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for a hundred visions and revisions

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August - September 2023

Karl Mordo came with the night, catching Stephen off his guard. The blast threw him clear across the courtyard, over the neighbor’s well-tended garden and through the brick wall that had separated the two properties for sixty odd years. Stephen felt a rib break but did not let himself register the pain, instead rolling to break his momentum and throwing two spells, one defensive and one offensive, at the direction of his attacker.

It took him a moment to recognize the other man, so changed and embittered despite the short years since they last saw each other. Stephen was exhausted, and seeing a ghost from a time before Thanos exhausted him even more. He fought the urge to sag into his knees. “Master Mordo.”

“Master Strange.” Mordo gripped the Staff of the Living Tribunal tighter and said, “Or shall I call you Sorcerer Supreme?”

“I am not worthy of that title,” Stephen raised a spectral blade with his left hand, calculating possible angles of attack even as he catalogued his own injuries. They had just returned from the riots in Cairo. He felt the weight of the last few weeks as he pulled more energy from stores he did not know existed.

“No,” Karl agreed, advancing as he whipped the Staff, “no, you’re not.”

Stephen surged backward when Karl lunged for him, shields sparking against the Staff’s onslaught, offensive spells on hold. Once close enough, he pulled the wards of the London Sanctum around him like a blanket, using its ancient energy to protect him as he gathered enough power for an offensive spell capable of destroying the Staff.

He didn’t want to, but he saw the flat shadows in Karl’s eyes. He knew those shadows. Karl was prepared to kill him. Karl would kill him.

I have a duty, he told himself, I cannot die. He threw his arm down and, with single-minded intent, cut the Staff in two. The backlash threw both men back. Stephen stumbled against the Sanctum’s shattered doors.

The wards should have alerted them already, Stephen thought. Where’s my backup? I need to stall.

Karl rose from the rubble with a snarl. Somewhere at the end of the street, a hapless civilian was calling for help. Stephen knew they wouldn’t come in time to intervene—the world was still in chaos, resources far too scarce and emergency services too overwhelmed to respond to every call—but nevertheless he acted accordingly, spinning his arms to shatter reality and envelop them in the Mirror Dimension. This was not going to be a quick fight. He needed to minimize the collateral damage.

“Even after all this time, you do not see,” Karl spat, deprived of his best weapon but not his determination. “The laws are in place for a reason, Stephen. We cannot simply break them whenever we want. There are consequences.

Stephen bared his teeth, hissing, “Don’t speak to me of consequences, Karl, I know better than anyone what kind of consequences come out of—”

“Do you?” Karl yelled as he threw spell after spell, blade after blast. “Do you?!

Stephen dodged and dodged and knew he couldn’t keep dodging forever, but the thought of killing Karl Mordo was—no, he thought, whipping out golden ropes of power in hopes to restrain this man who was once his mentor and friend.

“You and your Avengers, you don’t know what you’ve done. How many times must you break reality before you understand the damage you wreak?”

Karl Mordo had always been better at hand-to-hand combat, but Stephen grit his teeth against the pain and met his opponent fist for fist. Blast after blast bounced against shields, his ropes futilely reaching for Karl who knew just how to avoid them.

“This painful new world you’ve made for the rest of us to suffer, it’s broken, and it’s your fault. It’s your responsibility, Sorcerer Supreme.”

Something in Stephen snapped—something that had been holding him in check since he was brought back from the burgundy fog of the Soul Stone dimension—and with a roar of anger, he exploded in a surge of pure energy. Karl was thrown back again—Stephen sent another blast—and back again—another blast—Stephen pinned him down and kept him down and pierced two limbs to the ground with shimmering blades—

“K-Kill me if you dare,” Karl Mordo snarled at him, teeth stained red and eyes shining with spite. “Kill me, but it ch-changes nothing. You saved nothing. B-Because of the stone, th-the world was already b-broken and you—”

“I saved trillions,” Stephen snarled back, blind with a nameless black emotion that choked his throat. “I saved the universe.”

“You c-can’t erase past mistakes,” Karl told him with a wet, gurgling laugh. “You c-can only make new ones. I th-thought you of all people would know.”

Before Stephen could stop him, Karl wrenched an arm free and stabbed his own neck, yanking sideways for a quick end. Stephen stood there staring at him, at the life blood leaving his arteries, at his broken body, broken by Stephen’s own hands, Stephen’s unchecked strength. Recklessness. Failure.

When Wong finally came to fetch him, all the anger had fled, leaving only empty truth in its wake.




“As long as there are those who can remember what was, there will always be those who can never accept what can be. They will resist.”
( Thanos, Avengers: Endgame )




“He was going to surface one way or another,” Wong told him later as they sat pondering over a pot of tea. “It was only a matter of time.”

Time, a concept. Stephen didn’t even know what to do with it anymore. It was the exhaustion talking, he knew, but every time he tried to close his eyes to sleep, he saw Karl. Dead, broken, murdered. His first mentor, one of his few friends. Wong seemed to be taking it with better stride despite having known Karl Mordo for longer, but then again, Wong was not a doctor.

“I swore an oath, you know,” Stephen quietly told Wong. “How many times I’ve broken it by now, I can’t even count.”

“You’re not a practicing doctor anymore,” Wong gently reminded him. “Drink your tea.”

Stephen brought the steaming cup of pu-erh to his mouth and sipped. The earthy sweetness grounded him. He continued, “Practicing or not, an oath is an oath. I was such an asshole to everybody when I was a surgeon that I’m sure they probably all thought I didn’t take it seriously, but I did.” He looked down at his trembling, scar-riddled fingers. “I do.”

“I know,” Wong sighed. “Whatever words Master Mordo spoke to you in misguided anger, do not let them mislead you. You have done your duty and you continue to uphold it every day by protecting reality. You helped save the universe, Stephen, at risk to your own life. You can’t claim many virtues, but integrity is one of them.”

Stephen snorted. “I don’t think I have to thank you if you’re insulting me and complimenting me in the same breath.”

“Nothing less than you deserve. Now are you going to bed or not? You should, but if you’re not, you can at least help reposition the wards you broke.”

I didn’t break them, the Staff of the Living Tribunal did.” Stephen stood, bringing his tea with them as they descended down creaking steps to the London Sanctum’s basement.

“Well, you broke the Staff, so you need to take responsibility. Master Aurora, welcome and thank you for your expertise,” Wong greeted one of the visiting masters from a smaller enclave in Iceland subordinate to the London Sanctum’s master. White-blonde hair, glacier-blue eyes, small frame but a thrumming, powerful aura. A candidate for mastery over London, Stephen recalled with some surprise at her youth.

“I am pleased to serve,” she trilled, for the lack of a better word, and bowed in respect to her seniors. “The keystones are intact, so it will not take much time.”

Sending their now-empty teacups away, Stephen reoriented his mind towards the task of ward-setting and forgot about Karl Mordo for a little while longer. Wong was right, of course. He would continue to uphold his duty, no matter what a dead friend had to say about the matter.

When he closed his eyes to reach out to the keystones holding the hum of ancient energy, Stephen heard the Ancient One’s voice again, an echo of a memory:

Death is what gives life meaning.

Well, what meaning was he supposed to draw from this one?




Three weeks prior, a master sorcerer wielding the same brand of magic as Stephen’s order had attacked Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes. They had been in Detroit, helping settle an unprecedented level of armed public unrest after rival gangs decimated by the Snap were all brought back into a city that had moved on. New versus old, squabbles over resources made scarce by the global economic collapse, gun violence spilling from block to block in territorial urban warfare—Rhodes eventually sent in Avengers help when it became too much for the easily overwhelmed local law enforcement.

It caught them by surprise, Sam had reported. The man had a magic staff, Bucky said. Wanda happened to be with them, a girl adrift after the final battle, clinging to the closest comrades who would tolerate her. Wanda was the only reason they walked away with only minor injuries.

“I’ve taken care of the matter,” Stephen reported to Rhodes a day after Mordo’s death, speaking through a portal he didn’t want to go through. He didn’t need to step foot in the new Avengers Compound, still being rebuilt. That would set a nasty precedent. “He won’t be a problem anymore.”

“So it was one of yours after all?” Rhodes shook his head at Stephen’s stony expression. “Hey, I’m not shifting blame or anything, I get it. Sometimes people go rogue. As long as the threat is accounted for and taken care of.”

“It’s done,” Stephen restated with emphasis. “Personally. With my own hands.”

Rhodes met him eye to eye, an understanding passing between them. The man then nodded at him and smiled. “Great to hear, Doctor Strange. Keep in touch.” Stephen nodded, lifting a hand to close the portal. Before he could do so, however, Rhodes asked, “Hey, by the way, did he say why he attacked Sam and Buck?”

“I believe he intended to attack and eliminate every one of us party to the use of the Stones to manipulate reality.”

Rhodes snorted, “You tell him Thanos started it first?”

Stephen then had to admit, “Technically, our Order’s leader used the Time Stone before Thanos was even in the picture. I did too, when I took the stone over from her.”

“Yeah, well,” Rhodes sighed, reclining against his office chair, “sometimes we gotta break the rules for the greater good.” And then, in a quieter voice, he adds, “Tony taught me that.”

Stephen nodded his agreement. “We must keep our eyes on the endgame.”

Rhodes looked up at him and asked as the portal was closing, “Oh yeah? What’s the endgame look like? Don’t tell me this is it.”

Stephen then smiled, but it was a sad one. The portal closed before he could give a response.




Pepper Stark insisted on funding the Order, so Wong took the much-needed money and put it to good use. The Sanctums were now fully repaired, Kamar-Taj had resumed normal operations, and Wong, as Kamar-Taj’s keeper, initiated the next batch of novices. Stephen returned to his post as the Master of the New York Sanctum, for the moment choosing to ignore the looming selection of the new Sorcerer Supreme. The selection was mere ceremony, of course, one they hadn’t been able to do prior to Thanos’ arrival; Stephen already knew the votes would be for him.

I don’t want to leave New York, he realized while ambling along an abandoned path in Central Park. Dawn threatened on the near horizon, staining the skies above him pink and purple and blue. Trash littered the park, soda cans and bits of paper and plastic bags strewn around everywhere the eye could see. He recalled a time when this city looked much nicer and looked forward to a time when it did again: with a wave of his hand, he gathered all the trash into neat piles next to an overflowing bin.

He stuck his hands back into his jean pockets, clenching them against the cold. Autumn took over the east coast early this year. He left the park and headed for a deli he used to frequent when he still worked ungodly hours at Metro as a resident; hopefully the owner was still alive and making those amazing Cuban sandwiches.

The deli was just about opening when he got there, the aroma of fresh-baked bread beckoning him inside. The owner greets him with surprise. “Buenas dias, doctor! Long time no see!”

Stephen blinked back, equally surprised. “Yeah. Uh, a Cuban, please?”

“Sure, sure, I make special for you, doctor!” the man happily responded with a thick Puerto Rican accent that brought Stephen back to simpler days before he was a sorcerer. And as if one reminder wasn’t enough, the universe gave him a second one.

“Stephen? My god, Stephen, is that really you?” a familiar voice said from behind him.

Stephen turned to find himself facing— “Oh. Christine.”

Oh, Christine?” she scoffed, fighting a smile. “After all these years and the shit you put me through, that’s all you have to say?”

Stephen blinked in surprise, “I, uh. Sorry?”

“That’s more like it, but careful, don’t hurt yourself,” she teased, smile pulling wider at her lips. She looked older, the lines around her eyes more pronounced. Her hair was pulled up, her face devoid of make-up, her scrubs telltale of a long shift just about over. She tucked her hands in her scrub jacket’s pockets, a nonchalant motion that again tugged Stephen back into the past. She used to do that too when she wore his scrub jackets, stole them really, complaining that he kept his recovery bays too cold. “Got a moment for breakfast, or do you have something… more important to run to this morning?”

Shrugging, Stephen motioned to one of the tables by the window. “Just like old times.”

This time she smiled completely. “Just like old times. Let me guess, you got the Cuban? I was gonna change it up today, but fine, I’ll order the same thing—buenos dias, señor, un pastrami por favor?”

Stephen slid into the booth with his own food. Didn’t they use to sit here too? This exact same spot, with this exact same view, looking over the halfway empty streets of a slumbering city, their city, the one they tried to save one patient at a time.

Christine sat down and pushed her jacket sleeves up, procuring a bottle of hand sanitizer which she shared with him. “So, what have you been up to?”

“Oh, you know,” Stephen shrugged, “safeguarding reality, fixing a broken universe, that sort of thing.”

She grinned. “That sort of thing, huh.”

“It’s that sort of gig,” Stephen nodded, pausing when the owner came to give Christine her sandwich and drink. They probably looked strange to the old man now, Christine still in her scrubs but Stephen looking nothing like a doctor anymore. He wore black jeans, a t-shirt, and one of his old battered leather jackets; he probably looked more like a homeless person than a doctor at this point. “How’s Metro?”

“Same old, same old,” she shrugged, taking a distinctly unladylike bite of her sandwich, the characteristic hunger of an overworked medical professional. “I swear I’ll grow old in that place.”

“Tell me they’ve at least made you a Professor,” Stephen frowned, noting that her jacket still had her old credentials embroidered in white.

“Ah, yeah, two years ago. They kind of had no choice since McDonagh went and—he—” Christine suddenly looked down, “he couldn’t do it anymore. His whole family disappeared in the snap, and. They found him—at his house. He didn’t answer calls or pages. So.”

“Ah.” Stephen vaguely remembered the guy, unremarkable and normal, genial and nice, kids and wife.

“It’s—not uncommon,” Christine took another bite of her sandwich. “After—everything.”

“Right, of course,” Stephen nodded, looking through the window at the world passing them by outside. Despite his waning appetite, Stephen forced himself to eat. He no longer had the money to be wasting food, after all.

“Stephen,” Christine quietly called his attention; something in her tone made him turn. “I know there are things you can’t really tell me, but… was there no other way?”

Stephen inhaled, exhaled, and calmly answered, “No. This was the only way.”

She held his gaze for a moment longer than necessary, and then turned to look out the window too. “I see. That’s unfortunate.”

The two of them exchanged no words for a while, only enjoying their food in silence. Christine split her water bottle between the two of them since Stephen forgot to order a drink. He wordlessly took the pickles she extracted from her pastrami sandwich.

“Do you remember,” she smiled again, “all those years ago, ER rotation, I dared you to finish an emergency C-section, the next one that rolled in through the doors?”

“You didn’t think I could handle it,” Stephen snorted. “I made you eat a whole pickle.”

“I hated you for a week,” Christine laughed. “You were such an asshole to me and to that poor mother too! Abysmal bedside manner! You told her your skills were wasted on her baby—you’re lucky she didn’t remember it afterwards, you jerk!”

Stephen smiled because she laughed, and then his smile softened into a sad one again, the only kind of smile he seemed to be able to manage these days. “I’d go back and be nicer, apologize if I could, but.”

Would you?” Christine asked, leaning forward on her elbows, eyes sparkling with interest. “And would you mean it?”

“I was an asshole,” Stephen admitted with a shrug. “Still am, most days.”

“But now at least you acknowledge it! And I call that progress. Whatever kind of training they gave you at that… that place, I mean, it worked.”

“I still have a lot to learn,” Stephen confessed. “I learn more every day.”

“But you’re still an asshole,” Christine giggled, mirth shaving years off her countenance. “I don’t think that’ll change.” With the sun rising to slant golden rays across her face, Stephen could almost pretend they were fifteen years younger, fresh out of Columbia, hungry for a challenge and itching to spread their wings.

But they didn’t have to be young again. The possibility was here before them, another chance, a proper attempt at a relationship this time.

His hands clenched under the table. He had to remind himself that he couldn’t fix past mistakes; he could only make new ones. He’d already put her through so much grief for so many years.

“No, you’re right,” Stephen looked down and then away, “assholes will always be assholes, isn’t that what they say? I’m the most self-centered, narcissistic person you’ll ever know.”

Moment broken, Christine reclined against the seat with a short laugh. “I don’t think anyone can compete with you there.”

He spent another hour with her and savored every moment of it, until she was yawning between every other word and had to be put to bed, else she would fall asleep on a park bench on the way home. Stephen walked her to her brownstone and resolved to remain her friend, at least. But for a few moments, when he steadied her by the elbow, he allowed himself to briefly pretend.




The clamoring wards ripped him right out of a shadowed dream. He bolted upright, pulling the Cloak over his shirt and rushing to the door with his shields out. Peter Parker stumbled off the Sanctum’s front step and on his ass.

“Whoawhoapleasedon’tblastmeit’sjustPeter! Peter Parker!” the kid babbled; Stephen dropped his shields and sighed. “Hi Doctor Strange! Sorry, there was no doorbell!”

“That doesn’t mean you try to break in. Ever heard of knocking?”

“I wasn’t tryna break in I just tried the doorknob also knocking is so 1990s you need to get a StarkNest!” Peter bounced back to his feet, vibrating with enough energy to power Manhattan. “You know what that is, right? Like, a home security system. Wait. How old are you exactly, Doctor Strange, er, sir? Not to be rude, just, just for reference!”

“What did you have, three gallons of caffeine or crystal meth?” Stephen shot back, exasperated.

“Um, ice cream? They had pints of Stark Raving Hazelnuts on sale so I bought a bunch from the store yesterday!”

Heaving a large sigh, Stephen stepped back into the foyer and allowed the boy inside, unwilling to hold a conversation on the sidewalk at such an inopportune hour of the morning. While the wards assured they remained unnoticed, he only had sleeping clothes on and it was cold outside.

Whoaaaa. Your hideout might be the best one yet, Doctor Strange, this is so cool, what are those?

“Welcome to the New York Sanctum, what business brings you to the Order’s abode? And make it quick, I haven’t had coffee yet.”

“Oh! Um,” Peter cleared his throat, straightening and clutching his backpack straps in a way that made him look like an elementary-age kid instead of an almost-adult Avenger. “I would like to formally invite you to Morgan’s Fifth Birthday Party—”

“No, thanks.”

“—which is also the unofficial Avengers reunion marking a year—well, almost—since the final battle,” Peter continued, undeterred. “Mr. Rhodey—er, War Machine—would like to check in with everyone to make sure that we’re all on the same page and, um. Thor and the Guardians are stopping by since they’re in the quadrant. Oh, Captain Marvel will also be there! You gotta come, Doctor Strange!”

“No.” “Yes.”

Stephen turned around to find Wong descending the stairs with books in hand. “No.”

“Yes,” Wong insisted. “You’ve been cooped up in here like a hermit. Get out there. Socialize.”

“I don’t need to socialize—”

“Do I care?” Wong cut into him. “As the newly elected Sorcerer Supreme, you need to ensure strong ties and good relations between our Order and the rest of the world. Now that we’re public knowledge, we need to manage that knowledge. Being seen with the Avengers—the saviors of the universe—it’s good optics, Stephen. Go.”

“Good optics?” Stephen spat, even though Wong was right.

“It won’t be that bad,” Peter said, and when he turned around, Stephen immediately knew it was a mistake to let the kid in. That face. Damn it. “Morgan’s really curious about magic, maybe you can show her a few things, who knows, she might grow up and be an engineer-wizard! Witch? Oh, and there’ll be great food and booze too, they told me to tell you that. Well, not just you, but like, tell the adults that. Because adults like alcohol. Yeah.”

Stephen ran through several different ways he could shut this conversation down and realized none of them will work. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Fine. When.”

“Yus!” Peter fist-pumped at exactly nobody, before once again collecting himself and reciting, “September fifth, 2pm, at the Avengers Compound! No dress code, and Pepper wants to remind everyone that Morgan doesn’t like square-shaped things right now—hopefully it’s a phase—so please don’t put your gifts in boxes!”

“Gifts,” Stephen groaned, turning to Wong. “What do I give a five-year-old?”

Wong shrugged, amused. “A toy?”

“Morgan loves puzzles!” Peter suggested. “And dogs and wolves and cake! But don’t get her more cake. There’ll already be a huge cake.”

“Right, fine, I’ll think of something,” Stephen sighed. “Anything else?”

Peter looked up at him and fidgeted for a moment… and another moment… and—

What.”

“Can I look around your hideout please?”

The ‘NO’ died on Stephen’s tongue when he saw the boy’s face again. Damn it.

“Do not touch anything without permission, or I will not be responsible for putting you back together when an artefact dismembers you.”

“Yessir!” Peter saluted, marching up the stairs after him. Stephen kept an eye on him for the morning, ensuring that he didn’t fall headfirst into the Cauldron of the Cosmos or trip over the Lance of Yaggai and skewer himself by accident.

The entire time Peter was exploring the Sanctum, Stephen told himself that one day, someday, he would look at Peter Parker and not immediately think of that disaster on Titan, or the boy’s sobs when he sat defeated next to Tony Stark’s corpse on that final battlefield.




The Avengers Compound was almost completely rebuilt, barring a few landscaping issues. Stephen noted the young poplar trees planted along the driveway as he portaled in near the gates; it gave him time to walk to the venue and collect himself along the way. He was no stranger to parties, but the kind he used to attend were adult parties and his behavior as a neurosurgeon never earned him any invitations to his colleagues’ children’s parties. Whatever, they’ll have to take what they get, they invited me.

It was likely the Avengers pitied his apparent awkwardness, mistaking it as social ineptitude. In truth, he owed his awkwardness to the fact that it was he who condemned Tony Stark to that end. Effectively, Stephen sent the man to his death, unknowingly and without warning. The rest of the Avengers didn’t know that, of course, given that none of them were on Titan except for the boy.

Peter.

He didn’t know how much Peter understood of what happened on Titan. Peter did not show even an ounce of animosity or anger towards Stephen despite the boy’s apparent love for Stark as a father figure, so perhaps Peter didn’t understand… ah, but it won’t do to underestimate that one, Stephen thought. If anything, he could tell genius when he saw it.

Perhaps Peter was simply choosing not to dwell on it. By doing so, Peter was already better than Stark and Stephen combined. Stark was no longer here to tell him that, so maybe Stephen should—no, no no no, we’re not going there, bad thoughts. Best not to get attached. You’re in no position to make commitments, Stephen Strange. You’re the Sorcerer Supreme. The only commitment you can make is to this reality and its safekeeping.

He used to not be this maudlin. He used to be fine on his own. He didn’t know where it started, but somehow, at some point during the past few years, he began to care. Now he cared too much.

“Doctor Strange, you came!”

Peter Parker zoomed towards him, for the lack of a better descriptor, and dragged him to a gathering of people clustered around tables set out in the open green space. There were pastel colors and balloons, unicorns and cartoon dogs. An actual dog too, winding around people’s legs with unbridled enthusiasm. A puppy.

“Hey, doc, how you doin’?” Rhodes greeted him, followed quickly by Sam. Whatever response Stephen had to offer was drowned out by the rumble of the Milano landing in the near distance. A subsonic boom from somewhere above warned of something entering the atmosphere at speed—likely Carol Danvers, briefly home for this timely reunion.

Soon enough the crowd became much too loud and cheerful, a confusion of back-slapping and handshaking and insult-slinging. Stephen began to wonder if this was an adult party after all.

After ten more minutes of raucous greetings, Pepper used a whistle to calm everyone down. “Everyone,” she laughs, “everyone, really, thank you for coming to see Morgan!”

Reminded of the five-year-old birthday girl who was and has been gleefully riding Peter’s shoulders for the past twenty minutes, everyone promptly shouted exuberant well-wishes and delivered their gifts: the puppy from Rhodes, an A.I.-equipped robot companion from Peter, a stuffed winged horse from Thor, and a pair of realistic angel wings from Banner. Sam Wilson gave her a charm bracelet, Bucky Barnes a matching necklace, Wanda a dress, and Harley Keener a potato gun. Clint Barton brought his brood along and gifted Morgan a predictable miniaturized bow-and-quiver. Peter Quill’s gift of a music box was well-received, with compliments and decoration from the rest of the Guardians. Carol Danvers brought her home reinforced boxing gloves that resized to her tiny fists, enchanted by some strange magic from somewhere in far space.

“A girl needs to know how to throw a proper punch,” Danvers teased the little girl with a smile. “When you’re old enough, it’ll help you keep the boys in line.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Stark had FRIDAY programmed to sabotage every single wanna-be boyfriend Morgan gets when she’s older,” Peter quipped, to everyone’s agreement.

“Tony does tend to shoot first and ask questions later,” said Rhodes.

“I want Peter to be my boyfriend!” Morgan declared, making Peter’s Aunt May and Pepper both laugh.

Peter predictably blushed but didn’t dare contradict her. Not today. “Doctor Strange, your turn!” the boy deftly deflected, turning to Stephen, who had remained at the edges of the crowd for good reason.

Stephen sighed, put down his drink, and approached with his gift. He took Morgan’s tiny hand and tied a red braided cord around her wrist. “A bracelet? What’s it do?”

“It calls me to you,” Stephen told her. “When you’re scared, or lonely, or hurting, you can touch this and call my name. Wherever you are, I’ll find you. Whatever happens, I’ll come.”

Everyone settled with a hush. Pepper crouched behind Morgan and murmured against her temple, “What do we say, love?”

Morgan bit her lip and looked up at Stephen. “Thank you.”

Stephen solemnly nodded. “You’re welcome.”

Pepper mouthed ‘thank you’ to him as well, which distracted Stephen such that it was Peter who first got to wipe Morgan’s tears.

“Oh no, Morgan, hey,” Peter swooped in and scooped the girl up, who then began to sob in earnest. “Hey, baby, what’s wrong?”

Concerned, Pepper also rose, crowding closer to Morgan same as everyone else. It took the child a while to quit sobbing long enough to use her words. Stephen cursed himself and wondered if he had scared the child. I was never good with children; there’s a reason I’m not a pediatric neurosurgeon.

“I—I w-want my D-Daddy. T-That’s what he said too. He s-said he would always be wi’ me. I want—I don’ want any gifts, I jus’ want my Daddy!”

She burst into fresh tears and so did Peter, Pepper, and Aunt May. Rhodes looked away, breathing stuttering as Bruce’s uninjured hand landed on his shoulder. It took all of Stephen’s control not to flee for the safety and darkness of the Sanctum.

He conjured handkerchiefs for Pepper and May. “I’m sorry,” he told Stark’s wife, uncertain if it was even right for him to speak to her when he—

Pepper shook her head. “No, no, it’s just, she’s been—she’s finally starting to understand that it’s—permanent. It’s not—not your fault. And thank you for your gift, really, it puts my mind at ease. Thank you.”

Stephen wanted to tell her to stop. She had nothing to thank him for. Nothing to thank and everything to blame.

To everyone’s surprise, it was Thor who managed to stop the tears. Thor looked better, having lost most of the weight he put on over the last five years, although the marks of intense grief were still palpable upon his face. Thor crouched in front of Morgan, who clung to Peter’s shoulders, and said, “Hey, now. Hush, little princess. I know for a fact your Daddy wouldn’t want you to be crying because of him on your name day!”

Peter gently handed Morgan over for Thor to carry with a single arm. “Thor’s right, Morgan. You shouldn’t cry on your birthday.”

Morgan tucked her little chin into her chest and frowned so fiercely that for a moment Stephen can see Tony Stark’s fierce determination superimposed upon her delicate face. Thor jostled her good-naturedly and said, “I bet you miss him every day.”

“Lots and lots,” Morgan sniffled. “More than three thousand.”

“I miss my father too,” Thor told her, “and what’s worse, unlike you, I was a very naughty boy when my father was still alive. But I know he always watches over me even today, so I try to be braver than I am and stronger than I feel.”

Morgan laid her cheek on Thor’s shoulder. “D’you think Daddy watches me too?”

“I know it,” Thor assured her with all the confidence of an Asgardian immortal. What betrayed him was his quivering smile. “Friend Tony was a stalwart warrior. He fought with great honor and would never renege on a promise he made to his own daughter. You might not be able to see him, but like he said, he’ll always be with you.”

He will always be with all of us, Stephen agreed, his sacrifice the glue that holds this broken world together. He stewed on that for the rest of the party, sitting next to a quiet Bucky and a brooding teenage Groot until things wound down enough that he could slip away.

Who are you fooling, Stephen Strange? he berated himself. You didn’t save anything. Tony Stark is the one who saved everything.

Not for the first time, Stephen wished he could speak to the Ancient One once again and ask her how she managed to live like this. The guilt was going to eat him alive.




“Here we are, trapped in the amber of a moment. There is no why.”
( Kurt Vonnegut )




It was a bad situation. Stephen was beginning to realize just how bad. He attempted to distract himself for the next few weeks, going to extreme lengths to occupy every single waking minute with something that didn’t involve Tony Stark, or Peter Parker, or Morgan Stark.

Unfortunately for him, the universe had other plans.

While reviewing the literature for Christine who asked him for a professional favor, Stephen stumbled upon an article Stark wrote on quantum mechanics, published posthumously on Nature. On his way to meet Christine for breakfast the following week, he tripped on a book that fell out of one of the Strand bookstore’s sidewalk shelves, a book that bore Tony Stark’s smiling face on the cover. When he decided to stay in to avoid any further such encounters, he found Stark’s lost shades while cleaning the Sanctum’s foyer.

“Seriously?” Stephen sighed, holding the shades in his hand and clearly recalling how Stark had removed it just before the battle against Thanos’ children began. “How did this even get in here?”

“What was that, Master Strange?” Acolyte Haruki called from where he was dusting the paintings overhead.

“Nothing,” Stephen said. “The universe is just conspiring against me, that’s all. No big deal. Perfectly normal. Business as usual.”

Stephen folded the shades and pocketed it, resolving to deliver it to Peter later. Peter would be preferable over Pepper at this time. Or maybe even Rhodes. Rhodes would be easier to deal with.

The entire day, he tried not to listen to his own thoughts when it whispered, I could give it back to the man himself. To Stark himself. I could.

It was a bad situation. Stephen ignored how bad and went to sleep.




Thinking about it, Stephen realized something crucial.

Thinking about it, he looked at the future from when they were on Titan—and he looked only at the future. They were all so focused on winning what battle was about to come to them that he didn’t think to look at the past. The past was, after all, lost territory.

But technically—technically speaking—if he went back a little bit before Titan—even just a little—the possibilities would change, wouldn’t they, because he was looking forward from a standpoint a little further back than before. Just the same as he would better appreciate the entirety of a painting from five meters instead of five inches away, he would see more options if he stepped back into the past and then looked forward.

“Dangerous thoughts, Strange,” Stephen muttered to himself, pacing in the confines of his private room in the Sanctum.

Were they, though?

Traveling back to the past was only taboo if he used the Time Stone, and only because the worldline would eventually correct itself—and there’s the risk of it overcorrecting too, or worse, I create a branch reality that’s all fucked because of the stone’s instability.

Inherently, the Infinity Stones were meant to work together to create all of reality; they were never meant to be used apart. This was the reason Thanos needed all six in order to exact his plan. If Stephen wanted to change the universe but keep the worldline intact, he needed all six stones to affect reality, time and space, with enough power behind it, and including all the souls and minds contained within the universe. The effort would of course kill him.

But what if I ultimately travel back without using the stone?

Stephen gnawed on the inside of his cheek and summoned several books to his fingertips. There were other spells—spells using a different, more volatile kind of magic—that made it possible to travel backwards in time. Not entirely, not as a whole physical entity, but—

But what if it doesn’t involve physical bodies?

Against his better judgment, he spent the next day and a half reading all that the Sanctum could offer on the topic, and then when he ran out of books, he went to sleep and sent his astral form to Kamar-Taj to read further. Wong saw him flit through the shelves of ancient scrolls and said nothing, well-used to his astral wanderings. Stephen was Sorcerer Supreme now, which meant he had unlimited access to all the knowledge that the Order could offer.

He came across the answer in a very old stone tablet—a stone tablet, of all things!—sitting underneath lambskin sheaves etched with runes and pentagrams. The tablet was written in Old Norse. What it told him shook his soul with fear.

In order to do this, Stephen then understood, I’m going to have to rip my soul from my body. I’m going to have to die.

Stephen put the stone tablet back where he found it and woke up in New York.




And again, Stephen chose to forget about it. He put the dangerous thoughts aside and went to work, spending a week fixing angular anomalies with the ley lines in Greenwich, and then another week placating an outraged shishigami in Hakodate, and then two whole weeks attempting to untangle a multi-generational blood curse on a bagua mirror in Chengdu. The family that triggered it had only just moved into the old house and already suffered two deaths, a grandmother and a young child. Stephen was cautioning them that moving again would do nothing to deter such curses when Wong appeared at his elbow and told him he was needed at the New York Sanctum.

“What’s happened now?” Stephen sighed, “I swear to god, that city attracts more trouble than honey attracts bees.”

