a grandmother,” Stephen rolled his eyes at her. The rest of the Masters gasped at the disrespect; Stephen ignored them. He needed to be home soon or Tony would raise hell in worry. But before that, he needed one more thing… “Master Drumm, I do wish to visit the New York Sanctum, briefly, if it is amenable with you.”
“And what might you need with my Sanctum?” Drumm challenged, playful. He had died before Stephen could get to know him the future past, but if this was how Drumm behaved on the daily, they would get along just fine.
“I’d like to see if my relic still recognizes me.”
“You have a relic?” Mordo blinked.
“What are you saying, of course he has a relic,” Wong sighed, “he’s a Sorcerer Supreme.”
Stephen rose and led the rest of them to the Hall of Doors where the permanent portals were built into one room. If there was any doubt about his knowledge of Kamar-Taj, it was dispelled with how he navigated the temple’s twisting hallways with ease.
The Hall of Doors was lit with eternal fire, lanterns casting dancing shadows on the floor. He tucked his two borrowed books under one arm and turned the dial on the leftmost door; it shimmered to show the interior of the New York Sanctum.
Stephen turned back to the other Masters. “Surely you’re not all coming with.”
“Oh, this is the most entertainment I’ve had in centuries, my dear grandchild,” the Ancient One cheerfully ushered him on, hand gently pushing on his shoulder. The two of them stepped through the door side by side. “Indulge your grandmother, hm? Lead on.”
With a sigh, Stephen made his way through the New York Sanctum. Home. He ran a hand over the entry hall’s banisters and against doorframes as they made their way from relic room to relic room. Around him, the wards hummed their welcome: even across the multiverse, they recognized their Master.
At last they came to a room that held some of the strongest relics the Order had in possession. In the middle stood a glass case containing a red cloak, suspended in stillness, asleep.
Stephen slowed to a stop before it and held a hand over the glass. “Hello, old friend. Do you still remember me?”
For a breathless moment, nothing happened. But when Stephen removed his hand from the glass, one collar gave a twitch.
“According to the records, the Cloak of Levitation is a relic of unprecedented sentience. It has not woken for more than a thousand years,” Wong frowned. “Surely—”
The cloak crashed against the glass, again and then again, flitting from corner to corner, seeking a way out. The seal around its case began to simmer in tension, burnt gold runes glowing at the edges. Stephen relinquished his books to a nearby table and quickly spun his hands to release the magical seal before the cloak overpowered it and the whole room exploded.
As soon as the case opened, the cloak shot up in the air, spreading its edges wide as if to savor its newfound freedom—and then it engulfed Stephen in an embrace.
“Mmph—alright,” Stephen chuckled, struggling within the cloak’s jostling folds, “alright, I get it, I missed you too, settle down—enough, you overbearing piece of—yes, yes, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
After a few more minutes of enthusiastic smothering, the cloak settled around his shoulders as if it never left. Stephen ran a hand across its collar with a smile.
“Red!” the Ancient One remarked with transparent glee. “I rather like gold myself, but it wouldn’t fit you. This is much better. Very fitting for a Sorcerer Supreme. You certainly look the part,” she looked him up and down with a wide smile. The cloak indulged her; it flared and rippled in intimidating grandeur as if to show off its own beauty.
Stephen rolled his eyes. “Quit, you peacock.” The cloak thwapped him on the arm.
“The relic recognizes its wielder,” even subdued Sol Rama had a smile for them. A relic united with a Master was always a cause for joy within the Order. “You have acquired a powerful ally, Master Strange.”
“A powerful nuisance, more like,” Stephen playfully noted, swatting the cloak’s hem when it raised a figurative finger at him. He closed the empty glass case, retrieved his books, and was about to leave the relic room when the cloak abruptly stopped him. Stumbling, Stephen grunted, “What now?”
The cloak tugged at his shoulders and pointed to a lacquered wooden box on a corner shelf. Stephen did not recall it from the future past, but then again, he hadn’t had the time to do a full inventory of the Sanctum’s relics before he left. There had always been a more pressing crisis to attend.
“You want me to get that?” The cloak made a nodding motion. “Is it another relic?” Another nod. “You want me to wield a second relic.” Nod, nod. Stephen turned to the Ancient One and asked, “Is there precedent for a sentient relic sharing its wielder?”
“No,” Wong was the one who answered with great surprise, “sentient relics are known to be incredibly territorial.”
“But it is the cloak who asks you to do so,” said the Ancient One. “Who are we to question such things? Magic has its own wisdom; we are merely its wielders.” She went to the shelf and retrieved the box, presenting it to Stephen. The cloak reached up and unlatched it, throwing the lid open.
“Aranoch’s Wraps,” said Master Drumm. Resting on a bed of velvet were four leather bands an inch wide, seven distinct cords woven into one braid and clasped together with a metal enclosure. “If used properly, they are formidable in combat.”
Stephen cautiously lifted one from the box. It glowed a vibrant orange in his hand. “What, precisely, does each wrap do?”
“These two for your ankles, giving you enhanced speed,” Wong pointed out, “and the other two for your arms, granting you passive force shields.”
Stephen’s eyebrows shot up. “I wouldn’t have to sacrifice offensive capacity to call on shields.”
“Precisely. Take them.” The Ancient One closed the box and gave the whole thing to Stephen with an intent look. “You will need them in battles to come. They serve a better purpose with you than sitting here collecting dust on a shelf.”
The cloak picked the box up for him, cradling it much like an infant. Wong watched that with great interest and said, “A sentient relic does not mind sharing if the second relic is not a sentient one. Fascinating.”
Stephen stood there for a moment, surprised by the afternoon’s sudden developments. At least he had his cloak back. The other Masters now looked at him in a new light and the Ancient One seemed far more welcoming of his presence in this universe than she did the first time they met. Perhaps he should take her at face value for once: she was bored, and now she wasn’t anymore.
“Well, this has been most productive,” he turned on his heel and dipped his head to the Masters of his Order. “If that’s all, I shall excuse myself and head home. I promised to be back by dinnertime. 239 East 61st Street, if you have any need of me. Knock and JARVIS will let you in.”
A portal spun open into his and Tony’s bedroom. It was the only space in the house where he could be sure that Rhodes or Pepper wouldn’t walk in uninvited.
“Remember what I told you, Stephen,” the Ancient One called after him as he stepped through. “Don’t lose sight.”
Stephen turned and honored her with a bow. With nary a whisper, the portal fell shut.
Don’t waste your time, or time will waste you.
( MUSE, Knights of Cydonia )
The following day, Rhodes and Pepper both left, the former returning to DC and the latter flying to California. Tony sent Happy with her, essentially transitioning him to a new role. “Hap, I’m trusting you with a very dear friend of mine. Protect her like you would do for me, yeah?”
“Of course, boss,” Happy puffed up, honored by the responsibility.
“You call me if you need anything,” Tony told both of them. He gave Pepper a one-armed hug and then tucked her into the armored car. “See you in a few weeks, Miss Potts.”
“Behave for Stephen, Tony,” she pecked him on the cheek, “and thank you for the house, it’s very lovely. Stephen, thank you and I’ll see you later!”
Stephen bid her a safe journey and they left. Tony’s shoulders sagged, seemingly in relief more than disappointment. The man spun to face him with a smile and said, “Well, it’s just the two of us again.”
“The horror, oh, the misery,” Stephen deadpanned, earning him a snicker.
“Back to work?”
“Back to work. We’ve a lot to cover.”
As soon as they were back in Tony’s workshop, the cloak shot towards Stephen with unbridled enthusiasm. It engulfed him in a rustling embrace, displeased at having been told to stay within their bedroom until Rhodes and Pepper both left.
“Freedom is sweet, right, Levi?” Tony grinned, raising a hand for a high-five the cloak readily gave him. The two of them took to each other like kindling and fire; in fact, the cloak—now renamed Levi because far be it for Tony to miss a name-giving opportunity—had insisted on being a glorified blanket for them last night after only having known Tony for twenty minutes. Stephen was almost insulted.
“Okay, go over there and play with U and DUM-E,” Stephen sighed, shrugging Levi off his shoulders before sitting down. “I have work to do with Tony.”
U and DUM-E made excited bleeping noises as Levi floated towards them with an air of resignation. Like a teenager being told to babysit its younger siblings—if Levi had feet, they would have been stomping in displeasure.
“In light of everything you told me last night,” Tony rolled over on his own seat, his third cup of coffee in hand, “we have a lot of re-planning to do.” Stephen nodded. By telling the Masters of the Mystic Order a part of the story, Stephen had changed a lot. Tony wasn’t too displeased—the cloak was a nice distraction on that front—but he was quiet and thoughtful after Stephen’s confession. In the space between them, a structured timeline hovered in holographic clarity. Tony spun it and said, “We’ll call this version one. JARVIS, replicate.”
JARVIS copied the timeline and named the new one version two.
“I know we had a discussion about what warrants changing and how that affects the timeline. I get you now; Vanko was totally unexpected. Came out of the left field, caught me by surprise. It shouldn’t have, but it did,” Tony rubbed his jaw in anxious displeasure. “My immediate instinct yesterday was to shut down every enemy I know will eventually come, but I got past that—be proud of me!”
“Proud,” Stephen lifted his mug of tea in salute. “You’ve come so far.”
“I know, right! So here’s my idea. I’ll tell you the threats and you tell me if you agree that they’re worth changing. We might disagree a lot but—”
“—that’s okay, we’ll figure it out,” Stephen shrugged. “Hit me.”
“There are some threats—like Hammer, like Vanko—that are small and easily managed so they don’t matter as much. But there are others we really need to get ahead of, because with the ground shifting so fast, my foreknowledge of them might not be of use anymore the longer we wait.”
Stephen leaned forward. Tony began to talk. Together, they marched out a more proactive timeline, spinning ideas that were too radical for version one. Stephen watched version two unfold, year after year falling into place as JARVIS recorded their conversation. They would both be so busy. Tony’s plans went up until 2018.
“…and then,” Tony ran a hand through his hair, “after that, fuck if I know.”
“We keep preparing until he comes. We adapt as things change. That’s all we can do.” Stephen zoomed into 2017 to make his additions. “Kaecilius turned rogue early in 2017. February. He summoned Dormammu to Earth and I had to use the Time Stone to make him leave. The Ancient One’s death fractured the Order’s internal structure in light of her betrayal of the very tenets she taught her students. Karl Mordo turned rogue shortly after that, another huge loss for us. He came back and tried to kill me in the future after Thanos; he wanted to kill everyone who used the Stones, which he viewed as a violation of the natural order.”
“Yikes. You tell him Thanos started it first?”
Stephen chuckled, “Rhodes asked me the exact same thing.”
“Platypus is an exceedingly reasonable human. There’s a reason I keep him around,” Tony grinned.
“I didn’t have the chance to tell Mordo much. We fought and I defeated him. Before I could take him prisoner—a most unpleasant experience for traitors to the Order—he killed himself.”
“It was a mercy,” Stephen shrugged, “he would have been stripped of his magic otherwise, and that’s never nice. Like going blind after having seen all the colors of the universe.”
“Remind me to never piss your Order off.”
“With what I told them last night, they’ll all be protecting you, don’t worry.”
“That was a great story,” Tony granted him. “Technically you weren’t even lying, even when you were.”
“The best lies are the ones woven with the truth. We can mark this in grey,” Stephen tapped his new addition to the timeline, “because by talking to Kaecilius that first time we visited and then the Masters last night, I’ve prevented this from happening. Well, Kaecilius might still need some handling, but he won’t betray the Order outright like he did in the future past. He was a skilled sorcerer; we can use him in the battle to come.”