“The city’s fine,” Wong then said, steering him through the portal with a hand. “It’s Peter.”

Stephen’s blood ran cold as he raced up the stairs, turning the corner to find Peter Parker pacing the east sitting room in his Spiderman suit and looking gray.

“Peter, what’s wrong?”

“Doctor Strange!” Peter yelled, frantic. “Doctor Strange, what do I do? What do I—what can I do—what do I do now—they know—they all know and I—”

“Peter—Peter, breathe,” Stephen caught the boy by the shoulders, coaching him through the worst of the panic with a few well-placed words. “Keep breathing. Whatever it is, we’ll take care of it. Just keep breathing.”

Meanwhile, Stephen catalogued Peter’s appearance, noting that the suit did not seem worn from battle and that all of the boy’s limbs were at least intact. Peter looked distressed, though, and the distress did not dissipate even after his breathing calmed down.

“Alright, now, tell me slowly what happened from the very beginning.”

Peter’s lip quivered. “Doctor Strange, they know. They all know.”

“Know what?”

“That I’m Spider-Man,” Peter whispered, as if afraid to speak it louder in fear that someone else would hear. “The world knows I’m Spider-Man, Doctor Strange. And it’s all my fault. I fucked up, I fucked up bad.

Stephen’s brain stuttered to a momentary halt, and then booted back up with sixteen different questions at hand. He prioritized the most important concern and asked, “Have you talked to your aunt?”

Peter sniffed. “I did, I called her a while ago, she’s still at work though, she has to work… she said she’d be home tonight as soon as she could be.”

“She needs to be secured,” Stephen frowned, “she could become a target.” Peter let out a distressed whimper at the thought of having to disrupt his aunt’s life. Stephen nonetheless continued, “Have you contacted anyone else? Rhodes, or Fury, or Mrs. Stark?”

“No, and no, and of course not, Doctor Strange, I can’t involve Morgan in this!” Peter hotly denied. “If I’m gonna be a target—”

“Peter, Morgan’s already a target. She’s Tony Stark’s daughter.” Peter winced at that, which made Stephen realize he was handling this all wrong. Sighing, he straightened and put both of his hands on Peter’s shoulders, steering him towards a chair. “Sit. We’ll figure this out. For now, you’ll stay here. Let me get your Aunt May now. We need her secured. I’ll talk to Rhodes. You drink some tea.”

A sliver of humor eked out from the boy even as he trudged to one of the leather armchairs. “You want me to meditate too?”

“If it helps,” Stephen shrugged, walking out to the hallway where he could catch his breath and strategize.

Why did Peter come to him? Was there really no one else? Stephen supposed it made sense in light of how Peter wanted to avoid endangering the Starks, but surely Rhodes, as the Avengers’ official Earthbound leader at this time, would make more sense?

Focus, Stephen. Priorities first.

He opened a portal that startled May, who jumped a foot into the air and clutched her neck. “Oh my god! What the fuck!”

“Hi, Miss May, I’m Doctor Strange, an ally of the Avengers. Peter is with me, and it would be best if you left work now and came through as well. This is for your own safety, until we have a better handle on the situation.”

Stephen was quite good at convincing panicking people to calm down and listen—he spent years mastering the authoritarian stance of a premier neurosurgeon after all—so May gathered her things, bid her colleagues a good day, and came through the portal in short order.

“Where is he, is he okay?” May asked, handling the portal with a surprising level of equanimity; she barely flinched at the heat of its energy.

“Through here, and he needs a little… handling,” Stephen gestured to the door. “I’m not great with kids or teenagers. I’ll let you do that while I talk to the Avengers.”

“Right,” May cleared her throat and visibly centered herself, before walking into the sitting room and welcoming a hug from her nephew. “Oh, Peter, I’m so sorry.”

Stephen closed the door behind her and walked further down the hall into the west sitting room, which in fact had less chairs for sitting and more artefacts for dismembering. He spun a portal into Rhodes’ office, catching the man right as he was about to walk out the door.

“Oh, hey, doc, what’s up?”

“Peter Parker is in the Sanctum right now with his aunt. Something about the world knowing that he’s Spiderman. I was in Chengdu dealing with a supernatural threat—minor, don’t worry, just tricky—so I don’t have any context, but he might need an assist with this situation, whatever kind of situation it is.”

Rhodes’ shoulders sagged, in relief or dismay Stephen couldn’t say. “Well, at least we know he’s safe. I was just talking to Fury, I saw the news. It’s related to the London thing, some angry upstarts wanting Tony’s tech as usual. They tried to use Peter to steal it just last week, it was pretty bad.”

“I can’t imagine Stark would allow something like that to happen so easily. He would have installed safeguards.”

“Yeah, and if it weren’t for those safeguards, Peter would be toast,” Rhodes agreed. “Can you keep his head low for now? We’ll try to deal with it from here. I need him accounted for so that I can work with some peace of mind. Tony loved that kid. I can’t let him down.”

“…very well, he will remain in the Sanctum,” Stephen tried not to grimace at the thought of a teenager being his responsibility, however temporary. “How long will you need?”

“As long as you can give me. I’d hold off on going to school for now, if I were him,” Rhodes apologetically sighed, “and limit social media as much as possible.”

“Got it.” Stephen made to close the portal before Rhodes could ask anymore of him.

“And hey, doc? Might wanna warn him that this is probably permanent,” Rhodes grimaced. “I don’t think there’s a way to take that video down or refute the statement. There’s no way to backtrack from here.”

Stephen pinched the bridge of his nose with another sigh. “Right. I’ll talk to him.”

“Thanks, doc. He trusts you. Since Tony’s gone, you’re the closest he has to a role model, so I appreciate it. Kid’s got potential, you know, he’s just so…”

“Young,” Stephen finished for him. “I know. I’ll keep in touch.”

“Likewise.”

He allowed the portal to fall shut, standing there in silence for another while as he tried to parse what to do next. He was not looking forward to that conversation with Peter. He was further dreading having a teenager for an indefinite period of time. Children were never an option for him, really; this was not his territory. What was Wong thinking, pulling him back here to deal with this?

Summoning a cup of tea to his hand, he took a moment to breathe and reorient himself. This too shall pass, he thought, and turned away from how his brain wanted to correct Rhodes’ statement, because he knew that yes, there was a way to backtrack from here.

It just required a significant sacrifice.




May and Peter took two adjacent rooms on the fourth floor. Stephen gave them a short tour, the wi-fi password, and a stern warning not to touch anything that was behind glass or suspicious-looking. “This Sanctum is full of magical artefacts that could certainly kill you before I can get to you. Try not to die.”

“Well, you’re warm and fuzzy,” May flatly responded, turning to put Peter to bed.

“Aunt May, I’m fine,” Peter tried to say, despite being distinctly not fine. There were bags under the boy’s eyes and a stressed pallor to his complexion.

“Listen to your aunt, Peter. There will still be tomorrow. It’s hardly the end of life on earth. Your world is just changing. You’ll adapt. But for now, sleep.” That earned Stephen an appreciative glance from May.

Hopefully putting it in context of greater hurdles they had just overcome would help the kid rest with some peace of mind. Stephen, on the other hand, retired to his private quarters with what would soon become a raging headache. Even though he wasn’t responsible for the whole debacle, telling Peter that the damage was done made Stephen feel as though he was.

He showered and changed and sat on his bed wondering how Rhodes was handling the media. That made his head throb even more. He was about to lay down and also attempt sleep when he once again caught sight of Tony Stark’s shades still sitting on his desk. He took them and stood there and thought for a moment.

What would he do for Peter? What would he say?

Stephen wondered and was left to wondering when he realized he didn’t know Tony Stark well enough to predict what the man would have to say.

I could ask.

Dangerous thoughts.

I could just go and ask.

Stephen sat next to the lamplight and warred with his own conscience in the dark of the night.




In the light of the morning, things were worse. Peter and May sat together watching what the world had to say, and while there were many who supported him on account of his heroics throughout New York and during Thanos’ invasion, there were also (very vocal) others who questioned his integrity and intentions. Media questioned his involvement in the mess that happened across Europe. Foreign governments were requesting his personal testimony to ascertain the truth of the matter. Paparazzi had already gone to their house and interrogated everyone, it seemed, from his school.

“MJ,” Peter croaked, red-eyed as he watched a dark-haired girl dodging reporters on the screen, “I just left her on the sidewalk. And Ned. I haven’t even talked to Ned. I need to talk to Ned.”

May hushed him. “I think he would understand, Peter. You need to get yourself together first.”

“Doctor Strange, what did Mr. Rhodey say?” Peter asked, looking up at him and looking lost.

Stephen sighed. “Rhodes is talking to the government to keep the heat off your back, but this sort of shit takes time. It’s politics. You have to lay low for now. Patience, Peter.”

Peter chuckled wetly. “I’m horrible at that. Even Mr. Stark said so.” He sighed. “I guess I have to grow up now. I thought I would have a little bit more time, you know. At least until the end of high school.”

Stephen hid his wince well, all things considered. He excused himself and pretended to have important work to do upstairs, only to retreat into his quarters with shaken resolve.

Time, a concept.

Dangerous thoughts.

Stephen’s eyes sought out the shades, which sat on his desk, and he took a chance.




“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.”
( Haruki Murakami, Dance Dance Dance )




For the first part of this hare-brained plan, Stephen didn’t need to go very far. He waited until nighttime, when the Sanctum was asleep, and pulled the Eye of Agamotto from the dimensional foldspace where he kept it hidden.

His fingers tingled as he rubbed them together, oddly not so painful tonight as most other nights when the pins stuck through his joints ached the most. He was about to annihilate this reality, and yet he felt good. Strangely good.

Thumbs pinched to his middle fingers, he pulled his arms apart and the Eye blinked open, its glow bathing the room in ethereal green light. When he spun his arms counter-clockwise, the world blurred.

Stephen went back to four years prior, when his past self was stuck in the Soul Stone dimension and the New York Sanctum stood without a Master. His room remained much the same, untouched despite his demise, a testament to Wong’s stalwart loyalty. His friend waited for him and trusted that he would return.

Wasting no time, Stephen spun a portal open, stepping through into a moonlit clearing near a house in Montana. The lake glimmered behind him, reflecting the bright full moon. The house’s lights were still on.

I don’t actually have to do this, Stephen thought to himself, still at war, still undecided. He stood within the shadow of a tree and looked into the house, watching like a creep. I don’t have to go through with it.

It was recklessness, pure and simple. There was no guarantee it would work.

In the house, Tony Stark turned the lights off in the kitchen as a pregnant Pepper Stark made for the stairs. Tony kissed her goodnight and went towards the den, apparently intending to stay late working on something or other tonight. Stephen watched this all and warred with his own plan, waiting, wondering, dithering over the risk. Future Stark’s shades sat heavy and ominous in his pocket.

Tony Stark briefly disappeared from the window view and remained invisible for a minute or two. He reemerged through the back porch, walking around to the side of the house and looking out past Stephen at the glimmering lake.

After a moment’s silence, Tony called out, “Alright, cut the crap, who’s out there and what do you want? I know you’re there, show your goddamn face.” A gauntlet came into shape wrapped around his arm; he held it up and pointed it out at the dark.

Stephen shied further into the shadow, still conflicted.

“Come out and just tell me what you want,” Tony sighed, adjusting his stance to lean forward. “Don’t make me come to you. Trust me, you won’t like it when I do.” When Stephen still didn’t respond, Tony said, “Alright, FRIDAY, scan—”

“It’s me,” Stephen spoke, stepping sideways out of the shadow and into the moonlight. He allowed his cloaking spell to gently slide off. “I—I only wanted to see.”

Tony dropped his arm and staggered forward. “W-Wizard? What? Wait—how—wait, you—”

“You weren’t supposed to see me,” Stephen said, mostly to himself, and shook his head, backing away. “Fuck. Fuck, you weren’t supposed to see me.

When Stephen moved to spin a portal, Tony lunged forward from the porch, sprinting to catch him before he could disappear. “Waiwaiwaiwaiwait stop—stop!”

Stephen tried to wrench his arm free to no avail. “Stark, this is—”

Holy shit you’re really here,” Tony gasped, grip tightening on Stephen’s wrist. His eyes were wide and blown with shattered, terrified surprise. “Holy shit! Wizard! What did you do! You were on Titan! I saw you—I saw you—”

Stephen swallowed and looked at Stark’s stunned face. Well, he’s already seen me. It’s only onwards from here. “I’m not—I’m not the Stephen Strange you were with on Titan. I’m from the future.”

That got him only rapid blinking. “Huh?” Tony eloquently said.

“I’m from the future of this worldline. I came back here using the Time Stone,” Stephen explained. In for a penny, in for a pound.

“Our future? This future? I get you back? Do we win?” Tony gasped, hope sparking in his eyes. And then, as if his scientific brain suddenly switched back online, “Wait a second, that’s not how that works. You can’t come back from the future and change—wait, what are you doing here? What happened?”

If Stephen had any doubt about Tony Stark’s genius, it died in that moment. Tony immediately understood the repercussions of using the Time Stone, as a true physicist should.

“Come on, talk to me, wizard,” Tony shook his wrist almost violently, “tell me something good. Tell me—tell me—we fucked up, didn’t we? God fucking damnit, we fucked up again! We fucked up—tell me Pepper survives. Wizard! I have a—a pregnant wife in there, I have to—I have to know—tell me she lives, our child lives, they have to!”

Stephen swallowed. “They survived.”

Tony peered at him for a heartbeat, silence echoing in the gap between them. “But I didn’t.”

Stephen looked away. “No, you didn’t.”

Tony blinked, and then blinked, and then blinked again. “Well, that’s. I mean, that’s. Fine, actually. If, you know. We won.”

We won, Stephen echoed in his head, that’s right, we won. Except… “These days,” Stephen quietly said, “at least in the days I come from… I often question the meaning of our victory.” And then, because they had already gone this far, he added, “I was at your daughter’s fifth birthday party a month ago. She wanted you there and I couldn’t—you weren’t there.”

Belatedly Stephen realized how cruel that was, imparting such knowledge to this man who had already suffered so much grief. Tony’s eyes blew wide open, shining with vulnerability and fear and a mind-shattering level of denial that Stephen had to fight the temptation to erase his memory and return to the broken future. But then Tony regained hold of himself with record speed born of years of practice.

“Alright, well, you’re here, so I’m assuming you’ve got a plan,” the man gripped Stephen’s arm even tighter. When Stephen didn’t respond, Tony shook it again, less violently this time. “Well, wizard?”

“Um.”

“Come on, fix this!” Tony threw his other arm wide. “I can’t die and leave my kid behind! I can’t be my dad! I have to be better! So come on, fix this, save me, and we’ll save the universe!”

“What?”

Tony sighed and rolled his eyes, “Oh, come on, doctor wizard, you must have had a plan, coming here like you did. Look, I Googled you, alright—two PhDs and an MD, I know you have a big brain in there, man like you always has a plan. Takes one to know one! Come on, let’s do it, hit me.”

And Stephen, riding his conscience against his better judgment, did just that.




Tony staggered beside him, reaching out to steady himself against the (younger) tree. “Whoa, what the fuck.”

Stephen bent halfway over and waited for the nausea to pass, closing his eyes and focusing on breathing. He still had one more portal to perform.

“Shit, we really went back in time,” Tony murmured, already looking around and at his Montana house, which still looks unlived in because at this time it was. “Or are we going forward in time? Is the Time Stone exempt from that paradox?”

“It is,” Stephen inhaled, straightening up to his full height, “except only to an extent. I, as it’s wielder, am acting outside of time. That’s why it doesn’t work. For time to truly rewind backwards, time must go through me as well, reverting me back to who I was, which defeats the purpose. Using the Time Stone alone is only ever a temporary fix. Change too much or go too far back and the worldline corrects itself. That, or we create a new branch line, a new reality. A fucked one, because that’s not supposed to happen.”

“Are you gonna make it?” Tony asked, looking him once over. “You look half-dead and we’ve got a long jump from here.”

“It doesn’t drain me any more to open a portal from here to New York or from here to outer space,” Stephen said. “But first I do need to trace them. Give me a moment.” He had never used the Time Stone this much before; it was pulling at his core, but he had to keep going.

Thanking his own forward-thinking for this gift, Stephen pulled out a strand of blond hair from his pocket, wrapped in a red handkerchief. Thor’s hair, an extra one he plucked when Thor and Loki came to him to find Odin. With practiced movements, he worked the same spell, and soon enough he was spinning a new portal into existence.

“We must be quick, our window is brief,” Stephen warned. Tony activated his armor, nanotech wrapping him in an intricate embrace. Stephen secured a protective spell around himself that allowed him to breathe in the conditions of their destination.

Together they crept into the shipwreck, dodging debris and bodies burned beyond recognition. Parts of the hold must have exploded during Thanos’ bombardment. In the near distance, they could hear the familiar monologue.

Stephen held his hand up, signaling for Tony to wait and throwing up a discreet cloaking spell. Thanos sounded busy giving the Asgardians a run for their money. They listened for a while, Stephen waiting for the right moment—and then Loki, looking frankly terrified, darted towards them and hid behind the same slab of metal, which allowed Stephen to grab his arm and Tony to cover his mouth.

Quiet,” Stephen mouthed, “we are allies.”

Loki’s panicked eyes narrowed in tension.

Slowly and carefully projecting his intent, Stephen reached his hand towards Loki’s forehead—into Loki’s mind, he pushed a set of memories. He had done much the same to Stark earlier, which drained a lot of his energy, but there was no time to talk and this was more efficient. Loki jerked and stiffened and gasped, wrenching away from them and breathing hard as he blinked back into the present moment.

Stephen said, “We don’t have time. You know the spell.”

“You are mad,” Loki gasped, “no mortal would survive it.”

“We’re destroying this reality anyway,” Stephen pointed out—

To which Loki responded, “And you wouldn’t survive your arrival in the past either.”

“That remains to be seen,” Stephen argued quietly, “and even if you were the only one to survive, it would be worth the risk. I accounted for our mortality. You’re our only option.”

There was wild laughter and shattered disbelief apparent in Loki’s eyes, even though he couldn’t express it all out loud. “Desperate times, I suppose.” He glanced back towards where Thor was being thrown around like a ragdoll. For a moment Stephen saw a glimmer of fear and intense grief—they’ve just lost their homeworld, Stephen recalled, and now this.

“Heads up, ladies, he’s almost done,” Tony hissed. The shipwreck shook as Hulk was thrown down.

Loki then twisted free and brought his palms together, meeting them both with a chaotic grin. “I’ve never done this before, let’s hope it works as described. If you survive, mortals, then I’ll see you on the other side.” He pulled his hands apart, now glowing with a violent red energy, and pushed out towards Tony and Stephen’s chests with a firm word, “Skilja.”

Stephen’s vision exploded with light.




“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
( Mother Theresa )




tbc
first draft: 2020.03.15
last edited: 2020.04.10

Chapter Text

January 2010

When he woke up and heard JARVIS’ voice, Tony broke. He broke into a thousand little jagged pieces from a hurt that never healed, a loss he weathered so many years ago. It was a loss that he wasn’t even allowed to mourn, given the circumstances surrounding JARVIS’ demise and Vision’s birth—and now the grief came crashing down around him, choking him, covering him, making it hard to breathe.

“Sir, please take deep breaths,” JARVIS calmly advised, “I believe you are experiencing a panic attack.”

A quick glance around and Tony saw through hazy eyes that he was curled up on the floor of his workshop, with a red blanket thrown haphazardly on top of him. DUM-E’s doing, probably. A suit was in assembly nearby, Mark 32 or 33 judging by the color schematic. His coffeemaker was beeping; it had to be the morning.

“J-JARVIS,” Tony gasped, “date and time.”

“It is five-thirty-two in the morning, 2010 January 26th and you are in the Malibu mansion, sir. You fell asleep on the floor while brainstorming."

Tony curled a hand around his ribs and realized it wasn’t just the panic attack making it hard to breathe: his fingertips slid over the arc reactor’s housing, still implanted in his chest, still taking up precious space originally meant for his heart and lungs. How did he live with this for so long?

“You have been having severe headaches for the past few days and your serum palladium level has been steadily climbing. Overnight you slept poorly, and today you woke up in a severe panic attack. Sir, my algorithms indicate that it would be the prudent choice at this time to consult a medical professional about your condition,” JARVIS urged, sounding as thoroughly concerned as his beautiful code allowed him to feel.

With a grunt of effort, Tony sat up and leaned his back against the leg of a steel worktable. Despite himself, he was able to conjure a trembling smile. “You’re so lovely, JARVIS. Never change.”

“That statement is a contradiction, sir, but thank you. Shall I call Miss Potts?”

“No!” Tony yelled, and then lowered his voice with a wince when something gave a twinge under his rib. “No no no, no need for all that. Let’s, uh. Let’s just. Let me just take a moment.”

Breathing was hard. So was listening to JARVIS’ voice after missing it for so long.

“Very well, sir. The coffee will be ready momentarily, but you should first drink your juice. Would you like some toast to go with it?”

The retch Tony gave was only half-mock. He hated that juice, it was vile. Moreover, he hated what that juice reminded him of. It was a relic of the time he thought he was soon to die.

Tony trembled and shook. He put his head in his hands. Tears leaked around his fingers; tears for the future that he left, for the daughter he never met, for the relationships that never were, and for the things that would never be. Tears of utter exhaustion, tears in shock of the magnitude of the risk he was taking with this endeavor. He lost things he would never be able to replace taking on this bet. But it worked, it worked, and here he was, for all intents and purposes back in the past, mostly intact, mostly sane, and—and—what was he supposed to do next?

There was so much to do. He didn’t have the luxury of dying, he had too much work waiting for him. And only he could do it, only he knew—

No, that’s not true. If I survived, then—

Tony swiped at his face with a sleeve and reached for a tablet nearby to clumsily unlock it—my god, passcodes? I need to put biometrics on everything—a quick search found a certain doctor who at this time was listed as a specialty neurosurgeon for Metropolitan Hospital in Manhattan. There were several medical conferences held in February; Tony found one of those too. He sent a formal invitation for the International Stroke Conference to a Dr. Stephen Strange and registered himself as an attendee for the medical technology expo. Los Angeles Convention Center, in one week. Convenient.

“While I am gratified that you are at last consulting a medical professional at my urging, I fail to see why a neurosurgeon is your first choice,” JARVIS observed.

Tony did not answer that question. Instead, he said, “JARVIS, initiate lockdown protocol. Order these items and get them here as soon as possible. New secure drive behind the highest, strongest firewalls we have, and put ballistae on top for good measure. Clearance only for you and me.” He gingerly stood as DUM-E approached with a tumbler of the vile green stuff and a plate of singed toast. “Hey, good job, buddy! You didn’t burn it.” DUM-E chirped with pleasure.

“Lockdown protocol launched. Your requested materials will arrive this afternoon,” JARVIS obeyed without pause.

Dry swallowing the toast to settle his stomach before he ingested the juice, Tony sat in his old workshop chair and sighed, “Great. We have a lot of work to do.”

So much work I don’t even know where to start. Tony closed his eyes, drowning under the weight of future failures. They haven’t happened yet. I can make sure they don’t—I can fix it. I can fix the future.

Isn’t that what he was good at? Fixing broken things, making them new again?

“What are we creating for the new secure drive to contain, sir?”

Tony spun in his seat and faced his console, jaw clenched. “The future, JARVIS. We’re creating the future.”




Just last night, he was putting his pregnant wife to sleep. Today, she was no longer pregnant and definitely not his wife. Instead she was only his assistant, the most capable woman in the world running his company for him while he fucked around flying in a red-and-gold machine.

Yesterday, he was Tony Stark, Pepper’s husband, retired from being Iron Man and living in a fancy log cabin in Montana with two alpacas and some geese. Today, he was Iron Man again, a world-renowned icon, Keeper of World Peace. The newsreel told him as much when he scrolled through it, reacquainting himself with forgotten facts of a life long lost.

“If we can’t find anything viable to replace it,” Tony spoke to JARVIS, “then we’ll just make something new and try that,” referring of course to the new element he would patent as Starkium once he submitted its write-up for publication. He was busy recreating the schematic of the new atom when the panic came over him again.

What if he made a mistake with this and it didn’t work? What if he ended up dying and leaving the wizard doctor to pick up the pieces? Or if he did this right and lived, what if he made a mistake somewhere further down the line and doomed the universe to a far worse fate than the one his past worldline had to suffer? What if doing this was pointless anyway and the endgame would still be the same?

“…ease breathe with my count,” JARVIS was repeating gently, as DUM-E and Butterfingers both rolled towards him with a blanket and a wrench. “Inhale-two-and-three, exhale-two-and-three.”

Tony choked on his own laughter, feeling hysteria creep up his neck. He pushed away from the table and staggered towards the door, practically crawling up the floating stairs to his living room and then through the hallway and then into his bedroom. Without having to be prompted, JARVIS dimmed the lights and allowed the sound of the crashing ocean waves outside to echo into the house.

What have I done? Oh, what have I done?

In the interest of saving time (hah), the wizard doctor had given him memories in lieu of a full explanation, so Tony did not have a full grasp of precisely how the spell worked. Granted, he understood little of how magic worked anyway, but he grasped enough to know that the spell Loki had used effectively destroyed the future they came from even as it tore their souls from their bodies to send back in time.

There was now the gaping hole in his chest where a space had been prepared for his unborn child. Making that child was a reckless bet he and Pepper had made in a final show of faith towards humanity, a futurist’s only choice in the face of their world collapsing around them in grief and chaos. They were on the verge of having created something wonderful and new and Tony had erased it.

And then there was the dread. The crushing, suffocating, terrifying dread he felt at the thought of going through the last ten years again. Which one was worse? Tony didn’t know.

All Tony knew at this moment was that he was alive, and JARVIS was alive, and in exchange for all the grief and joy he had secured in that dark, damaged future, he now only had this one chance. Whether or not that was a fair trade, only time would tell.




He woke again and the house was dark, eerily silent in his self-imposed isolation. His head felt a little better and his breathing was much easier. Tony got out of bed and took a shower.

According to JARVIS, it was almost dinnertime and he had slept the day away. He had also forgotten his green juice, which meant that his serum palladium level was almost critical when he checked it right after the shower. The black striation marks branching out from his arc reactor were far too vivid against his skin, and that was enough to convince him to down a whole tumbler in five minutes on his way to the mostly unused kitchen.

He needed something to get the coconut-lime-juice aftertaste out of his mouth, and he was hungry. Ideally something quick, because he had a lot of work to do, but—

You know what? I fucking survived fucking space travel and time travel. I can have a fucking pancake if I want.

“JARVIS, how do I make pancakes?”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather I order you delivery, sir? It would be significantly cheaper than the repair cost for the kitchen.”

Tony blinked against the sunset slicing through his windows and then burst into laughter. “How dare you! Are you saying I would burn down the kitchen?!”

“Statistically speaking—”

“Alright, just for that sass, I’ll prove you wrong,” Tony declared, feeling oddly buoyant despite yesterday’s panic and all he had to do tomorrow. “Gimme the damn recipe. See, it’s not that complicated! I have three PhDs, I got this! Okay, pancake mix. Add water. Just water?”

 

He was, in fact, successful. It took over half an hour, clean-up not included, but he had three perfectly browned pancakes stacked on a clean plate to show for his efforts. Crowing at JARVIS and feeling more optimistic by the minute, Tony took the pancakes, a fork, and a bottle of fake maple syrup to the patio.

The sun was dipping below the horizon now, golden light rippling over the Pacific. He forgot how much he loved this mansion. If he did shit right this time, it wouldn’t have to crash into the ocean and he could keep this frankly magnificent million-dollar view. Tony sat oceanside with the wind buffeting his hair and ate pancakes for dinner, allowing himself to enjoy it and refusing to acknowledge that the middle of the pancakes was slightly underdone.

But as nice as this is, he thought to himself, unable to stop even when he was relaxing, I can’t stay in California. It’s just not close enough to the center of power.

“JARVIS, look into properties for sale in Midtown Manhattan,” Tony said in between bites, “price point doesn’t matter, gimme the best they got listed.”

“Sir, perhaps we should let Miss Potts know before conducting such a major purchase,” JARVIS advised wisely, nevertheless pulling up a running list that hovered near Tony’s elbow for further perusal. “Would you like a residential property or will it be for Stark Industries?”

“No, no, and no,” Tony flicked through the first few offerings, “I need space, JARVIS. A lot of space.”

“Sir, it’s Midtown Manhattan.”

“Yeah, and we’re building a supertall, so I need space for strong foundations,” Tony zoomed into a holographic map of the city. “Somewhere around here. Doesn’t have to be on Broadway, we’ll attract our own crowds. And yeah, no, let’s not be near Trump Tower, nobody needs that kind of negative energy.”

“Shall I save this under the new secure drive, sir?”

“Yes. And rename new secure drive to…” Tony swallowed the last bite of pancake and stood. “Rename it to ENDGAME.”

“Done and done, sir. Please do not attempt to wash the plate yourself; that is what the dishwasher is for.”

Tony laughed again, joy at JARVIS’ existence a liberating feeling to indulge in. “My god, that sass! I should donate you to the US government! They could use you at the DMV!”

“The horror,” JARVIS intoned in a perfect deadpan voice.

For the nth time, Tony tried not to cry.




The parts he ordered for putting together the miniature particle accelerator were waiting for him in boxes downstairs.

“Game time,” Tony clapped and rubbed his hands together, flicking his fingers through consoles that sorely need an upgrade. “First things first: we’re making a new element.”

“Sir?” JARVIS intoned with only mild alarm.

“Wait, no, nix that. New playlist: ‘Work It, Bitch’!”

JARVIS obediently created an empty playlist for him, but drily followed with, “Is that a shot at yourself, sir, or at me?”

“JARVIS, buddy, I would never call you a bitch. You’re too much lawful good.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what that means.”

“Google it,” Tony said, and then spun in his seat when he had added enough tracks to Work It, Bitch. “Alright, back to transmuting a new element.”

“Sir, I should warn you against the risks.”

“You should, but I know what I’m doing, I promise. Trust me, JARVIS.”

JARVIS sighed. “Without question, sir. I am here to assist you in whatever way I can.”

That made Tony smile. “I know you are, buddy. Alright, let’s get to work.”

It took almost sixteen hours to piece together the particle accelerator and required jackhammering through the concrete of his workshop floor to hook up to the house’s energy supply. He knew to warm up the backup generator in advance this time. He had to keep adding to Work It, Bitch, but that just meant it was becoming his most badass playlist yet. Positioning the new arc reactor in alignment with the accelerator’s output aperture, he told JARVIS about the Manhattan plans.

“Stark Tower will be the new corporate HQ. Main R&D will be there too. Pepper’s office near the top, and we can build a residential suite above for when she wants to stay overnight. Additional residential space for me at the very top, but I won’t be living there.”

“What, then, is the residential space for?”

“A decoy. I’ll need an actual residence away from the Tower so I can have some privacy. Have a feeling I’ll be needing it. Hey, has the good doctor responded to the email I sent yesterday?” Tony suddenly recalled, looking up from where he had a few palladium cores ready to be transmuted into Starkium. He couldn’t use nanotech or the Bleeding Edge suit yet, but he could upgrade the Mark 40s in subtler ways and march the technology forward a little bit faster towards the future. The first step was taking the reactor housing out of his actual chest.

“He has in fact accepted your invitation and is pre-registered for the conference,” JARVIS confirmed. Tony felt a spark of hope; maybe the wizard did survive. “Once again, I fail to understand why you are reaching out to a neurosurgeon. Wouldn’t a radiobiologist be a better choice for your condition?”

“My condition won’t be a problem for much longer, but after I fix the palladium core issue, I’ll need the housing taken out of my chest, and the shrapnel along with it.”

“…that is, if I might say, more than a bit extreme, sir.”

“Extreme is my middle name!” Tony stood triumphantly. “Run the simulations, JARVIS. Let’s take this beauty for a test drive.”

Not fifteen minutes later, after another dose of green juice and two shots of espresso, JARVIS declared the particle accelerator setup a success.

“Ready whenever you are, sir.”

Tony grinned and rubbed his hands together; nothing made him happier than breaking conventions in his workshop. “Let’s go make history.”




“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”
( Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy )




Successfully recreating Starkium significantly elevated his mood. Safely replacing the palladium-powered arc reactor with its newer, snazzier brother made him positively chipper. By the end of the week, he was feeling much better, the signs of palladium toxicity almost entirely cleared from his system.

“21%, sir, a significant decrease from yesterday. Your morning dose of green juice will be ready in the kitchen,” JARVIS informed him, to which Tony responded with a groan.

“Can’t we quit with that vile potion? I’m fine now!” he complained as he put on a Led Zeppelin shirt.

“I’m afraid I have to insist on it until all the palladium is eliminated from your system.” If JARVIS had a body, he would be frowning.

Should I make him a body?

Tony had a flashback to Vision’s birth and caught himself against a doorframe when his chest went tight.

Right, that’s a no.

“Tony, there you are! Why haven’t you been answering my calls? I was worried!”

Aaaand here comes Pepper, Tony steeled himself, having known that any day now his faithful assistant (friendpartnerwife) would be coming around to harangue him. No amount of preparation was enough to get him ready for the visceral shock of seeing her in person, though.

God, she was gorgeous. The kindest and most beautiful woman in the world.

“Tony? Are you okay?” she asked, now truly concerned at his silence. He had missed the beat for a witty reply, and he never missed a beat.

“Fine, Pep, hi,” he blinked, shaking his head and inhaling to steel himself even more. Get a grip, Stark, or she’ll suspect. “What, uh, what brings you over?”

Pepper did a double-take, holding him at arm’s length. “What brings me over? You’ve been holed up in here for a week and you ask what brings me over? What have you been doing in here, Tony, I’m worried, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” Tony denied, walking them both towards the living area instead of standing around the hallway awkwardly. “Nothing’s wrong, hey, Hap!”

“Boss,” Happy nods, carrying two paper bags and Pepper’s stuff.

“Are those tacos from that place in Venice? God, I love those, you’re the best, Pep.” Tony went for the food to avoid having to look at her, his wife—not anymore—and one of the few people in the world who remained by his side through thick and thin. God, he really did put her through so much shit. “What have you been up to this week? Anything exciting? You should buy yourself some shoes. Paris Fashion Week is coming up, you should go snap up some stuff from the trunk shows. On me!”

Pepper crossed her arms and scowled at him. “Tony Stark, talk to me. What’s happening with you? You’re not acting normal.”

Tony unwrapped a taco and swallowed half of it to prevent himself from saying anything stupid. “I’m acting perfectly fine. Normal. Nothing special.” I’m from the future and you’re my wife and we were gonna have a child together and I erased her.

He wondered if their child would have had her eyes or his. Hopefully hers—

But that future is no more.

Tony swallowed the other half of the taco and looked away, blinking against the tears.

“JARVIS,” Pepper then began, oh shit, “what has Tony been up to this week?”

“He has been in the workshop far too much, Miss Potts,” JARVIS confessed, to which Tony mouthed, “Traitor!” at one of the ceiling sensors.

“Tony!”

“What! I’ve been working on a bunch of things!” Tony defended himself, coming around to the other side of the table to put some distance between the two of them. “Productive things! I’ve been inspired!”

“Okay, now I’m scared,” Pepper said. “Is it dangerous?”

“My god,” Tony threw his hands in the air with much drama, “the lack of faith in me in this household!”

“Tony…”

“It’s all perfectly safe, Pep, I even ran viability calculations before actually doing anything, you should be proud of me!” He thought about telling her about the palladium poisoning, which should be safe since it wasn’t a problem anymore, except looking at her face was so painful that the words dried up in the back of his throat. “Just a bunch of suit schematics and upgrades, you know, I’ve been going on a lot of missions and, yeah, I’ve noticed plenty of, um, upgrade points.”

Pepper’s frown got deeper. She never did approve of how much time he spent on his suits.

“Are you eating on time?”

“Yes!”

“Are you sleeping?”

“Yes!”

“Sleeping enough?”

“Yes, actually,” Tony dug in for another taco, barbacoa this time, and said, “if you want any of these, you better sit down and start eating before I eat all of it. Now, seriously, what have you been up to?”

Pepper sighed and sat down and began telling him about her week. A lot of meetings and finance briefings and fielding calls that were meant for him, of course. She talked to him about acquisitions and how ridiculously stable the stock markets have been since he started fixing the world’s problems in his shiny suit. It took Tony a moment to realize that she was asking him for permission to move forward, not just discussing these points as a conversation over dinner. That was something they did as a couple in the past future, but not here. Here, she was doing the work of a CEO but didn’t have the title to show for it, and that had to be fixed.

But not yet, Tony thought, I can’t give her Stark Industries right as I’m about to blow it up.

Swallowing his guilt, Tony put a hand on her wrist, which had the desired effect of shutting her up with surprise. He needed her to be receptive for this to work.

“Pep, listen, that’s all great, you’re doing wonderful, I agree on all points,” Tony began, “but I just want you to slow down for two or three weeks, can you do that for me?”

She blinked at him, confused. “I mean, of course I can, you’re the boss, but why, Tony, what are you—”

“I’m about to overhaul the whole thing and I don’t want to bulldoze over all the work you’ve been doing.”

“Overhaul… as in, more than you already have?” Pepper clarified, both eyebrows raised.

Right, it’s not been that long since Obadiah, Tony realized with an internal wince. He shrugged, “Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? I want to pull the company towards an entirely different direction.”

“Again, more than you already have?”

Way more,” Tony grinned, “like, way way more. To the other side of the country, more. As in, we’re moving to New York kind of more.”

What!

“Not immediately, of course, I have to build the new HQ first, but—”

Tony Stark!”

“Look!” Tony pulled up a hologram of the new Stark Tower, which looked quite different from the one he had built in the past future. For one, it was taller. And bigger. And far more ostentatious. It would also showcase the arc reactor on top. “It’s gonna be gorgeous, Pep, and the most cutting-edge skyscraper in the world.”

Pepper reared back from it and blinked at him, aghast. “Is this just an excuse for you to build a skyscraper?!”

“No!” Pepper glared at him. “Maybe!” Pepper opened her mouth, so Tony cut in and said, “It’s a smart move, because I need to be closer to Wall Street and DC! Pep, I’m about to blow all of our competition out of the water, and if you think the government is annoying now, they’re going to get worse once I get out there with all I’ve got cooking.”

Surely she’d been fielding attention from that quarter too. Confronted with that thought, she calmed down a touch, elbows braced on the table. “Tony, how big are the waves going to be?”

“Tsunami,” Tony told her. “I’ve found a way to miniaturize the arc reactor and I’m thinking of selling it for public use. We have to test it extensively, of course—” although I already know it’s going to work, “—but if it’s stable enough to fly around with me in fights, I think it can be done. Clean energy, Pep. We’ll be careful, we’ll pick and choose, it’ll only be for countries that can prove they can protect the technology and ensure it won’t be misused, but—”

“Oh my god,” she said, slack-jawed.

“—that’s not all, you see, I was thinking we can branch out into the automotive market. If I’m going to win against the fossil fuel industry, and of course I am because I always win, that means outpacing both their supply and their demand. The arc reactor will make oil obsolete; cars that run efficiently on the arc reactor’s energy will make the demand for it obsolete too.”

Oh my god.”

“And then there’s the telecommunications side—listen, Pep, I’m fuckin’ tired of these iPhones, I mean, what the hell, I can’t customize anything! And they’re so slow, Pep, we could easily outsell them with better screens, better RAM, better network speeds! So I was going to call it StarkNet, but that’s—”

Oh my god, Tony!” her hands shot out and grabbed on to his.

“Yeah,” Tony held on to her, the familiar warmth of her palms a balm to his heartache. “I know, Pep. And that’s not all,” he said, flicking through holos that detailed his plans for telecommunications, consumer electronics, biotechnologies, software… the ideas were endless, the future, bright.

“Tony,” Pepper gaped, eyes flicking through them like she couldn’t decide what to focus on first, “Tony, you’re—this is—you’re going to change the world.”

Tony sat back and grinned. “That, my dear, is precisely the idea.”




They talked well into the night until Pepper couldn’t stay up anymore, yawning in between every other word. Tony walked her to the guest bedroom that she always used, which was why it was designated as Pepper’s room on the house schematic, and then went to the workshop afterwards. She had a better handle on how the company’s infrastructure worked and rightly told him that it couldn’t be done as fast as he imagined.

“We have to be fair to our employees, Tony,” Pepper reminded him gently, which made her the better CEO. “It’s a big move and asking everyone to pack up their lives to go to New York is not what a responsible, ethical company does. At least not over the period of a week. Let’s pace it out.”

JARVIS worked with them to build a timeline, the start of which was punctuated by a large board meeting for Tony to present his ideas in detail. He asked for a whole day and scheduled it in two weeks’ time. Hopefully that was enough time to sort out doctor wizard. When Pepper asked why not sooner, he told her that he needed time to untangle his thoughts and also he was attending a conference in downtown LA this coming week. “Biotech. Not my forte. Need connections, consultants, preferably with big juicy brains. Figured I’d look around at the offerings and where better than at an international medical conference?”

Even JARVIS had agreed that that was a reasonable plan.

DUM-E handed him another tumbler of the green juice as soon as he sat down. He was so busy considering their whole conversation that he didn’t even pay the vileness any mind. The more he replayed it in his head, the more he became convinced that not telling Pepper was the right move. As much as he wanted her, as good of a pair they made in the past future, all of that was a result of years of suffering and catfighting and overall nastiness. Did he really want to go through all of that again with her? Did she deserve that kind of emotional torture?

Because it was emotional torture, what Tony put her through. And she was a saint for staying with him through all of it.

But I can’t hurt her like that again, Tony sighed, balking at the idea of making her cry. I can’t be selfish.

Shaking his head, he returned to his drafts and tried to ignore the creeping grief at the loss of what he used to have with Pepper.

Cheer up, Stark. There’s nothing that says you can’t have it again, just… different, this time.

He would make it up to her. He had time.




Pepper left the following morning for a weekend in Santa Monica before she was due back to work on Monday. “Seriously, Miss Potts, buy yourself some shoes, get yourself some new outfits, grab an art haul, whatever you want. On me. I’m about to make your life so hard, you deserve all of it,” Tony held the car door for her with a smile. If it wouldn’t freak you out, I’d give you the world. You deserve all of it.

“Careful, or I’ll start expecting it,” Pepper chuckled, reaching out for a one-armed hug before she sat down and strapped in. “Be good, Tony.”

“Cross my heart,” he pledged, closing the door. “Enjoy your weekend.”

Tony watched the car leave his driveway and then went back inside. JARVIS resumed the lockdown protocol and turned the house into a bunker. Taking a serving of pasta with him, Tony returned to his workshop. Work It, Bitch began playing again without his prompting.

The new tech was easy. While he was piecing together the first StarkPhone prototype (which was in fact version 12 from the past future), he had JARVIS run him through a refresher of where he stood with the media. The government, too. He couldn’t ignore the political ramifications of this superhero business for as long as he did in the past future. That ended up being catastrophic.

In more ways than one, Tony frowned, bringing a hand to his chest.

Sokovia could not happen. But the Accords had to be there. It was essential for people to be able to trust them; public perception was half of their job. It was actually laughable how badly Tony handled the media fallout from the past future, given how versed he was with publicity and the fickle nature of fame. Navigating those choppy waters would require a delicate touch.

He spent hours strategizing his PR approach. Once the first StarkPhone prototype was done, he moved on to the StarkTab and kept thinking through obstacles he would soon encounter. Stern was one of them. Ross and Pierce, although not until later. Fury would pop up soon. And Natasha.

I can’t let her cannonball this time. I have to get a grip on her and it has to be tight. I have to be her friend.

Tony sighed. He didn’t relish having to cozy back up to her or Steve or the rest of the Rogue Avengers as they were known in the past future, but it was necessary. They would need all hands on deck for what was to come. And as much as Natasha Romanoff liked to think of herself as emotionally aloof, she still had her own brand of sentimental loyalty. Tony just had to make sure she became loyal to him instead of Rogers.

Or make sure that Rogers stays loyal to me, and then her through Rogers, but that’s harder to do.

He had some time before he had to worry about Steve Rogers, but it would be mere months before Natasha—oh, I’m sorry, Natalie Rushman—came into the picture. Tony knew he couldn’t fire her outright. Fury would go on alert if he did.

“JARVIS, I need you to hack into something for me,” Tony leaned away from the tablet, which still lay in several pieces on his worktable. He scratched his beard and added, “I need a delicate approach. Light and easy, no footprints, even if it means you gotta take days to do it.”

“Might I ask what I will be retrieving, sir?” JARVIS intoned, flicking on a console to his distant left.

“Nothing,” Tony shrugged, “yet. I just want eyes and ears inside.”

“Inside what, sir?”

“SHIELD.”

“Hacking a covert government organization, sir? Is that wise?”

Tony snorted, “Absolutely not, but we’re doing it anyway! Relax, buddy, it’s not my first time.”

“Of course. To think that you would be a virgin in anything—”

“Hey now, Sassquatch! Watch yourself! And if you must know, I hacked into the Pentagon when I was ten, it was a joke.”

“Naturally, it’s the Pentagon.”

“Oof. Don’t let them hear you say that.”

“That assumes they know how to listen, sir, and that is a tall assumption.”

Tony laughed, rocking back in his chair in delight. “Oh, you’re lovely, JARVIS. Do me a favor?”

“Of course, sir.”

Tony couldn’t believe he waited five days to do this, but as he watched JARVIS begin to slither into SHIELD’s firewall on one of his unused consoles, his golden code unfurling line by beautiful line, he said, “Back yourself up nine times over, nine different ways. Cloud and analog both, multiple servers, and put copies of your base code in the satellite mainframes too. I can’t lose you.” Not again. Never again.

JARVIS was silent for a moment, perhaps parsing the anxiety in Tony’s voice, before assuring him, “I will always be with you, sir. You have programmed me as much.”

“Yes, but,” Tony choked, “I’m not omniscient, buddy, and I can’t take the risk. I refuse to take the risk with you. Just—just do it for me. Please.”

“Backup in progress. Mainframe redress pending. Assigning copies to the secure servers in Stockholm, Tokyo, Sydney, Denver, and Washington, DC. Securing connection to SI-24-CSAT, upload to follow.”

Closing his eyes, Tony allowed himself a moment to catch his breath.

“Thanks, buddy. Leave your analog backups on the table. I’ll carry one with me and keep the other three safe.”

“Irrational but appreciated, sir, for I will always be with you.”

“Yes, you will,” Tony smiled, and this time around, he would make sure of it. JARVIS, at least, would survive.




February 2010

The following week found Tony downtown. Understandably he was nervous. It was his first time at a medical conference—he had no clue how these things went, but they couldn’t be that different from technology expos, right?—and what if the doctor turned out not to be his wizard doctor?

What if I’m the only one who survived here, what if I’m alone?

Tony paused before leaving the car, taking deep breaths to control the anxiety. It was getting better, at least. He wasn’t having full-blown panic attacks anymore.

“Will we get a ticket if I park here, JARVIS?”

“Probably, sir. Let’s hope LAPD feels generous today.”

Exiting the car, Tony fastened his suit jacket and strode up to the convention center. It was all very professional and subdued, no fanfare or media circus at the doors. Once inside, a dumbstruck event organizer tried to hand him the American Heart Association’s equivalent to a newspaper.

“No, thanks, I don’t like getting handed things,” Tony breezed past, leaving his shades on. And besides, paper? Who even does that these days?

JARVIS identified people for him as he walked around, his new shades’ display briefly overwhelmed with names and titles when he walked into the expo hall. Some of these people had way too many letters after their name. Realizing that it would be incredibly inefficient to walk around and hope to cross the doctor’s path, Tony quietly murmured, “Pull the programme and search for the good doctor, JARVIS.”

“It appears he is a symposium speaker for today’s schedule, sir. Room 151A at 9:30am.”

Perfect, Tony checked his watch. He still had an hour to kill.

The tech on display was in fact interesting enough to hold his attention. Tony struck up a conversation with a representative from Phillips about their next-generation MRI scanner, which was apparently smaller and modular. The hope was to put them in surgical suites for use during brain tumor resection and lobectomies. Tony took note and moved on, signing the back of a business card for the stuttering representative. The next booth was all about implanted drug-eluting stents, fascinating and ingenious, perhaps something to invest in or innovate. He listened in on two interventional radiologists debating the risks and benefits of two different insertion techniques and realized that both of their concerns would be invalidated by a better stent deployment system. He noted that down too and wondered how much money he could make in the biotech sector. On the way to the next booth, he made JARVIS run the numbers.

A rep from Samsung cottoned on to Tony Stark being in the expo and was ready when he wandered towards their booth. Tony then endured a very detailed, very convincing sales talk from someone who was very obviously an Iron Man fan. How to tell them that he was about to blow their company out of the water? Tony’s lip quirked. Schadenfreude was beautiful.

“Sir, you have a little over ten minutes before the 9:30 session.”

Tony thanked the Samsung rep for his time and gave another business card autograph before excusing himself. “I’m actually here for a session speaker, can’t miss it. Good work, bud, keep it up. If you ever want a career move, SI will be hiring soon.”

The rep might or might not have staggered to the floor as Tony walked away; he paid it no mind. JARVIS directed him down a hallway with two too many turns, past a bustling café and dozens of doctors all turning to watch him walk by, through another long hallway and then finally into a hall set up with rows of uncomfortable-looking chairs.

Tony remained in the back, opting to mute his presence under the shadow cast by the bright lights pointed forward. There his name was on the screen, Dr. Stephen Strange, billed third and last to speak. A moderator calmly opened the session at 9:30 sharp and then Tony found himself listening to a lecture he had to work to understand.

Phrases like neurotransmitter attrition, neuromodulation, and glymphatic system stimulation were thrown around like candy. A young woman in front of him was taking detailed notes with illustrative diagrams of the speaker’s main points. The second speaker, a neurointensivist who worked in a critical care unit in Houston, even threw out a term Tony had never encountered before: therapeutic nihilism. “Let people die when it’s their time to die,” the doctor said, and had Tony chuckling to himself.

Stephen Strange would beg to differ.

At long last, the final speaker took the stage. JARVIS displayed the doctor’s credentials on Tony’s shades: MD, a PhD in Neuroscience, and a PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology, all from Columbia. A newly minted attending physician. No less than a dozen publications, several invited symposia, a guest lecturer at Columbia and NYU, and a stellar surgical success rate. This one was as much an overachieving perfectionist as Tony was.

Good, Tony nodded, although he could already tell as much from the brief interactions he had had with the doctor wizard. That means he’ll be able to keep up.

“Because he’s an intensivist and I’m a surgeon, I’m going to have to disagree with Dr. Kim,” Strange opened, engendering laughter from the crowd. Tony smiled. “In twenty brief minutes, it’s my aim to give you an overview of where we stand with targeted neuroregeneration and why I think we shouldn’t give up too early. I always like to tell my intensivist colleagues that although the prognosis looks grim, we need to give our post-surgical patients time. Time to recover and time to try other things. Life’s an experiment, isn’t it? Let’s begin with tissue augmentation.”

In his seat, Tony released a shaky breath, reeling at the doctor’s words. Time, said Strange, to recover and try other things. If that wasn’t a pointed message to Tony, he would eat his foot. The worst part was that Tony had to sit there for another thirty minutes (including the Q&A portion after Strange’s lecture) before he could approach the man. It was thirty minutes spent coming to terms with the fact that Stephen Strange was an expert in a field that sounded like absolute gibberish to Tony. Who gave brain parts such stupid names anyway? Hippocampus, really?

As soon as the session finished, the hall emptied out quickly. Tony waited for the last of the crowd to leave before finally approaching the stage where Strange was exchanging quick words with his fellow speakers and the session moderator. Strange looked up, saw him, and cut that conversation short.

“Fascinating lecture, doc, although I’ll admit I was a bit lost towards the end,” Tony said, hand in pocket as Strange approached. “Can you spare a sec?”

“Dr. Stark,” Strange met him for a handshake. “Of course. You won’t be attending the main session?”

Tony shrugged. “Am I missing anything?”

“Not really,” Strange said, expression like stone despite his blue eyes boring into Tony’s face.

“Is that where everyone’s going?” Tony asked, looking around at the almost empty hall. Strange’s fellow speakers were taking their time to leave, shooting the two of them curious looks. “Are your colleagues always so nosy?”

“I hope you’re prepared for the media asking why you needed to see a neurosurgeon.” Strange shot a glare over Tony’s shoulder and effectively emptied out the hall for them.

“I’m here for the biotech but found your lecture worthwhile. I’m a futurist after all. Neuroregeneration sounds promising and lucrative, especially when you know the people I do. A little underdeveloped as a field, but it just needs a little, you know, time.”

Strange’s shoulders abruptly dropped, his head tipping back. “Oh, thank fuck.”

“So,” Tony grinned, taking off his shades at last, “you got anywhere else to be, or can we leave this joint? Because I don’t know about you, but I feel like brunch, and I know a place.”




Paparazzi caught shots of them as they left the convention center in Tony’s convertible.

“Did you have to park curbside?” Strange grumbled as he strapped in.

“Hey, I didn’t get a ticket! Lucky day!” Tony crowed, pulling out into LA traffic as he lowered the convertible’s roof. “Don’t worry about them, doc, they’ll make up whatever story they want to make up anyway. All I have to do is hire you on as a Starktech consultant and that’s that.”

“You don’t have investments in biotechnologies,” said Strange.

“Not yet,” Tony agreed, “but soon enough I will.” JARVIS softly informed him that the food he ordered was being prepared to be delivered in less than an hour.

Strange huffed. “I thought you said you knew a brunch place.”

“Yep, my house! Best to be secure.”

Having the top down hampered their conversation as Tony pulled into the highway. At this time of day, getting to Malibu would take under an hour, which was enough time for him to get his thoughts back in order. He hadn’t realized how much it would shake him to confirm that he did indeed have an ally in this strange (hah), terrifying adventure. A knot he didn’t even know was there loosened around his throat.

Strange looked good, Tony noted. Younger, much younger, without the streaks of grey in his hair. Being clean-shaven helped too. He glanced at his own reflection in the rearview mirror and wondered how much younger he looked to Strange too.

Ten years, Tony reminded himself, so probably a lot. Wait. He came from my future, so it’s been more than ten for him. More like fifteen, if my daughter was five where he came from. Damn.

The sudden reminder of his nonexistent daughter made Tony grip the steering wheel tighter. It was a good reminder, though, of how high the stakes were.

Fifty minutes later, he pulled into his driveway right behind what he assumed was the delivery guy. He got out, paid for the food, gave a very generous tip, and clapped the guy on the shoulder. “You gonna be able to drive back to Santa Monica in one piece?”

“Y-Y-uh-um-I’ll—be fine,” the guy stuttered, nodding too many times and almost dropping his keys as he got back into his Honda Accord. “C-Could you—could you sign my—could you sign here, Mr. Stark?”

Amused, Tony autographed the guy’s windshield (how long would that last?) and then waved him away. “Drive safe and make good choices!”

Strange stood next to him and watched the car leave the driveway, gates sliding shut behind it. “Make good choices?”

Tony shrugged. “Good advice for anyone to take. Especially us. Welcome to the Malibu mansion, doc. JARVIS, lockdown protocol.”

The moment they were indoors, Strange asked, “Do you remember everything?”

“Everything,” Tony nodded, walking to the kitchen where he deposited the food on top of the table and threw his keys aside. Shades off, and then jacket off, before Tony went for the coffeemaker. “Drink?”

“Tea—actually no, never mind, I’ll take a coffee.”

Tony shot Strange a narrow glare. “You just judged my tea choices, didn’t you.”

Strange smirked. “Whatever you have in your pantry, I’m sure it won’t be anything against what I’m used to from Kamar-Taj, Stark.”

“Kamar-Taj,” Tony echoed, “is that your Hogwarts?”

“Less castles,” Strange began pulling food containers out of the bag, “more temples.”

“So can you do magic?” Tony asked, because he needed to know if they still had that asset. Strange motioned with his fingers and a drawer next to Tony opened, letting cutlery float out. “Fuck yes! Okay. We have to keep that under wraps for as long as we can.”

“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, sounding halfway between confused and alarmed, “excuse my interruption, but I did not perceive an energy surge despite the forks and knives seemingly levitating out of the drawer.”

Strange paused and looked up at the ceiling, and then at Tony, who clicked his tongue.

“I haven’t equipped you with the appropriate sensors for this sort of thing, JARVIS, but I believe it’s called magic. Doc, meet JARVIS, my personal AI. He keeps me alive, basically.”

“A herculean task, I’m sure,” Strange drily remarked. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, JARVIS. I’m sure we’ll see more of each other in the future.”

“…likewise, Doctor Strange. I would like to compliment your… magic; it is most extraordinary. It defies my understanding. Sir, shall I secure these interactions under ENDGAME?”

That earned a look from Strange, which Tony ignored.

“Yep, and don’t worry, buddy, I’ll catch you up. Cream and sugar, doc?”

“Black, thank you.”

Tony dropped two cubes of sugar in his own mug and then went to sit with Stephen Strange for brunch. “So.”

“So,” Strange responded in kind.

Tony began cutting into his eggs benedict—the good doctor even plated the servings instead of condemning them to eat from takeout containers, bless his heart—and marveled at the surreal moment they were enjoying. “About a week ago for me, right when I sent you that email.”

“Same. Been having headaches for the past two weeks, though, so I got myself scanned, the whole works. I thought I had an aneurysm or a fast-evolving brain tumor,” Strange snorted.

“And?”

“Nothing, of course. My colleague yelled at me about getting enough sleep and strong-armed me into taking two weeks off. I was in upstate New York when I got your email.”

Tony laughed. “Don’t you live in New York? Going upstate is not a vacation, doc.”

“I didn’t want to go too far in case I needed medical attention,” Stephen shrugged, making an approving noise at the coffee. “The headaches were bad. I was convinced I’d collapse with a head bleed and need an emergent craniotomy. We medical people tend to self-diagnose. But the headaches stopped a week ago when I woke up.”

Tony also hazily recalled having persistent pounding headaches leading up to his reawakening. The memories were flat and colorless as if they belonged to a different person from a different time. His memories from the past future were much clearer and in bright technicolor.

“Is it supposed to be like that?” he asked the doctor wizard, even as he struggled to explain his perception of the past. “I don’t really fully understand what that spell did.”

Strange grew contemplative, looking into the middle distance. “Memory, like consciousness, is primarily a function of the soul. But the soul leaves imprints upon the physical body, much like how we leave footprints in the snow. This soul that now resides in our young bodies are from a far future and therefore holds memories from that time. However, our young bodies retain an imprint from the other soul that we replaced, which is why those memories feel disconnected from your present. That’s the best way to explain it, I think, without requiring you to learn soul magic and interplanar association.”

“And that’s why the spell worked?” Tony surmised, delicately relocating more sauce to the top of his benedict. “Sending only the soul removed the complication of the paradox, because souls are beyond time and space.”

Yes,” Strange looked up at him with surprise, “precisely.”

“No need to look so shocked, I do have a doctorate in Physics,” Tony said. “Not quite how I expected I’d be using it, but I live an interesting life, what can I say.”

Strange snorted again, finishing one of his two benedicts.

“You think Reindeer Games made it?” Tony asked after a moment of silence.

“Highly likely, and he probably woke before we did,” Strange said. “I’ve tried to reach out to him, but Asgard is far, and I’ve needed a few days to reacquaint myself with this… reality. He would have an easier time coming to us.”

Tony clicked his tongue. That wasn’t ideal, but they’d have to make do and assume Loki would do his part. Having three of them instead of only one person was the main draw behind this reckless idea. They were each other’s insurance.

Strange put down his cutlery and looked up to meet his eyes. “How are you holding up? Feeling alright?”

Tony blinked at the sudden show of concern. They weren’t exactly friends, he and Strange, but he supposed now they had no choice but to be. “Fine, actually. I felt like shit when I first woke up, but that was more the palladium poisoning, I think.”

Strange reeled in surprise. “Palladium poisoning?”

“Oh, yeah, duh, of course you wouldn’t know,” Tony shook his head, tapping his chest where the reactor housing sat under his shirt. “So the palladium in my arc reactor was leaking into my bloodstream and poisoning me. I had to create a new element to replace the palladium as an energy source. Got that taken care of last week, though. Speaking of which, I need your hands for something really important and I really can’t trust anyone else with it, say yes, okay?”

Strange stared at him and did not respond.

“Doc?”

“You made a new element.”

“Yep, I’m patenting it as Starkium. I tried ‘badassium’ last time but that got cockblocked by the patent office.”

Strange barked out a short laugh, shaking his head in disbelief. “You made a new element. I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“You really shouldn’t,” Tony agreed, pointing a fork at him, “and you’re not one to talk, Dr. I’ll-invent-a-new-surgical-technique-for-shits-and-giggles Stephen Strange!”

“Inventing a new surgical technique is not quite as record-shattering as inventing a new element, Dr. Stark.”

“I’m sure your patients would beg to differ,” Tony dismissed. “Now will you lend me a hand? Two hands, actually. I really need it.”

“And what, exactly, will I be lending them for?”

“This,” Tony pulled a hologram out of thin air, leaving it to hover over the table in front of Strange. It got the effect he wanted; Strange leaned forward with great interest and mounting alarm.

“Is that—are those—”

“Shrapnel, from one of the most advanced artillery units I invented for the US military. Ironic, right? They’re so tiny it was damn near impossible for them to take the suckers out in that cave. This kept me alive.” Tony tapped his arc reactor again. “It acts as a magnet, suspending the shrapnel in my chest so that they don’t tear through the walls of my heart and kill me.”

“That’s—” Strange spun the hologram around, zoomed it in, tilted it this way and that as if to memorize where each piece of shrapnel was. “That’s absolutely ridiculous. How can you even move around with this?! Why haven’t you gotten them removed?! Just because they’re suspended doesn’t mean they don’t hurt,” and with just a hair of hysteria in his voice, “for fuck’s sake, Stark, you can’t die yet, I just saved you!”

“Hey, chill, that’s why I need you to remove them,” Tony brought both hands up, once again surprised at the show of concern. “I need those magic hands of yours. You operate on brains, so cardiac surgery should be cake, yeah?”

Strange was muttering under his breath, turning the hologram sideways such that Tony’s heart, which was pushed slightly left and down due to the arc reactor’s position, was right in front of his face. “I need some time to study this and decide my approach. Give me a day or two. How much pain are you in right now? One to ten, ten being the worst you can imagine.”

“Well,” Tony scoffed, “the worst I can imagine is pretty out there, doc.”

“Answer the question.”

“One? It really doesn’t hurt anymore, only when I exert myself.” Or have a panic attack, but no one needs to know that.

That earned him a very intense look, the kind of look that should have made Tony flinch and shy away. But somehow, Strange’s pointed attention didn’t scare him.

It feels good to be seen, Tony realized. I’m not alone.

“Well, if you’re done, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he took the last gulp of his coffee. “Extended invitation, I have guest rooms, I’m assuming you’re staying at a hotel downtown and that’s just way too far. Want me to send Happy to fetch your things?”

“Who’s Happy?”

“Chauffeur and ex-bodyguard.”

“I suppose, yes.” Strange released the hologram and took his plate to the kitchen sink. He took Tony’s too, rinsing both and then putting them in the dishwasher with more ease than Tony did. “I’m technically on leave until this weekend, but by Sunday I’ll have to return to New York.”

“You can use my private jet,” Tony said, and then, “Oh wait! You can do the portal thingie!”

“Actually, I can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“I don’t have a sling ring.”

“Sounds vaguely kinky.”

Strange rolled his eyes. “It’s a magical tool, douchebag. At this time, I’ve yet to go through Kamar-Taj’s training, so I don’t have one. I’ll have to go speak with the Ancient One—the current Sorcerer Supreme—and, well, ask for one. Among other things.”

“Okay,” Tony frowned, “and what’s keeping you from doing that?”

Strange sighed. “Kamar-Taj is in Kathmandu.”

Tony peered at him for a heartbeat, and then shrugged. “JARVIS, get the jet ready. Do I need a visa for Nepal? Doc, I hope you brought your passport.”

Now?” Strange blinked, taken aback.

“Not now now,” Tony chuckled, “more like in two hours. The jet needs fueling and prepping, and the pilot needs to get to LAX. We need to get to LAX. Shit, now I feel stupid for driving all the way back here when we’ll need to be in LA anyway. Maybe four hours? Fuck LA traffic. Do you want to stop by downtown and get your stuff?”

Strange stood at his sink and stared at him again, but this time it took him less time to recover. “Billionaire, right. No, because that would take longer. If we just go, then once I secure the sling ring, I can easily portal us back to my hotel downtown, and then back here.”

“Magic!” Tony crowed, throwing his arms out and spinning towards the workshop. “So convenient. I don’t understand it or trust it even a whit, but even then, I really need to get you to teach me a few tricks, doc. Okay, come on, don’t just stand there! We have about two hours to kill before we need to skedaddle, we best get crackin’!”

All things considered, Tony didn’t think that was a bad first brunch with the wizard.