Opening his palm, he zoomed out of 2017 and waved until he was back to their current time. The Expo was scheduled for next month. Their tenure with MIT and Columbia would begin in September. Several other markers hovered on the timeline in blue—satellite launches, new tech releases, new Stark Industries facilities opening for operations—but after the Expo, their calendar began looking a bit more malleable. He eyed the question mark hovering over April 2011—the invasion of New York, if that was going to happen at all—and thought once again, No time like the present.
“We should deal with the Winter Soldier soon, before Rogers is defrosted,” Stephen borrowed Tony’s terminology, tapping the single event hovering over December 2010. “I agree that we need to move ahead of that one. We can turn it to our advantage. Let’s set a time frame so we can clear a few days for it.”
The Avengers’ so-called Civil War had happened before Stephen became Sorcerer Supreme; moreover, he hadn’t given it much thought, deeming it ultimately unimportant in the protection of the realm. Empires rose and fell, after all, and the Order remained impartial through the turning of the ages.
How foolish he had been.
Earth needed its frontline defenders, and although none of them were quite as integral as Tony, each Avenger helped in their own little way.
But it would be tricky. From how Tony painted that particular picture, they worked well enough if led with a steady hand, but otherwise they were a dysfunctional shitshow masquerading as a team. James Buchanan Barnes was the spark that set that particular tinderbox on fire.
“It can’t be this week, I’ll be busy rewriting my AIs’ codes,” Tony said.
“Sir?” JARVIS questioned with some alarm.
“It’s for your own security, J.”
“You have already backed me up, and I quote, nine times over, nine different ways. Recoding me seems quite excessive.”
“Not just you; all of you. You and FRIDAY and TILDA and even DUM-E and Butterfingers and U.” Tony’s knee restlessly jiggled; Stephen frowned.
“What brought this on?”
“Wakanda,” Tony pointed at 2016, further down the line. “Their servers are the most secure on Earth because they run on a different language entirely. JARVIS’ kernel is built on a blend of C and Assembly, all well and good except it’s still hackable because it’s a well known coding language. Hacking him is difficult, very difficult, but it can be done. I don’t like that. We’re about to do some shit that’s definitely illegal. If anyone gets wind of even a bit of our movements, they can sink us with it and all our plans are toast.”
Stephen inclined his head, acknowledging the point. Tony had far more experience with espionage and shadow organizations (of the non-magical kind) than him. If Tony wanted to go extra, it was likely for good reason.
The engineer continued, “I’ll need time to rewrite everyone onto a new platform. Completely original, my own language. So apart from securing JARVIS from hacking attempts—Wakanda might try later on, who knows—it’ll also allow him to slither into other systems practically undetected.”
“Wouldn’t the unique language tip them off?” Stephen asked, although his knowledge of code was admittedly rudimentary.
“In order for them to get him, they’d have to first be aware that something like JARVIS even exists,” Tony now smirked, “and then they would need to pin him down long enough to get a look at his code. They’d need to decrypt the relevant systems, which, again, very difficult, and then if they even get past that step, they have to decompile what they get into a human-legible format. From there, they need to deduce the syntax of his code… let’s just say I plan to make it a rabbit hole.”
“Okay,” Stephen held his hands up in surrender, “I understood maybe five percent of that but I trust your judgment. Take whatever time you need.”
“Sir, I am uncomfortable leaving you alone.”
Tony’s face twisted into a sympathetic grimace. “Me too, J. But it’s gotta be done.”
“…this sounds like a particularly intricate endeavor that will require my full shutdown for an extended period of time. I would like to insist that you obey Stephen’s directives while I am asleep and unable to remind you to eat or take breaks.” JARVIS was, as always, more concerned about his creator than himself.
To be fair, Tony doesn’t help his own case. Stephen raised an eyebrow at the engineer, who made wounded noises before reassuring his remarkable brainchild that he would take care of himself.
“Anyway, this is all pregame for HYDRA,” Tony concluded. “I don’t plan to give them any openings. They fucked us up too much the future past; they’re everywhere and I don’t know how far their reach goes so we have to be airtight. Are you sure there aren’t HYDRA agents in your Order?”
“The Ancient One would never tolerate secondary loyalties,” Stephen said with gravity. “We are meant to devote ourselves to the protection of reality alone. Everything else is immaterial.”
Tony blinked and paused for a moment, before giving him a wry smile. “Good thing I’m involved in the protection of reality, huh?”
“You are integral to our success,” Stephen acknowledged, “we’ve discussed this.”
“Spared my life twice already at great cost to yourself and everyone else, I get it.” If Tony felt overburdened by the weight of this truth, he didn’t show it. He dragged the timeline towards July—the first week of the month, right after the Expo—and asked, “How about here? You think you can negotiate a break from the hospital? I’m gonna need your undivided attention.”
Stephen nodded. “July it is.”
Tony took his wrist in hand, which turned into an arm clasp. “Thank you. This is so much easier with you.”
“Considering how much grief I’ve already put you through, I think you’ve earned the help, Tony.”
Tony only sighed at him, warm hazel eyes narrowing with a small smile. “One of these days, I’m going to convince you out of that guilt complex, babe.”
“I’ll get rid of mine if you get rid of yours.”
The workshop rang with the sound of Tony’s bright laughter.
True to his word, Tony began working the very next day. They rose together at dawn and had breakfast before Stephen’s shift. When he left the house, Tony was freshly settled into his workshop, a steaming mug of coffee and Levi and the bots for company. When he returned in the evening, it was as if Tony hadn’t moved at all. (He probably hadn’t.)
“Did you eat lunch?” Stephen asked, coming up behind the other man whose hands were flying over an old-fashioned mechanical keyboard. When Tony didn’t respond, Stephen put a hand on one shoulder.
“Hm? Oh, hi,” it was a testament to the amount of trust Tony gave him that his approach was unnoticed. “J’s asleep, so if you try to ask him something, no one’s gonna answer. Wait, did you ask me something just a minute ago?”
“I asked if you ate lunch,” Stephen sighed, “I assume that’s a no.”
“Uhhh, no, no lunch.” On cue, a rumble came from Tony’s stomach. “I’m game for dinner, though?”
“I’ll get it ready.”
“Huh? Oh, no, wait, I’ll help!” Tony hurriedly finished a line of code and then stood, catching Stephen by the arm. “You go shower first! You just got off work.”
Relenting, Stephen said, “If you can get the pasta started, I’ll shower quickly and then put the chicken in the oven. Shouldn’t take too long.”
“Right-o,” Tony saluted, grabbing his coffee mug and heading for the stairs.
Stephen showered, changed, and carried his phone and pager to the kitchen. Levi was dubiously ‘helping’ Tony cook; the cloak almost dumped a cupful of salt into the water. Stephen stepped in to intervene, scolding the both of them for inattention as he set the chicken in the oven.
Not for the first time, he lamented Tony’s abysmal dietary habits, consisting of delivery from various restaurants of JARVIS’ choosing. At least JARVIS preferred the healthier options. Without it, Tony would likely have a whole host of cardiac and metabolic issues to contend with after a life of junk food, heavy drinking, and even drug use if the tabloids were to be believed.
Speaking of which… Stephen decided to broach the issue over dinner. “Tony, can I ask for full medical disclosure?”
Tony blinked in surprise, swallowing the mouthful of pasta in his mouth before saying, “You have complete access to my medical records.”
“Is the drinking a coping mechanism or an actual addiction issue?” Stephen kept his face open and free of judgment; he really couldn’t judge anyway. For a period of time after the accident, he drank heavily too. It helped with the pain if anything.
“I drink when I’m bored,” Tony immediately responded, unbothered. “When my parents died, I went into a working binge that lasted almost a week and landed me in the hospital. When I got back from Afghanistan, I perfected the armor. But when I was in MIT for undergrad, I drank and partied because—well, what else was there to do? Get the pattern? Plus I was a minor and I’ve always had a thing for rule-breaking.”
Surprisingly self-aware. Stephen nodded.
“Why do you ask?”
“Forewarned is forearmed,” Stephen shrugged. “Had an alcoholic patient today, it was pretty bad. I want to be able to see the signs and keep you from spiraling if something were to happen. Especially since we’re pretty much walking into your past traumas going forward.”
Tony was quiet for a while after that, finishing his plate with thoughtful eyes downcast. Stephen was beginning to wonder if he’d overstepped a line when at last Tony leaned back against his chair and said, “Then for the record, you should know that the drugs were also because I was bored out of my fucking mind. And curious. And guilty.”
“I got really rich after 2001,” Tony sighed. “Went from multi-millionaire to billionaire. One guess.”
“Bingo. The things I built, how efficient they were on the field… Steph, I practically supplied the eradication of a whole country and its culture. What remains of Afghanistan now? Rubble. And there I was in the meantime, partying it up, girls and guys and booze, whatever the fuck I wanted. Paid for with blood money. That’s what SI is built on: blood money.”
Stephen took a sip of his juice and said, “I thought your father started it.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t make me any less complicit. This is why I was perfectly okay spending funds on Avenger shit, you know? Because it felt like the money was at least being used for good. Or at least, I thought it was. Then HYDRA happened.” Tony sighed, rubbing his jaw with a knuckle. “Didn’t do the drugs that much, though. Didn’t like how the downers fogged me up. Also didn’t like how the uppers made me hallucinate. I never touched them again after Afghanistan—newfound heart condition and all that. It felt like disrespecting Yinsen if I jeopardized my own life with something so trivial and stupid.”
Stephen nodded, leveling him with an even gaze. “Well, I doubt you’ll be bored for quite some time, so I think we’ll be okay.”
Tony barked a laugh, head tipping back in delight. They cleaned up the kitchen together and Stephen went to bed.
“You go ahead,” Tony told him in the elevator, clapping him on the shoulder, “I’m gonna keep working on J. I really don’t like not having him.”
So that was what the tension was about.
“Good luck, then,” Stephen nodded. He could tell that this was something he should not fight Tony on; it was probably a battle he couldn’t win anyway.
“G’night, babe. Sweet, simple, and Loki-free dreams, hopefully.”
When Stephen crawled into bed alone, having sent Levi off to keep Tony company for the night, it took him a while to fall asleep.
Tony was still awake the following morning. Stephen started the coffee (they had a machine in their room, that was how bad Tony’s caffeine addiction went) and brought a mug up to the workshop before starting breakfast.
“Mmh, hi, good morning, you’re gorgeous and amazing,” Tony babbled, making grabby hands at him.
“Breakfast in twenty. If you’re gonna miss lunch again today, then I insist you eat enough.”
“Yes, babe, whatever you say.” A sleep-deprived Tony was apparently a handsy one; Stephen endured the odd one-armed hug that was likely a thank you for the coffee.
Over the kitchen island, Stephen laid out a quick spread: buttered toast with jam, and scrambled eggs with mushrooms, spinach, and cheese. Tony came up while he was pouring the orange juice. They sat to eat, Stephen supervising Tony’s intake since JARVIS wasn’t around to account for it. Caffeine wasn’t enough to run the human machine.
After breakfast, Tony sent him off with a half-manic grin, yet another mug in hand. “Have a great day, babe!”
“Do I need to remind you that caffeine has an overdose threshold? Even if I took the arc reactor and shrapnel out, you still have a pre-existing heart condition. Take it easy today and maybe take a nap,” Stephen frowned at him from the elevator.
“Nap, sure, yeah, I can do that.”
Stephen had to call in the middle of the day to remind him to take that nap.
“What was that?” Suresh Saju exclaimed with great curiosity after Stephen hung up the brief (very nagging) conversation. It then occurred to him that making that call in the ICU doctor’s lounge was probably a bad idea. Suresh was far more tolerable than most of his colleagues given his intelligence and immunity to Stephen’s prickly attitude, but he was also prone to fathering tendencies. Stephen, in this case, was one of the favored sons. “It sounded serious, Stephen. Don’t tell me the gossip I’ve been hearing is actually true.”
Suresh didn’t make a habit of reading the news beyond scientific journals, so the gossip had to have come from the grapevine. Stephen sighed. “Depends on what gossip is going around. I haven’t exactly been around enough to listen.”
“You’re supposedly dating Tony Stark,” one of the ICU team’s nurse practitioners quipped from a corner of the room. Angela or Andrea—something along those lines. “A few weeks now, if you ask TMZ.”
“Really?” Nielsen looked up from his computer. “Wait, have you seen the armor, then?”
“What’s he actually like?” Reza, one of the ICU fellows, rolled out of his cubicle to ask. “As a person, I mean. In person. Away from the cameras.”
Elderly Suresh laughed with the delight of a doting father overlooking his brood. “Now, now, kids, let’s not poke at Stephen too much, you all know he’s quite shy.”
Stephen wasn’t shy; he just preferred not to spread details about his personal life at work. Sighing again, he mentally stepped back and considered the situation. How much to tell them? Would it even matter? He looked with dead eyes at the same droll note he was writing about a patient and knew that he was getting precariously bored with the surgeries. They were technically difficult, yes, but after a while even the technical difficulty became routine. Ordinary medicine simply wasn’t as entertaining after living several years as the Sorcerer Supreme.
I need to wait at least until after the Expo before I quit. Stephen caught that thought and held it. Wait. I want to quit?
That realization made him reel. For so long, he had wanted his old life back. He would have given anything to have it back. But—
I already gave this up, and after choosing the mystic arts, there’s no return.
When he chose not to channel dimensional magic to fix his injury, he made a choice. Traveling back in time did not change that choice.
Well, shit. I suppose that’s another change to add to version two.
He would have to explain it to Tony.
“See, you made him clam up,” Suresh chuckled from beside him. Stephen then realized he had been quiet and motionless for a good handful of minutes. “Stephen, don’t mind them. You don’t have to tell us anything if you don’t want.”
Inhaling, Stephen lifted his head and said instead, “Since March, actually. We met at the Stroke Conference in LA. Well, I’ve met him in passing before, sometimes he attends galas and award ceremonies.”
“Three months, that’s pretty solid for Tony Stark!” Angela-or-Andrea exclaimed, delighted at the confirmation.
“So it is serious,” Suresh raised both eyebrows at him. “And here I thought you’d eventually marry Christine.”
“Nah, she dumped me,” Stephen shrugged. Angela-or-Andrea gasped again, another confirmed rumor. “And yes, Tony’s… serious. We moved in together and everything.”
“Holy shit,” Nielsen quietly chuckled to himself in apparent disbelief. “My attending lives with Iron Man, holy shit.”
“So what’s he like?” Reza asked, grin bright and very curious.
Because Stephen liked Reza, the question got an answer. “Witty, irreverent, mercurial, and absolutely brilliant. When they call him a genius, they mean it literally. But he’s very charming and great at misdirection so most people actually underestimate him. I know I did the first time around.” He had judged Tony based only on what he saw on the news and would have refused to work with the man had it not been for extenuating circumstances.
There was silence for a bit, interrupted only by Stephen’s typing. Reza then said, “Wow. That’s… the most complimentary of another person I’ve ever heard you, Dr. Strange.”
“This is very serious,” Suresh leaned back in his chair, playing with a pen. “Given how long I’ve mentored you, I almost feel obliged to meet this young man. It would be like meeting my soon-to-be son-in-law!”
Stephen snorted. “He’s hardly a young man, but I’m sure you’ll meet him soon enough.”
“Something to do with the studies you’re pursuing?” Suresh poked some more. “Back to Columbia for another PhD, I hear.”
“It’s a joint study with MIT under Stark Industries funding,” Stephen confirmed, “which, if all goes well, might come to Metro and Presby for trials. Are you registered to attend the Stark Expo next month?”
Suresh blinked. “No, should I be?”
Stephen finished his note and turned in his chair with a smirk. “Oh, you’ll kick yourself for not going. I’ll talk to Tony and get you in.”
Reza gasped. “Are you the reason why it’s being held in Columbia? Because it was supposed to be in LA!”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m the reason,” Stephen shrugged as he rose from his seat, “but it is more convenient for him since he’s moving his HQ to New York. Any more invasive questions? I have a case in fifteen minutes.”
The room erupted in chuckles, Nielsen raising his hand and looking the most alert Stephen had ever seen him since the beginning of the year. “One last question! How many Iron Man armors does he really have?”
Stephen swung his white coat over his shoulder and smirked, “I believe the question should be: how many Iron Man armors can he afford to make?”
He left, relishing the speechless silence as the lounge door closed behind him.
His next two cases were extremely difficult; both needed to remain intubated in the ICU. He was nervous enough about their likelihood of survival that he opted to stay available to the hospital overnight. Tony was understanding enough when Stephen called him at dinnertime, sharing a half hour on the phone together over their food.
“You sound like you’re high,” Stephen noted with a sigh. “How much coffee have you had?”
“Not that much, nope, I’m ok, yep, mm-hmm!”
“You’re an absolute disaster without JARVIS.”
“I know that,” Tony agreed, “which is why I need to finish this ASAP! Hey, what do you say to an AI of your own?”
“No need, I get along with JARVIS just fine.”
“Then maybe I’ll give FRIDAY to Pep! She’ll need all the help, especially when I make her CEO!”
That wasn’t until next year, barring big changes. Tony wanted to smooth out all the kinks before handing her the mantle.
“Sounds more reasonable. Did you nap today?” Stephen knew he sounded like a nagging housewife but Tony had no oversight and would likely run himself into the ground. If ever there was a next time that they had no JARVIS to watch over Tony, Stephen would have to make himself immediately available to babysit the workaholic engineer.
Not gonna be an issue, if I’m quitting.
Stephen opted not to talk about that over the phone. That much of a change deserved a face-to-face conversation, and besides, Tony would likely try to persuade him from quitting. He would rather go through the explanation in person instead of at the hospital cafeteria.
After they hung up, Stephen making Tony promise to nap again for at least an hour sometime tonight, he made his way to the Emergency Department in search for Christine.
“Oh, hi!” she blinked in surprise, absently swiping her badge at the clock. It was time for her to leave. “What are you still doing here?”
“Patients looking a little grey,” Stephen shrugged, “might need another intervention tonight, who knows. I need to crash on your couch.”
“Will your babe be okay with that?” Christine raised an eyebrow, to which Stephen responded with an eyebrow of his own.
“He doesn’t care. And get it right, Christine, I’m the babe.”
She laughed as they walked towards the exit side by side. “Fine, then, what’s Tony?”
“I don’t do nicknames, they’re juvenile.”
“You just called Tony juvenile.”
“That’s because he is,” Stephen gamely pointed out. “Once you take the media goggles off, you’ll see he’s just an overgrown child.”
“You’re dating that overgrown child,” she wagged a finger at him as they crossed the street.
“Pretty sure you also called me an overgrown child when we broke up. My personal affairs aside, who are you dating now?”
“No one! When do I ever get the time to meet new people?”
“I just introduced you to new people this weekend, have you already forgotten?” Stephen chuckled. “As far as I know, Colonel Rhodes is single.”
“Stop,” Christine warned.
“He’s a military man, that historically goes well with career doctors. He’ll understand bad shifts and long hours. He’s financially stable, not bad looking at all—”
“Stephen, stop!” Christine laughed, a high flush now dusting her cheeks. So she had been looking.
“He’s also far more patient than I am, so it’s a win-win all around. What’s keeping you?” Stephen pushed.
They squeezed into her apartment complex’s tiny elevator where she jabbed a finger into his ribs right where she knew he was ticklish. Stephen jerked and shied away. Keeping her voice low so as not to disturb her neighbors, she hissed, “What’s keeping me is that I barely know the guy, coupled with the fact that you’re dating his best friend.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
She unlocked her front door and kicked her work shoes off at the entryway with a sigh. “Complicated relationships, Stephen. It’s not simple.”
Stephen chuckled, removing his own shoes, hanging up his coat, and padding on socked feet into the familiar living room. “I told you this already, but no relationship is ever truly simple, Christine. That’s a pipedream.”
An eyeroll. “I’m taking a shower,” she declared, before disappearing into the bedroom. Stephen got himself a glass of water and then sank into the couch, phone in hand.
For a moment, he looked around her place. It looked just as it did in his memories. Christine was somewhat of a minimalist and kept her abode painfully functional. The only indulgence she ever allowed herself were her books, something they had in common. The small living area crawled with piles of them, two black bookshelves overflowing, several stacks more sitting on the kitchen counter. Stephen knew there were more books in her bedroom. He recalled routinely knocking them down whenever they had sex.
Dangerous thoughts, Stephen.
He shook his head and returned to his phone, tapping a message to Tony. Staying over at Christine’s. Hospital bunks are horrible.
The response took an uncharacteristic second, especially since Tony was never without his gadgets.
Both of Stephen’s eyebrows went all the way up as he easily read into those two simple words letters.
Mind out of the gutter. Nothing’s happening.
rly? y not? i dont mind
Yeah but she will. Also too complicated. We can’t afford the mess.
No relationships were ever simple, but especially not this one. He didn’t even want to begin to untangle his old and leftover feelings for Christine. That was best left in the future past, untouched.
Not your fault.
i'll stop apologizing abt her if you stop abt pep
Stephen huffed. Alright, dealmaker.
He turned the phone off and put it on the table with his pager. This dynamic he had with Tony was ever-evolving and headache-inducing, so he tried not to think about it too much, instead just letting it happen.
It feels right.
Stephen grabbed a throw pillow to wedge under his neck and threw an arm over his eyes, blocking out the light from beyond the half-curtained windows. Sirens blew past the building sometimes. He ignored them with ease and focused instead on the metronome of his own breathing. By the time Christine came shuffling out of the bedroom, he was already asleep.
The pager went off in the early morning. He jolted awake, lifting halfway up into a defensive crouch, before his brain caught up to where he was. Christine’s apartment. 2010. On-call at the hospital.
The page was from Nielsen, who asked for a callback. From the bedroom, Christine called out, “Do you need to go?”
“Probably,” Stephen stood and dialed Nielsen’s number, “sorry to wake you, go back to sleep.”
Nielsen picked up on the first ring, sounding out of breath. “Dr. Strange, sorry to wake you. That aneurysm case you did earlier, she rebled. It’s pretty bad, Hunt-Hess 3. We need to re-secure, sir, but I don’t think I can do this one by myself, it’s too deep.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes, get OR 4 ready.”
“On it,” Nielsen hung up without another word. At least it was a good resident tonight.
While Stephen was gathering his few things, Christine called out, “Breakfast in the morning? Save you a seat at York’s.”
“Meet you there at, let’s see, half-six?”
“Kay,” she mumbled, lifting a pale arm in a lazy goodbye. Stephen closed the door to her bedroom to block out the light from outside.
It took him ten minutes to get to the ICU. On the way there, he shot another text at Tony. Take a nap. The ICU was in a state of controlled commotion around the patient he operated on just a handful of hours ago. His instinct was hardly ever wrong, both as a doctor and a sorcerer. He examined the patient himself, Nielsen quietly talking to the family over the phone behind him, and knew that if they delayed any further, the patient would likely die.
It was a whirlwind from there, the nurses working double-time to get the patient moving while Stephen pored over the scans. How he wished he had JARVIS for this. Reminded of Tony again, he briefly glanced down at his phone and saw a reply.
sleep is for the weak
also y u awake
u can do it babe
Stephen snorted and typed one more text as he followed the patient down to the OR suites.