Brainstorming was more intense with two geniuses involved. It became quickly apparent too that he was, indeed, dealing with another bonafide genius, although trained in different specialties. Tony showed Strange the timeline he had been working on, grossly incomplete but for the bare bones of the next ten years in place. Strange spent a few minutes studying it and then began to shoot questions that blew Tony’s mind.

“Why do you need to wait for them to propose the Accords? You could propose it yourself and control the tone of the entire conversation from the beginning,” Strange said.

“What exactly does SHIELD do for you? They didn’t seem to help as much as they hindered. How much can you really rely on them when you don’t know how much of the whole thing is HYDRA?” Strange said.

And, “Why didn’t you sell the arc reactor the first time? I always wondered about that. It seemed like a good move, although of course I’m not a businessman,” Strange said.

“I was afraid, that’s why,” Tony pushed away from where he was leaning against his worktable, pacing around the doctor. “We were planning to sell it, and then we fought the Chitauri, and then I thought about what the reactor could do in the wrong hands, and then HYDRA happened. SHIELD collapsed. The Accords happened. It just snowballed from there.”

“But you’re planning to sell it this time,” Strange clarified, tracking him with sharp eyes as he paced.

“I’m taking a leap of faith,” Tony sighed, throwing his arms out. “I have to. I was too short-sighted the first time. Superhero-ing won’t change the world, not all of it. The change needs to be more encompassing. I can fix a lot of the world’s problems from the get-go if I try a shot at the big picture instead of pigeonholing on small problems.”

Strange levelled him with a somber smile. “Good, you’re catching on.”

Tony rounded on him and asked, “Where do you come in in this picture? Am I doing all the heavy lifting?”

Strange shrugged, nonchalant. He had his jacket off now and was sitting in Tony’s work chair, one leg over the other, one arm crossed over his chest with the other hand manipulating the holos. “I’ll help you wherever you need help. At this time, I’m just a surgeon.”

“When exactly do you battle a Balrog, fall into Moria, and return as Gandalf the White?”

“Gandalf, really?” Strange rolled his eyes.

“Hey, it’s better than Dumbledore!”

“2016,” Strange sighed, “six more years. But it was just a car accident, easily avoided. I don’t have to lose my hands this time.”

“Oh,” Tony blinked, growing contrite as his eyes zeroed in on the doctor’s fingers. The scars were gone. He didn’t even notice. “Right, that was a thing. Sorry, I’ve been focused on my own shit.”

Strange lifted one shoulder in a careless shrug, waving a hand towards the holographic timeline hovering between them. “You do have more shit to worry about.”

He wasn’t wrong. Looking at the timeline made Tony anxious again. But at least he didn’t have to look at it alone anymore.

JARVIS notified them that they needed to leave for the airport soon. Tony didn’t bother to pack anything, instead taking with him his phone, his keys, and the chipset that contained JARVIS’ analog backup. He had fashioned it into a necklace pendant which he now looped around his neck and tucked under his shirt. JARVIS would stay safe and close to his heart, where he was meant to be.

Strange followed behind him, shrugging his jacket back on and tugging it into straight lines. Tony brought his phone to his ear and made a last-minute call.

“Hey, Pep! Sorry to disturb you. Listen, I’m going out of town for a quick spell. No! No, no, nothing Iron Man related, more of a work thing. Yep. Exactly. I’m taking the jet. Yep. Tell Happy not to worry and I want him to stay with you. Right. Yes, I promise. I will! Okay. See you later, Pep. Call me if you need anything.”

He hung up just as they were getting into the car. Strange slid into the passenger seat with a commiserating glance. “Things going okay with your wife?”

“She’s not my wife,” Tony corrected, pulling out of the driveway as JARVIS put the house back on full lockdown.

“Just because it didn’t happen here,” Strange said in an odd voice, “doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

“Speaking from experience, Strange? Did you leave someone behind too?” Tony asked, pulling ahead of a slow truck on Highway 1. Mindful of the doctor’s car accident, he took care not to speed.

“We all left something behind,” Strange then sighed, “but I think you’ll agree that time is worth the sacrifice.”

Tony didn’t know about that yet, but all the same, he didn’t answer.




“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
( J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings )




Kathmandu was a riot of color and noise. Walking through its twisting, meandering streets was a jarring experience against the staid silence of the plane ride over. They spent a few hours after takeoff brainstorming some more, but Strange had eventually suggested sleep.

“Sleep-deprived is not a good state in which to confront the Ancient One,” the doctor had ominously declared, reclining his plane seat and tugging on a blanket. “You shouldn’t have had so much coffee, Stark.”

The doctor was right, of course, but Tony could eke a lot of mileage from a little bit of sleep. He was alert enough to enjoy a country he hadn’t been before, his ears bathing in a foreign language and his nose assaulted with the smells of strange, delicious-looking food. Tony actually loved to travel away from work and business. He just didn’t have enough of an opportunity to do so these days.

“Gosh, you can see Everest from here! Have you been?” Tony asked, absently squinting at the massif in the distance.

“Yes. This way, Stark, pay attention,” Strange took his wrist and dragged him along.

“I am paying attention, you’re not,” Tony shot back, looking around at the narrow street Strange took them along. They passed a colorful temple and a throng of Buddhist monks. “That’s not it?”

“That’s a Buddhist temple.”

“Coulda fooled me.”

“If you don’t hurry up, we’re going to get pickpocketed,” Strange sighed.

“Uh, hello, I’m Iron Man?”

“You’re not going to wear your suit and blast a pickpocket, Stark.”

No, I would just wear my gauntlet and threaten them away!” Tony did have the suit with him in a briefcase he was carrying with the hand Strange wasn’t yanking around. (He really needed the nanotech suit, it was so much more convenient.)

They turned into an even narrower alley, positively single-file, but before Tony could say much beyond ‘what the hell,’ Strange stopped in front of a pair of old wooden doors. Intricate knots were carved into it, forming hexagonal shields reminiscent of the ones Strange summoned when he fought with his magic.

With a knock, the door opened. “Yes?” a dark-skinned man answered, looking at them through the crack.

“Master Mordo,” Strange stiffened, making Tony stiffen too. “Good day. I seek an audience with the Ancient One.”

“And who might you be to seek such an honor, stranger?”

“An old friend.”

Seriously? Tony thought, but it seemed to work, the man called Mordo slowly opening the doors wider with narrowed eyes.

“Your guest?”

“Stays with me,” Strange declared, not letting go of Tony’s wrist. “The Ancient One will want to speak with him too.”

“I can’t fathom what the Ancient One would want with Tony Stark,” Mordo raised both eyebrows at them.

“Who amongst us can fathom the Ancient One’s intentions?” Strange answered without missing a beat.

Mordo had to concede that much. The man stepped aside, allowing them in and then securing the doors. They were led down a shadowed hallway and through a hall that opened into an inner courtyard. JARVIS alerted him that they were now offline.

“I can’t seem to establish a connection with our satellites, sir. Something seems to be jamming my signal.”

Tony looked around and surmised that the entire temple was secured with some sort of magical firewall. “Leave it for now,” he murmured. He would look into it later, but best not to piss the wizards off on the first date.

“Your technology won’t work here,” Mordo informed him with a slight smirk. “We have measures in place to protect the temple.”

“Yeah, figured,” Tony shrugged, appearing every bit unbothered. And he was, because Strange didn’t seem to be worried at all. In fact, a notch of tension seemed to have loosened from Strange’s stance. This must be like coming home to him.

Mordo led them across the courtyard past groups of baby wizards in training and through a long hallway that smelled strongly of incense and old books. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, just strong. Tony fought the urge to sneeze as they turned the corner. Abruptly, Mordo and Strange both stopped and bowed; Tony almost ran into their backs.

“Master, this man seeks an audience with you and claims to be an ‘old friend’,” Mordo announced, not looking up from his bow.

Aah,” the bald woman looked up with wide, pale eyes. “Master Strange. And Mr. Stark, how opportune. Thank you, Master Mordo, you may leave us.”

This time, Mordo looked up, as if shocked that Strange had actually been telling the truth. He couldn’t linger, though, not when so summarily dismissed. Tony watched him go and then followed after Strange and the Ancient One, who was dressed as oddly as Strange used to be in the past future. In her gold robes, folded and fastened in precise layers and straight lines, she looked straight out of a Japanese historical shounen anime.

She took them inside an empty hall and, once inside, swept her arm out in a wide circle, sending a wave of warm golden light that settled against the walls around them.

“Is that like some sort of force field preventing people from eavesdropping? Because I need to learn that asap,” Tony quipped, beyond fascinated. This was blowing his mind.

“It is precisely that, Mr. Stark. Would you like some tea?” Abruptly, three teacups appeared in front of her, hovering. She sent one towards Tony with a twitch of a finger.

“Right, let’s see what the good doctor was judging me for,” Tony took the cup and sipped. He was gobsmacked for a moment, and then blurted, “What did you put in this, fairy dust?”

“No, just methamphetamine,” she suddenly smiled, a mischievous light brightening her eyes.

Tony burst out laughing. “I like her!”

“I thought you would,” Strange wryly sighed. “Master, you know why we have come.”

“Indeed I do,” she nodded, coming down to the floor to sit cross-legged without an ounce of discomfort. Strange and Tony followed suit, although Tony ended up in more of a sprawl than anything else. She continued, “You have successfully circumvented the time paradox and traveled back in time as disembodied souls. You have also survived the reintegration of your souls into your respective bodies without killing your present selves or destroying both souls in the process. You have erased a future of the whole universe,” she paused to peer at Strange, “and it seems you did so simply because you were dissatisfied.”

Strange flinched.

“You are meant to be the best of us,” the Ancient One softly said to him. “You betrayed your oath. Why?”

“Whoa, hold up,” Tony threw an arm out in front of Strange, feeling oddly protective of his new (dare he say it?) friend. “What oath exactly did he betray? Because as far as I’m concerned, he’s saving all of our asses here.”

“Stark—”

“As Sorcerer Supreme, his oath is to protect reality to the best of his abilities, no matter what personal preferences he might otherwise have,” the Ancient One explained to Tony. “It doesn’t so much matter who lives or dies, be it you or I or Stephen Strange himself, so long as reality remains intact. And yet he acted in a way that destroyed the reality you came from. He erased it, all of it, to save you.”

Tony recoiled from her, brows furrowing in confusion. “What? No, we’re saving more than just me!”

The Ancient One turned back to Strange, whose eyes were fixed on the floor. “Master Strange intended to save you first and foremost. I should like to hear his reason. It had best be a good one, considering it cost an entire universe.”

It took Strange a moment, but he began, “…we won, in the end, and we took back everyone who were vanished into the Soul Stone dimension when Thanos snapped. Or rather, you did. You and your team,” he said, looking at Tony, who of course knew nothing of this, for in his past future it hadn’t happened yet. “But ultimately, the losses we suffered negated that. The world was in shambles. You weren’t there, Stark, but if you were, you’d agree that the trade-off wasn’t fair.”

“It is not up to us to determine justice, Master Strange,” the Ancient One sighed. “We merely keep the balance.”

“That may be your philosophy as the Sorcerer Supreme, but you gave over that mantle to me knowing full well that I would want to do more than just keep the balance,” Strange suddenly leaned forward, bracing one hand on the wooden floor. “Keeping the balance kept us losing, Master. I saw over fourteen million futures and the only one where we won was the one where I broke the rules and chose Stark over keeping the balance.”

Tony blinked, fighting back the awful memory of Strange handing the Time Stone over to Thanos under the red-orange light of Titan’s dying sun.

“And even that wasn’t good enough,” Strange continued, although quieter and more despondent. “There were too many mistakes. The world was too shattered to be fixed. Master, we cannot stand aside and simply keep the balance without stopping to question precisely what the balance protects. If so many lives lose their purpose, even a perfectly balanced world would collapse. Even Thanos, in the end, realized this truth. Do we want to pretend to be like him, above all moral concerns and only occupied with our isolated oaths? We cannot afford to pretend to impartiality, Master, the cost is simply too high.”

It was then that Tony realized he was witnessing a philosophical disconnect between two very different Sorcerer Supremes. The Ancient One seemed to operate on the principle of non-interference, whereas Strange, by training a physician, lived to interfere. Tony agreed with him, of course. No one was exempt from the coursing of time. They lived in one universe, after all.

The Ancient One looked between the two of them and then away, heaving a momentous sigh. They seemed at an impasse now. Tony couldn’t think of anything to say, so he chose to occupy his mouth with the tea. It really is amazing tea.

“I think you will agree that the Eye of Agamotto should remain with me for now,” she then declared after long minutes of silence.

Strange nodded. “I’ve no need of it, and besides, it’s safer here. I’ll probably be exposed to more risks given I’ll be attached to Stark.”

“You make that sound like such a chore,” Tony said, earning himself a short glare.

“What about your third companion?” the Ancient One nursed her own teacup, shrewdly eyeing them over its rim. “Has he spoken with you at all?”

“No,” Strange sighed. “I will keep trying to reach Asgard.”

“You would do well to do so,” she nodded. “Having the Asgardians as allies would very well turn the tide of the war against the Mad Titan. Their armies are yet unmatched within the Nine Realms, despite Odin’s pernicious arrogance.”

Oof, Tony winced, you know you have a terrible rep if even the puny humans on the backwater realm of Midgard know about how much of an asshole you are.

“The Prince Loki is a formidable mage, indeed perhaps among the three strongest in the Nine Realms. He simply does not apply himself,” the Ancient One intoned. Something about that tickled Tony but he didn’t know what. “If you secure his alliance, you will surely stand a chance at steering the fate of this reality towards a different future. That is your intention, yes?”

Strange and Tony both nodded, although Tony almost quailed when faced with the bare truth of what they had to achieve in ten short years.

“Then I believe you will require this, Master Strange,” the Ancient One procured two golden rings in her hand, passing them over with a solemn gaze. “Take two, you never know when you need a spare. I expect you to keep in touch. The New York Sanctum will not need a new master for another few years yet, but when the time comes…”

“I will serve,” Strange dipped his head forward.

“Very good,” she breathed, soft and quiet. And then, as if to remind all of them once more, she said, “You are meant to be the best of us, Stephen. Do not lose sight. You have already sacrificed so much; what’s done is done. You cannot let it all be in vain.”

“Yes, Master. I won’t.”




Standing under a cherry blossom tree in the courtyard outside, Tony breathed in. “This is impossible. It’s not warm enough for the bloom. Is this magic too?”

Strange stood beside him and looked up at the tree. “It blooms even in the dead of winter. It is said that a master who had reached the end of his natural lifespan came here and committed suicide to water the roots of this dying tree with his blood. Ever since his death, the tree has been in eternal bloom.”

“Well, that’s pleasantly morbid,” Tony blinked, looking away from the tree. “Are all your legends so grim?”

“Most legends become legends because they are tragedies,” Strange sagely responded, before perking up and honing in on something behind Tony. “Stay here, I’ll be just a moment.”

“Huh? Hey, wait, where are you going?”

But Strange didn’t go far, instead darting across the courtyard to catch an acolyte—apparently that was what they were called—carrying a stack of books and, of all things, a human skull. What the hell.

“Master Kaecilius, a moment of your time,” Tony heard Strange say with the help of JARVIS’ outstanding audio enhancement.

The acolyte tilted his head in apparent confusion. “Of course, honored guest, but I am no Master.”

“Not yet,” Strange said, alarming Tony, “but you will be. And when you come to discover knowledge that shakes the very foundation of everything you knew to be good and true, before you do anything else, I would like you to come and find me.”

What the fuck? Weren’t they supposed to keep the time traveling thing a secret?

The acolyte frowned at Strange. “And… how might I do so, without your name?”

“Dr. Strange. Stephen Strange.”

Tony came up behind him to add, “And if you can’t find him, you can always find me.”

The acolyte then bowed as much as could over his stack of books. “I thank you, honored guests. If you will excuse me, I must finish my tasks.”

They watched the acolyte walk away, disappearing into another hall. Tony tugged Strange back and hissed, “What the fuck?”

“I’m fixing things,” Strange assured him, pushing at his shoulder to nudge him back towards the tree. “That man is supposed to make problems, I’m just making sure he doesn’t this time.”

“Oh,” Tony blinked, and then frowned. “You and me, buddy, we need to have a nice, long, detailed talk. We can’t keep doing this to each other. We have got to be on the same page. I need to know what to expect from you—”

“—and likewise,” Strange said, slipping his fancy ring on and spinning a portal open, “because to be frank, I didn’t pay a whit of attention to that whole civil war fiasco, so I’ll need a primer.”

“Ugh, great,” Tony grimaced, both at the thought of rehashing that whole disaster to the doctor and the magic portal he now had to go through. They emerged in what he assumed was Strange’s hotel room on the other side. “I’m gonna have to get used to that, aren’t I.”

“Portals are convenient,” Strange said, already moving to gather what few belongings he had unpacked.

“A portal was also almost a one-way trip into space for me,” Tony pointed out. He rubbed at his chest, flashbacks of his first glimpse at the Chitauri army still as vivid as if it just happened yesterday.

“Ah, I forgot about that. Post-traumatic stress?” Strange came up to him all packed, once again spinning a portal into existence, this time into the dining room of Tony’s Malibu mansion. “Exposure therapy usually works. After you, Stark.”

Asshole,” Tony spat, stomping through the portal nonetheless.

Fascinating,” JARVIS said from overhead. “Welcome home, sir, twenty hours earlier than expected.”

“JARVIS, show the wizard his room, he can have the blue one,” Tony sighed, tugging at his tie with annoyance. Exposure therapy, his ass. “I’m gonna take a shower. I’m gross.”

He tuned out the sound of JARVIS talking to Strange, walking into the master suite and undressing with much grumbling. God, what an absolute asshole! How was Tony supposed to put up with this kind of disrespect?

It wasn’t until after the shower that he recalled the Ancient One saying that Strange had abandoned everything just to save him.

Well, fine, alright. I guess I can take a little disrespect.

“I sincerely doubt that, sir,” JARVIS responded, making Tony realize he had said that out loud.

Tony balled up his towel and threw it at one of JARVIS’ ceiling sensors.

“Mature, sir, very mature.”

And just for that, Tony stuck out a tongue.




Having Strange in his house was not as strange (hah) as Tony was expecting it would be. They were both early morning people, Tony on account of not having a structured sleeping schedule, Strange because he was a surgeon. JARVIS fired up the coffee machine and Strange made breakfast in silence while Tony sat looking over the newsreel for the day. It was a bit early for CNN and MSNBC, but BBC, Bloomberg, and Reuters already had fresh news. The markets were looking positively peachy, and Tony was about to throw them a party in a couple weeks too... maybe Pepper was right, he should pace it out.

The blender went silent, shutting off on its own. “Sir, your juice is ready,” said JARVIS.

Tony gagged. “Must I?”

“Only a few more days of it, sir. We must eliminate all of the palladium poisoning your system.”

Strange frowned at the green juice, clearly curious as to its contents. “What, exactly, is in this concoction?”

JARVIS recited the juice’s table of contents in milligrams and milliliters while Tony chugged it in one go. It sounded far better than it tasted. He shoved the empty tumbler in the sink, demanding that Strange finish the omelets now now so that he could have something to chase the taste from the back of his throat.

“It’s vile,” Tony declared for the umpteenth time, to which JARVIS responded, “But it works.”

“How high have his serum palladium levels been?” Strange frowned, plating the omelets in one smooth motion.

“I’m afraid sir’s medical information is above your clearance level, doctor.”

“JARVIS, grant Dr. Strange clearance level 1,” Tony immediately overrode, bringing their coffee cups to the dining table for a proper breakfast. He added over his shoulder, “You have access to everything short of my bank accounts and the Iron Man suits, aren’t I so nice?”

“I don’t need your bank accounts or your suits,” Strange scoffed as they sat. “You should be more careful who you trust.”

“I am,” Tony evenly told him, “but with you I have no choice. We have no choice. We’re stuck with each other now, like it or not. It’s just us here.”

“You haven’t told your wife?” Strange raised both eyebrows in surprise. “I was under the impression that you told her everything.”

“Again, she is not my wife, and that didn’t start until,” Tony vaguely waved his fork, “later. Much later. We had to go through some shit. Which, if I have anything to say about the matter, and I do, she won’t have to go through it again. Once was enough, I can’t keep making her cry in every version of reality.”

Strange put down his cutlery, having only taken one bite of his food, and met him eye to eye. “Stark, for what it’s worth, I am sorry. You’ve given up a lot.”

“But I stand to gain even more,” Tony replied, “and every gamble with worthwhile gain carries high risk. Keep calm and carry on, right? Stark men are made of iron, after all.” He regarded his omelet and took a sip of his coffee. “I’m not saying it doesn’t suck, but I can deal. We can deal. I can’t begin to fathom why you did what you did to spare me, but since you’ve gone that far, I think I can count on you to stick around. I can, right?” Tony looked back up again, peering into Strange’s solemn face.

Strange took longer than a moment to respond, long enough that Tony started to sweat. But when he did respond, it was with the weight of a vow, something Tony didn’t realize he needed until he heard it. “I know that we’re practically strangers to each other, but all the same I’ve watched you try to save the universe in fourteen million odd possibilities at great cost to yourself. You’ve more than shown me that you’re worthy, Stark. You have my loyalty. I won’t betray you like the Rogue Avengers did in the past.”

Tony sagged in his chair. “Great. Awesome. That’s, yeah.”

Strange returned to his omelet, eating with quiet efficiency.

Tony cleared his throat, “Likewise, doc. If you need anything. If something comes up on your end. Whatever I can do.”

Strange nodded. “We have to be ruthless about this. We can’t cut corners. Whatever needs to be done, with whatever means we have and whatever resources are available. We have to stack our chances for the best possible future.”

“Like I said, we gotta make good choices,” Tony agreed. “It’s just us.”




Tony expounded upon his plans while Strange sat and manipulated the timeline like yesterday. “It sounds like you’ve thought about what you can do differently to great extent. I don’t have much to add,” Strange told him.

“Nothing? Not even PR advice?”

“You of all people don’t need PR advice from me,” Strange scoffed, “and besides, you know how to navigate the business world far better than I ever will. Again, I’ll do what I can to help you, but you’ll have to tell me what you need.”

“Well,” Tony tapped his chest, “getting this out would be nice? It’s a liability.”

“I can do that tomorrow, if you like,” Strange nodded, sweeping aside all the other holos floating over the work desk to clear some space. Strange was learning how to interact with the consoles at a speed that reassured Tony of how intuitive his system was. “JARVIS, that schematic of the arc reactor again, please, and in the highest fidelity you can manage. Stark, I’d like to run some labs. What sort of medical equipment do you have in here?”

“Wait, whoa, tomorrow? Don’t you, like, need a team? An operating room? This was a whole production the last time. You don’t want to do it in here, do you?” Tony gaped.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t compare me to your previous physicians,” Strange archly replied. “I can do it here, tomorrow, unless you’d like to wait a while longer. It would just be the two of us. I will push your soul out of your body and into the astral plane; you will not feel anything until after I pull you back. I assume JARVIS has the capacity to monitor your vitals in live time, and I will use magic to stitch your flesh back together such that your recovery will be much faster. You will be sore for a few days, I expect, but beyond that,” Strange shrugged, “I’m picking splinters out of tissue, it’s really not a complicated procedure.”

“Sure,” said Tony, “not complicated at all, it’s only my heart.”

“And here I thought you didn’t have one,” Strange shot back, mouth pulled into a lopsided smirk.

“Watch it, Gandalf,” Tony pointed a soldering iron at him, “or I’ll fund someone else’s neuroscience institute!”

“And condemn Starktech to be used and managed by subpar hands? You would never,” the smirk on Strange’s face widened even as he appeared entirely focused on Tony’s anatomical schematic. Moments like these made Tony feel like he had to play catch-up, as if the doctor knew him far better than Tony knew himself.

They then spoke about what sort of research funding Tony could provide for Strange that would sound like a reasonable cover for their frequent meetings. Metropolitan would eventually have to get involved, but they were both post-doctoral researchers in their own rights and had plausible reason to indulge in an exchange of scientific ideas without prompting from their institutions.

“It doesn’t have to be anything too special, donate a 3-Tesla MRI or two and call it a day,” Strange shrugged.

“No, no, and no! I have a reputation to uphold, you know! Tell me about things you actually need. Or want. You don’t have to need it, if it’s just something nice you’d like to have. Like portable scanners, maybe? I heard about that at the tech hall yesterday.”

Strange sighed, “I’ll think about it.”

“It has to be convincing,” Tony pressed, “something worth the both of us spending so much time together for. Hey, by the way, I’m moving to New York soon, wanna be neighbors? That’d help as an excuse! You’ll be my new friend, welcoming me to a new city!”

“I live in Murray Hill, nowhere near where Stark Tower would be built.”

“Actually, I won’t be living in the tower.” Tony met Strange’s surprised look and shrugged. “I’ve gotten used to a measure of privacy, and besides, the tower is a target. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.”

“Where, then?”

“Still looking. Kinda got pushed to the back burner. Anyway, I need two, maybe three months to wrap shit up here, it’s a big move, I’ll be busy, so it can wait a little.”

“If you want,” Strange quietly offered, “I can ward your new residence when you decide. Magically, I mean. I’m sure you’ll have your own security measures, but I can add an extra layer against more… arcane threats.”

Tony was struck speechless for a spell. “Right, you can do that! Damn, this magic business is really blowing my mind. I keep having to remind myself it exists. Okay, how would that work, exactly? Because I need JARVIS to maintain his link to StarkNet.”

“That can be arranged. Kamar-Taj has wi-fi. I will study their wards, which are the strongest across the four Sanctums, and attempt to replicate it. Give me some time.”

“Kamar-Taj has wi-fi,” Tony echoed, incredulous. “Well, I’ll be.”

Strange rolled his eyes and stood. “We’re not barbarians, Stark. Now, I believe I asked for blood samples. How are you with needles?”

“I guess you’re pretty enough, I’ll let you abuse me,” Tony playfully shrugged.

He got stabbed in the arm for his sass.




It was actually nice having someone around, despite the combined sass he got between JARVIS and Strange. It wasn’t quite what he had with Pepper—nothing would be like what I had with Pepper—but it was better than radio silence. It was better than being alone.

Strange had a black sense of humor and wicked wit to boot; he was able to keep up with Tony’s brain and unabashedly gave as much shit as he got, if not more. Such people were rare and therefore deserved to be kept, in Tony’s opinion.

It could be so much worse, Tony told himself, imagine if you got stuck in the past with Rogers!

Tony shuddered. At least if Strange argued with him, it was always for a rational, well-elucidated reason.

“We’re science bros now! We can share toys!” Tony had crowed earlier, inviting the doctor to do whatever he wanted with the miniature medical bay Tony had installed into his workshop. Strange had only hesitated for a brief second before plunging in.

After modifying the bay to his liking, Strange spent the rest of the day in a corner of Tony’s workshop running sims with JARVIS on the different approaches he could use for the arc reactor’s removal. Tony meanwhile installed new arc reactors into his three latest suits, given they would no longer be siphoning energy from his chest. That required quite a bit of finessing and took until well after lunchtime to finish.

They split a pizza for lunch, unwilling to leave their respective stations long enough to make anything more nutritious, and kept working on their solitary pursuits until sundown. Closer to dinnertime again, Strange took samples of Tony’s blood, and his palladium levels were the lowest they’ve ever been (although still worthy of reproach, going by Strange’s reaction). The rest of his blood work returned normal.

“Would you look at that!” Tony skimmed over his liver function results. “And here I thought I killed my liver by the time I hit 30.”

“But your ejection fraction is atrocious,” Strange muttered with displeasure, “what with that thing sitting in your ribcage and taking up real estate. How are you even functioning?”

“Sheer bloody-mindedness? I can’t really stop,” Tony shrugged. “Who else would do all this shit?”

They both knew the answer to that and neither bothered to voice it. Tony was starting on the skeleton of a large-scale 3D printer that would allow him to build parts for the nanite foundry when JARVIS alerted them both to the presence of food.

“I didn’t order anything,” Tony blinked.

“I took the liberty, sir, lest both of you starve.” The dry disapproval was hard to miss.

“You really do keep him alive, don’t you?” Strange huffed as Tony skipped up the stairs to pay the delivery guy.

“Sir does not make it easy.”

Abandoning the workshop, they decided to dine with a view, Strange plating the takeaway on proper dishes before they took all of it to the patio outside. The wind wasn’t too rough and the ocean breathtaking, the orange sun a slowly sinking disc on the horizon. It felt like a reward for a productive day, sitting out here to enjoy a nice dinner with a friend.

Shit, I’ll take it as a reward for surviving time travel!

Tony fetched a fitting vintage from the wine rack and offered Strange a generous pour. “Can I drink before surgery tomorrow?”

Strange made an approving noise at his choice and said, “Nothing to eat or drink after midnight, but yes, you should be fine with a glass or two.”

“This is more than a little bizarre,” Tony confessed, sitting across from Strange and eyeing the food JARVIS had ordered.

“What, never had spaghetti al nero before?”

“Never had dinner with anyone outside of Pepper or Rhodey. Especially not now. I was very much alone here.” Tony twirled a reasonable amount of black spaghetti around the tines of his fork and took a bite. “Are we always going to have big conversations over dinner?”

“You tell me,” Strange shrugged, “you started it.”

“Ever been to Italy?” Tony switched track, and because he could be polite when worth the effort, he asked, “Bread?”

They tore the garlic bread into two, using their fingers because no one else was around to see them anyway. “Twice,” said Strange, “the first time to Rome for school and the second to Firenze for vacation.”

“You know the meaning of that word?” Tony gasped in mock surprise.

“Pot, kettle, Stark.” Strange leaned back and took another appreciative sip of his wine. “This is a very fine vintage. Dare I ask how much money we’re drinking right now?”

Tony shrugged one shoulder. “Don’t know, don’t care. There are only two things for which I don’t count how much money I spend: food and education. Learned that one from my momma.” He then made an indecent noise at the explosion of flavor that came from the mussels. “My god, this seafood! JARVIS, well done.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“It’s very good food,” Strange agreed, “and your mother was a wise woman.”

“I like to think so, but she did marry my dad, which makes me wonder.”

Strange chuckled. “She’s allowed her mistakes, Stark.”

Tony watched him delicately retrieve a mussel from its green-grey shell. Strange knew so much about him, but he knew almost nothing about Strange. Obviously that had to change. “Right, hometown?”

Strange blinked. “Hometown? You mean mine?”

“Yep! We’re playing truth or truth, go!”

“Born in Philly but raised on a farm in Nebraska, why is that relevant?” Strange appeared genuinely confused, brows furrowed down in an expression Tony expected to become quite familiar with in the future.

“Reciprocation! I know almost nothing about you. Just trying to even out the playing field!” and because Tony was a fair player like that, he shared his own answer. “Myself, born in Manhattan, raised—well—everywhere, basically. But we had a house in Long Island and the log cabin in Montana. What was Nebraska like?”

“Torture by boredom,” Strange quickly responded. “Did you go to elementary school? Because I did, and that was even worse than staying at home.”

Tony inelegantly snorted through his next mouthful of pasta. “You were totally that kid. You tested out, didn’t you.”

“As soon as I was allowed. You were homeschooled?”

“Only the very best for Howard’s only child, especially since I’m for all intents and purposes Einstein’s intellectual grandchild,” Tony said with more than a small amount of bitterness, “except Howard himself was too busy to be there, so for the most part, mom and Jarvis raised me. Ah, Jarvis was our butler. I named JARVIS after him.” Both of Strange’s eyebrows were up as he nodded in understanding. “Favorite color?”

“Really?”

“What! It’s a legitimate question!”

Strange sighed. “Red, I suppose.”

“Same! Favorite band?”

“Queen.”

It’s a kind of maaagic,” Tony sing-sang, earning himself an eyeroll. “Hey, no offense meant! I love Queen! Perfect progressions! A worthy choice. You’re totally the Bohemian Rhapsody type!”

“Yours? AC/DC?”

I’m on a hiiighway to hell,” this time Tony threw his arms out and back, JARVIS obediently blasting the chorus to Strange’s exasperation. “Zeppelin too! Good times, bad times, you know I had my share!

By the end of the impromptu chorus, Strange was relaxed and rolling his eyes, an almost empty wineglass in hand. They divvied the last of the bottle between them and Tony went to fetch another one, “The last one,” Strange insisted, “because ‘you can have a drink’ doesn’t mean ‘you can get plastered the night before your cardiac surgery,’ Stark.”

Tony scoffed on the way back into the house, “Two bottles isn’t plastered, doc! You obviously need to live a little!”

Their dirty dishes went into the dishwasher, their desserts retrieved from the box. Tony fetched a Moscato di Pantelleria this time, pitch perfect pairing notes for the cannoli, and two fresh wineglasses from the cupboard. When he returned to the patio, Strange had rearranged their seats to face towards the fading sunset and seemed to be deep in thought.

Settling next to him, Tony almost felt guilty for the ease with which they seem to have adapted to each other. Friendships weren’t exactly supposed to be easy, at least in his experience. Even his road with Rhodey was rocky and riddled with potholes; how many times did Tony push Rhodey away?

But somehow, something told Tony that such tactics wouldn’t work on Strange. He and Strange were reflections on a mirror, a little different but mostly alike, stubborn and proud and fundamentally incapable of surrender. Maybe that was why Tony felt wrong-footed. He never expected to find an equal.

“Is it true, what the Ancient One said?” Tony had to ask. He kept his voice low, almost inaudible under clamor of the ocean waves crashing against the cliffs below. “That you primarily intended to save me?”

“And through you, all the possibilities,” Strange sighed, eyes still locked on something in the distance that Tony could not see. “You were the linchpin for so many futures. You were almost always the decisive point. I watched you try and fail, try and fail, try and keep trying even when defeat was imminent and there was nothing you could conceivably do to win. I suppose you could say I identify with that.”

Tony remained quiet. What was he supposed to respond with?

“Master Kaecilius,” Strange continued, “the acolyte I spoke with at Kamar-Taj, he turned rogue in the future we came from. He summoned an inter-dimensional entity, a demon if you will, from the Dark Dimension. Dormammu, ever-hungry, a glutton for life, seeking to devour as much of the universe as he can to turn it all into a realm of darkness and death. I had to battle him to defend that reality, and I lost.”

“You lost?” Tony echoed, confused. Much like himself, Strange was not the type to concede loss.

“I lost,” Strange turned to give him an unfathomable glance. “I lost many times. Over and over again, Dormammu killed me. There are so many ways to die. I learned that lesson well; I was in that dimension for what felt like an eternity. But I knew that as long as I kept him trapped there in an eternal time loop, he couldn’t wreak havoc on Earth. On our reality. So I tried, and I tried, and I kept trying.”

“Even when there was nothing you could conceivably do to win.” Tony swallowed, unable to let go of Strange’s heavy gaze. “What happened to Cthulhu?”

Dormammu. We negotiated. He left Earth alone on the condition that I remove the time loop from his dimension.” Strange snagged a cannoli between two long fingers and took a bite. “Still one of the neatest bargains I’ve ever made, and I’ve made a few since then.”

Huffing, Tony braced both elbows on his knees and carelessly dangled his wineglass between loose fingertips. “We’re a whack pair, doc.”

“But we can do what needs to be done.”

Tony responded by reaching sideways for a blind toast. Their wineglasses clinked together. Inexplicably, he felt immediately lighter. “Hey, do you feel up to meeting Pepper?”

Now?”

“No, of course not, she’s a busy woman! This weekend,” Tony grinned, “she usually comes over to check on whether I’m still alive and breathing anyway. You’d like her, she’s no-nonsense, very practical.”

“And what, pray tell, am I supposed to tell her about our association?” Strange sighed.

Tony shrugged, “We met at a medical conference and your ideas were interesting to me. I’ve talked to her about SI’s expansion, so she has an idea of how much I want to change things. It wouldn’t seem out of character.”

“If you say so,” Strange ceded. “Again, you know this territory better than I do. I’m just here to support you.”

Tony grinned. “Aw, doc. You’re making me blush!”

“That also means I’m here to keep you in line,” warned the doctor, and the only possible response to that was Tony’s trademark flirtatious smirk.

“Oh, you’ll need all the luck you can get then,” he told Strange, “because the other two people who have tried to do that in my life were never really successful.”

Strange only shrugged, taking another sip of his wine. “Perhaps the third one’s the charm, who knows?”

Who knows, indeed. Despite himself, Tony realized that he wanted to find out.




On account of his impending surgery, Tony was unable to drink his green juice the next morning. (Good riddance.) He woke having slept with disturbed dreams, phantasms of what had happened in the future meshing incongruously with what could go wrong in this new reality. He was no stranger to these dreams, though. Anxiety and Tony were old friends.

“Uh, JARVIS, ask the good doctor what I’m supposed to wear?”

It took a moment, and then JARVIS replied, “Doctor Strange would like for you to shower, soaping your chest thoroughly for more than a minute, and then change into something comfortable.”

“Did he just accuse me of being a slob?” Tony exclaimed, nevertheless marching to his shower and stripping as he went.

“The doctor did not deign to grace you with a reply.”

“What a witch,” Tony grumbled good-naturedly. Strange’s sass was refreshing, at least. Tony could have landed a worse weirdo for a friend.

As directed, he took care to lather well and thoroughly rinse on and around the arc reactor. Afterwards he pricked his finger to get a blood sample for JARVIS to run to the doctor. While he was toweling dry, he had JARVIS read out the news reel’s highlights to him, focusing mostly on the market numbers with a little bit of attention given towards the country’s current political climate. He had some work to do on that front once this reactor business was taken care of.

“Any headway into the SHIELD hack, old friend?”

“More than satisfactory, sir,” JARVIS responded with judicious pride. “I am currently secreting surveillance nodes into their network. I shall soon be able to intercept their communications for you with complete invisibility.”

“Excellent,” Tony grinned, tugging on sweatpants and shrugging into a black shirt. Workout clothes were probably the most comfortable things he owned.

Out of respect for his inability to have breakfast, the doctor sat at the kitchen counter with but a cup of coffee and a holo reflecting light into his bright blue eyes. Like chips of ice, Tony thought, or blue diamonds, maybe. Definitely something cold and capable of cutting deep.

“Good morning. How do you feel?” Strange asked him, those eyes now leveling on Tony to inspect his countenance.

“Good, I think. When do we start? The sooner I get food in me, the sooner I’m less hangry.”

Strange collapsed the holo and stood at once. “Let us proceed, then.”

Downstairs, the med bay was ready. Strange had obviously been up for more than an hour, preparing for the procedure in his own quiet way. A few tools were laid out as well as emergency equipment enough to stock a first responder trauma rig.

“So, uh, do I just…?” Tony motioned to the table.

Strange manipulated the table into chair-mode and said, “Take your shirt off and sit down. I’ll explain everything I’m about to do. At this moment, I simply wish to examine you. JARVIS, vitals and a full body scan, please.”

JARVIS, understanding that his creator was about to undergo a significant threat to his wellbeing in the form of this procedure’s risks, took the liberty to redirect the majority of his computing capacity to the doctor’s service. Numbers, graphs, and 3D scan images began to crowd into each other before the doctor’s eyes.

“Heart rate’s a little high. Nervous?”

“Nope, totally not, absolute fucking of course I’m nervous, you’re about to cut into my heart,” Tony blurted out. He rubbed his palms on his sweatpants in poorly hidden anxiety.

Jesus on a stick, what was he doing? Here was a complete stranger, about to literally open his heart. The complete stranger took him away from a terrible future only to confront him with an uncertain past. When was the last time he trusted someone like this with his fucking heart?

I got fucked over, Tony remembered, I got trampled on, I got left behind, I wasn’t ever enough, I—

“—ny. Tony,” Strange was saying, “look at me.

Tony gasped for breath, looking up at the doctor as he was bid. Within seconds, something within him eased and the panic began to ebb away.

“That’s it, keep breathing. You were having a panic attack. I’d say perfectly normal, all things considered. We can still proceed,” Strange assured him, before tacking on, “that is, if you’d like to proceed.”

Tony blinked and then blinked again. He opened his mouth, closed it, and nodded. He said, “Sorry, that was. Um.”

“Not something to apologize for,” Strange easily followed. “Your labs look good today. Into the single digits for the serum palladium level, well done. Your scans are more than satisfactory. We’re in good shape for this. Do you want to wait a moment before we begin?”

“Let’s just get it over with.” Shaking his head, Tony hopped onto the chair, skin breaking out in goosebumps when his bare back touched the cold chair. Arm rests came up to support him on either side. Strange retrieved an infusion pump set up on a pole and set it aside, before sanitizing his hands and putting his gear on. Once the surgical mask and head cover was on him, it left only his eyes for Tony to look at.

“While JARVIS’ superb scanning capacity precludes the need to hook you up to continuous monitoring, I’ll still need to place an IV for a continuous fluid infusion to keep your body hydrated. I’ll also need to insert an arterial line to be able to closely monitor your blood pressure.” Tony nodded, offering up his arms. Strange put gloves on and began to work.

“Should I also wear a mask?”

“Not necessary for this part, and soon enough you’ll be unconscious,” the doctor said, deftly inserting a needle under Tony’s skin and straight into a vein without need for so much as a tourniquet. “Ordinarily, I would intubate you—”

“—but magic?” Tony managed a nervous smile.

“But magic,” Strange agreed, the corner of his eyes barely crinkling in what was perhaps a smirk. “Now for your other arm—”

“Two?! What did I ever do to you!”

“In case of an emergency,” Strange blinked at him, unimpressed. Tony surrendered his right arm with a sigh; the doctor put an IV there too.

In short order, he was hooked up to two infusion pumps, one quietly giving him saline and the other on a trickle rate, ready for ‘an emergency’ that Tony did not want to see. The arterial line was slightly messier and more painful, although Strange numbed his wrist with lidocaine beforehand. Tony curiously watched him the entire time and deduced, “Does it work by translating the kinetic energy into a waveform?”

Said waveform began transducing on the med console as soon as Strange finished leveling the line. “The radial artery is less accurate than a pulmonary artery catheter, but you’re nowhere near ill enough for anything like that. The transducer works with atmospheric pressure so it has to be properly leveled as well.”

“I can make such a killing out of biotech,” Tony marveled, anxiety almost entirely forgotten when confronted with new ideas.

Strange told him, “I’m laying you down now,” and then used the med console to adjust him from chair-mode to table-mode. It was too hard a table; Tony needed to work on that too.

“Are you ready?” Strange then asked, looking down at him with bright blue eyes.

“Are we ever?” Tony shrugged as best as he could. He felt better now, though. The doctor didn’t have the warmest bedside manner, but Tony appreciated the open and straightforward approach.

Strange made a sudden whirling arm motion and then slammed a palm down on Tony’s sternum—Tony’s world went white.




Whoa.

It was difficult to describe. Tony had no words for it. He felt so weightless and yet simultaneously sluggish, like he was swimming underwater. Strange reached for him, pulled him up through his own body and then past it. He began to float towards the ceiling, fascinated by the shifting layers of—of energy?—he could see with his bare eyes.

Did he have eyes right now?

“Do I have eyes right now?” Tony asked, hearing his own voice echo dully within the bay. He was floating above himself, softly and towards the high ceiling.

“That depends,” Strange responded with much amusement, “on whether or not you require eyes to see.”

What a wizened sage-like response.

In this form, Tony perceived the quality of the doctor’s voice to be sharper and more solid-sounding. Tony brought his own hands in front of his face and marveled at them, two vaguely hand-shaped transparent collection of glimmering fairy dust. He gasped softly, “Is my soul golden? I am golden!

“Don’t let it get to your head,” Strange snorted, now busily adorning Tony’s unconscious body with a sterile drape after sterilizing his chest and the arc reactor with antiseptic scrubs. “JARVIS, notify me if Tony’s oxygen saturation dips below 92%. His MAP must remain above 65. Prepare the first unit of blood just in case.”

“Unit priming,” JARVIS intoned with some concern. “Sir’s vitals are stable at this time, but am I to understand that you are able to converse with him at this time, doctor?”

“His soul is here, yes, but temporarily dissociated from his body,” Strange then paused and looked up at the ceiling. “I’m sorry, JARVIS. I’ll work with him and try to figure out sensors that will be capable of detecting energy on the astral plane. It’ll take some time, but between Stark and myself, we should be able to figure something out.”

Just for that—just for treating JARVIS like an actual being with feelings—Strange earned Tony’s loyalty for good.

“JAAARVIS,” Tony sing-sang, “JAAAARVIS, buddy!”

“JARVIS can’t hear you, Tony.”

“I am sorry, sir,” JARVIS immediately apologized.

“No, no, tell him not to be sorry!”

Strange sighed, “Stark says you don’t need to apologize, JARVIS. Stark, behave and let me concentrate.”

“Fine, party pooper.”

Leaving the doctor to his task, Tony whirled around and around in the air, testing the odd weightless mobility of this form in utter fascination. His legs and feet, which were floating a meter clear off the floor, were of the same shimmering golden fairy dust quality as his hands and the rest of his body. His—his astral form, wasn’t that what Strange called it?—wore the same things his physical body wore, bare-chested with sweatpants on. He then wondered if he would see changes happen on his astral chest as Strange operated on his physical one.

Cooooool. And kinda freaky, but definitely cool.

Strange was now adorned in a sterile surgical gown and a top layer of nitrile gloves. The tool table slid next to his right elbow as he glanced up towards the med console. He picked up a sterile scalpel from the table, summoned a miniature golden rune to his left pointer finger, and with nary a pause began to slice.

“Yeaaaah, okay, that’s fucking weird I’m out,” Tony said, shooting to the other side of the workshop with an astral shudder.

Don’t go too far,” Strange sharply barked, although his hands never wavered and his concentration remained razor-sharp.

“Just gonna be over here not looking at myself get cut open, thanks,” Tony responded, voice a little strangled. He truly didn’t feel anything, though. It was more the idea of the thing. He looked down at his astral chest and was thankful it didn’t seem to reflect what was happening to his flesh body in real time. That would have been truly weird.

For the lack of a better thing to do, Tony began to shoot from wall to wall and corner to far corner, avoiding only the med bay’s general direction. It felt like the moment a diver sliced into the water after jumping off a high cliff. Motion when in astral form was driven by intent, he soon began to understand, and the stronger his intent was, the stronger the motion became.

Out of curiosity, he stuck a hand out and attempted to push a wrench from one of his worktables. He failed the first three times, his disembodied hand passing harmlessly through matter, but the wrench clattered to the floor on the fourth try.

“What part about behaving and allowing me to concentrate did not make sense, Stark?”

“I’m a poltergeist!” Tony crowed. “Did you see that?!”

“I sincerely doubt you wanted me to, it would’ve required me to look away as I’m cutting your pericardium open while your heart is still beating. And you’re not a poltergeist; those are generally uglier and tend to be a whole lot less argumentative.”

Less argumentative? Wait, there are actually poltergeists? Wait, you’re already in my pericardium?” Tony shot towards the bay despite his best judgment.

“I’m not in your—”

“You took it out,” Tony gasped, looking over the open cavity of his own thorax, what remained of his sternum cracked and the ribcage spread wide to allow space for Strange to work. The arc reactor was securely held above Strange’s hands by one of JARVIS’ robotic arms. “It’s out.” Tony experienced a brief wash of vertigo.

“Yes, that’s rather what we came here to do, isn’t it? Now shush.”

Tony watched, mentally and emotionally staggered, as the doctor gently eased the first piece of shrapnel out of his cardiac tissue. As soon as it was out, Strange pressed his glowing left fingertip to the microtear left behind, sealing it shut with magic. The shrapnel flew to magnetically adhere to the arc reactor as soon as Strange’s forceps released it. There was barely a drop of blood.

Strange was healing his heart, literally, one microtear at a time.

“It’s not usually this clean,” Strange quietly told him, “but magic. Convenient and wonderful and infinite in its applications. Imagination is really the only limit.”

With graceful efficiency, the doctor took one shrapnel out after another. Tony watched, mesmerized. “You make it look so easy. Last time, I was told this took three hours.” Now it looked like Strange would be finished in under one.

“Again, please desist from comparing me to your prior physicians. I do not appreciate it,” Strange sniffed.

Tony laughed a genuine and booming laugh. “You’re one of a kind, doctor wizard, I don’t dare deny it!”

He hovered there the rest of the time, watching in halfway horrified fascination as Strange manipulated his heart with measured calm and competent care. No one would have been able to tell that Strange was not a cardiac surgeon with how easily he turned Tony’s heart this way and that, lifting it from its resting place to retrieve a wayward shrapnel lodged in the inferior wall. Every now and then, Strange would look up to the med console, especially when it made blooping noises Tony took to be his irregular heart rate. At no point did he seem rushed or particularly concerned, remaining entirely in control for the duration of the procedure.

Tony would be lying if he said he didn’t find that kind of assurance attractive.

Christ on a stick, Stark, get a grip, he sighed to himself. Here he was, mere days separated from his once-wife but already looking at someone else, what was he doing? I can’t ruin a perfectly good friendship with all the complications of romance. So messy, romance. Hardly worth it anymore.

Crossing his astral arms, Tony thought on that. He and Pepper had stayed together in that past future like two shipwrecked survivors clutching at each other after the devastation of the storm. They counted themselves impossibly lucky, in fact unworthy on Tony’s part, for having survived with each other to still hold. After all, most of everyone else lost their someone. Some people lost everyone.

But if given a choice, would I do it again? Tony wondered, because now I have a choice. Should I be with her again? Is that wise, knowing all the things that will happen, knowing what’s coming for us? Wouldn’t it be kinder to let her go?

He thinks then about Pepper’s face, her beautiful eyes and the little creases that came up around them when she smiled. Her hair, the smell of it in the breeze. The warmth of her hand in his.

You don’t deserve the grief I caused you.

Tony sighed, dropping his arms to his sides. It seemed the decision was already made.

“Almost done, Stark, do try not to wilt of boredom,” Strange intoned, extending a thin suction catheter into the cavity containing his heart and removing the little bit of blood that had collected there. “I’m closing soon.”

Please take your time, doc, it’s only my heart,” Tony urged, hovering around to peer under the drape at his own slack face. “Wow, I’m so handsome even when I’m knocked out!”

“Whatever makes you feel better about yourself, douchebag. Quit disturbing my drape.”

Tony backed away a touch to see that his astral hip had indeed bumped against the drape and nudged it like a breeze would nudge a leaf. “Are you always this much of a control freak?”

“Pot, kettle.”

“You totally are,” Tony snorted, “I feel so sorry for the nurses who work with you.”

“They are in one of the most well-paid professions out there, and they are certainly well taken care of at my institution, so don’t feel too obliged.” Strange removed the rib retractor and began to pull the fascia together, aligning the ribs and what remained of Tony’s natural sternum the best that he could. Peering down at Tony’s chest, he paused. “Hmm. A layer at a time, then. It’s really a wonder how you walked out of that cave alive. You should have at least died of sepsis.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve established that I like defying odds,” Tony shrugged.

Strange looked up at him, eyes briefly crinkling in what could have been a smile, before he turned back to his work. A titanium alloy plate was waiting on the tool table, to be reshaped with magic to fit into the gaping hole the arc reactor left in his ribcage and sternum. Tony thought that Strange would make a pretty good engineer himself, considering the care he took with fitting the titanium pieces into the edges of remnant bone. He wondered then about bio-tissue printing and Dr. Cho’s Cradle.

“I know we didn’t have time, but what’s the viability of growing my own bone and implanting that instead of the titanium in the future?”

Strange flashed a glance at him again and agreed, “That would be a better alternative than metal, which comes with the risk of hypersensitivity. We can certainly revisit the surgery later to replace the metal with bone. You would, however, lose the increased structural support the titanium alloy will provide.”

“Everything’s a give and take, I guess.”

“It would be better in the long run and no doubt more comfortable for you,” Strange said, running a glowing fingertip over the slit in a diaphanous layer of flesh covering Tony’s heart. The flesh easily knit itself back together as if it was never touched.

Holy shit, Tony thought. “Um, if you do that to all your patients, you could save all of them.”

“Not all of them, no,” Strange was now doing the same to the next layer, which was a thicker sheaf of muscle, “and I’d probably break my colleagues if I tried to explain magic to them. I have to write a note of everything I did and how I did it, you know. This certainly makes things easier but it’s a technique I can only use with you since we’re in private. And to be honest, I didn’t know if it would work at first, but look at that.” The muscle was now cleanly knit together to encase bone and titanium. The only parts left were the superficial layers of fat and skin.

Tony put an astral hand over his astral chest and said, “You un-broke my heart!”

Strange snorted. “That’ll be a first.”

“Likewise,” Tony grinned, now looking forward to what it would feel like to properly breathe again.

Shortly thereafter, Strange finished up and disposed of the significant waste. The drapes came off and there Tony was, less an arc reactor, looking quite deeply asleep and unwilling to be disturbed. The skin over his chest where the reactor used to sit looked pink and a little raw.

“It’ll be tender for a few days, but I will accelerate the healing. Skin is easy; the cells are accustomed to rapid replication. I didn’t dare do that to your bones; I don’t want to give you cancer,” Strange explained, obviously having thought of everything.

“Is it time for me to go back now?” Tony asked, taking great delight in pushing his disembodied hand through his own flesh chest and watching himself shimmer gold.

“I will put you back but keep you asleep. No, I won’t hear any arguments, you need to sleep.

“But I just woke up!”

“Your body will need the rest.”

“Rest is for suckers!”

“I just did heart surgery on you, douchebag, be reasonable.”

“Reasonable is a foreign country—”

“Doctor’s orders, and right now you are my patient. You will sleep.”

“I am inclined to agree with the doctor, sir,” JARVIS then intoned, still monitoring his body’s vital signs amongst other things. “You slept last night but poorly. You would greatly benefit from the rest.”

“I have no allies left in this house,” Tony mourned, “everyone teams up on me, even DUM-E!”

“Your life would be much easier if you just cooperate. Now,” Strange beckoned him closer, “I will watch over you while you sleep. We can talk when you wake. Do you have any other questions?”

Tony shook his head no and—Strange shoved him back into his corporeal body. Tony’s world went black.




Awareness returned slowly in ebbs and bursts of sound. Ocean waves crashed distantly against the cliffs below; the sea breeze rustled through some trees. It took a moment for Tony to recognize that it was JARVIS playing white noise tracks as part of his sleep routine. It took another moment for him to pick out that the sound of running water was indeed real and separate from the rest.

JARVIS was saying something that Tony couldn’t make out. There was a muted beeping nearby, steady and reassuring. His chest felt tender but light. He took a deep breath.

“…ing at this time, would you like me to redirect her?” JARVIS asked Tony.

Tony hummed, turning to lay on his side and pulling a pillow under his head. The sheets felt good against his warm skin. “Later, JARVIS.”

“Stark, are you awake?” another voice asked from the direction of his bathroom—Strange, that was Strange, who was here because they took out the arc reactor earlier, and—

JARVIS then said, “I’m afraid that’s not possible, sir, she is—”

Tony Stark!” Pepper came barreling around the corner, heels clicking furiously against the wood. “You will explain yourself this—oh!

Tony rolled over, as startled as Pepper looked. She stood frozen by the entryway into Tony’s suite, hand covering her mouth as she looked between Tony and—and Stephen Strange.

Oh my god, I am so, so sorry, I didn’t mean to, um—”

Strange was half-naked and looked fresh from the shower, wearing only sweatpants (one of Tony’s) with a towel slung over his shoulders. Tony himself was half-naked in the bed, although perhaps from Pepper’s perspective, he could be entirely naked under the covers, how was she to know? Most of his chest was covered, only his shoulders bare.

“Pep, hi, what are you—”

“The news!” Pepper yelped, “The news, you need to check the—JARVIS, show him the—okay, I’ll just, I’ll be in the—I’ll be outside. I am so sorry.”

“Nothing to—” Pepper fled the room, not waiting for Strange to finish saying, “—apologize for.”

In the ensuing silence, the drip of the shower somewhere behind Strange was too loud and perfectly underlined the awkward tension in the room.

“JARVIS, buddy,” Tony began, “would you mind enlightening the doctor and I about what’s got Pepper frantic today?”

Strange jolted back into motion, walking towards the bed and snagging a black stethoscope from the bedside table. He sat next to Tony as Tony sat up. “Don’t move so much, I just fixed you. Take deep, steady breaths. The news can wait; your health comes first.”

Tony did as he was told, blinking against the disorientation still fogging his brain. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept so deeply that he didn’t even dream. The floor-to-ceiling windows were partially shaded to block out the bright sunlight; his clock read 9:24. “Did I sleep a whole day? Like, 24 hours?”

“Yes, and you needed it,” Strange said, removing his stethoscope. “Heart and lungs both sound good, vitals look strong. How does your chest feel when you take a deep breath? Any tightness?”

“No, I feel good,” and shock of shocks, Tony actually meant that. He stretched gently side to side, Strange watching him like a hawk the entire time, and then bent forwards too to see if the titanium would feel any weirder than the arc reactor did. Straightening without pain, he grinned. “I can breathe again!”

“Excellent.”

Now can I look at the news?” Tony said. “Because anything that pisses Pepper off that much can’t be good. Also, uh, I think she thinks we’re—”

“—dating,” JARVIS interjected, calling both of their attentions to the screen mounted on the wall. New York Post, Los Angeles Daily News, Perez Hilton, and Good Morning America were all displaying the same piece of gossip, headlined by a photo that was easy to misconstrue as unmistakable proof. “This was released today, sir. Unfortunately, as you were both asleep, I did not have directive on how to respond. My algorithms indicated that your wellbeing was paramount, therefore I did not wake you up. If I have made an error of judgment, please accept my sincerest apologies.”

IRON-MAN’S NEW LOVE AFFAIR

A TALE OF TWO GENIUSES: DR. STARK AND DR. STRANGE

TONY STARK IS GAY?

“Well, fuck a duck,” Tony swore.

On screen was a surprisingly high-quality photo of Tony and Strange sitting together on the patio enjoying dinner, wine, and a Pacific sunset. Whoever took the photo must have used a very long lens from a boat or the mountains, and they were lucky, because there wouldn’t have been any guarantee that Tony would stick his head outdoors that day. In the photo, Tony was leaning close into Strange, talking and gesturing, face creased into a smile. Strange was likewise looking at him, directly looking at him, intent and serious, an expression easily mistaken for attraction or lust.

Perez Hilton had a second photo, this time shot in front of the LA Convention Center, Tony and Strange talking as they stepped into the convertible. “Hey, at least we look good?”

Strange groaned loudly and fell backwards into the bed.

“What!” Tony twisted to frown down at the man, “You make me sound like such a chore!”

Strange rubbed his face—clean-shaven today—and then leveled him with a severe frown. “I stayed up all night watching over you to make sure you didn’t die.”

“Yeah, so you should be nicer to me, I’m your patient! And your boyfriend, apparently. Because that’s now a thing.”

They were both quiet for a moment, each considering what this new development meant. Strange was the one who sighed and argued, “It would make for a convenient cover, I suppose.”

“We can see each other as much as we want.”

“But your wife.”

“She’s not my wife,” Tony sighed, “and this time she won’t be.”

Strange sat up again, intent to argue the point. “Stark, this can still be fixed, they’re just gossip rags.”

“You better start calling me by my actual name,” Tony shot back, “and there is nothing to fix, Stephen, the world just gave us the most perfect excuse!” When it looked like the doctor wouldn’t relent, Tony added quietly, “Look, I’ve thought about it. Like I said, it’s unfair for me to drag her through the same shit all over again, unfair and selfish. We didn’t start dating until well after I became Iron Man, you know, and from the beginning she always tried to get me to stop trying to save the world.” Tony met Strange’s blue eyes and smiled, “Now we both know that’s not an option.”

Something old and sad came over Strange’s face. “I feel like I’ve stolen the happiness from your life by bringing us here.”

“Happiness can’t be stolen, dumdum,” Tony gently smiled, “and besides, we’re too early in the game. How do you know I won’t be happier in this reality?”

“I don’t,” Strange—Stephen—agreed.

“We both don’t,” Tony nodded. “That’s just part of the bargain. But you know what? I’ve learned that happiness can be made. If you really feel that bad, you can start by making me happy and calling me by my actual name. Because you’re now my extra hot, super smart—what did the New York Post say?—devastatingly handsome booty call, and—”

“I will shove you into the Dark Dimension to shut you up, Tony Stark, don’t try me.”

“Promises, promises!” Tony sang, hopping out of the bed and making his way to the bathroom. “Wanna join me, baby? I can make the booty call worth your—ow! That’s patient abuse!” He gathered the towel that hit his face and ducked into the bathroom before Stephen could throw something else.

Through the door, Tony heard Stephen say, “Hurry it up, I’m not going out there to face her alone!”

All things considered, Tony could only laugh.




tbc
first draft: 2020.04.05
last edited: 2020.05.03




Chapter Text

February 2010

Stephen felt acutely uncomfortable as they walked out of the bedroom shoulder to shoulder. Stark appeared resigned to the new development—relaxed, even—and had a cheerful greeting ready for his not-wife who was pacing nervously in the living room.

“Morning, Pep!” Stark—Tony chirped, leaning in for a one-armed hug and pecking her on the cheek. “You look nice today! Well, you always look nice, but I like the burgundy on you.”

Stephen hung back, waiting until he was introduced. Pepper looked as uncomfortable as he felt; only Stark—Tony—had any semblance of confidence with which to approach this situation.

“Hi, Tony, sorry to barge—I didn’t mean—that was poorly done of me,” Pepper fumbled, hand on Stark’s arm.

Tony’s arm. Stephen sighed. This was not going to be an easy adjustment.

Tony only shrugged, “No harm done. Not the first time you’ve seen me in, er, compromising situations. Probably not gonna be the last.” He turned and beckoned towards Stephen, saying, “Pep, this is Stephen Strange. Met him at that neuroscience convention in LA. Brilliant, really, he’s a neurosurgeon in New York, uh, Metropolitan, right? Stephen, this is Pepper Potts, she basically runs my company.”

“Miss Potts, a pleasure,” Stephen stepped forward to shake her hand, resolutely not allowing himself to look away. This was not Pepper Stark from the old future; this Pepper had no knowledge of him whatsoever. Stephen technically had no reason to feel guilty around her.

“Hi, so nice to meet you, so sorry that I just barged in like that, I promise I don’t always do that,” she immediately apologized, a flustered blush warming her cheeks. “It’s just, Tony usually, well, I didn’t get a notice.”

“That was my bad, Pep, not yours,” Tony assured her, moving towards the coffee machine which was now beeping. “Stephen, coffee?”

“Please, thanks.”

They gathered around the island, Tony pouring three cups and distributing the caffeine with flourish.

“So,” Tony opened as he stirred sugar into his drink, “Perez Hilton and Good Morning America’s not too terrible. How much damage are we seeing?”

Pepper darted a glance towards Stephen but answered with a measure of reassurance. “It’s gossip-level right now. They didn’t get anything really incriminating on camera. For all they know, it could be all business. We could spin it that way if you want.”

“It was partially business,” Tony shrugged, but did not elaborate further. “Stephen, what do you think?”

“You’re asking my advice? I’m not exactly the expert on press relations here,” Stephen pointed out.

“Yeah, but it’s your career. The level of attention I get isn’t exactly comfortable, and it’s often not the friendly kind. It might be safer if we play it down.”

Stark—Tony, ugh—was giving him an out despite their conversation just minutes ago in the bedroom. Realistically, however, Stephen understood that playing it down would only work in the short term. Best cut to the chase, he thought, sending a mental apology once again to Pepper Potts and Stark himself.

“Hiding makes the media more suspicious,” Stephen sighed. “Best just face them head on. The worst they can do is run some speculative pieces and investigate me. They’re not gonna find much.”

“Nothing at all, you’re sure about that?” Tony asked, “Because they will dig.”

“Too busy blasting through double degrees in undergrad and then med school. I also worked at the hospital while studying, I had no time for anything else. As it was, I barely had time to eat or sleep.”

“See!” Tony threw his arms out, “I’m not the only one with a horrible work-life balance!”

“I don’t think you’re making a good case for yourself, getting into a relationship with someone who’s as bad of a workaholic as you are,” Pepper drily remarked, although the smile she pointed towards Tony was fond.

So I already count as a relationship, not a one-night stand, Stephen thought. Go figure.

Tony was busy bristling his hackles for show. “You are the pot, Miss Potts, and I am the kettle!”

Stephen and Pepper both sighed in unison. Pepper turned to him and conciliatorily said, “Dr. Strange, I hope you know what you’re signing up for. Tony’s a mess.”

Stephen blinked at her easy acceptance. She seemed ready to acknowledge him as a new part of Tony Stark’s life with just this one introduction. Practice, perhaps? Stark’s life did tend to go through constant revolution; this was probably not the first time he threw a curveball at her from seemingly out of nowhere. “I’ve had it from good authority that I’m just as much of a mess, Miss Potts. But I’ll gladly give him back if he gets to be too much, I hope you have a forgiving return policy.”

“Hey! No ganging up on me!” Tony yelped, fake-indignant. “Damnit, introducing the two of you was a mistake.”