Patient trying to die but I refuse to let them. Take. A. Nap.
He pocketed his phone and ignored it for the rest of the case.
Nielsen was correct to have called for cavalry. The ruptured aneurysm was tricky and deep, requiring a delicate hand. Stephen operated quietly this time, no music to distract him. With controlled and even breaths, he attuned his senses to the patient’s heartbeat and threaded the catheter further into the injured vessel. His hands didn’t shake.
It helped that the patient was a fighter. Stephen could feel her soul’s latent energy simmering below the surface; he willed it to hang on for just a little longer. Shame that Nielsen was watching too closely. Stephen could have used magic to fix this artery.
With a minute twist of his fingers, he secured a coil against the aneurysm’s bulbous protrusion, nestling it up against the vessel walls like it was made to fit. He deployed the rest of it with care and then followed the coil with a stent to hold it in place. The after scans showed a complete cessation of bleeding, and although the blood already in her brain tissue would cause some damage, they managed to avert death for now. How dire her residual deficits would be, only time would tell.
Nielsen blew out a breath from under the face mask, meeting Stephen’s eyes over the operating table. “Wow,” the resident said, “that was… wow.”
“Practice,” Stephen nodded in acknowledgement, stepping back to let the resident close. “Next time I’ll let you try it yourself, at least one pass. The only way you’ll get the feel for it is if you try.”
“This would be so much easier with nanotech,” Stephen sighed quietly, making Nielsen pause.
“…is that something Tony Stark is investing in, sir?”
“Not viable for medicine yet.”
“But you’ll be the first to let us know when it is?” Nielsen looked up at him with smiling eyes.
Stephen only shrugged. “You’ll be an attending by then.”
“If I survive the next four years,” Nielsen sighed, returning to his task. “I can’t believe it’s four more years.”
“You need to actually sleep,” Stephen uncharacteristically gave the younger doctor advice. He was in a strange mood, and anyway, Nielsen was good enough to deserve it. “Take meds if you need to. You’ll feel better about your life if you get sleep. Also, ditch that internal medicine resident you’re dating. She’s cheating on you and giving you stress you don’t need.”
Nielsen paused again, this time for longer than a second. “O-Okay, wow. Um, t-thanks, I think? …wait, she’s cheating on me with whom?”
Stephen ignored the question. “You have a lot of potential, and I don’t say that lightly. I have expectations. Don’t disappoint me.”
“Yessir,” Nielsen dipped his head again, returning to the access closure with steady fingers. A testament to his skill that even Stephen calling out his dating life didn’t faze him. Again, Stephen’s instincts were right: this one had the makings of a great surgeon.
They brought the patient back to ICU. In the lounge, they wrote their notes. Since he was already in house, Stephen looked over the rest of his post-op patients and decided that all of them were doing well enough that he could actually go home. New York’s hospitals were humane; therefore, he wasn’t allowed to consecutively work more than a certain number of hours, either in house or on call.
By the time he finished his list, Suresh and the dayshift crew were arriving. Stephen exchanged a few pleasantries and left before the lounge could get too crowded. He went to the locker rooms and took a shower, changing out of the scrubs and back into his suit before breakfast with Christine. He was tired but at least he was clean.
On the way out of the hospital, he texted Tony again. I’m bringing you breakfast. Anything you want in particular?
It took a moment, but came the reply: bagels & lox pls
York’s had bagels and lox. Stephen left the hospital and walked the block, crossing the street just as the sun began to break across the sky. York’s Deli was a hospital staple and regularly hosted staff in varying states of exhaustion and distress. The proprietor gave a hospital worker discount, something Stephen never availed because it felt like thievery when the prices were already so low. Christine sat at their usual corner window table and waved at him when he walked in.
“Morning,” she smiled, looking refreshed. “Patient okay?”
“So-so,” Stephen shrugged. “Could have been worse.” He left his jacket there and went to place his order, a Cuban for himself and a bagel to take home to his erstwhile boyfriend who was still awake for probably the third day in a row. Stephen didn’t really trust that Tony napped while he was gone.
“Wow,” Christine remarked when he returned to the table with a take-away paper bag. “Such a thoughtful boyfriend. Where were you two years ago?”
Stephen scowled at her; she laughed. “I was nice to you.”
“Sometimes,” she shrugged, smile wry. “But I wasn’t with you because you were nice.”
“Masochist,” Stephen accused without heat. She either had really shit taste in partners or really good taste, jury was out.
“If I’m a masochist, what does that make you?” she raised a coy eyebrow while picking the pickles out of her pastrami.
“Rational. Why don’t you just tell him not to put the pickles in?” Stephen sighed.
“Mind your own sandwich!”
It occurred to him then that they were here again, sharing the same exact meal at the same exact place as they did in that future past. For an instant, Stephen saw Christine as she would become: older, with fine wrinkles around her eyes, but just as charming and beautiful and kind. Her hair a lighter brown, her cheekbones dusted with more freckles. Her smile a little dulled with time and pain.
He blinked the memory away and ordered a coffee to make this meal even a little bit different from that future one.
“You sure you should drink coffee now? Won’t you sleep after this?”
“I need to drive home, so yes. And you know I can fall asleep even after coffee.” Caffeine barely worked on him anymore. It was a wonder that it still worked on Tony.
They talked for half an hour until Christine needed to leave. She was due for her sixth shift in a row; Stephen called her out on her bad scheduling just as he always used to do when they were still together. She liked working straight shifts but it knocked her out for the first two off days afterwards, which made it difficult for them to see each other at all. Neither of them had been willing to compromise on their schedules, hence…
“You’re not dating me anymore, Stephen Strange, so you have no right to dictate my time!” she laughingly warned him off while gathering her trash.
“You never let me dictate your time even when we were dating anyway.” She was too independent of a woman to let him do something like that.
Soon enough, she left him with a one-armed hug and a platonic kiss pressed into his hairline. “Say hi to Tony for me. I’ll see you later.”
Her affection was welcome, but the close physical contact no longer felt right.
Go figure that.
Stephen sat there for a while longer, savoring the morning and the rest of his coffee. It wasn’t JARVIS’ brew but it was almost as good. He stared out the window and was so distracted contemplating the shifting ground of his few personal relationships that he only noticed the man taking the seat across from him when they were already seated.
“Dr. Stephen Strange,” said the dark-skinned, dangerous-looking man, “good morning and sorry to disturb your coffee. I just wanted to say hello.”
Years of practice kept Stephen from betraying his own surprise. His left hand slipped into his pocket, briefly tapping his phone to turn on the video function. He took a sip of his coffee and evenly replied, “Who exactly do I have the dubious honor of speaking with?”
“The name’s Nick Fury. I work for a special branch of the US government. Thank you,” Fury took a cup of coffee from the waitress with cream and sugar on the side. While stirring, the man continued, “You’re a smart fella, doc, so I don’t think I need to spell out why we’re having coffee this morning, do I?”
“You want something from Tony.”
Fury bobbed his head in a maybe motion. “Sure, that’s one way of putting it.”
Stephen crossed his leg under the table, recalling one of Tony’s stories: Iron Man, yes. Tony Stark, not recommended. “You want Iron Man.”
“Bingo,” Fury took a gulp of his creamy coffee. “Damn, that’s good.”
“Why not approach him directly?” Stephen asked, because by all accounts, Fury dealt with Tony face-to-face in the future past. Here was another unexpected change to contend with; if he could, he would find out why.
“Well, about that,” Fury sighed, “he hasn’t been an easy man to get a hold of recently. Jetting all over the country, in and out of Congress, then disappearing with you.”
“You can’t possibly tell me that you didn’t consider breaking into my townhouse at least once,” Stephen said with a flat stare.
Fury chuckled. “I did—but going by how protective Stark has become of you, I figured it was probably not a good idea to make contact while you were together. The objective isn’t to piss him off.”
“This will still piss him off.”
“Not if you don’t tell him about it,” Fury entreated. There was a heartbeat of silence during which Stephen wanted to laugh, but he controlled himself because there was more. Fury continued, “Man like yourself, smart man, great career… you’re making good moves here, shacking up with Stark. No judgment, you do you! He’s very generous in a relationship, from what I hear. You’re definitely putting yourself ahead of the rest of your competition. He’ll set you up for life.”
Not that Fury was wrong, but the boldly stated assumptions rankled Stephen’s ire. Was it really that far-fetched for him—for both Tony and himself—to commit to a relationship without all the strings attached? Fury knew about Stephen’s background, no doubt, and figured that Stephen’s business training was coming into play. It was a fair assumption. Stephen would think so too, if he were in Fury’s shoes looking at his and Tony’s dossiers.
“Anyway, your relationship is your relationship, you have nothing to prove to me,” Fury assured him. “I just think that we can build a mutually beneficial partnership here.”
Stephen raised a single unimpressed eyebrow.
Fury spread his two hands open. “Information. That’s all we want. We mean him no harm; we want him as an ally, after all. We just want to stay a step ahead.”
Stephen sighed and drained his coffee cup. Fury read that signal and dropped the bait before he could stand to leave.
“FDA approvals can be tricky to acquire, I’m sure you’re aware. Lots of paperwork, lots of bureaucracy. We could smooth that over for you. Streamline your projects, so to speak. We’d be helping you help your patients. Medical research is so rewarding, we don’t often get to help with that.” Fury gave him what must pass for a smile, but Stephen could see it for what it was: a barefaced lie.
Did they think he was stupid?
No. They think I’m an amateur.
He looked into his empty mug, contemplating his words with great care lest he inadvertently give anything away. This was not entirely unexpected; SHIELD was due to approach Tony last month through Natasha Romanoff. In a twisted way, it sort of made sense that they detoured through him instead since she wasn’t a viable option in light of his and Tony’s very public relationship.
After a sufficient amount of time, Stephen looked up and leveled Nick Fury with every bit of gravitas he possessed as the Sorcerer Supreme of a future past.
“Mr. Fury, I will only say this once so take careful note. You have made a sore miscalculation. There is nothing—not a single thing—in this universe or beyond it that can make me betray Tony Stark. I gave him my loyalty, and I don’t give that lightly,” Stephen rose from his seat and took the paper bag with Tony’s bagel. Fury’s expression flattened out into a blank mask. For good measure, Stephen added, “If I were you, I’d just approach him directly. He’ll hear about this, though, make no mistake. If you want him to work with you after this, you’ll have to up your offer.”
“You think Stark is actually serious about this thing of yours?” Fury threw out, a last ditch attempt at destroying something since he couldn’t build anything with his manipulations. “Our profiles don’t exactly paint him as the most stable partner, doctor. He’ll get bored soon enough and then where will you be?”
Stephen folded his jacket over one arm and said, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about me too much, Mr. Fury. Our relationship is our relationship; we have nothing to prove to you.”
Taking the parting shot, he swept out of the deli and into the sunlight. If Levi were with him, he could have made that exit even more dramatic. Oh well. There was always next time.
Turning off the video recording in his pocket, Stephen thought, Tony will be fucking furious.
Furious was not the word.
That was the word.
Stephen had waited to tell him until they were in bed. JARVIS had welcomed him home, indicating that Tony was finished rewriting the AI’s codes at last, and then they sat upstairs, Stephen talking about Christine and his patients while Tony inhaled the bagel. After that, he bullied Tony into a shower while he changed into lounge pants and brushed his teeth. Only when they were both crawling into bed did he relay the encounter—or more specifically, he played the recording for Tony to listen to.
Tony remained quiet during the entire thing, growing paler with each volley of the conversation. It wasn’t until the end—when Fury warned Stephen that Tony would one day get bored—that he burst from the bed in a rage.
“How fucking dare he,” Tony snarled. “Nothing’s sacred to Fury, huh? That absolute shitbag.”