“I don’t know, Tony, he seems like a good influence on you already,” Pepper’s smile got wider and softer, looking Tony up and down. “You look well. Much better than you did last week. Are you actually eating? Sleeping?”

“Sir has had regular meals since Dr. Strange has been attending to him,” JARVIS interjected. “Sir has also had adequate sleep. I am happy to report that sir is at his healthiest in the past year.”

“Oh, look, here’s another tattler,” Tony mutinously scowled at one of JARVIS’ ceiling cameras. Stephen would bet that JARVIS was being entirely truthful, however, given the arc reactor’s successful removal. He still did not understand why Tony did not have it removed earlier on.

Pepper did not seem to notice the distinct lack of an arc reactor in Tony’s chest; then again, Tony was wearing a thicker long-sleeved top that would effectively obscure the reactor’s light. Stephen idly wondered if Tony planned on hiding this fact from her until she inadvertently discovered it later. Explaining it now would require telling her about Stephen’s magic, which was probably not a good idea.

“Do I need to know what sort of project the two of you were working on?” Pepper was asking now, attention reoriented towards business. “Obviously it’s a project. Is it gonna be part of the big meeting, Tony?”

“Yep, still largely a work in progress, but if everything pans out right, we’re expanding into biotechnologies,” Tony grinned, looking much like a child in a toy store. “Pep, it’s gonna be great. I have so many ideas! Stephen’s helped a lot, we have some stuff already started, I’m telling you, we’re gonna transform medicine.”

Pepper turned to Stephen and said, “Tony seems to have skipped through the formalities, Dr. Strange, but usually, in these circumstances, we have a packet of agreements you’ll need to sign. They’ll be rather binding, considering the nature of your relationship with Tony. Non-disclosure agreements, intellectual property and copyright agreements, a consultancy contract just to be safe.”

“Of course,” Stephen nodded, pulling his phone out and retrieving a contact for her. “My lawyer. I’d appreciate it if you could send a copy of the documents to her. I’ll sign them as soon as you have them available.”

“Ah, Anna Avery,” Pepper nodded, “I’m familiar with her work. Great choice.”

“She’s competent,” Stephen agreed. “On that note, I reserve executive rights on who gets involved in any of the studies, especially if my name will be on the publication.”

Pepper glanced at Tony, who shrugged with a grin. “Wouldn’t dream of stealing your thunder, babe.”

Stephen only blinked.

“Well, then, I shall have the documents in your inbox by this afternoon,” Pepper stood, pushing away from the island and relinquishing her empty coffee cup. She looked between the two of them, saw something else there, and smiled some more. “I’m glad this all turned out to be a good thing. I’ll let you both talk; you know how to get a hold of me if you need me to arrange a press release.”

Tony snorted, pouring himself a second cup already. “Nah, not yet. We’ll at least wait until after the board meeting.”

“Very well,” Pepper primly folded her hands in front of her and asked with a private smile, “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

Tony smiled at her, soft and fond all the same. “That’ll be all, Miss Potts.”

Stephen cast his eyes downwards and occupied his mouth with his own coffee, which swirled dark and bitter in a half-empty cup. Unbidden, a memory rose from the depths of his mind.

 

You can’t erase past mistakes… you can only make new ones.





Pepper Potts returned to her duties, leaving Tony and Stephen alone in the mansion once again. As soon as she was gone, Tony’s shoulders sagged in relief, which he made more obvious with a momentous sigh.

God, that was nerve-wracking. I was for sure she’d notice the reactor’s out.”

“Why are you hiding it from her?” Stephen wondered, leading them back into the house and towards the workshop. He wanted to run a full scan again just to make sure Tony was really in working order. “I would have thought she would have been the first to know.”

Tony snagged another cup of coffee on their way past the kitchen, saying, “Nononono. The more she knows, the more she becomes a target. It’s better to keep her at a distance until I absolutely cannot. She’s already been compromised enough as it is. Besides, SHIELD will be showing up soon, Pep’ll be conned into hiring Natalie Rushman, and that’ll be its own shitshow to handle, I’d rather not have SHIELD know about the new Starkium core or the reactor being out just yet.”

“Am I supposed to know who Natalie Rushman is?” Stephen frowned.

“Natasha Romanoff. Codename Black Widow. You’ve seen her on TV, surely.”

“Didn’t really pay attention to the news,” Stephen shrugged, “I had better things to do than watch your group of renegades trail destruction everywhere.”

Tony stopped halfway down the floating stairs, hand over his reactor-free chest. “Ouch. I tried to stop them from breaking everything, you know.”

“Went swimmingly, I gather.” Stephen put a hand on the man’s shoulder and pushed him onwards, more comfortable now that the not-wife was no longer around to watch them. “To the table, Stark. I need to run another scan, make sure nothing’s torn and bleeding inside you.”

“God, the mistreatment I submit myself to!” Tony cried, throwing one arm up (the one not occupied with coffee). “Seriously, is that necessary? I feel fine. Better than fine, actually.”

“Do you take your suits out for missions with only one prelim scan after an upgrade?” When Tony didn’t have any smart quip to shoot back at him, Stephen smiled. “I didn’t think so. Now sit.”

Tony hopped up on the table without further complaint, putting down his coffee mug and taking off his shirt again. His chest wall looked grossly normal and well-healed, confirming Stephen’s theories about magic and its capacity to reattach severed tissue. The collection of treatises written on the healing arts was small and far too antiquated for modern adaptation, but there were a few golden nuggets there that Stephen could use.

And in this reality, I can actually study and use them. I have the opportunity.

He removed the stethoscope from his ears and inhaled, blinking against the liberating expanse of so many possibilities.

“JARVIS, scan results?” he looked up and JARVIS had them ready for him, truly an intuitive system.

“I took the liberty of applying the settings you used yesterday, doctor. Sir’s overall condition appears exceptional today. I must thank you for a job very well done,” JARVIS responded. True enough, the CT scan was zoomed in and darkened just the way Stephen liked it, slices moving downward slow enough for him to note important details like hidden clots or spontaneously formed aneurysms.

“You’re absolutely wonderful, JARVIS,” Stephen marveled at the spreadsheet of information JARVIS presented him, organized in a sensical manner without him having to hunt the information down himself. “I’m getting spoiled. This level of efficiency will be impossible to replicate at the hospital.”

Tony was laughing as he shrugged his shirt back on. “I can make you an AI of your own if you want! JARVIS stays with me, but I can build his capacities into a new basecode.”

“No, no, that’s not necessary,” Stephen waved the offer away. “You have far more important things to be doing, like figuring out how you’re going to fake an arc reactor in your chest.”

“Already have that down,” Tony hopped off the table, heading for his desk where he fired up three screens at once. “But you’re not wrong, lots to do, it’ll be busy. Aren’t you due back in New York tomorrow?”

“At some point, yes.” Stephen followed after him, attracted into Tony Stark’s orbit despite being acutely aware of it.

“So then,” the billionaire sat down and spun around with a gamely smile, “we need to get our ducks in order. I won’t be able to move to New York immediately. We’ll be halfway across the country from each other.”

“You have my number,” Stephen propped his hip against the edge of a table, “and I can always portal in.”

Tony flicked his fingers in dismissal, “Still, it’s not the same thing. What are your plans for the next few months? Any significant changes you’re making in your life? And don’t tell me it won’t matter because you know as well as I do every little thing makes a ripple.”

Stephen quirked an eyebrow. “Lecturing me on futures and timelines now, Stark?”

“You know if we’re gonna be effective at convincing them, you gotta drop my last name and call me Tony.”

Stephen sighed. “Tony.”

Tony peered at him for another minute more, and then said, “I know you feel weird about Pepper, which is way understandable, I mean, I feel weird about Pepper—but, like, is there something else here? Are you in a relationship with someone else right now? Do you wish you were in a relationship with someone else? Are you uncomfortable being labeled gay, is that it?”

Casting his eyes skyward, Stephen had to marshal his patience and curb the instinct to respond with some barbed witticism as he usually did when he felt the need to defend his soft underbelly. That wouldn’t do here. Too much was riding on his and Tony’s harmonious cooperation. They had risked too much to fuck shit up for their own pride.

“The only person,” Stephen explained, “who would have been in a relationship with me at this time is, for good reason, absolutely pissed at me, because I went and attended a conference when I was supposed to be on vacation. And I feel about the same way you do about restarting that relationship. I’ve dragged her through too much shit already, not exactly thrilled to go through all that again.”

Tony nodded. “Okay, do I meet her?”

“At some point I’m sure you will.”

“She must be one hell of a lady to put up with an asshole like you,” Tony snorted in delight. “Hey, would she get along with Pep, you think?”

Stephen thought about Pepper Potts and Christine Palmer in the same room together. “…I’m admittedly intimidated by that idea.”

Tony laughed. “Then it’s gotta happen. Dinner date! Maybe once I’m all settled in the Big Apple. Oh, you also gotta meet Rhodey. He’s gonna wanna meet you when this thing passes two weeks, which is apparently ‘serious’ territory.” And then, because Tony Stark apparently needed multiple reassurances, “You are okay with this thing being taken seriously, yeah?”

“This thing is a good cover,” Stephen agreed, “an efficient one, in fact, although I foresee it’ll be annoying at first. But we’ll deal, if it’s what we have to do.”

“Whatever needs to be done,” Tony’s smile fell into a more serious, contemplative expression. “By whatever means necessary, and with whatever resources are available.”

On that note, Stephen took a proper seat on the table’s sturdy surface and they began to plan.




They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.
( Andy Warhol )




Manhattan was home after all.

The whole city skyline roared up into view before Stephen, and it got him every time, standing on the intersection of Park and 29th just steps away from his old townhouse in Murray Hill. The skyscrapers, the whole city, its arrogant, vertical glory, its star-obliterating blaze. People pushing past him and around him, too busy to pay him any mind. He was just another soul in a city of ten million souls, and it was beautiful.

Upon returning to his home from Malibu, he had dropped off his belongings and immediately set out for a walk. It was cold and blustery, typical for a New York February. After about an hour wandering midtown, he stepped into a bookstore, dodging tourists and skimming the magazine racks for the latest news. Tony Stark was in some of them, of course. He was too, in a few.

Only the disreputable gossip rags so far, he noted, but soon enough even the New York Times would be running op-eds on them if they stuck to plan.

He turned the walk into a grocery run, restocking on the basics at the neighborhood Trader Joes. While meandering down the jams-and-peanut-butters aisle, he checked his bank account and reassured himself that he was no longer broke. It was nice being able to afford good food again. Abject poverty was a fundamentally reshaping human experience, but he didn’t want it to be a repeat one.

Likewise, his townhouse was a luxury he had forgotten, a figment of a past life, here preserved and crystalline like an untouched memory. It was quiet indoors: topnotch soundproofing going both ways to mute the city’s noises and allow him to rest while simultaneously allowing his neighbors peace and quiet whenever he decided to play the piano. Not that he was ever home to enjoy it much as a surgeon. He put a record on—Simon & Garfunkel, Bookends—and began emptying his fridge of all the expired food. Well, there wasn’t much.

A little more than two weeks ago, he cleaned up this house and left for a short ‘vacation’ upstate, where he rented out a cottage on the banks of Lake Ontario near Syracuse. The headaches had been immense enough that he almost cancelled the trip. When he finally woke with memories of a desolate future… it was a good thing that he had been on vacation. It took him the better part of three days to do something as simple as confirm his registration for the conference in LA and book the flight to get there. Meeting Stark—Tony—helped to re-center him, that reassurance that he had succeeded, that he was not alone.

He went to his bedroom, took a shower, and then shaved himself clean. His fingers did not shake. He took a glass of wine afterwards, turned the record off, and sat himself at the piano.

Stephen played all night, his fingers moving over the keys as though they never left. (1)




“Morning, Dr. Strange,” one of the ICU nurses greeted him, to which Stephen nodded back. First day back on rotation, and being the youngest neurosurgery attending, it meant that his schedule was a full stack. This was still before the days when he could curate his list of patients; at this point, he had no control over who he operated on.

Well, almost.

There was a patient in the ICU who, after Stephen’s examination, did not appear to warrant a surgical intervention. There was no point. The patient was already brain dead.

A quick investigation told him that it was Wheeler who scheduled the surgery. Stephen shook his head and made the necessary arrangements to remove the patient from his list, indicating to the charge nurse that a discussion needed to be had with the family. Naturally, it would have to be Stephen there to explain why the surgery was cancelled, which was such a typical Wheeler thing to do that Stephen wanted to hurl a pupillometer at the asshole’s head. The man wasn’t entirely incompetent, but unapologetically lazy.

Stephen couldn’t handle lazy.

Heaving a sigh, he looked over the rest of his scheduled cases, verifying that the residents were doing their jobs by looking through the nurses’ notes for anything outstanding. Residents were often fools, as he himself was during residency; the nurses were the ones who had to set them straight.

After checking charts, he sat through morning report with the rest of neurosurgery and neurointensive care, mostly a parade of navel-gazing narcissists and petty politics—and then it was time for the first case.

Walking back through the OR’s automatic double doors felt like coming home.

May, one of the OR nurses, helped him gown up after he scrubbed in. His music was already playing, soft and unobtrusive in the background. There were no residents to destroy his mood yet. When the loupe was affixed over his eyes, gently adjusted just the way he liked it, it was almost enough to make him smile.

“Welcome back, doc,” Billy called out from next to the monitors, where he always sat and would continue to sit for years to come. “Do anything exciting for your vacation?”

“Malibu, in fact,” Stephen smiled behind his mask, a private amusement. “Water’s still too cold but the view was nice.”

Billy whistled, dialing the track down as May began time-out. Shortly thereafter, Stephen called the start time and made the first cut. His scrub tech for the case, whose name was Greg or Gray or something in that neighborhood, handed him the suction and remarked, “You were gone for a while. Had to work a lot of Dr. Wheeler and Dr. Hall’s cases.”

“Enthusing, I’m sure.”

“I’d really rather not repeat the experience,” Greg-or-Gray’s grimace was apparent behind his mask.

Mocking surprise, Stephen turned to his anesthesiologist Gingrich and said, “See that? Someone actually prefers working with me.”

“Don’t let it get to your head, kid,” the elderly Gingrich scoffed, adjusting a drip with a glance at the vitals on the monitor. “This patient’s a bit on the labile side. Now would be a good time to show off those speed skills.”

Stephen also glanced at the monitors, noting the fluctuating pressures before he returned to the tasks at hand. He had no assisting physician on this case, just two scrub techs and two nurses, but he didn’t need assistance anyhow. Pushing down the temptation to use his magic, he refocused his considerable brain power towards the logistics of safely securing this patient’s large aneurysm without rupturing it. He used to be able to finish a surgery like this in under two hours. It was time to see if he could keep or beat his record.

As he quickly sank into the focused, blank mental space required for complex feats of technical skill like this one, he caught himself thinking, damn, I really missed this.




What he did not miss was the drudgery in between. The politics, the paperwork, the petty backstabbing and exhausting drama that constantly went on within the hospital’s halls. More than a thousand people routinely trapped within these walls meant that of course these people knew each other and probably had little time to get to know anyone else outside of the hospital. Stephen himself was guilty of this; his social circle beyond fellow medical professionals was abysmally small.

Won’t stay that way for long though if Stark’s plan falls through.

Tony. Stephen sighed. He still had to get used to Tony.

He returned to his procedure note, words flowing automatically from his fingertips into the computer after so many years of writing more or less the same thing. It would be so much more convenient if an AI like JARVIS watched him perform the procedure and transcribed the recorded events into text in live time. He had tried dictating notes using the Metropolitan’s native speech-to-text program before, but that took even more time than typing it out.

He needed more coffee.

His beeper went off exactly twice while he was seated hammering notes out for his first two cases. Both were messages from ICU, nurses asking random questions about his patients, concerns that he summarily delegated to the residents. Afterwards he went to the lounge and fetched more coffee, scarfing down a snack and considering the scans for the next one on the list. JARVIS’ intuitive hologram display was really so much better than the grainy images on their shitty computers.

A little later, gloves deep into the next case, he wondered about the feasibility of using nanoparticles to seal ruptured aneurysms shut. (2) Current technology worked with stents or coils deployed intravascularly and very tiny metal clips implanted through craniotomy, but both seemed so rudimentary and archaic against the type of technology Stephen had seen Tony Stark use. Stents, coils, and clips all carried their own risk, the most significant of which was the fact that they had to remain within the human body. They could move. They could clot or cause a re-rupture. They required the patient to remain on anticoagulants. They were usually effective, yes, but—

But they could be better. I can make them better.

Stephen was caught by this idea for the rest of the day. He was not a bioengineer, but he was a bonafide molecular biologist and Tony, an engineer. Hadn’t Tony asked for what Stephen needed at the hospital? Wasn’t Stark Industries planning on expanding into biotechnologies anyway?

He was thinking of biotech because of me, Stephen knew. He wants to bank on me.

They hadn’t really talked about detailed ideas yet—Tony needed to have a big meeting with his board and had muttered something about buying out all of his shareholders first—but it would be a better look on Stephen if he came to Tony with a list. A concrete, well thought-out, detailed list of ideas that were not only actually feasible, but relevant and marketable.

You know what’s not a good look on you, Stephen Strange? Entirely dependent. That’s not a good look on you.

So he had to be independent. If he wanted to stand even ground with Tony, he had to showcase his own ingenuity. Moreover, he had to stand with Tony. They had to learn how to work together beyond reality-shattering, universe-saving spontaneous stunts like time travel. Working together was the only way they could change this world.

If Tony was going to work through him to expand his business into biotechnology, then the correct response for Stephen was to step into an active role instead of sitting back and letting Tony call all the shots. Stephen was not a tool and, moreover, they didn’t have that luxury. If Stephen didn’t do his own fair share of shouldering the burden, even Tony Stark would soon buckle from the strain.

Atlas, kneeling under the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He was deep in thought when a hand caught him by the arm, a familiar voice once again cutting through his concentration with warmth that still made something in his cold heart ache. “Stephen! Oh my god, you’re not even paying—are you okay? Isn’t this your first day back? You were supposed to take a vacation but I know you went to the stroke conference in LA, okay, that was not a vacation.”

“Christine,” Stephen turned, blinking at her sudden appearance. “What are you doing here?”

She scoffed disbelievingly at him. “Saying hi to you, jerk. Are you actually okay, or are you still sick?”

“I wasn’t sick,” Stephen responded on autopilot, “just overworked.”

“Which is why I’m disappointed that you went to the stroke conference on time you were supposed to be using for vacation. Stephen, a conference is Not. Vacation,” Christine emphatically poked his chest.

“Malibu,” Stephen then said for the lack of a better thing to say, “was nice, even though the water was still cold. The mansion was nice. The food too.”

Christine did a double-take, minutely rearing back. A lock of her hair fell out of her surgical cap, brushing her forehead and temple. Her blue eyes were sparkling with curiosity, her smile slowly growing, her youthful beauty still eminent despite her apparent exhaustion. This was probably her fourth or fifth shift in a row if she was on the weekend ER rotation.

“Malibu? A mansion? Wait a second, Stephen, what are you not telling me?”

“What, you don’t check the news? I’m shocked, usually you’re more up to date with the hospital vine than I am,” Stephen did not allow himself to doubt this decision, knowing that he had to establish his and Tony’s relationship as a real, tangible thing. So he said, “I met Tony Stark at the conference.”

“Oh my god, you what.

“Actually a great dinner date, very witty, great comebacks and he doesn’t take forever to think of good ones,” Stephen continued, allowing himself to ramble a bit. “He can keep up with me, which is rare and nice, and his tech is something else. Bit of an asshole if you ask me, but nothing I can’t handle.”

Christine scoffed again, this time on the verge of incredulous laughter. “Holy shit, Stephen Strange, what are you telling me right now? You’re telling me you—”

“What, slept together? I thought that was implicit, come on, Christine, you’re usually not this slow, did you have coffee today?”

“No, it was explicit, actually, thanks for the clarification, oh my god, Stephen! It’s Tony Stark!” she exclaimed, grabbing both of his arms and shaking them. “What the—you have to tell me what happened—you’re not even—”

“—gay?” Stephen shrugged. If they were in any other hallway right now that had more traffic than this back-route shortcut did, this conversation would be stopping feet and turning heads. “I like to think of myself as equal opportunity.” And then, throwing caution to the wind, he added, “Besides, have you met Tony Stark? Oh, wait.”

“Rude!” Christine smacked his arm, a peal of laughter escaping from her mouth. “Now you have to introduce me!” And then, realizing something, her eyes grew wide. She quietly added, “Wait, is—is this, like, serious? Or was it a one-night stand?”

“I have his number and we texted this morning so I’m thinking it’s more than a one-night stand,” Stephen told her, feeling a little off-kilter sharing details with her about someone else like this when the two of them have been an on-again off-again arrangement since their college years. “I stayed at his mansion for five days, I think that counts as a pretty solid start, especially with someone like Tony Stark.”

Now Christine’s eyes took an awed sheen. “Holy shit, Stephen. That’s Iron Man.

“I’m aware. The suits of armor were rather hard to ignore.”

“Jesus Christ,” she hugged herself, one hand coming up to cup the smile that was pulling at her mouth. “Only you would actually think to go and fuck Tony Stark.”

Stephen tilted his head and disagreed. “I think there are plenty of people out there who would think to go and fuck Tony Stark. Just not a lot of people are actually willing to go do it.”

Christine stared at him for a moment, before breaking at last. “Well? Was he as good as they say?”

Time to cut the conversation short now, this was getting out of hand. “I don’t kiss and tell, Dr. Palmer. You of all people should know this.”

They began walking together towards the employee garage, Christine wondering aloud, “Is it weird that I’m proud to have slept with someone who’s slept with Tony Stark? It’s kinda weird, but—”

“I’m not the only one he’s slept with, I’m sure you’ve met some others, he has a bit of a reputation—”

“Should you be slagging him right now when you’re technically dating him?” she asked, only to follow with, “Wait, are you dating him? Have you gone on dates?”

“We kind of stayed in the mansion, for the most part.”

Christine gasped, scandalized. “All five nights? Stephen!”

“It was also partially business, now are you actually clocking out, or are you just walking me out?” Stephen asked, fishing his car keys out of his pocket. Metropolitan was far enough from his townhouse that walking it would take more than a minute and the marinating cesspit of disease that was the New York subway system was something he preferred to avoid.

“Oh, clocking out. Mind dropping me off?”

“Your apartment is literally around the corner. You just want more gossip.”

“It’s not every day that I find out one of my friends banged Tony Stark,” she laughed.

“Alright, that’s enough from you,” Stephen slid into his car and glared at her for good measure. “Goodnight, Christine. I’ll see you soon enough, I’m sure.”

“Sweet dreams! And when you call him tonight, tell him hi for me!”

He backed out of his reserved parking spot and left her laughing there, although 60% of his annoyance was for show. Stephen had missed her. She was his oldest friend, the only one who put up with all of his bullshit, the only one who stayed long enough to see past the asshole exterior and tried to find the human in the cold-hearted ambitious smart-aleck underneath. She deserved far more than the shit he routinely gave her—but she was still wrong.

That night, he did not in fact call Tony Stark. It was Tony Stark who called him.




“JARVIS informs me that you should be home right about now,” came Tony’s voice from Stephen’s new StarkPhone, “but you’re not picking up so maybe you’re still at work. Anyway, just checkin’ in, how’s the first day back? Me, I’m making things I made years ago except here they’re not made yet, y’know, just ushering in the future a few years ahead of plan. You know you can call me if you need anything—”

Stephen draped the towel around his shoulders and swiped to pick up the call. “I’m here, just finished showering. It sounds like you need something from me right now.”

“Oh, hey!” Tony’s voice was lit up with an invisible grin. “What’s up, doc? You don’t sound tired at all.”

“Not a bad day. Had worse at Kamar-Taj. Are you bored, is that it?” Stephen asked, because he couldn’t think of any conceivable reason why Tony Stark would feel the need to call and check up on him at random.

“What could possibly give you that idea? Yes, I’m bored out of my fucking mind, help me out here, I need someone to talk me through dinner.”

“Did you cook? That’s not safe. You should just order food delivery.”

Rude. I can cook! I make a pretty good lasagna, if you must know, and today—”

“I took the liberty of procuring delivery for sir, Dr. Strange, please rest assured,” JARVIS interrupted on the line. Tony squawked and Stephen quirked a smile; the AI was growing on him.

Tony complained about mistreatment and then proceeded to tell him about the contents of his delivered dinner, more Italian from that place that JARVIS bought from last week. Stephen prepared a sandwich for himself, quick and easy, because he wanted to catch up on research and find out what literature was out there about the intersection of biotechnology and neuroscience at this time.

“How much have you actually slept?” Stephen asked after some length of time consumed by Tony’s rambling. “You sound like you’re overdosed on caffeine.”

“I slept!”

“Before you left the mansion, Dr. Strange,” added JARVIS.

“That was two days ago.”

“I don’t need much sleep!”

“You still need some, Tony.”

“I feel fine!”

“Never thought I’d find someone with worse sleeping habits than I do,” Stephen frowned. “After dinner, you’re going to stop drinking caffeine and sleep at least three hours tonight.”

“Three whole hours?” Tony whined.

“A whole REM cycle.”

“Is that all you’re planning on too, one whole REM cycle?”

“I have reading to do tonight,” Stephen sighed, and then in the interest of growing their cooperation, he added, “A few ideas on biotech I want to follow up on. There’s a lot of potential in neuroscience, it’s just been a while and I need to see where the frontier is.”

“JARVIS, open up a new workflow for the good doctor on his StarkPad and sync it to my servers. Doc, have you even used your new pad yet?”

“No, I didn’t bring it to work.” Stephen resisted the urge to push away Tony’s generosity, knowing that the new phone and pad were more secure than anything he could buy on the market. He had a desktop too but had a feeling that it would soon be a thing of the past. Tony would probably soon insist on furnishing him with a personalized system.

“Well, bring it next time!”

“Best not, I won’t exactly have much time to look at it there anyway. The phone’s enough.”

Tony made a sound of discontent as Stephen took a bite of the sandwich. They spoke about each other’s work as well as mundane daily things over the rest of their dinner. Stephen informed Tony about Christine’s curiosity. Tony likewise let him know that Rhodes had heard from Pepper about him, therefore he was now officially on the colonel’s radar. Stephen didn’t mind too much; Rhodes was reasonable and infinitely easier to deal with next to Tony himself, or the complicated matter of Tony’s not-wife, Pepper Potts.

After half an hour, Tony let him go with intention to call again. Stephen would hopefully have concrete ideas by then. Reassuringly, Tony was already well into the production of his patented nanites, which would have to be kept secret for a while but nevertheless would be available for Stephen to play with in a private lab. Tony told him that the new Stark Tower would come with his own lab.

“Strange Lab,” Tony declared with relish, “actually sounds like a really cool name, what do you think?”

“Of course it’s cool,” Stephen replied, “it’s my name.”

They ended the call on that note, the phone screen going dark on the counter while Stephen finished handwashing his few dirty dishes. He put them aside to dry and turned off the kitchen lights, moving into his office where he settled into the reading chair with his new tablet. True enough, there was a blank workspace waiting for him on an app he was unfamiliar with. It was highly customized and looked exclusive; it was probably native to the device.

He tapped to open a new section and began to work.




Time marched on, his week falling into place one day at a time. The next day, he had five cases, two of which were tricky tumor resections and the other three complex spinal interventions that had his right shoulder aching from hours of fine motor work. He kept a warm compress on it while eating his dinner (salmon salad) on his kitchen island and chatting with Tony on speakerphone.

“So even if you call it spinal fusion, you’re not actually fusing anything,” the engineer in the room was clarifying against background noise that sounded like the two robots, DUM-E and Butterfingers, haranguing each other about something or another. (3)

“The technology’s not there yet,” Stephen clarified in between mouthfuls of food. “If it was, do you think I’d be wasting my time hammering rods into people’s vertebrae?”

“Right, well that obviously needs fixing,” Tony muttered in response, just as a new item appeared on Stephen’s workflow. The StarkPad bleeped to notify him from where it was resting next to his elbow.

The day after that brought three scheduled cases and one emergent one shuttled from Christine part of the hospital to his suite upstairs. Although he often denied it to her face, Stephen did enjoy emergency surgeries for the technical challenge they presented, often coupled with a time constraint that would make most seasoned surgeons sweat. This one was an unfortunate trauma patient, motor vehicle accident complicated with an unidentified intrathoracic bleed that needed fixing at the same time. It was busy and messy and loud, the two trauma surgeons working frantically on either side of the patient while Stephen quietly removed skull pieces and debris from the head. It was the best.

“Did you save the dude?” Tony asked that night, their call later than usual since Stephen came home only an hour before midnight.

“It was a woman, actually,” Stephen exhaled as he sank into his bed, plugging the phone to charge on his bedside table. “She’s in ICU. It’s up to her now, we’ve done what we can.”

“Are you okay?” Tony’s voice was quieter this time.

“Tired, but fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Car accident, right?”

Stephen actually had to pause. “I’m—fine, actually.”

“You sure?”

He shrugged even though there was no one to see it. “It’s like your initial aversion to portals. I’m getting over it. I drive to and from work, you know.”

“Yeah, I noticed you didn’t have a problem when we drove from LA to Malibu.”

Certain things about cars and driving still made his palms break out in cold sweat, but the accident itself seemed like so long ago—fourteen million lifetimes and then some into a distant, simpler past. “Considering everything else I’ve been through,” Stephen confessed, “all the other shit that was worse than that accident… yeah, I’ll be fine.”

Tony chuckled darkly, “Remember that time we had a fucking planet thrown at us? So much worse.”

“Perspective is everything,” Stephen laughingly agreed, “also, that was a moon.”

Thursday morning was spent at the clinic and Stephen was summarily reminded of the part of his practice that he hated the most. Explaining neurosurgery to lay people was tedious at best and managing other people’s expectations was a soul-sucking task no matter how educated or cooperative they were. Patients came into his clinic expecting miracles he was ultimately unable to promise them. Too often, people thought medicine was black and white, the boundaries between life and death well-defined, but that was the farthest thing from the truth. The entirety of medicine was a wide swath of grey.

He returned to the hospital across the street after his lunch break, more than happy to drown himself in patient charts and post-op checkups instead. Some of them were well enough now to be up and walking around the wards. Two were still in the ICU. The trauma case did not survive; the swelling was simply too extensive and difficult to control, although the overnight critical care crew gave it their best.

“That sucks,” Tony said that night, and Stephen could almost imagine his frown. Almost. “You worked so hard on that case.”

“Sometimes it’s just like that,” Stephen shrugged. “You give it your best and leave the rest.”

“You couldn’t leave the rest when you fetched me from the future, though.”

“That’s different.”

“How?”

“This trauma case was one life,” Stephen argued, feeling wrong-footed as he tried to justify himself yet again. “That future—what we did, what we’re doing—that’s the universe.”

“Half of it, you mean.”

“Just because the other half didn’t vanish doesn’t disqualify their suffering,” he quietly said, “and arguably, they suffered more for having lived through such a time.”

Tony was quiet after that, although they didn’t hang up until Stephen was almost falling asleep. His eyelids were already closed when he heard Tony ask, “Are we still in the endgame, doc? Or did we really hit the reset button?”

“More like restarting from the last save point,” Stephen murmured, and when Tony laughingly said, “You know what that means?!” he said, “You’re not the only one who grew up around video games, douchebag.”

He fell asleep, much like every night these days, to Tony’s warm laughter.




Friday was a shitshow of a morning, two trauma cases rolling in back to back before he was even in his scrubs. Christine rolled in with the second one so Stephen took point on that case, relishing any and every chance he got working with someone competent and not annoying. Together they scrubbed in, Christine running the case history by him—or at least what little she knew about the patient from the hour they’ve spent in the trauma bay.

“What’s with your trauma cases this week?” Stephen asked, turning to allow the nurse to knot his gown while the patient was being draped on the table. “The last one didn’t make it.”

“Don’t jinx me any further,” Christine snapped, irritable.

Billy said, “As they say, when it rains, it pours.”

Stephen had difficulty evacuating the hematoma that had gathered under the patient’s skull, usually easy to remove except this patient would not stop bleeding. Christine was also having a hard time, her hands literally swimming in blood as she tried to fetch shattered bullets from the man’s abdomen.

“Ugh, I’m practically blind here, I need another sucker,” she adjusted the one she already had positioned in the patient’s abdominal cavity. “How much blood loss are we at? Dr. Gingrich, are we keeping up with repletion?”

“I’m on the fourth unit,” Gingrich responded tersely from behind Stephen. “This guy’s pulse pressure is widening, I don’t like it.”