Stephen reclined against the headboard and watched Tony pace like a caged and hungry predator. His rage was pressurized and palpable, a thing to behold. Not for the first time, Stephen wondered about teaching Tony the mystic arts. Stephen wasn’t the best teacher, but he and Tony understood each other. Perhaps it would work. Tony would make a powerful sorcerer given enough training and time. He benched that idea for later discussion.
“Did you take the Lambo back home?” Tony suddenly asked, whirling to face Stephen with glittering eyes. His anger made them appear several shades darker, more of a rich caramel than the usual bright hazel. “Did you come straight here?”
“I did. If you’re concerned about tails, they wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exactly which building I disappeared into. The wards here will throw them off.”
“I’m concerned that they bugged your car or sabotaged it somehow. SHIELD does dick moves like that. J, check the Lambo out, please.”
“I am already in the process of doing so, sir.”
Something in his chest admittedly warmed at Tony’s anger, although he objectively knew that it wasn’t all for him. But some of it was.
“They’ve been watching us for a while,” Tony grunted, still pacing at the foot of the bed. “They’ve been watching you. I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all.”
“We expected it,” Stephen said, content to be the voice of reason in this instance even though he also felt a little violated by SHIELD’s apparent surveillance. “We agreed that we would leave the matter.”
Tony didn’t respond, instead falling deeper in thought.
Stephen sighed. “Tony, come here and lay down. You haven’t slept in three days.”
“Did I make a mistake telling you about this before sleep? Maybe I should have waited until later this evening.”
Tony’s eyes shot up to meet his gaze, still angry, but now with an added sheen of frustration. “Don’t you ever do that to me. We promised honesty.”
“And I’m happy to give you that honesty as promised, if you likewise listen to me as promised. Come and lay down. You need sleep.”
Stephen’s tone was firm and broached no argument. Tony dithered for a while longer, before the fight bled out of his shoulders with a tired sigh. He crawled up from the foot of the bed and flopped spread-eagle over the covers.
“I’m still pissed.”
“You’re also tired,” Stephen reached over and pressed on two points on either side of Tony’s neck, earning a loud groan of relief. “You’ll think more clearly once you’ve had some sleep. You’re not allowed to make a decision on this matter until then.”
JARVIS obediently closed the blackout curtains and turned off the lights. Stephen dug his fingers into Tony’s shoulders for another minute before sliding under the covers himself. As soon as they were settled into comfortable positions, Tony turned to face him.
“I’m not walking away from you,” a warm, calloused hand encircled his wrist. “I would never betray you.”
It seemed a disproportionate and almost irrational reaction to a simple encounter, but Stephen did his best to view it from Tony’s perspective. Tony had lost a lot because of SHIELD and HYDRA in the future past. Against the ruins of what was once a team, a home, a family, this much rage and fear was not irrational at all. It made sense.
So Stephen turned to face him likewise and said, “I know you won’t. In more than fourteen million possibilities, you never did.”
That night, Tony was on a warpath.
“Everything you can get your hands on, J. Everything Fury’s touched. I want ears, I want eyes. I want to know what he’s doing, where he’s going, who he’s talking to and why.” Stephen sat back and watched Tony interact with several screens of code, a master in his element. Holographic lines of a brand new programming language danced at his fingertips, casting the angles of his face in pale blue light.
“It seems Mr. Fury is currently on a private flight to New Mexico,” JARVIS reported. “Sir, Mr. Fury is everywhere in SHIELD’s network. The database is sizable. Are you searching for anything in particular?”
“Anything related to me or Stephen takes priority. Anything about New Mexico. Project PEGASUS. Anything they have on SI.”
“Shall I go ahead and also hack into the Five Eyes, sir?” (1)
“Do it.” Tony turned and offered Stephen back his phone. “Can I also rig several of your watches? You’ll like what I do with them, I promise.”
“Of course, Tony. Whatever makes you feel more secure.”
Tony’s face darkened. “I won’t feel secure for a few more years yet, Stephen. Not until SHIELD is dealt with. Not until HYDRA’s exposed.”
“Then it’s all the more important to take extra security measures wherever possible,” Stephen reasoned with a shrug.
Because proximity seemed to put Tony at ease, Stephen sat with him in the workshop to start on his borrowed tomes from Kamar-Taj. Tony and JARVIS multitasked on several holotables behind him: finding out about Thor; listening for talk about the Tesseract; and hacking into a certain HYDRA base in the remote depths of Siberia. Also something about beginning surveillance on a recently disgraced Thaddeus Ross. Fury’s visit seemed to have woken an urge in Tony, an urge to know and find and get ahead.
“If everyone and their third uncle wants to stalk us,” Tony had darkly muttered, “we’ll stalk the hell out of them right back. J, we’re calling this subroutine Abyss.” (2)
Stephen almost wanted to feel sorry for Fury when the man finally met Tony face to face. Keyword: almost.
“Sir, it appears that Dr. Foster has made contact with SHIELD’s person of interest in New Mexico. Their surveillance has identified this person’s name as—”
“Thor,” Tony pushed away from the edge of the holotable and crossed his arms. “Stephanie, babe, didn’t Loki say to wait before approaching Jane?”
“But he didn’t explicitly say wait for Thor to leave.”
Stephen frowned, “If we approach him, that derails your plans for SHIELD.”
“Well, I have nothing to say to him right now anyway,” Tony dismissed the idea. “But that doesn’t stop me from approaching Jane online.”
“Ah,” Stephen’s frown eased into open appreciation. Thor had a limited understanding of their technology; unless Jane made a direct mention of it and explained the context, Thor would not know what an email from Stark Industries meant for her career. However… “Wouldn’t her communications be monitored by SHIELD? That might tip them off.”
Tony tilted his head.
Stephen sighed, “You want to tip them off.”
“It’s a harmless jab,” Tony spread his hands, “and I do want her in SI anyway.”
“You just want to stick it to Fury.”
Stephen sighed. “They likely already know you’re watching them back, so the tip off isn’t really a tip off.”
“Precisely! This is just more like a tap on the shoulder! Like hey, asshole, I’ve got my eyes on you too!”
Stephen gave that consideration but ultimately disagreed. “I still think it’s wiser to wait for SHIELD to make the first move on her.”
Tony didn’t like it but didn’t argue further. Instead, “Babe, you let me know if weird shit starts happening at the hospital, okay? I wouldn’t put it past SHIELD to try to sabotage or manipulate you through your work there. They like to think of themselves as better than HYDRA, and maybe they are, but only by an inch. They won’t give a shit about your patients so watch out.”
“About that,” Stephen slowly lifted his head, turning to face Tony as he set his elbows on his knees, “can I steal your undivided attention for a minute, or does JARVIS need your supervision?”
“J’s a big boy now, he hasn’t needed babysitting in years,” Tony spun around and scooted towards him at once. “Talk to me.”
Stephen didn’t prevaricate. “I’m thinking of quitting.”
Tony reeled back, blinking several times before peering intently at his face. The undivided attention he asked for felt warm like the heat of a summer sun.
“But you love your job,” Tony said slowly. “Did something happen?”
“Nothing happened—nothing’s happening,” Stephen sighed, “and that’s the problem.”
Understanding dawned on Tony’s face. “You’re bored.”
“Out of my goddamn mind. You have to understand: my life before this consisted of dealing with dangerous supernatural threats on a daily basis. Especially after I returned from the Soul Stone. Many of our Masters turned to dust. The Sanctums were understaffed. Without maintenance, the Sanctum’s wards fell into some disrepair, which meant that the planet’s shield had gaping holes in it. That the Stones were used not once or twice but thrice made that reality even more vulnerable to dimensional instabilities. Although of course that worked towards our advantage,” Stephen steepled his fingers with a frown. “Loki’s spell—the one that tore our souls from our bodies and sent us back through time—was easier to perform because the threads of that reality had already been unraveled and rewoven three times before, and like fine china, some things never repair the same.
“I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. Having my old life back, even for a short period of time, has been a dream fulfilled. I never thought… anyway. I had reconciled with that loss a long time ago. Having this second chance is an indescribable gift.”
“And yet,” Stephen hung his head with a wry smile, “here I am, still unsatisfied. Such is human nature.”
Tony was quiet for a while, mirroring his position by bracing elbows on knees. Stephen observed him and was observed right back, both men fascinated with the novel sensation of being seen and being known.
“Can’t believe I’m saying this,” Tony then said with his own wry smile, “but do you think I can learn magic?”
This time it was Stephen’s turn to reel back. “You want to learn magic?”
“I’d like to try,” Tony shrugged. “I might not take to it, what with how my brain works… but by now I think I’ve spent enough time with you to say that if you could make it, maybe I can make it too.”
“I think you have immense potential for sorcery,” Stephen interjected immediately.
“Did you see that in the fourteen something million?”
“No, no, there was never any time for you to learn in those futures. When I used the Time Stone on Titan, I used it only to look forward from that point in time.”
“Right,” Tony nodded, “which brings us here and now.”
“Well, now we have time,” Tony smiled at him, “and if you’re quitting, I was thinking that maybe you’ll have time to teach me.”
“I’m told I’m a shit teacher,” Stephen warned. “The seasoned instructors are all at Kamar-Taj.”
“Well, I can’t exactly stay at Kamar-Taj indefinitely, so I guess I’ll have to make do with you.” A grin teased at the corner of his mouth. “I could do worse. I mean, I’d be learning from the future Sorcerer Supreme, right?”
“Even though I held that title, I have so much yet to learn about the arts,” Stephen admitted. “I was barely a year into the Order when I was voted into the position.”
“Then we’ll learn together!” Tony declared. He looked confident about the idea and indeed eager despite his initial misgivings about magic.
Stephen allowed a small smile. “If so, then we’re going to have to look at your schedule and make time for regular training. And you’re going to have to actually follow it, Tony, because between this, managing your company, and playing with Washington, you’re going to be incredibly busy. And you will need to sleep.”
“Does that mean I can delegate the research shit to you? Because I hate writing protocols,” Tony groused, “paperwork deadens my soul.”
Stephen snorted. “I’ll take care of all that. Once I quit, I’ll have plenty of time to take some work off your plate.”
“Great. I can’t wait. When are you quitting?”
“I think I’ll wait until after the Expo.”
“And you won’t be burning your bridges, so to speak?”
“I already warned them that if they didn’t give me the schedule I wanted, I was prepared to resign,” Stephen smirked. “Anyway, it was just a matter of time.”
“Okay,” Tony straightened, leveling him with a playful smirk likewise. “For the record, I have absolutely no problem with being your sugar daddy, babe. I’m rich enough for the both of us. You don’t ever have to work again.”
Stephen rolled his eyes but smiled.
The 21st century’s Einstein: Stark discovers an element & reinvents clean energy – Nature News
6 June 2010
Stephen collapsed the holo with a private smile as Tony came up to him dressed for the day. Their breakfast was modest but filling: oatmeal with walnuts and cranberries, scrambled eggs, and coffee. They were due at Columbia in an hour for the commencement of Expo Day Two.
In a stunning opening move at the Stark Expo 2010 held yesterday at Columbia University, Anthony “Tony” Stark (also known as Iron Man) unveiled the groundbreaking science behind his patented Stark Reactor, the world’s newest, smallest, and most efficient source of clean energy.
“Welcome to the dawn of the future,” Stark greeted his audience with open arms during the opening ceremony’s keynote address. “The technology you see here will change the world.”
Stark did not disappoint, rocking the international scientific community with the revelation of the first successful cold fusion reactor on Earth, in miniature.
Traditional hot fusion reactors exist today at research pilot scales, but the necessary combination of pressure, temperature, and energy needed to produce a significant amount of output have stymied its practical applications and viability as a reliable power source. The only notable example of a working hot fusion reactor currently powers the Stark Industries Los Angeles compound and is a legacy of Anthony Stark’s likewise celebrated father, the late Howard Stark.
In comparison, the miniaturized Stark Reactor produces electricity directly rather than generating heat, through a cold fusion process contained within a ring of electromagnets. The core consists of two different radioactive isotopes (St-13 and St-17) of Starkium, a new element Tony Stark has discovered reportedly by accident. St-13 produces Promethium and a gamma ray through electron capture, while St-17 produces silver as it releases an electron via beta decay.
Once ionized by an initial jump charge, St-13+ circulates at a high velocity within the ring of electromagnets, increasing its chances of collision with the high-energy free electrons emitted by St-17. This continuous electron flow from the inner core to the outer ring creates an electric potential difference, thereby directly producing an electrical current. Both St-13 and St-17 have long half-lives (104,000 years and 4.5 million years respectively), allowing the Stark Reactor to create virtually waste-free energy for an extended period of time.
“It seems unbelievable to most that I built this in a cave, but as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. I needed a portable power source in order to survive, so I made one, plain and simple,” said Stark. The original prototype of the reactor utilized a palladium core but was too unstable and could not endure prolonged use. Stark reportedly ‘jerry-rigged’ a miniature particle accelerator in his own workshop in Malibu in order to synthesize the first ever batch of Starkium to supply the reactor core.
A Stark Reactor currently powers the groundbreaking Iron Man armor, showcasing its structural stability and capacity for high levels of continuous energy output. The armor, the reactor, and the new element are all patented under Stark’s name. To date, Starkium can only be synthesized using a particle accelerator and with Stark’s explicit permission, effectively limiting the technology’s production and distribution exclusively through Stark Industries.
At the conclusion of his keynote address, Stark announced that Stark Industries would soon begin negotiations for the lease and industrial use of Stark Reactors under strict conditions that include a widely lauded pacifist clause. “No leased reactors will be used to supply energy for the production of any weapons or implements of war. I want this technology to help power the creation of a future, not the destruction of one,” said Stark. “Additionally, I am leasing the reactor to governments only, not private entities, in order to maintain adequate oversight and prevent the technology from being abused. Any government who wishes to lease my property will have to furnish proof that they can protect it, as well as respect it.”
Stark stated that his vision was to replace nuclear reactors with Stark Reactors around the world as well as offset the consumption of fossil fuels for energy production within ten years.
The full-length peer-reviewed research article about the Stark Reactor is available for free on Nature (A. Stark, Nature http://doi.org/sta902d; 2010). The full-length peer-reviewed research article about Starkium is available for free on Nature Chemistry (A. Stark, Nat Chemistry http://doi.org/sta127e; 2010). Further coverage from the Stark Expo 2010 will be available on Nature News.
“I swear to god my soul’s age carried over into this young body,” Tony complained while peppering his eggs. “That was just one day—one day! Why was I so exhausted?”
“You worked yourself up with your own excitement,” Stephen huffed, “after you spent hours the previous night obsessing over your speech. I’m telling you, you can’t do the same for your podium on Saturday. Think about the optics. You’ll look half-dead.”
“Babe, that’s what make up is for.”
“Fake is fake, Tony. People can tell.”
The Expo began on a Wednesday and would run for four days, far shorter than it did in the future past but enough to make waves for them to use. Yesterday had been productive: Tony’s reveal of Starkium and the reactor sent shockwaves across the globe. The effects were immediately visible on the stock markets and the news outlets; Stark Industries’ index frog-leaped over its competition on just about every stock exchange in the world. Conversely, fossil fuel futures suffered a dip that many were calling a death knell for the global oil industry.
It was a wise thing that Wednesday mostly consisted of the opening ceremony and lots of socialization. No one had any attention to spare any other technology after Tony dropped the proverbial bombshell. Today—Thursday—was the true beginning of the Expo, a day dedicated to industrial and military technology with showcases from an array of companies including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Hammer Industries. They were all showing off weaponry one way or another; Stark Industries was the only one without weapons to parade.
Instead, Tony was debuting a line-up of advanced surveillance drones, much smaller than any of his competitors’ models and far more mobile. SI had several designs (quadcopters, miniature fixed-wing models, and multirotor drones) that were available for demo. Notably, one of the quadcopter models was a remotely controlled camera drone that would soon be made available for consumer purchase. They were not particularly groundbreaking to Stephen given the availability of consumer-level drone technology in the future past, but for 2010, the drones were gamechangers.
“I don’t feel like hanging around to socialize today,” Tony confessed, “too many faces from the old weapons marketing crowd. Let’s leave early if that’s okay with you.”
Stephen shrugged; today’s exhibition was not of interest to him either. It was his turn tomorrow.
Tony leaned towards him and slyly grinned, “We can make a show of leaving for reasons. Give them something else to talk about.”
Raising an eyebrow at the suggestion, Stephen asked, “And what will we do for the rest of our day?”
“Take a nap? You always harp on me about taking naps.”
This was all conversation, of course. There was plenty of work to occupy the two of them in the privacy of their own home. Let the rest of the world conjecture away.
After breakfast, they shrugged their suit jackets on and left in one of the cars. Yesterday they took out the attention-catching Aston Martin Valkyrie; today Tony chose the burnt orange McLaren 765LT. Each day was a day to show off another exotic sports car, an opportunity neither of them wanted to waste. As much as they both hated the necessity of it, optics was important. (That, and they both liked their cars.)
Rhodes met them at the valet drive-up at Columbia, along with a horde of photographers whose cameras began flashing the moment they stepped out of the McLaren. Tony exchanged enthusiastic greetings with his friend and then turned to flash a showman’s grin at the media.
“What’ve you got in store today, Tones?” Rhodes was asking as they entered the crowded convention.
“Oh, a few things,” Tony breezily responded, “but I won’t be taking the stage. Nothing major today, just small-fry.”
“You’re really that serious about quitting the arms production, huh.”
“Rhodey-bear, I stuck a finger at Congress and then cockblocked them with their own bogey, the NRA. I don’t know how much more serious I can get than that.”
Parked on the south lawn outside, they could see through the windows a chrome grey jet with the Lockheed logo painted white on one of its triangular wings. It caught Tony’s attention enough to make him stop.
“Since when did Lockheed start manufacturing Quinjets?” he frowned at Rhodes, who blinked in surprise.
“Quinjets? Is that what that is?”
Tony kept frowning and muttered more to himself, “I mean, I suppose they had to get it from somewhere if not from me…”
“Uh-oh,” Rhodes exchanged a look with Stephen, “am I hearing this right? Did competition beat you to something, Tones?”
With intense consideration, Tony looked upon the Lockheed Quinjet for a moment—but then the moment passed and with it Tony’s displeasure, like a cloud passing over the sun in the sky. “Oh well, no biggie. Can’t monopolize that market anyway so it’s not worth losing sleep over. Next!”
The rest of the morning was a blur of booths and presentations, their small group growing and waning as they moved around the Expo. At one point, Pepper accompanied them through some demos, before she too was invariably detained by an old Stanford acquaintance. It was harder to know who was who without her. Stephen wanted to lose track of the faces he met and the hands he shook, but he knew they could not afford carelessness, so he willed himself to try to remember.
“Sir,” JARVIS called their attention from the micro-earpieces they wore, “there is a minor situation.”
Tony tilted his head and kept walking, betraying nothing with his game smile.
“As you have predicted, the Hammer drones are programmed to act up, so to speak, and cause a commotion this afternoon. The command script is currently dormant, but someone recently rebooted a drone and it invariably connected to our network upon startup, therefore allowing me to quickly identify it. Permission to intervene?” JARVIS asked.
Stephen identified the glittering rage in Tony’s eyes only because he knew the man well enough to differentiate his moods. To everyone else, it simply looked like heightened interest: Tony Stark was enjoying himself.
They passed a busy corner of the hall and then Tony pulled Stephen in to pretend like he was whispering private things in Stephen’s ear. Stephen suppressed a shiver as Tony practically pressed the words into his skin: “Wipe them, JARVIS. All of Hammer’s tech, fucking wipe them all.”
“Sir, none of their demos will work.”
“Good,” Tony drew back and smiled at Stephen, who mirrored it with a small smile of his own. Tony turned to Rhodes and said, “Platypus, come on, show me what the Air Force has got today! I heard something about advanced retroreflective panels… stealth tech?”
Suspecting nothing amiss, Rhodes eagerly led them towards the Air Force exhibitions conveniently on the other side of the hall from Justin Hammer’s corner. When Hammer’s tech began to fail, causing a minor commotion to form around the booth, Tony was otherwise occupied and could not possibly be responsible for wiping the Hammer drones’ entire root files.
Maybe the Washington Post was right; it could have been a Chinese virus.
Friday was allotted for biotechnologies. It was Stark Industries’ newest development arm so they had the least to showcase against their more entrenched and specialized competitors. Phillips, Samsung, Dell, Sony, and Toshiba were dominating the exhibition hall, with a smattering of smaller companies like Neuroptics, Integra, and Beacon offering their specialty wares in between. Biopharmaceutical was not yet a category included in this year’s Expo, but Tony had plans for subsequent years that involved several specialists including Bruce Banner and a certain Dr. Helen Cho.
The few items Stark Industries did have to offer, however, were groundbreaking enough that it still swept the media coverage for the day. It was Stephen’s time to shine beside Tony. While separately they could both command a room (Tony with overpowering charm and Stephen with gravitas), together they transfixed the whole convention hall for more than an hour.
“I mean, we are an incredibly good-looking couple,” Tony remarked after their stage time concluded. Not for the first time that morning, he looked them both up and down, admiring the sleek figures they cut with their suits and watches and sharply styled hair. (They had aggressively color-matched with each other again, Tony in cobalt blue and Stephen in steel grey. They had looked very good stepping out of the ocean blue Bugatti. It was necessary. For optics and such.)
“That went well,” Stephen agreed with a tilt of his head. “If the review board approves the protocols on time, we should be able to present an actual patient case next year.”
Cybernetic prosthetics were the main draw of their talk, several different prototypes of which were available on demo (legs, arms, hands, and individual fingers too). They just needed approval to begin trialing the device on actual patients.
“Regretting not selling me out to Fury? Maybe we could have gotten FDA approval faster if you did. You know what, babe, play double agent next time,” Tony nudged him with an elbow.
Stephen snorted. “Even Fury couldn’t make the FDA move that fast. And don’t pretend you wouldn’t freak out if I even so much as tried the double agent ploy. You were gonna have a seizure at the mere thought of me talking to them.”
“True, true, what can I say,” Tony curled an arm around his back, “I’m very territorial and incredibly attached to my boyfriend.” The two of them walked back out to rejoin the crowd, Pepper and Rhodes waiting for them with a familiar face. Tony lit up with a smile, “Oh, look, Pep’s new bestie is here!”
Pepper rolled her eyes at Tony, but Christine graced him with a grin. “Hi, Tony, Stephen. Great talk, guys! I’m so excited for both of you!”
They all exchanged greetings, Stephen meeting Christine’s eyes before darting a look at a distracted Rhodes and then back. A high flush stole over Christine’s nose and cheeks; she narrowed her eyes at him. Stephen smirked.
“Jim,” Stephen called Rhodes’ attention away from Tony, “ignore Tony for a second and do me a favor.” Tony spluttered, which made Rhodes grin.
“If you’re giving me an excuse to get away from this hell in a handbasket, doc, you can ask whatever favor of me that you want.”
Stephen ignored Tony and kept going. “Normal people would try to prevaricate, but we’ve established that none of us are normal, so—” he stepped aside to dodge Christine’s swat, “—I’ll go ahead and tell you that I’m trying to matchmake you with Christine here, who doesn’t have a date for the gala tomorrow night. Would you mind?”