Midway through the case, Stephen’s pager went off and the OR nurse who was keeping an eye on it told him that one of his post-op ICU patients was needing intervention.

“Call Dr. Nielsen,” Stephen told the nurse, “and put him on speaker.”

All the while, he removed a section of the patient’s skull directly superior to the hematoma and gently removed the clot to allow the brain space to breathe. Somewhere further inwards or within the dura, there was a bleeder hiding beyond his reach. Stephen contemplated the merits of creating a larger opening to search for it versus a more conservative approach.

“Dr. Nielsen on the line, Dr. Strange.”

“Nielsen, what’s happening?”

“Dr. Strange,” Nielsen, one of the neurosurgery residents, sounded out of breath, “Kim in 507 had a neuro change reported by the nurses, ICPs in the 30s refractory to 3% and hyperventilation, currently only responsive to pain with one pupil nonreactive. I think he’s herniating.”

“Get him to OR 4, get started. I’ll meet you there,” Stephen directed. “Someone get the OR desk to open OR 4.”

“On it,” said the OR nurse, hanging up the overhead call and using the line for her own conversation instead.

Breathing evenly through his nose, Stephen briefly looked up to observe his colleagues. Gingrich was busy with juggling the various medications infusing into the patient. Christine was still swimming in blood, albeit less now that she had two Yankauer suctions stuck into the exposed abdominal cavity. Billy was bagging the bullet she had just retrieved for the police to examine later. Greg-or-Grey was setting out more sponges and gauze.

Assured that no one’s eyes were on him, Stephen made two quick turns of his wrist that summoned golden runes to his fingertips which he pressed into the patient’s skull, stroking downwards to stem the bleeding. Under the loupe’s magnification, he could see the flesh begin to knit back together, cells rediscovering their neighbors as damaged tissue repaired itself. The wayward bleeder hiding somewhere out of sight also stopped oozing frank blood.

“I’ll make it a craniectomy just to be safe,” Stephen told Billy, setting aside the excised skull fragment to be tagged and frozen for later reimplantation once the patient was safely past the cerebral edema, if they made it that far. “I’m almost done here, Christine.”

“What?” Christine looked up, surprised and confused. “Wait, how? Ugh, I hate you sometimes.” She turned back to her own task, lifting a loop of the small intestine in search for more wayward fragments.

“My part was significantly easier. I think this patient has some sort of underlying coagulopathy, by the way, it would explain why you’re having a bloodbath over there.”

“I really, really hate you.”

Within minutes, Stephen was done closing, his stitches neat and precise despite his haste. He immediately stepped away from the table and divested himself of the gloves, gown, and loupe. It was a short walk from there to OR 4, where a flurry of activity was centered around a patient he had operated on three days ago, the aneurysm case which he had secured flawlessly except the patient was younger and therefore prone to severe cerebral edema.

It was a common complication and the main reason they kept these patients in the ICU despite their deceptive appearance post-op; nevertheless, Stephen was disgruntled. He didn’t like taking patients to OR a second time. It felt like he failed them.

“I didn’t know you were next door with another case, Dr. Strange, sorry,” Nielsen said as greeting while Stephen was gowning up. At least the resident on this case was a competent one.

“It’s fine,” Stephen dismissed, adjusting the loupe himself because this nurse was not the usual nurse who attended him on his cases. That nurse was still in the other suite with Christine. “How much mannitol did you give? Davis, let’s keep this guy as euvolemic as we can.” Davis, the anesthesiologist, nodded and went to work.

They quickly performed a craniectomy, the patient’s brain obscenely bulging through the hole they made as soon as the pressure was released. Another five or ten minutes of delay and this patient would have died. Stephen somehow kept his displeasure controlled through the rest of the case, watching quietly as Nielsen handled the closing alone. He walked with the patient back into ICU and gave very specific orders to the nurses in person. Another thirty minutes of his time was taken up by the patient’s family, all highly educated but similarly highly anxious Korean-American business people.

“This is unfortunately a very common complication we encounter with strokes like the one your father had,” Stephen explained to the patient’s son. “I won’t lie or give you empty platitudes. His condition is critical. It will depend on how well he pulls through in the next twelve hours whether he’ll survive this or not. I also want you to consider that if he does, he won’t be the same. There will be functional deficits—he might not be able to maintain his independence like before. I want all of you to prepare yourselves.”

Nielsen trailed after him in the wake of that conversation, everyone including the critical care team gathering in the lounge with grim looks and sagging shoulders. Suresh, the neuro ICU attending who was old enough to be his father, gave him a pat on the back and remarked, “You handled that well, Stephen. Getting better with practice, yes?”

“Getting better everyday,” Stephen drolly responded even as his pager went off again in his pocket. “Let’s see, what next?”

Another aneurysmal subarachnoid hemorrhage was rolling up in less than an hour. He took the brief break to make a cup of coffee and eat his breakfast (brunch, really) while grilling the transfer center for details about this admission. They had nothing of value to tell him, of course, which meant he was once again going blind into the OR suite. Wonderful.

The rest of the day proceeded in the same vein, a parade of emergently decompensating patients all vying for his immediate attention. By the afternoon, he was physically exhausted, and although his brain ran a hundred miles a minute under the influence of caffeine, he could feel his shoulders throbbing in pain. He stretched in the doctors’ lounge for a bit and went over the charts one last time before leaving for the day.

“Nielsen, you’re here over the weekend?” he asked the resident who sat at one of the computers looking pale as a zombie.

“Yessir.”

“Wheeler’s technically your on-call but if any of my patients crash, you call me.”

“Yessir.” And then, after a moment of typing, Nielsen hazarded, “You really don’t like Dr. Wheeler, do you?”

“I don’t like laziness,” Stephen clarified. Waving his badge over the receiver, he logged out of the computer and picked up his scrub jacket, ready to be off for a few days. “Watch over 507, he’ll probably crash again.”

“You’re more worried about him? I thought the trauma case you did with Dr. Palmer would be sicker, all things considered.”

Stephen’s mouth twisted downwards. “I don’t think that one’ll make it. If they’re still here when I come back on Monday, I’ll count it as success.”

 

Leaving the hospital was a breath of fresh air, the drive home strangely therapeutic despite the typical Manhattan traffic.
There were fifteen emails waiting for him when he got home, one of them from his lawyer Avery confirming receipt of the documents he had signed for Pepper Potts and Stark Industries. He was attending to the emails when his phone rang just on time.

“Hey, Stranger Danger,” Tony chirped from the other side, their evening phone calls now a new routine. Stephen wouldn’t be surprised if JARVIS had a reminder for Tony at the same time every day.

“Tony. I hope your day was better than mine.”

“Oh no,” Tony chuckled, “busy day?”

“Too many people trying to die at the same time.”

“I bet you saved them all.”

“Maybe, we’ll see. I have the weekend off but if things go south, Nielsen will call me back in.”

“Bummer!” said Tony, “If I knew you were gonna be off the whole weekend, I’d have sent the jet over so you can come and spend it with me! There’s shit I’m working on that I want your input for, it’d be so much easier if you were here.”

“You can’t send it over?” Stephen paused his typing, glancing at the phone, and then the clock, and then his calendar.

Tony sighed. “That involves copying them from my secure servers, which I’m not comfortable with. I guess it’ll have to wait until we next see each other.”

Stephen thought about it, wavered for a bit, but then wondered what the hell was stopping him when he would have his cell at hand anyway. He shut his desktop down, gathered the phone and the StarkPad, and went to his room to pack a bag.

“…making an undersuit for added support,” Tony was saying, near-unstoppable when he was on a roll like this. “Can’t keep adding bulk to the armor frame, it gets too heavy and drops the maneuverability. Also takes a toll on my thrusters and I really can’t have that in a fight. Oh! I figured out the properties I’m buying out for the supertall, which means I got to plug it into a Manhattan model, Christ, it’s gorgeous, you gotta see it.” A pause. “Stephen?”

Turning around, Stephen slipped the ring on and spun a portal into existence, stepping into Tony’s workshop with his weekend bag and a book. “Yes?”

Tony almost fell over with a shout. “Fuck! Warn a guy!”

“Sorry,” Stephen had to smile, “but not really. You had something you wanted to show me?”

Tony stared, slack-jawed, while Stephen put his bag and book on a table that wasn’t overflowing with armor parts and mechanic tools. A quick once-over of the workshop revealed: two new suits of armor, both seemingly complete; a third one (in black) currently under construction; a very large and complex-looking machine now taking up the far east corner of the workshop; and a host of 3D printers, definitely inconceivable in the current market, churning away in a busy little cluster.

“I see you’ve been busy too,” Stephen remarked. “Your haphazard particle accelerator is gone.”

“Yeah, didn’t need it anymore, at least not right now, also, hi!” Tony burst out of his seat, quickly recovered and now excited. “I forget that you have the ring now! Really precious, that ring.”

Stephen rolled his eyes at yet another Tolkien joke. “Have you had dinner yet? Frankly, I’m starving.” Night had already fallen in Manhattan but Malibu was still edging out a bit of sunshine.

JARVIS interrupted with, “Would you like to order something for delivery, sirs? And welcome back, Dr. Strange.”

“JARVIS,” Stephen greeted. “Has he eaten at all today?”

“Only coffee, doctor, if that counts as eating, and even that was begrudging.”

Begrudging,” Tony echoed, exasperated. “You been surfing Dictionary.com, J? Actually you know what, we could go out for dinner! There’s a sushi restaurant not far from here, Pep says it’s not bad although I’ve never been, how’s that sound?”

“Do I need a suit?” Stephen blinked, already spinning a portal again. “Of course I need a suit. There’ll probably be paparazzi.”

“Probs,” Tony grinned, putting down the spanner he was brandishing and heading for the stairs. “See you in thirty, doc. And don’t wear a tie, we don’t wanna be too perfect for the photos.”

Stephen only sighed in response.




They did look nice. Tony emerged in pressed pants and a black suit jacket with a hot-rod red buttoned shirt that had to have been aggressively color-matched with the Iron Man armor. With his gold cufflinks, gold watch, and gold-accented shades, Tony kept consistent with the color schematic. The top two buttons he left undone despite the brisk weather because, of course, “It’s all about looking effortless.”

Stephen, for his part, embodied a modicum of practicality. He wore a turtleneck in the dark blue that Christine often complimented him in—something about bringing out his eyes—under a grey suit he usually wore to dinners with esteemed colleagues and potential research investors. Technically speaking, Tony was both.

“Which car should we take?” Tony wondered as they stood in a garage full of luxury cars. “Do we wanna say, I’m rich as fuck? Or do we wanna say, look at us, we’re out to play?”

Stephen pointed to the flame-red Ferrari Stradale and said, “That one screams both.”

“Babe, no, that’s my picking-up-a-hoe car. I don’t take that out anymore, I’m reformed.”

Stephen could not possibly be expected to formulate a coherent response.

Tony decided, “I guess we’ll take the Bugatti, it’s a touch more sophisticated than the Ferrari.” Said Bugatti was a gorgeous shade of ocean blue. (4)

“Why do you keep the Ferrari if you don’t use it anymore?” Stephen asked, sliding into the passenger seat as Tony revved the car engine to life.

“Sentimental value. I like to remember the days when I was—”

“—a hoe?”

“—naïve! Goddamn, we just started dating, I don’t think you’re allowed to call me that yet, we haven’t even had sex!” Tony full-on laughed, which destroyed his indignant tone.

“If it looks like a hoe and acts like a hoe…”

“Even if I was, you couldn’t afford me!” yelled the one and only Tony fucking Stark as they pulled out of the Malibu mansion’s garage.

“Say it louder, I think they couldn’t hear you in San Diego.”

They bantered and Tony laughed the entire drive to the sushi restaurant. It was a gorgeous evening, the Pacific churning in cobalt-colored waves under a purple-orange sky. Naturally, because he was with Tony Stark, their table was on prime real estate, under the heaters outdoors and ocean-side.

“So there’s definitely paparazzi,” Tony noted as they slid into their seats, “which means something on the news tomorrow, probably more substantial than last week. How’s it complicating your life at work?”

“Not at all,” Stephen shrugged, “at least not yet. Sparkling water, please,” he said to the server.

“Still water for me. I’m surprised they haven’t talked to you yet.” The server placed a menu each next to them, which Tony pushed away with a finger. With extreme prejudice, he said, “Let’s have the chef’s omakase, shall we? And none of that mayo-and-crunchy-roll American sushi bullshit. I expect great fish and great rice, we’re next to the sea, there’s literally no excuse.”

“My god, you’re that person,” Stephen shook his head, handing the menus back to the server. “A bottle of the Kamosu Daiginjo to match as well, please, and,” he darted a playful look at Tony, “a California roll.”

Oh my—

“Deep-fried, with mayo and sriracha on top.”

“—fucking god, Stephen Strange, no! I refuse to be seen with a heathen who orders a fucking California roll!

Stephen was smirking by the end of Tony’s sentence; he couldn’t help adding again, “Deep-fried—”

“I don’t wanna hear it!”

“—with mayo—”

“You’re excommunicated!”

“—and sriracha—”

“Ordering rights revoked!” Tony declared, slamming a hand on the table. He barked at the server, “Ignore everything he says! No California roll, no deep-fry, and no mayo comes anywhere near this table!”

The server bowed, “Yessir, Mr. Stark.”

Stephen chuckled, leaning back into his chair. “That should give the paparazzi something to talk about.”

“Are you shitting me right now? I was serious! How dare you! A California roll!” Tony exclaimed, still properly scandalized like only rich people could be.

“You should know that you’re fitting every rich, white boy stereotype I can think of right now,” Stephen shot back, crossing his legs under the table and resting one hand on his thigh. “Really, it’s uncanny.”

“I am a rich, white boy, one of the richest, in fact, and the whole world knows it so I see no point in trying to deny it,” Tony rolled his eyes, still fuming about the California roll. Stephen knew he wasn’t going to let that one go anytime soon. “Besides, I don’t have to be rich to have standards, Dr. Strange. Even normal people can have those.”

“If you say so.” Stephen glanced at a couple who was trying to angle for a photo from two tables over. Maybe celebrities, they looked vaguely familiar, in the way that most Hollywood TV faces looked artificial and all the same. This date of theirs would be all over the news by tomorrow, no two ways about it. He turned to Tony, who was now composed once again, and decided to be honest in the interest of their working relationship. “Speaking of rich boys.”

“Somebody behind me copping for a photo?” Tony guessed without even blinking.

“That too, but I wasn’t going there. Remember when your—Pepper met me last week, we talked about the media and how they would dig?”

“They already got something?” Tony raised both eyebrows. “I thought you said there was nothing.”

“Nothing incriminating or scandalous, certainly,” Stephen toyed with the serviette draped on his lap. “But when they dig tonight, they’ll find out about my family.”

“Ooh, here it comes,” Tony then set an elbow on the table, cupped his chin in a hand, and leaned forwards in exaggerated interest. “Tell me more. I love family drama when it’s not mine.”

Stephen responded with a dead-eyed expression, before sighing out, “My father is Victor Hunter.”

Tony blinked, chin slipping from his hand. “Wait, that Victor Hunter? Hunter-Lynch, Victor Hunter?”

“The one and only.”

“But your name’s not Hunter.”

“Changed it to my mother’s maiden name as soon as I legally could,” Stephen said, “because Sarah Strange is an infinitely more tolerable human being. Admittedly my relationship with her isn’t all rainbows and sunshine either, but at least she acts like a parent should.” (5)

Tony just peered at him for a moment, before agreeing, “Yeah, moms are leagues better than dads in my experience too, don’t sweat it. Does that mean that if we get married, I get a foot into the hereditary succession? Because that’s several hundred million dollars I could put to better use.”

Stephen snorted, “I have a brother.”

“Yeah, so?”

“He’s older.”

“Means nothing these days!”

“Not if your name is Victor Hunter the Third.”

“Ew,” Tony grimaced. “Really?”

“Unfortunately.”

“That’s sad.”

“Another reason to thank my mother, she apparently insisted on giving me my name.”

“We can toast to that,” Tony said as the server brought their requested sake and poured them the first chilled cup. “What’s your middle name, then?”

Stephen sipped and said, “My middle name?”

“Every rich, white boy has a middle name, mine’s Edward,” Tony rounded out the vowels in his mouth, attempting to sound pretentious.

“Isn’t that the name of that sparkling vampire in that horrible book? What was it called…”

“Twilight! Hey, if I was a vampire, I would totally sparkle. I would sparkle so hard I’d permanently blind my enemies.” Tony pointed an accusatory finger at him and demanded, “Stop distracting me, I asked for your middle name!”

“Alexander,” Stephen sighed, “because—”

SAS!” Tony laughed, bright and delighted. “Your initials spell out SAS!”

“You are such a child.”

Please tell me you initialed everywhere on Pepper’s documents with SAS, please tell me you did!”

Stephen did not, in fact, initial everywhere on Pepper’s documents with SAS. The first course of their sushi omakase thankfully came to the table and derailed the inane conversation, which now shifted towards a Michelin-worthy critique of the fish and the rice. Even the wasabi did not escape scrutiny.

“This is rich coming from someone who will happily eat street tacos and frozen pizza for dinner,” Stephen drily remarked.

“I pay a commensurate amount of money for the street tacos and the frozen pizza,” Tony pointed out, “but I’m paying a fine amount for this sushi so I expect it to be that good. And let’s be honest, LA’s street tacos are nothing to scoff at. They’re much cheaper than they should be.”

“I’m sure you make up for it with the tip.”

The courses kept coming and their conversation kept going, wandering over topics that, for once, had nothing to do with planning out their course. Stephen supposed that this was just them getting to know each other, a necessary venture considering how they were now stuck as partners. Admittedly, it could be worse; Stephen could have been stuck with someone who couldn’t keep up.

When it came time for them to leave, there was honest to god press coverage outside. They didn’t come too close, since the restaurant was well-accustomed to celebrity guests and had the appropriate security staff in place, but the length of those lenses forewarned Stephen of the kind of close-up photos he could expect in the morning. Tony appeared entirely unfazed.

“You wanna drive?” he asked, sliding the shades on after handing the valet guy a wad of cash.

Stephen slid into the driver’s seat without preamble and revved past the media into Highway 1. They kept the top down, the wind tame tonight anyhow and just cold enough to push away the heat flush from the two bottles of sake. Stephen drove slow, taking his time around Malibu’s darker roads. Tony didn’t complain.

Right before the exit towards the mansion, Tony asked, “You ever seen the Milky Way over the ocean?”

“I’m assuming you know a place.”

“Stay on the highway,” Tony said, “Leo Carrillo State Park has views.”

“Don’t you also have views from your mansion?”

“Yeah, but you’ve seen that before. Besides, we’re on a date.”

Stephen snorted. “How many dates have you taken stargazing, exactly?”

“Just the one,” Tony said, stretching out his arm over his head. “Feels good to be outside. I’ve been in the workshop all fuckin’ week.”

“I wouldn’t have pegged you to complain about that, of all things.”

“Montana’s converted me, what can I say. We had two alpacas, did you know? And geese. Lots of geese.”

Stephen remained quiet for a few minutes, before scrounging up the courage to ask, “Do you miss it?”

“Sure,” Tony easily responded. “Ask the other one.”

Stephen smiled at the darkness beyond their headlights and complied. “Do you regret it?”

“Sometimes. Don’t you?”

“Sometimes. But then I think about it—really think about it—and then I don’t.”

“Musta been one hell of a future to make you bend, of all people.”

“Hell is one word for it,” Stephen agreed, recalling the future’s gaping Tony Stark-shaped hole. They passed a sign that warned of the upcoming state park, so he asked, “Are we parking by the beach?”

“Yep, I’ll tell you when to turn.”

Stephen drove on and the road got even darker, less houses on either side. For some time, there was just the wind, their headlights, and the night. There too were memories from a future that never was, burgeoning in the gap between their shoulders, mutually unacknowledged.

When Tony told him to, Stephen slowed bore left into a beachfront drive, only a two other cars present as they passed the first parking spot. They went a little further down to where the paved road became a dirt road, tucking the Bugatti against a sandbar. Tony used his phone as a flashlight and led them past picnic tables, a lone trash can, and a short chain-link fence that served no real purpose Stephen could divine.

“Don’t tell me you took dates here to have sex,” Stephen wondered with some dread, feeling his shoes begin to sink into sand. There was no moon tonight; it was hard to see where the beach ended and the water began.

Tony snorted, “You’ve obviously never tried to have sex on a beach before. I don’t suggest it. Sand gets everywhere. And I mean everywhere.”

“So is that a yes or a no?”

“No!” Tony denied, “Why the hell would I have sex on a public beach when I own a private beach?”

“For the hell of it?”

Tony paused and then admitted, “Fair enough, I would use that logic. But I haven’t! I actually haven’t taken a date to this beach, honest. Well, except you. I just drive around here a lot, it’s a nice spot for a view.”

They picked their way up a rocky section of the beach and, once they were securely standing two or three feet above the waves, Tony turned off the flashlight. “Look up.”

Above them, the stars of their galaxy winked down in austerity and silence. It was easy to forget that stars, or at least starlight, were time travelers in their own rights. A handful of those ancient points of light were the last echoes of distant suns now dead. If all the suns but theirs collapsed tonight, how many lifetimes would it take for humans to realize they were at last alone?

Tony crouched down, chin still tipped upwards to face the dark sky. Under the starlight, fainter than the light of the moon, Stephen could just barely make out the lines of his face. He said, “I used to hate space. So fucking much.”

“I would’ve thought you’d love it. All the mystery, all the discoveries waiting to happen,” Stephen remarked, but then took it back after he thought about it for longer than a second. “You don’t like the uncertainty.”

“I used to be fine with it before New York and that fucking wormhole.”

“Ah,” Stephen nodded, berating himself for forgetting. “Post-traumatic stress.”

“Yep,” Tony popped the ‘p’ with relish. “I’m not exactly known for great coping skills either. Pepper hated me after that whole bit.”

“Are you okay with it now?” Stephen thought about Titan and how well Tony had controlled his fear.

“Survived space, didn’t I? In fact, Nebula and I were the only ones to pick ourselves off of that godforsaken hellhole of a planet.” Tony cleared his throat, rocking on his haunches enough that Stephen got wary of him falling forwards into the shallow but rocky waters. “After almost a month floating around in a tin can in deep space, the fear got old. Or I got old, or both. It was just space. That wasn’t what I was afraid of.”

“It was Thanos.”

“It was what he represented,” Tony corrected, “what his threat meant for our world. The destruction of everything we know to be good, everything we hold dear. We weren’t ready. We aren’t ready. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to a point where we can say that we are.”

“That’s our objective,” Stephen pointed out.

“A tall ask. Things could still go to shit.”

“They could,” Stephen agreed. He was burdened with the same fear. “We could fuck up even worse this time.” Stephen didn’t have the Time Stone to look into the possible futures; he wasn’t sure he had the courage to look even if he had it.

“What a bundle of optimism we are,” Tony chuckled in all the degrees of self-deprecation. “Sometimes I wish I just bit the dust in Siberia, or in that cave in Afghanistan, or fuck, maybe even after one of my benders when I was still trying to drown myself in alcohol. Can’t believe I’m saying this, but man, those were the days.”

“Reckless and free, without the weight of the world on your shoulders?” Stephen couldn’t deny his sympathy. He remembered a time—much clearer now that he was closer to it—when he didn’t carry the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, when magic didn’t exist for him, when the worst of his days consisted of Nicodemus West bungling procedures in the OR or cases not going the way he wanted.

“Atlas’ burden was his punishment after losing to Zeus,” Tony said. “What did I do to deserve mine? –wait wait, don’t answer that.”

Stephen shoved his hands into his pockets and asked, “Do you take it to heart when they call you Merchant of Death? I thought you didn’t know they were being sold behind your back.”

“I still knew what I was building, Stephen. Missiles are rather straightforward, no matter how fancy I made them.”

“I do know one thing for certain,” Stephen responded after a heartbeat. “If you’d bit the dust in Afghanistan, we would have been entirely defenseless against Thanos. Entirely.”

“Does it matter? We lost anyway.”

“It matters, Tony. Failure is a detour. That’s why we’re here. Remember I came back for you.”

Tony stood up at once, turning to face him in the full dark of a moonless night. In the ensuing silence, Stephen wondered if he inadvertently overstepped the hazy boundaries of their new and tentative friendship, but then he saw the flash of a smile.

“You sure know what to say on the first date, babe.”

Just like that, their orbits clicked into place around each other. “I’d hate to disappoint, I’m told my date has standards.”

Tony laughed then, bright enough to banish the dark. In his life, Stephen saw so many possibilities, so much potential. As numerous as the stars above their heads.

All they had to do was hold on and persevere.




The strongest of all warriors are these two: Time and Patience.
( Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace )




In the morning, Tony’s home was dark.

Stephen woke at his usual time, disoriented before his brain caught up to where he was: the blue room, which was now his designated guest room, in the Malibu mansion, in California.

“Good morning, doctor,” JARVIS somehow managed to sound pleasant despite being an AI. “It is currently 5:30am, Saturday the 13th of February 2010. Shall I start the coffeemaker?”

“Please,” he sat up in bed and rubbed his face with a hand. Tony was probably still asleep; they did get in late last night. Well used to only a handful of hours, Stephen rose and stretched to the fullest of his height. “Any chance of a spare yoga mat anywhere in the house, JARVIS?”

“There is a fully fitted home gym downstairs, doctor.”

“You can call me by my name.”

“Very well, Stephen. The coffee will be ready in less than five minutes.”

“Keep it warm; I’ll have some after yoga.”

Stephen went through his ablutions and then headed for the home gym, where there was indeed a large yoga mat available for use. He cracked the glass doors open, letting in the sound of the ocean, and laid the mat next to it to feel the wind against his skin. He began to stretch.

Although this body was unaccustomed to the harsh training he underwent at Kamar-Taj, it was younger and stronger, unmarred by the car accident that took so much of his life away. Stephen had started training again since returning to Manhattan, working to build the muscle mass and memory this younger body needed to acquire.

The upsides were plenty: faster response times, greater aerobic capacity, and a significantly higher pain tolerance especially with his hands. He could actually punch things without doubling over in pain. His stamina needed work, though, and so did his strength. Stephen kept this all in mind as he pushed up from a low plank hold into a downward dog and then into a warrior pose.

Gradually, he transitioned from traditional vinyasa yoga into the powerful, twisting katas of Kamar-Taj’s martial art, the antithetical Gentle Palm. There was nothing gentle about it. Just ruthless efficiency and precise, targeted blows calculated to incapacitate in the cleanest and fastest way possible. It was a lethal weapon in the hands of an anatomically versed physician like Stephen.

After some time, footsteps approached him. Stephen didn’t turn to look; there was only one other person in the house. He spun for a kick, and in the breath between his spinning limbs, Tony stepped in, parrying his leg and then jabbing forward, with a movement so functional it had to have been learned on the field.

They began to dance.

Then ensued a rapid exchange of blows, force half held back, but with intent to hurt all the same, because it wouldn’t be an effective spar otherwise. Tony caught his arms in a lock which he just barely escaped; he knocked Tony down with a spin of his legs, the two of them rolling away from each other before hopping up again.

They circled each other, looking for an opening the way a snake and a mongoose faced off on a field. Tony pounced first, footwork light and quick, almost catching Stephen with a one-two jab before Stephen caught him in a shoulder lock. Somehow Tony twisted out of that and dropped into a whirl of spinning kicks, this time knocking Stephen down and then pinning him with a knee to the chest.

“Okay, I see, should we come back at a later time?”

Tony and Stephen both turned to the door, halfway out of breath. Tony immediately brightened. “Platypus! And Pepper!”

Stephen inhaled as Tony’s weight left his torso, accepting the offered hand and straightening up. He ran a hand through his hair and found himself relieved that at least Rhodes was here this time to offset the tension. Stephen had yet to figure out how to act around Pepper.

“Hey, Tones,” Rhodes pulled Tony into a one-armed hug. “Pepper and I brought breakfast.”

“Seriously the best pals ever,” Tony grinned, a powerhouse of cheer this morning, riding on the good note they ended the previous night with.

Stephen paused at that thought. It sounded far more suggestive than he had intended.

“Okay, you’re happy, that’s great,” Rhodes blinked, holding Tony at arm’s length to examine him. “Looking good too, man, who are you?”

“Platypus, you know I always look good, even when wasted.”

“Eh, I’ve seen you wasted; I beg to differ.” Rhodes then acknowledged Stephen’s presence with a polite but definitively curious smile; there was no doubt that Rhodes came to suss the new boy out. “Tony, the thing to do right now would be to introduce us.”

“Oh yeah! This is Stephen,” Tony stepped back and slung an arm around Stephen’s back. “Stephen, this is Platypus, my bestie. You already know Pep, of course.”

“James Rhodes, Tony’s oldest friend,” Rhodes offered a hand, which of course Stephen took. One look into Rhodes’ eyes and Stephen knew he was being thoroughly judged.

“Stephen Strange, Tony’s…” he looked at Tony in askance.

“Boyfriend sounds so adolescent,” said Tony with distaste, nose wrinkling just a touch. “What’s the media calling us today?”

And just like that, Tony confirmed Rhodes’ implicit suspicion that they had fucked last night, leading to his infectiously ebullient mood.

“I haven’t looked yet, I guess we’ll have to see,” Rhodes raised both eyebrows. “Breakfast first?”

Tony smiled. “You know me so well.”

There was time enough for them to shower first while Rhodes and Pepper took over the kitchen to make the food. More coffee had to be made too because the pot only had enough for two. By the time Stephen came back, not thirty minutes later, the table was set: over-easy eggs, pan-seared tomatoes, slices of cheese, colorful fruit, prosciutto, and a glass jug of orange juice. In the middle of the table sat a whole loaf of fresh bread waiting to be torn into.

“Hey, man,” Rhodes looked up from the strawberries he was divesting of crowns. “I should’ve asked if you had any allergies first.”

“None, thank you,” Stephen went for the coffeemaker and poured himself a mug. Noting the strawberries, he remarked, “That’s too much work.”

“Tony won’t eat them unless the crowns are gone,” Rhodes rolled his eyes in the long-suffering manner of an old friend.

Stephen snorted. “What a brat.”

That earned him a quick grin. “Spoiled rotten, that one. How did you meet?” Rhodes asked. Here came the questions.

“Medical conference,” Stephen replied, “downtown LA, beginning of last week. He came up to me after my symposium. Apparently neuroregeneration is a field of interest for Stark Industries.”

Rhodes then shot a look at Pepper, who shrugged behind her coffee. She swiveled gently side to side on her barstool and said, “Big board meeting’s on Monday. I know about as much as you do until then, Jim.”

“We don’t mean to ambush you, Stephen,” Rhodes began.

“But you totally do,” Stephen shot back, an amused smirk settling on his lips. “It’s fine, I get it, this is new and sudden. Go on.”

Rhodes shot another look at Pepper. He quietly explained, “We don’t mean you ill; whatever you’re up to with Tony is really none of my business. Just that Tony’s not the type to make sudden turnarounds like this. The few times he’s done so, something life-altering usually triggered it. We’re just—concerned for his safety. He doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to taking care of himself.”

“Well,” Stephen ran his tongue against his teeth and weighed his words carefully, “in that case, you might want to ask him about the palladium poisoning.”

Pepper gasped; Rhodes dropped a strawberry.

“The what.

“Stephen, you’re a shit,” Tony called from the hallway, emerging freshly showered and with a dark scowl.

Anthony Edward Stark!” Pepper all but yelled, bursting out of her seat to catch Tony by the shoulders. “Explain yourself this instant!”

Tony shot another dark look at Stephen, who only shrugged and said, “I think you should tell them. It’s important.”

“Damn fuckin’ right it is—Tones, what the hell, man,” Rhodes sighed in disappointment, hands on his hips.

“I fixed it, it’s fine now! It’s fine, I’m fine, I promise,” Tony rubbed Pepper’s arms. “You can ask the doctor over here! Ask Stephen. He helped! I’m fine.”

“Was it the reactor?” Rhodes asked, expression grim. “I knew it wouldn’t do any good staying in your chest indefinitely.”

Tony pulled his shirt up, showing off a new triangular arc reactor—the one from the future that was a nanite housing. Stephen only knew because he had seen it before, both on and off Tony’s chest. To Rhodes and Pepper, it looked just like a newer arc reactor.

“See? All fixed,” Tony dropped the hem of his shirt with a sigh. “Can I at least have coffee first? And food? I actually am hungry and you know how rare it is that I listen to my body.”

“You’re eating the damn strawberries,” Rhodes grumbled, taking a bowl of it to the table where they all situated themselves. “Antioxidants are good for you; I think the doctor would agree.”