Tony burst out in loud, bright laughter, drawing stares from people around them. Pepper giggled at the expression on Rhodes’ face while Christine made to swat Stephen again. He graciously allowed her one hit.
“Go! Go together!” Tony pushed at his best friend’s shoulder, who spluttered at the attention.
“Tony! Hell, I take it back, the two of you are bad together. Bad.” Rhodes turned to Christine, contrite. “Excuse them, they’re obviously—”
“—children!” Christine snapped, flush darker on her cheeks now as she full on glared at Stephen. “They’re both asinine children!”
“Rhodey, listen, I have a great idea to make this un-awkward,” Tony grinned.
“You could go together,” Tony continued, unfazed, “and take Pepper with you! Rock in there with two gorgeous girls on each arm—”
“Excuse me, Mr. Stark, since when did you have the right to tell me who to date?” Pepper put her hands on her hips.
At the same time, Rhodes groaned, “Tones, that’s something you would do, and I’m not so far gone that I want to copy you.”
“How about you mind your own date,” Christine scowled at them, “and let the rest of us worry about ourselves?”
“But that’s bo-ring,” Tony whined in uncanny likeness with a petulant toddler. “You guys are no fun.”
They must have been making quite a spectacle; Stephen noted that cameras were pointed at them.
“Dates aside,” Christine sighed, “Stephen, Dr. Saju was looking for you. Something about introducing him to Tony Stark as you promised.”
“We’ll find him after lunch,” Stephen nodded. At Tony’s questioning look, he said, “A senior attending at work. He was my mentor from med school days.”
“Work dad,” Christine translated for Tony, who nodded with an eloquent, “Ah.”
They went to lunch as a group and then dispersed to mingle in the afternoon, only Tony and Stephen sticking together for the expedience of the people who wanted to speak with them about the cybernetic prosthetics. Tony met several of Stephen’s colleagues from Presby and Metro as well as several professors from Columbia who were highly intrigued about their joint endeavor with MIT.
Suresh, who watched them throughout with thoughtful, attentive eyes, later pulled Stephen aside and remarked, “A very serious affair, indeed. I’m happy for you, young man. You seem to have found yourself an even match.”
Stephen nodded, not even lying when he said, “Tony is a gift.”
“Hold on to him,” Suresh advised with a gentle smile. “What you are building is worth the effort. Remember that when the going gets tough.”
Suresh didn’t realize how true those words rang, but Stephen thanked him all the same.
On Saturday, the Expo’s final day, Tony was out to play. Stepping out of the shock-red Ferrari Stradale, the star of the show was decked in a bright red suit and a white t-shirt that did nothing to hide the glow of the triangular nanite housing underneath. It was a look only someone like Tony Stark could pull off, complete with the shades, a chrome watch, and—of all things—a pair of white Doc Marten chelseas.
“Well, babycakes, you’re wearing black shoes and we agreed to be flip opposites,” Tony had reasoned that morning while looking Stephen over with a critical eye. Stephen had opted for black shoes and a black suit himself but got strong-armed into a red t-shirt that was borrowed from Tony’s side of the wardrobe.
“We look like… rockstars,” Stephen had sighed.
“Exactly! And this is our show!”
The Expo’s final and largest day was dedicated to consumer electronics, a new foray for Stark Industries that many critics met with skepticism. SI was the international leader in national defense technologies, so stepping into industrial tech and the energy market, while surprising, was still reasonable. But consumer electronics? “Nothing good can possibly come from this,” an analyst from CNN had claimed on the previous night’s primetime news.
How shocked they were all going to be.
Today was truly more of Tony’s show; Stephen was content to be on the sidelines. He wanted to watch everyone’s jaws hit the floor during Tony’s closing address. The flashy wardrobe choices were all part of a carefully curated message they wanted project to today’s target audience, mainly young people whose lives were increasingly dominated with gadgets as they grew up to become the world’s most networked generation. Looking like rockstars was Tony playing into their sensibilities, because the young people would instinctively respect someone cool over someone official.
In Tony’s words, “Today I get to spend all my cool capital—an investment for the future generation.”
Mainstream competitors such as Apple, Samsung, Sony, and Google were not afraid to use Stark Expo as an advertisement platform. Their massive booths dominated the university’s south lawn, edging out smaller companies for the crowd’s attention. None of them knew that Tony was about to destroy their markets in one fell swoop.
“You,” Stephen told Tony, “are absolutely diabolical.” From where they stood at the steps of Columbia’s library, they could see over the entire circus.
“What can I say, babe. Schadenfreude is beautiful,” Tony gave him a sparkling smile. “Besides, I like Google. I won’t destroy Google. I need Google. Google and I are friends.”
Stephen didn’t doubt that. Google was the reason that JARVIS had a handle on the world’s datastream.
Stark Industries’ exhibition for the day had the micro-earpieces, headsets, advanced communication apparatus, and a prototype of the Stark Watch available for the public to sample. Although small, they were generating quite a buzz, particularly for the headsets’ unprecedented digital noise-cancelling and wireless range.
“How else do you think I survive in the armor?” Tony had shrugged when asked about them. “The thrusters get loud when I hit Mach speeds. And let’s not even talk about atmospheric departure, that’s a whole ‘nother issue.”
Ripples went through the crowd at that statement. People hadn’t been aware that the armor was capable of atmospheric departure at all.
Together they wandered towards Tony’s competition, Stephen’s attention catching on the showcased Apple iPhone 4. He used to own one of those in the future past. To his eyes now, and next to Tony’s technology, it looked so clunky and antiquated. The screen was tiny and fragile. Had technology marched forward so fast in but ten years?
“Amazing to look at it in retrospect, right?” Tony quietly spoke into his ear, the two of them standing slanted into each other, a picture of affectionate but distracted lovers.
“How do you even cope?” Stephen said. “This all seems so beneath you.”
Tony snickered into his shoulder, arm curving around his back. (There the cameras went again.) “I just think to myself, this must be how Thor felt, looking at us puny humans and our Stone Age technology. Come on, I want to go talk to someone from Sony. They still own a chunk of the console gaming market and I’m thinking of creating a gaming arm, so I gotta make connections.”
“A gaming arm? For SI?” Stephen asked as they walked away from Apple. “What sort of games would you make?”
“Not me, personally, although I have a few ideas. But the young nerds at MIT, they’re all gamers one way or another. I’m sure I can find a few enterprising programmers who would be interested. What do you think: aliens or demons? One could say we’re authorities on both,” Tony grinned playfully.
“I think we can both agree that it’s best to stay away from aliens.”
“Demons it is!”
Stephen didn’t think that Tony would find demons fun material to make games about if he ever encountered one, but alas, they couldn’t talk about such things here. Ears were everywhere.
When it came time for Tony to take the stage at the end of the day, there was a palpable shiver of excitement in the air. The two times Tony took the stage at this Expo, he broke the energy market and the bioengineering community, respectively. The third time now had the world bracing for impact.
“You sure you don’t want to be with me up there?” Tony asked Stephen backstage while a makeup artist fussed over him for a last-minute touch-up.
“For what?” said Stephen. “This is all you.”
“Yeah, Tones, you’ve got the entire country hanging on to your every word out there, no pressure,” Rhodes grinned.
Pepper approached them, a StarkTab in her hand and a bottle of water with the other. “They’re ready for you, Tony.”
Tony stood. “Wish me luck, babe!”
“Luck is for amateurs,” Stephen shot back. “You don’t need it.”
That sent Tony away laughing. Rhodes shook his head with a sigh. “Come on, doc, let’s go find us a spot.”
Thunderous applause met Tony when he walked on stage. Stephen could feel it shaking the convention hall as they made their way to a sectioned off corner with a good view. Tony was in his element, arms open as wide as his grin. That was his secret, the integral reason why he was so good at capturing people’s attention: he enjoyed putting on a show. So Stephen sat down to enjoy it.
In the span of an hour and a half, Tony dismantled Apple’s market dominance as he unveiled the nigh-unbreakable, water-submersible, 5G-compatible StarkPhone.
“I mean it, guys, I’m not kidding,” Tony said as he dropped his phone into a full fishbowl in front of an aghast audience. “Underwater selfie, anyone? This baby’s pressure-rated so you can take it diving too!”
After pulling the phone out of the bowl, Tony made a show of wiping it off, navigating its screens, taking incredibly high-definition photos of the crowd, and then dropping it off the edge of the stage.
“Woops,” he grinned, waiting for someone to retrieve it for him. A reporter, from the color of their pass lanyard. Tony took the phone back and held up the pristine screen. “Drop-resistant. You’d have to put this thing under an 18-wheeler to break it.”
StarkNet was also going public along with the phone’s reveal. All StarkPhones were going to be sold exclusively under their network, “because the 5G-compatibility is useless otherwise. We’re the only ones who can give you those speeds anywhere in the world,” Tony told the press. Stephen knew the flip side of Tony’s reason: all the phones on their network would be on a monitored datastream that JARVIS could easily access.
It was almost terrifying how easy it would be for Tony to turn coat and take over the world like some evil supervillain. Stephen shivered at the thought.
To finish, Tony expounded on the technology’s future. A whole host of accessories for the phone: headsets, earpieces, wireless charging bases, adjustable cameras. The StarkWatch, paired with the phone for a seamless lifestyle-technology integration. Also to be explored for future release were the holographic displays. A hush of awe fell over the crowd as Tony used his own watch to pull up a holo over the stage.
“Who needs fragile touchscreens when you can manipulate light?” Tony’s smiling face was lit with the surreal glow of his own technology. The hologram was fully navigable and interactive, something out of a sci-fi flick for everyone watching. “Holo tech can be built into nearly everything. With this, we can bring the virtual datastream into our environment. We can interact with information with our hands. The world, at our literal fingertips.”
On his own phone, Stephen watched the stock markets and smiled. Stark Industries’ trajectory was almost vertical. Tony was more than tripling his own net worth overnight.
Another half hour was allotted for questions. Tony answered all of them with wit and bright humor, bringing laughter to every face upturned towards the stage. Like flowers turned towards the sun, Stephen mused. Everyone in this hall wanted a piece of him.
And how do you feel about that? a voice whispered in the back of Stephen’s head, unbidden. It gave him pause.
How did he feel about it? Tangled emotions, as ever, when it came to Tony Stark. Jealousy—no. He wasn’t jealous of Tony, he coveted Tony. The territorial, clingy boyfriend, in Christine’s words. Did he have any right to be this territorial? Did he, if their relationship was only a ruse?
On stage, Tony wrapped up the final session with the dates of the StarkPhone’s planned release. Three months was enough time for the hype to build up, October right on the heels of the Thanksgiving and Christmas shopping spree; Pepper certainly knew how to build a marketing calendar to maximum effect. The prices were far cheaper than expected too, drawing surprised cheers from the audience when Tony offered to port those who wanted to switch from their current network providers to the StarkNet for free.
“Never let it be said that I’m an unreasonable negotiator,” Tony grinned at the cameras. “Besides, I’m counting this as a form of community service. I’m bringing the rest of you out of the Stone Age; you’re welcome. Let me show you what the future looks like!”
The session ended as it began, with thunderous applause and a smattering of young superfans chanting ‘Tony Stark! Tony Stark!’ from the back of the hall. Stephen and Rhodes returned backstage to meet a hyperactive, bouncing Tony with congratulations.
“Success!” Tony crowed, throwing himself over both Rhodes and Stephen. “Did you see the Apple people’s faces? Did you, did you?”
Rhodes laughed, “You gave the poor folks heart attacks. You didn’t even offer them mercy!”
“Honeybear, let me handle the business-ing, okay? All of these ideas about mercy are unbecoming, really, this is why you can never be a businessman! When it comes to money, there is no mercy.”
Another part of Tony’s carefully curated persona: the ruthless money-monger. Considering how much of his own money Tony bled for the Avengers and other peacekeeping and relief operations in the future past, nothing could be further from the truth. But they did need the money, so Stephen couldn’t complain. Saving the world ran up a long tab.
They went back home to change for the gala, Happy with Pepper and Rhodes pulling into the brownstone’s garage behind them. JARVIS ordered food to be delivered, light courses to bridge them until the gathering. Socialization was the objective at such events, and Stephen’s mother always liked to say that it would be poorly done to socialize more with the menu than the people because one came hungry.
“Ugh, I’m all sweaty. Shower first,” Tony complained, stripping as they walked into their bedroom. “Babe, you showering?”
“You go ahead,” Stephen disappeared into the closet to retrieve their tuxedos. Another convenient upside of their relationship was their ability to share a wardrobe. Tony was slightly bulkier and Stephen longer-limbed, but they were almost of a height (Stephen was half an inch taller) and their shoe sizes were close enough to share. A good thing that their taste in suits ran along the same direction. (4)
Tony emerged after ten minutes and they switched. The water was refreshing. Stephen ran his hands over his face and listened to Tony humming a song—Love Buzz, Nirvana, 1989—as the exhaustion from the past four days bled from his shoulders. It had been a long week. He was looking forward to a quiet weekend at home.
Their tuxedos, when donned, were almost identical except for Stephen’s grey double-breasted vest. Tony wore all black, the lines of his limbs sleek and well-defined.
“I can feel you checking me out, you know,” Tony smirked at him. “See something you like?”
Stephen only answered with a slow spreading smile as JARVIS interrupted to tell them that they were late. “Colonel Rhodes has expressed his displeasure and would like for the both of you to descend to the garage at once.”
Tony snorted, “That’s not what he said!”
“I paraphrased, sir,” said JARVIS. “There were more expletives involved.”
“Can’t be late to my own party,” Tony grumbled, heading for the elevator nonetheless. “Everyone else is just early.”
For the final affair, they took out the Lamborghini Sian, a gorgeous piece of work that Tony painted in shimmering gold-green. Stephen drove them up Park Avenue towards the Guggenheim Museum, a venue only a few people other than Tony Stark would be able to buy out for a night to host his own gala. It did make quite a statement, plus bringing the added benefit of pleasing Pepper, who apparently enjoyed modern art. It fit with the image Tony was cementing for himself too: a futurist.
“We’ve been laying it on thick for the press,” Tony appeared to be surfing the news next to him. “We’re gonna have to keep going tonight, you know. Is that okay?”
Stephen’s wordless response was to open his right hand between them as an invitation for Tony to hold. It was something they did when they slept, and Stephen knew it wasn’t just him who felt the calm it brought, the way it held back the nightmares. It felt right.
Tony hummed and twined their fingers, letting go only when they pulled up in front of the valet. Cameras went flashing when they stepped out of the car. Stephen could already see the headlines: Tony Stark and his colorful collection of exotic cars… probably something BuzzFeed would run.
The gala was like any other he’d attended in the past, except that he walked into this one side by side with Tony Stark. Stephen watched him for the duration of it and considered how the man became the sun personified, all radiant smiles and an irresistible, magnetic orbit. Tony swept through the atrium shaking hands and collecting names with unparalleled ease. This was his world.
“Something else, isn’t he?” Rhodes remarked some time later, when they both stood near the bar to fetch a second round of drinks. Rhodes was also watching Tony, who was across the room entertaining a conversation with a group of physicists from Switzerland and Austria. Stephen could hear that the conversation was in fact in German. Rhodes continued, “He’s always been a charmer, that’s like his default mode, but when he puts his mind to it—when he really wants people to pay attention—no one can escape his pull.”
Stephen took a sip of his whiskey and said, “I know. He caught me, remember?”
Rhodes turned to look at him with a little smile. “Yeah, he really did.” And then, with a chuckle that made Stephen pause, Rhodes added, “You’re both in deep. Can’t believe my own eyes, but I think you’ve actually got Tony caught. Hook, line, and sinker, man, he’s really into you.”
Unable to say a word in response, Stephen occupied himself with his drink and wandered up the museum’s spiral rotunda, stopping when he was a level above the atrium, able to look over everyone else’s heads.
Tony was into him? When did that happen? Granted, they were sharing personal space on a daily basis and made a show of being tactile in public. Stephen had been under the impression that it was for their arrangement, and yet—
Oh, come now, he chided himself, don’t be naïve, it’s unbecoming.
Was it so far-fetched for mutual attraction to develop? Because it was mutual, that much was clear. Stephen had watched himself spend the last five months systemically adapting his life to fit with Tony. That was something he didn’t do for someone he didn’t at least like.
Intergalactic threats and our mutual demise at Thanos’ hand aside, what we’ve done to entwine ourselves is above and beyond what’s strictly necessary, Stephen acknowledged. It makes our lives more convenient, yes. But does it stop there? Does it have to stop there?
He spotted Pepper a level above him, ginger hair gleaming under a spotlight. She was with Christine, the two of them now fast friends, something Stephen and Tony found amusing in turn. The two women apparently had a new tradition of a ladies’ day out every other weekend, patronizing spas after gossip over brunch. Tony was in such full support of it that he offered to bankroll everything they did, up to and including the use of the private jet if they wanted to spend a day or two at the beach.
“If there was something I couldn’t give Pepper in that future, it was this,” Tony had explained one quiet night at the workshop. “It’s lonely at the top, you know? Especially after I made her CEO. She had to be so careful with her friendships that it became difficult to make friends at all. Especially with all the Avengers stuff going on. The true kind, anyway. I was used to it—I was born into my position in life—but she wasn’t, and even though she didn’t show it, I know it was hard. I’m happy she found a friend here. A trustworthy one. Companionship is beautiful and rare; it deserves to be protected and celebrated.”
Stephen agreed. He thought the same of the companionship he had with Tony.
Is it then worth the risk, introducing a romantic element into that companionship? Nothing like a messy break-up to forever wreck a friendship.
But he had broken up with Christine several times now (once in undergrad, once in residency, and once two years ago right before he became an attending) and yet they managed to maintain a steady friendship. Maybe, maybe there was a possibility. Stephen nursed his whiskey and was thinking intently on this when a woman came up to lean against the banister near his elbow.
“Rare to see you so far from Stark,” said the nameless woman, who was blonde and tanned and stereotypically beautiful in the way Californian women were. “The last few months, the two of you have been attached at the hip. Am I seeing the beginnings of a breakup?”
Stephen straightened and turned to face her with keen intent. “Bit transparent, don’t you think? Low-hanging fruit.”
“Harvest is harvest,” she smiled, showing off her perfect teeth. “It’s been bountiful lately.”
“Then surely you don’t need me to provide you with more material, Miss…”
“Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair. I’ve become somewhat of an industry expert on Tony Stark.”
Stephen suppressed his amusement, bringing up what she was trying not to say. “Ah. Did Pepper take you out the morning after? She does that. She’s very good at clean-up.”
Her face froze.
“Damn,” Tony exclaimed, appearing suddenly at Stephen’s side. “Babe, I was gonna come and rescue you, but you didn’t need me at all.” He placed a hand on Stephen’s back and glanced at Christine Everhart. “Anyway, who is she?”
This time, Stephen didn’t try to suppress his chuckle. “Savage, darling. You know who she is.”
Tony looked her over with a critical eye, taking a sip of Stephen’s whiskey. After a moment, recognition lit his eyes. “Ah, yes! 2008, August twenty… something. Pepper would know better. Wasn’t there a party? Las Vegas, I think.”
Stephen leveled a highly embarrassed Christine Everhart with a cold smile. “Well, I hope the harvest is good tonight, Miss Everhart. If you’ll excuse us, I think we ought to thank the Sony representatives for participating. Enjoy the party.”
“Bye,” Tony toasted her with the whiskey, which he downed and then set on a passing server’s tray. Once they were far away enough to be out of her earshot, Tony broke into snickers.
“Don’t laugh, I might have just secured us bad press from Vanity Fair, of all places,” Stephen sighed.
“But you couldn’t help yourself, could you? Babe, don’t tell me you were jealous.”
“Of her?” Stephen scoffed, “Unlikely. What does she have that I should be jealous of?”
“Absolutely nothing,” Tony declared with a grin. “After all, you’ve got me!”
“How do you fit that big head of yours through your shirt?” That earned him delighted, open laughter, something only Stephen so far has been able to entice from the star of the gala. Heads turned to regard them, eyes watching as Stephen likewise put a hand on Tony’s back.
“I think we can both agree that I’m creative, I find ways. Oh, there’s the Sony people. Come on, let’s say hi, we did say we would say hi, and we’re men of our words.”
Back into the thick of it, then. Stephen allowed himself to be pulled into Tony’s orbit, like everyone else basking in his golden regard. Across the atrium, Rhodes met his eye and raised a toast, which Stephen returned. The man’s words echoed in Stephen’s ears. Tony was into Stephen, was he?
Well, what do we do about that?
It was near midnight when they finally left. Rhodes had disappeared earlier with a few Air Force friends and Happy took Christine and Pepper home, leaving only the two of them outside waiting for the valet to deliver the Lamborghini. Tony tilted his face up to seemingly savor the breeze on a clear summer night. Hands in pockets, Stephen stood nearby and watched him.
He was beautiful. Highly intelligent, kind, and strong of heart.
Atlas, with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Something shifted within Stephen, perhaps a resolution or a decision coming at last to a head. It wasn’t conscious, but it was true. He didn’t yet understand what it meant for them, but he could at least acknowledge it.
Perhaps the Stephen of old—the Stephen who was foremost a scientist and did not believe in magic, the Stephen who had worked so hard to free himself of attachments to the world—perhaps that Stephen would have tried to fight it. But this Stephen knew better than to contradict what felt like the pull of fate.
“Stephen? You alright?” Tony called, warm caramel eyes meeting his with some concern. “You look tired. I’ll drive. We’ll sleep in tomorrow and have a quiet weekend, how’s that sound?”
Stephen didn’t bother repressing the urge to touch this time, stepping in close, putting a hand on Tony’s back, and pressing his words into Tony’s ear. “Thank you.”
Tony looked up. “What for?”
“Companionship,” Stephen answered with a small smile. “It’s rare and ought to be celebrated.”
The gorgeous smile that lit up Tony’s face hit him with the full force of a midday sun. “Likewise, babycakes. I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”
Doubtless the photos would make the morning news.
Mysteries of attraction could not always be explained through logic. Sometimes the fractures in two separate souls become the very hinges that hold them together.
( Lisa Kleypas )
first draft: 2020.05.24
last edited: 2021.01.15
NOTES & REFERENCES
(1) The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA. These countries are all party to a treaty for joint cooperation in international security and intelligence. The alliance traces its roots back to the post-WW2 stage, during which the primary objective was to surveil the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. The Five Eyes is still operative today; allegedly, they monitor private communications worldwide.
(2) …the abyss also looks into you. (Friedrich Nietzsche)
(3) Although I have a basic functional understanding of the pseudoscience behind Tony's reactor, I'm not a physicist. So I consulted this article for much of how the arc reactor works.
(4) I know irl Benedict Cumberbatch is way taller than RDJ, but if you look at the movie, Dr. Strange & Tony Stark’s height difference is not too far. So I went with that instead! :D
(5) Addendum: I realized I forgot to add the pics of the cars. That's important. Here we go:
Ferrari Stradale (aka the Picking Up A Hoe car), previously featured in prior chapters
Aston Martin Valkyrie
Lamborghini Huracan, Stephen's car