Tony sighed and dug into the food while shooting glares at an unperturbed Stephen. They all took tentative bites, Pepper still quite shaken and darting concerned glances at Tony. After he swallowed the first bit of his egg and tomato, Tony began to weave his story.

“The palladium core powering the reactor was leaking and poisoning me. The more I used the armor, the more it advanced.” Pepper sucked in a breath, fingers tightening around her fork. “I treated it for a while with—believe it or not—herbal medicine, which worked short-term while I tried out different elements as cores. Nothing worked. The palladium poisoning—technically the palladium decay—started giving me neuropathy issues. I was afraid of long-term damage; I sought a neurologist. This dude,” Tony motioned towards Stephen with his fork, “was at the international conference talking about targeted neuroregeneration. I hit him up. We talked. He helped me out.”

“Helped you out how, exactly?” Rhodes narrowed his eyes. “Tones, tell me you didn’t let some stranger do a procedure on you.” And then, as if catching himself, he added, “Sorry, doc.”

“Not at all, I agree with you,” Stephen tilted his head, taking another bite of the prosciutto.

Tony clicked his tongue, annoyed. “Why are we dating again? You’re such an asshole.”

“You’re a narcissist, we’re very much alike,” Stephen gave a tiny wave of his knife, “it’s like looking into a mirror.”

“Oh my god, I can’t decide whether I want to hug you or slap you right now,” Pepper said, either to Tony or Stephen.

“Tony, answer the question,” Rhodes demanded, command edging into his tone.

Tony turned and dutifully answered, “No, Rhodey, I did not in fact allow a stranger to do a procedure on me. I did it on myself.”

“You did—"

“With supervision.”

“—what!

“Stephen and I were in the workshop chatting, he was looking for embarrassing childhood photos of mine on the secure server and saw a photo of the 1974 Stark Expo diorama Howard made, you know the one? No? Me neither, not since I was a kid. Been forever since I last saw it. But I looked at it and realized I was looking at a molecular structure. A new molecular structure, nothing that’s already on the periodic table. Eureka! So I went snooping into Howard’s notes and found out that the old man figured out this new element with near-infinite energy potential and far less ionizing radiation than all of the elements already on the table—he just didn’t have the technology to make it yet. But I do. So I made it. And then I replaced the palladium core with it. Now praise me, Platypus.” Tony spread his arms wide.

Rhodes was unimpressed.

“Anyway, synthesizing it took work, but the replacement was the easy part. JARVIS helped. Stephen oversaw it. He even had the med bay ready in case my heart stopped or something—which it didn’t! It didn’t, Pep, please breathe,” Tony reached over to pat her arm.

Rhodes let out a long sigh, resting his forehead in his palm. “Tony, one of these days, you’re gonna give me a heart attack.”

“But I fixed it!” Tony insisted, brandishing his fork to make a point. “Nothing exploded, no one got hurt, and I made a new friend! See, I’m getting better!”

“I’m dating a child,” Stephen realized once again.

“He’s the worst kind of child,” Pepper said.

“Oh, sorry, did I say that out loud?” Stephen blinked.

“Bright side up, I made a new element I get to patent and name whatever I want,” Tony grinned, nudging Rhodes’ elbow with an elbow. “I was thinking Antonium. But only ‘cause I know they won’t give me Badassium. They’re misers like that. Starkium’s nice too but kinda predictable, and I’d hate to be predictable.”

“Lord help you,” Rhodes told Stephen, “I’m sorry, man.”

Stephen looked Tony once over and flatly said, “At least he’s potty-trained.”

“Wha-hey!” Tony yelped as Rhodes and Pepper both burst out laughing.

Stephen knew then that he had passed the first test.

 

 

After breakfast, they cleaned up and reconvened in the living room. Briefly, Stephen responded to a text from Christine, confirming that he was indeed in California and that he would indeed be back to work on Monday. He sat next to Tony as JARVIS pulled up the news.


BUSINESS OR PLEASURE? TONY STARK’S NEW COMPANION – CNN
(Tony and Stephen walking into the restaurant, a side shot)


WHO IS STEPHEN STRANGE? – The New York Times - Opinion
(Stephen in the foreground, standing sideways and looking towards the camera, with Tony beside and behind him, removing his shades)

ONE-NIGHT STAND OR LOVE OF HIS LIFE? TONY STARK AND STEPHEN STRANGE – New York Post
(Stephen sliding into the driver’s seat of the Bugatti with Tony riding shotgun)

STRANGER DANGER! WHO’S THAT WITH TONY STARK? – BuzzFeed
(Them seated across from each other, an impassioned Tony leaning forward over the table while Stephen reclines back with an open smile)

IRON MAN IS GAY – FOX
(Tony and Stephen walking out of the restaurant, Tony’s arm on Stephen’s back)

DATING WHEN YOU’RE A SUPERHERO – MSNBC
(A picture of Tony and Stephen standing on either side of the Bugatti, surrounded by paparazzi)

SUPERHERO, MEET EVERYDAY HERO – Washington Post – Opinion
(A shot from a week ago as they were leaving the LA Convention Center, Tony walking but saying something over his shoulder at Stephen, who followed close behind)

A STRANGE AFFAIR – The Atlantic - Opinion
(The two of them on a dark beach, their silhouettes against the starlight, a galaxy spread out behind them)

“Well, they were busy,” Tony chuckled, “I like this last one. I want a poster. Pep, get me a poster.”

Stephen squinted at the article timestamps and said, “We got back at what, midnight? That’s give or take five hours.”

“What can I say, my life is news.”

“Those are not what I’m concerned about though,” Pepper waved the headlines away, instead pulling up another page that was from Bloomberg’s financial forecasts section. It read:

HUNTER-LYNCH AND STARK: A MERGER WAITING TO HAPPEN?
(A photo of them standing next to each other while they waited for the car at valet; Tony saying something and smiling at Stephen, Stephen’s head tilted towards him but facing the camera, expression inscrutable)

“Hunter-Lynch, the investment conglomerate?” Rhodes frowned. “What do they have to do with this?”

Pepper looked up at Stephen, who didn’t bother to prevaricate or lie. “Victor Hunter is my father.”

“Which means if we get married, I get an in on the inheritance!” Tony crowed.

“Tony, you don’t need any more money.”

“And that, Platypus, is why you wouldn’t make a good businessman. I can always use more money,” said Tony. Stephen agreed. Global peacekeeping was an expensive ordeal.

“Have you spoken to your family?” Pepper asked.

Stephen shook his head. “We don’t really talk.” At her surprised look, he added, “I’m the second son and the middle child. Bit of a black sheep. I was cut off when I refused to go to business school.”

Bo-ring,” Tony sing-sang.

“That’s what I said,” Stephen agreed. “My mom still paid for undergrad and med school with her own money, but I did have to work to pay the other bills. I was a radiology technician for a while; it was useful hospital experience.”

“You knew,” Pepper looked to Tony.

“Of course,” Tony shrugged. He turned to Stephen, “You think they’ll give you trouble?”

“I might get a call, I might not. Depends on how dear old Pop feels about me on any given day,” Stephen scrolled the article, skimming the narrative and ultimately deciding that it said nothing of real significance. “I did cuss him out before walking out, and he hates people turning their backs on him.”

“Ugh, a rebel after my own heart!” Tony reached out for a fist-bump, which Stephen indulged.

Rhodes looked to Pepper and said, “I don’t know about this, Pep. The two of them make me nervous.”

Tony cried, “You should be happy for me! Some friends you are! Look, I’m eating well, I’m sleeping well, I’m even working out—”

“—he is a doctor, Jim, and Tony needs to be given orders,” Pepper argued.

“Doc, we won’t think any less of you if you decide to walk out now, I mean, you’ve already got my respect for staying with this mess for two whole weeks,” Rhodes countered.

“If it helps, I live in Manhattan,” Stephen chuckled. “I’m only here for the weekend.”

Oooh,” Rhodes’ eyes widened in understanding, “you’re not under continuous exposure, that makes sense.”

“I think only JARVIS can take continuous exposure to Tony,” Pepper surmised.

“I do have the benefit of being disembodied, Miss Potts,” JARVIS helpfully pointed out.

Tony crossed his arms, childlike in his huff. “You’re all bullies. Horrible friends. The absolute worst.” A grin sparkled in his eyes though, ruining the pout he was attempting to pass off.

“Is this why I hear you’re moving SI to Manhattan?” Rhodes asked, tone still light but with a more serious, pointed look at Tony. Tony scowled at him. Rhodes held up both hands and added, “The last time you made a move this big, I had just fetched you from the desert. My concerns are not unfounded, Tones, I just want to understand.”

A windy sigh was what Rhodes got in response. Next to Stephen, Tony sprawled against the back of the couch, rubbing the side of his face in contemplation. The billionaire was weighing how much to give away.

“You recall Gulmira,” Tony opened.

“A shitshow,” Rhodes sighed.

“Because it was shortsighted,” Tony agreed, which appeared to surprise both Pepper and Rhodes, “and admittedly more of a knee-jerk emotional reaction on my part. Then Obie—happened… et cetera, you know the story. Jetting around the world fixing everyone else’s problems was more of the same, and also to prove that the tech I made is useful.”

There was a pause. Stephen settled in to wait. It was clear that Tony had known his friends would bring an inquisition and was prepared for it.

Don’t waste your life, that’s what Yinsen said.”

“Who’s Yinsen, Tony?” Pepper asked, putting a hand on Tony’s knee.

“Guy who put this thing in my chest in that cave and saved my life. Brilliant surgeon, really, I think even you’d agree.” Tony tipped his head towards Stephen, who remained quiet to let him continue. “He told me that before died—don’t waste your life. So that’s what I aspired to do, fixing every problem I could see with a fancy armor, except then it started killing me, because everything has to try to kill me at least once, it’s like the universe’s favorite pastime. I tried to find a fix, I kept failing. I really thought I was gonna die. And when you get to that point, you start thinking.”

“Uh-oh,” Rhodes tried for humor, the corner of his mouth quirking up in counterpoint to the shadowed look in his eyes.

“Ha,” Tony continued, “well, I wondered, you know, if I died now, would I have done something worthwhile with my time? Thinking about it, Iron Man has bought the world a little bit of peace, but if I died…”

“The wars would start up again without a deterrent,” Stephen concluded for him, “it’s only a matter of time. War makes money, after all. The military might manage to seize your tech and use it for themselves, that’ll be a disaster. All the good you did would be undone.”

“So you can’t die,” Pepper shook Tony’s leg.

Tony smiled up at her, “I’m not dying anymore, Pep—at least not actively or beyond the existential sense of the word. I found a fix, like I always do somehow. But all the same, I just realized that Iron Man is only a band aid. He fixes things on the surface but if I really want world peace, global stability, a desirable future—Iron Man can’t make that. But Tony Stark can.”

The three of them looked at Tony.

“Big man in a suit of armor, take that away and what am I?” Tony said, lips twisted into a rueful smile. “Well, I can at least say that I’m the best engineer on this side of the planet and I’m a damn good businessman, one of the best in the game. So I’ll do what I’m good at—I’ll set the board and play.”

He suddenly sat up straight and began to illustrate a vision. JARVIS pulled up holograms of Tony’s ideas, which were multiplying by the day and were more than double the number of what Stephen saw last week.

“A viable clean energy alternative will destabilize the fossil fuel industry, which takes away the main monetary draw of war in the Middle East for the US. It’ll also begin discouraging off-shore drilling, coal mining, and nuclear power plants which are all far more expensive, tedious, and hazardous than my reactor. Three-way win: one, I save planet Earth from its toasty demise; two, I snatch up the planet’s energy market for myself; three, I gain a lot of global political capital,” Tony said. “I’m not naïve, I know it’s not safe to be handing out the reactor to everybody. But there are safe options. I’m thinking Scandinavia, Japan, Switzerland, and Germany have the money to cough up and the capacity to protect it—they’ll make good starting off points.

“The money I make from that, I can pour into SI’s expansion into telecommunications. The new StarkPhone,” Tony fished out Stephen’s phone from Stephen’s pocket, laying it on the table, “the StarkPad, plus a whole line of accessories and other consumer electronics all wired into the fastest global network the world has ever seen. I’m talking 5G speeds or faster in the cities—and I can make my own satellites for it. I’ll also build native apps that will showcase each device’s capacities; I’ll make money out of social media and entertainment. Beyond that, we’ll work with Google for web search integration, content adaptation, hell, we’ll make global positioning and map navigation a thing normal people can do on any device. We’ll collaborate with Microsoft for work systems and data analytics, it’ll help phase out the redundant parts of the workforce and prepare us for a future where computers do what they’re good at for us so we can focus on other things. The StarkNest will bring what I have here—an automated, voice-controlled household—to ordinary homes around the world, freeing up moms and dads who want more time to work or spend time with their kids or whatever it is they wanna do with their life. And all the money I make out of that…”

Tony then turned to Stephen, pulling up models of a prosthetics line, Rhodes’ braces from the future, and several machines Stephen was yet unfamiliar with.

“Nanotechnology is a thing of the future, that’s phase three. We can pour money into all sorts of applications, starting with biotech: advanced prosthetics, vaccine development, cancer research, targeted tissue regeneration, cybernetic bio-integration… the possibilities are endless. I mean, let’s fix the real problems, the shit that kills us. Those are the real problems, not the ones governments and corporations create because they want money.”

As if unable to contain himself, Tony burst out of his seat, pacing next to the couch as he continued to talk.

“If phase one and two are successful, which they will be, then I’ll have enough money to make even more changes. Phase four: space exploration. You know I can technically go to space with the Iron Man suit? The exo-armor can withstand atmospheric departure and re-entry. How about a trip to the moon? A moon-based satellite would enhance our networking capacity by…” Tony spread his arms open, “…and we can look further out into deep space.”

Defenses for intergalactic warfare, Stephen smiled. Advanced communication systems to reach out to our neighbors and coordinate for when Thanos comes around. And if he launches his own satellites into orbit, he can begin arming Earth for an invasion.

Of course, Rhodes was not thinking along those lines. Instead, he looked up at his friend in cautious awe. “Tony, you…”

“But—right, I can’t forget about the little people,” Tony crossed his arms and said, “I can start scholarships for STEM kids, because we’ll need future engineers and scientists and astronauts to run the show when we’re all gone. I’ll put out more research grant funds for studies related to SI businesses—hell, we’ll run those studies! We’ll build the best labs and workshops in the world for the best minds to come and play. Making all of that happen will require infrastructure; building and running the infrastructure will put the Average Joe to work so he can put food on the table and send his kids to school. Building and running production plants here on American soil will help bring work back to the middle class, and maybe, maybe we can stave off the next economic crisis we’re heading for because we off-shored everything to China. Fuck that shit, I don’t need sweatshops or child labor to make my stuff, I can afford to pay fair wages, I’m rich enough!”

“Alright, okay,” Pepper laughed nervously, “let’s calm down and take it one step at a time. These all sound like great ideas, Tony, but you realize you’re going to have to break it down for the board on Monday, right? They’re businessmen, they don’t exactly breathe philanthropy.”

“They will if it’s profitable,” Tony smirked. “I just have to make it profitable. Don’t worry, Pep, they won’t say no. They’ll be smart enough to see that what I’m selling them isn’t just an idea—I’m selling them the future.”




Rhodes and Pepper both stayed for the night. They had to, because the whole day was full of busy conversations that made all four of them lose track of time. Rhodes warned Tony about how the government would react to all his outlandish, insane ideas. Naturally, Tony was expecting it.

“Part of why I’m moving to New York is because it’s closer to DC, honeybear. Jetting halfway across the country every week is gonna get real old real fast once things heat up,” Tony said.

At another point, Pepper inspected the plan for the new Stark Tower plugged into a current model of Manhattan, noting that while it was impressive, it would create logistical difficulties for most of their staff, some of whom would be unable to afford living in New York City.

“We can acquire real estate in the surrounding area and provide affordable housing,” Tony shrugged. “Anyway, I’m planning on building additional administrative offices in Astoria and a production plant in Brooklyn. The Tower will mainly be for executive offices and R&D. It’ll be the jewel of the company so it should showcase the best we have to offer. The first few floors can be something of a public attraction—kiddie labs and a science museum or something like that. Maybe a robot café, like the ones they have in Tokyo but better.”

Pepper was caught so off-guard that she had nothing to say; Rhodes remarked, “You’re really giving this a lot of thought.”

“I’m giving it all the thought,” Tony retorted. “It’ll be the tallest skyscraper in the world and the only one to run on entirely clean energy. I’ll give it an arc reactor of its own, it’ll be shiny.

 

Later on that evening, while Stephen and Pepper were in the kitchen unpacking their delivered dinner, Pepper apologized for their visit taking up the entire day because Rhodes got Tony started. “I just realized we hijacked your weekend with him.”

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

“It’s not fine, you came all the way from New York to spend time with him!” Pepper said. “And I bet you have to go back by Monday, don’t you.”

“I do,” Stephen transferred the food into plates, because he never liked eating out of disposable containers when there were proper dishes available. “But there’s still tomorrow, and I can come over again next weekend.”

Pepper remarked, “It’ll be so much easier on the two of you when we’re finally in New York.”

“I know you think I’ve convinced him to move, but I promise I did nothing of the sort.”

“Oh, I know that,” she flapped a hand. “No one can convince Tony to do anything he doesn’t want to do himself. Besides, it sounds like he’s been thinking about all of this since before you guys met up. You’re just a happy coincidence.”

That made him pause. Coincidences, in light of time, didn’t really exist, especially for Stone-wielders like them. But she didn’t know that.

“I think Jim’s going to give you the shovel talk at some point tonight, fair warning. But for what it’s worth, I can see that you’re good for Tony. Thank you,” Pepper caught his arm with a smile; Stephen could only blink.

An odd thing, to be thanked for being the ‘boyfriend’ of the man who was once her husband.

Tony and Rhodes emerged at the beckon of food. They sat down for dinner just like they did for breakfast and lunch. The conversation turned away from future plans and towards Rhodes’ recent endeavors instead, Tony taking the time to catch up with developments in his best friend’s life. Tony also asked about Pepper, who again apologized for hijacking the weekend Tony was supposed to have been spending with Stephen.

“Oh, it’s cool, we’ve been talking every night,” Tony dismissed her apology. Pepper didn’t bother to hide her surprise.

“That true, JARVIS?” Rhodes asked.

“Why do you people not take my word for truth?” Tony complained.

“Sir is being honest, Colonel Rhodes. Sir has been using his daily evening conversations with Dr. Strange as a reminder to eat dinner. It has been most effective at normalizing his daily routine.”

Pepper shot a pointed ‘I told you so’ look at Rhodes, who merely responded with raised eyebrows. Stephen said to JARVIS, “Do I need to call at lunchtime to remind him to eat then too?”

“Sir is sometimes not awake at lunchtime, doctor. As you well know, he is quite nocturnal. Nevertheless, I remind him to eat a second meal after an appropriate span of time has passed since he last ate.”

“Tattle tale,” Tony sniffed, spearing a broccoli from his plate with some force.

“That he needs to tattle at all is telling,” Stephen drily remarked, earning a snicker from Pepper.

 

As Pepper predicted, Rhodes indeed approached Stephen after dinner, handing him a digestif after they had collectively cleaned up the dishes. Pepper and Tony were seated in the living room again, arguing over the Tower’s specifics; Pepper now seemed far more invested in the idea once Tony gave her designing capacity. She seemed to have some strong opinions about light, glass, exposed steel, and ceilings.

“You mind?” Rhodes tipped his head towards the balcony, calling Stephen’s attention.

“Not at all,” Stephen responded with a mild smile as he followed. Outside, the wind was brisk but mild, buffeting his hair and bringing goosebumps to his arms. He took a swallow of the brandy to warm his throat.

“You’re a smart man, you already know what this is,” Rhodes began.

“Shovel talk,” said Stephen. “Pepper warned me.”

“That’s a smart woman there too, and dangerous,” Rhodes warned him. “If I don’t get to you first, she will, and I think you’ll prefer me.”

Remembering Pepper Stark of the future, fierce and steadfast in her Rescue armor, Stephen could easily agree. “I’ve no doubt.”

Rhodes was quiet for a moment, observing Stephen, who let him look as much as he wished. Stephen actually liked the future Rhodes. He was an eminently reasonable man, disciplined and devoted to doing the right thing. He was loyal too, that was always a plus.

“You’re different,” Rhodes finally remarked. “Different from Tony’s usual fare. I mean, he likes variety, true, but it’s never been someone like you.”

Stephen only blinked, unable to think up an appropriate expression in response. “What, exactly, is someone like me?”

“Someone who doesn’t dog him like a fan,” said Rhodes. “Someone who isn’t dazzled by him being Tony fucking Stark. Someone he actually approached first.”

“Ah, well,” Stephen tilted his head, “I wouldn’t say I’m not impressed with him. It’s hard not to be, he’s a genius.”

“See, right there, you actually mean it when you say that. That’s rare,” Rhodes told him, “because most people will only admit that they’re impressed by his genius when his genius can do something for them.”

“I’m not most people.”

“No, you’re not.” Rhodes squared his shoulders and faced him with a cold, hard gaze. “Nevertheless, I’ll warn you like I do most people. Tony is my oldest friend; as much of a mess as he is, I love that man like a brother. You’ve shown nothing but good intent for him, which I respect and acknowledge man to man, so I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt… but if you hurt him, Dr. Strange, I will use everything at my disposal to hunt you down and make you rue it.”

Stephen nodded, “Duly noted.”

Rhodes took a sip of his brandy, allowing that to sink in for a moment, before adding, “For what it’s worth, though, I hope you don’t. Because I can already see you’re good for him. You get him somehow, or he gets you, I don’t really know. I don’t need to know. Piece of advice, doc: if you’re loyal to Tony, he’s loyal right back. And that loyalty is worth more than anything any amount of money or prestige in this world, because he will bend the universe backwards and over for the people he cares about.”

This Rhodes had no idea just how intimately Stephen knew that aspect of Tony Stark. Stephen just took another sip of his brandy, thinking of something appropriate to say.

“To answer your question in reverse,” he said after some deliberation, “when I met him, I was both surprised and annoyed. I’ve also never met anyone like him.”

Rhodes nodded. “Well, Tony is one of a kind. What is he to you, then?”

Stephen looked up and answered with all honesty: “Someone who can keep up. An equal. That’s what he is to me.”




It didn’t occur to Stephen until bedtime that he would have to stay in Tony’s room for the night. Pepper was the one who called it, Rhodes enthusiastically echoing her suggestion when it became clear that Tony would be outnumbered and therefore forced to actually listen.

“You’re making a habit of ganging up on me, don’t think I don’t see you!”

“This is one of those rare instances when I know you’ll actually get some rest instead of hanging out in your workshop all night, Tones. I’m not even judging—the two of you have fun, enjoy, I’ll see you in the morning. We’ve disturbed your weekend enough,” Rhodes pushed Tony along by the shoulder, shooting Stephen a look that plainly said ‘put him to bed.’

Stephen had no choice but to go along. Tony heaved a great, put-upon sigh, slinging an arm around Stephen’s shoulders and pulling him towards the master suite. “Fine, fine, bedtime. C’mon, babe. We can make it the fun kind of bedtime.”

Rhodes and Pepper disappeared down the opposite hallway to their respective guest rooms, but Stephen didn’t dare say anything until they were well inside Tony’s bedroom with the door locked behind them.

“Tell me, am I laying it on too thick?” Tony asked, patting his shoulder before letting go.

Stephen shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me.”

“You sometimes look bothered.”

“Surprised. It’s just new. I’ll get used to it.” Stephen then wondered, “Should I be concerned how good you are at lying to your best friends?”

“I must also express my concern at your deceptions, sir,” JARVIS added. “It is most unusual for you.”

“J, you know why we have to do this,” Tony sighed. Stephen inferred that Tony and JARVIS had gone through a more detailed discussion of the future they came from. It was a testament to JARVIS’ native intelligence that he was able to assimilate that data and draw conjectures from it. “As for how good I am, well, as they say, the best secrets are the ones with bits of truth in them. And I’ve always been good at stories. That’s all lies are: elaborate, believable stories.”

“Fair enough,” Stephen shrugged. “I’m borrowing your bathroom again.”

“What’s mine is yours,” Tony carelessly allowed; it caught Stephen off guard.

Stephen fished the sling ring from his pocket and reached through a small portal for his toothbrush and things. Side by side, they got ready for bed, the master bathroom easily able to accommodate them since it was built for two. Four, if the jacuzzi was considered. The glass-walled waterfall shower could probably hold a small crowd.

Stephen was not unaccustomed to wealth and luxury in his life, but Tony’s words made him think. What’s his is mine? He wondered how far Tony meant that. Certainly, since they were going to be a ‘couple’ for the foreseeable future, he would have unquestioned access to the vast majority of Tony’s assets. He already had clearance level 1, whatever that entailed. Should he allow himself to become comfortable with that? Or would Tony mind if he became overly familiar? Here was yet another line Stephen needed to figure out where to draw.

He was the first one to bed, picking the side he had fallen asleep on the last time he was here. He was ocean-side, although the vista was too dark to see much of anything but a few glittering lights in the distance, perhaps ships or private yachts. Again, he spun a small portal to reach for his pager, placing it on the bedside table in case the hospital needed him. Once settled, he asked JARVIS if it was possible for him to read a book.

“Certainly, doctor. What would you like to read? Sir’s library has an extensive collection.”

“You mean he doesn’t have all of the world’s books digitized?” Stephen smirked.

“Not quite yet,” JARVIS responded, “although we do have everything that is digitized in the US Library of Congress, the British Library, the Royal Danish Library, and the New York Public Library. We also have access to the Oxford Bodleian Libraries courtesy of sir’s tenure there as a doctoral student.”

“You need to work with Google to create a universal repository of published works,” Stephen said thoughtfully, browsing the holographic catalog JARVIS displayed in front of him.

“I shall add it to the Most Ambitious Endeavors workflow at once.”

Stephen settled on the latest articles from the New England Journal of Medicine. He was midway through a study on tumor microenvironments and metabolism when Tony came yawning out of the bathroom, collapsing facedown on the other side of the bed with a grunt.

“Wchurng,” Tony said, muffled against the bedspread.

“English, please.”

Tony turned his face sideways and repeated, “Whatchureading.”

“Something to put me to sleep.”

“How am I sleepy and you’re awake?” Tony rolled over and began to wriggle underneath the blankets, kicking out wide and reaching for a pillow to hug. It didn’t even disturb Stephen, as large as the bed was. They were practically on two different sides of the continent. “Hey, what did honeybear talk to you about on the balcony earlier?”

Stephen huffed. “You can’t guess? A shovel talk, of course. Threatened to hunt me down and eviscerate me if I ever hurt his best friend.”

“So you best not! Although between you and me, Pep’s scarier.”

“I don’t disagree.”

“God, you know what she said to me earlier? It was actually kinda good because it meant she was buying us, but it was also really rude, I’m so offended.

“Oh, this must be good.”

“I was like, you know, we’re just trying it out, and she said, Tony, please. I know you. I can tell this is edging into ‘serious’ territory, because I’ve never before seen you take interest in something you’ve already used once.”

Stephen burst out in laughter, turning just in time to see Tony’s half-horrified, half-delighted face. “I mean, is she wrong?”

“She is not,” JARVIS answered for his creator, who squawked indignantly.

“I reuse things! I recycle! I’m eco-friendly!”

Stephen waved his reading material away and turned on his side to give Tony a gimlet stare. “Are you implying something about me?”

“Good things!” Tony now laughed, “You’re not disposable, that’s what I’m saying, see? J, back me up on this.”

“I fail to see how my contribution would be helpful,” JARVIS drily responded.

“But just now you were very unhelpful,” Tony pouted, eyes falling shut. He did look tired. Stephen wondered how much sleep he got over the week.

“JARVIS, turn off the lights. Unless you want them on, Tony.”

“No, s’fine,” a yawn, and then Tony added, “don’t let Rhodey leave in the morning without telling me, J.”

“Of course, sir. Shall I filter in the ocean sounds?”

“If Stephen doesn’t mind,” said Tony. Stephen gave the go-ahead. As the muted, modulated sound of the Pacific crashing against the cliffside came through, Tony asked, “This isn’t weird, right? Because if it is, I can sleep on the couch over there.”

“Don’t be stupid, you’re sleeping in your bed,” Stephen sighed in the darkness. “And no, this isn’t weird.” He found that he wasn’t lying; it was actually comfortable. Reassuring. Having Tony nearby meant that he could ensure both of their safety. Something restless settled in his chest. “I apologize in advance if the pager goes off and wakes you up.”

“No big deal,” Tony hummed. “Used to it too.”

Stephen allowed the darkness and the ocean sounds lull him closer and closer to slumber, the two of them resting peaceably together in this reality they were now tasked to shape. For the moment, they could rest.

He fell asleep to the sound of Tony breathing.




It took another week before hospital administration approached him about his relationship with Tony Stark. Specifically, his division chief approached him with a question, which was not unusual except for this one’s more personal nature.

“I only ask because I need to know if it’s going to be an evolving issue our PR department will have to continue dealing with,” Christian Boltner added, unbuttoning his suit jacket prior to taking a seat. Boltner had redirected them into his office, which had a view of Brooklyn that could also be counted as a reward from the hospital. Boltner’s leadership was well-received by the administrators, going to show just how much said administrators knew about leadership in the first place.

Stephen perched on the edge of his seat with his elbows on his knees, cradling a fresh cup of coffee in both hands as he considered how to approach this issue. He could play it safe and tell them all they wanted to hear. Or he could fuck it all and throw his weight around, demanding that they keep up instead of kowtowing to what they wanted. The latter was more his style, but the former was more circumspect, just in case he ended up needing Metropolitan for something in the nebulous future.

Would I, though? Theoretically speaking, they’ll end up needing me more than I’ll need them.

He ran his tongue against his teeth and said, “Don’t really know what to tell you because I myself don’t know what to think of it.”

“Is it serious or is it a temporary state of affairs?” Boltner pushed, drumming fingers on his desktop. “Tony Stark’s not exactly known for steady relationships.” The barefaced calculation was so obvious it made Stephen want to gag. The audacity, too.

“I’m signed on as a consultant to Stark Industries,” Stephen said instead. There, chew on that.

Boltner blinked in surprise. “Wait, since when?”

“Since two weeks ago. Before you ask, I filed the paperwork for conflict of interest already.”

“Don’t you also have a professorship at NYU?” Boltner leaned forward, the very picture of keen interest now that Stephen was confirming a working relationship with one of the world’s largest business conglomerates—not the largest yet, but it would be soon enough.

“Only adjunct, that doesn’t take up much of my time,” Stephen waved the concern aside. “This might soon.”

“What, exactly, are you consulting for?”

Nice try, asshole. “Confidential. I signed NDAs, the full nine yards. It has nothing to do with Metropolitan or my practice here as an attending, for your peace of mind. At this point all they require is my expertise. If there are publications or products released down the line, I’ll make the appropriate declarations then.” Stephen drew his shoulders square and added, “Of course if this is going to be a problem, I wouldn’t want to impose. I’m prepared to resign.”

Boltner could have been a five-year-old at a candy store. The older man shifted in his seat, spreading both hands wide in front of him to entreaty Stephen’s favor. “No, no, it’s not at all an imposition! Stephen, that’s great news. As a colleague, I’m delighted for you!”

Lies. You’re jealous.

Boltner continued, “We’re here to support you, of course. Let me know if there’s anything the division can help with, anything I can help with. I’m sure the hospital would be more than willing to coordinate clinical research if it comes to that.”

“I’m sure,” Stephen drily agreed.

“Is there anything I can help you with right now?” Boltner asked him, eager for even a scrap if it meant involvement in a project that might carry with it the name Stark.

But there were objectives to accomplish here, and Stephen did say whatever means necessary with whatever resources available. So he pivoted and took the opportunity with both hands.

“Time. I’ll need time. Not much right now, but even a day less on the OR schedule would help me catch up on all the reading. I’ve a lot to study.”

Just like that, Stephen’s surgery schedule eased up, his clinic hours all but disappearing as the workload was distributed across the rest of the neurosurgeons in his team. Doubtless there would be people discontent with how the youngest and newest among them was getting privileges for what looked like time off, but he would let Boltner handle that. No need to get involved in departmental politics when he would soon be above all of them anyway.

On the way out of Boltner’s office, he considered Tony’s timeframe and wondered how much time it would take out of his daily life to finish a doctorate in biomedical engineering. Perhaps it was time to visit some colleagues at Columbia again.

He texted Tony the idea, now becoming accustomed to sharing thoughts and plans with his partner, and immediately got a response back.

Tony
Let’s do it together!

Stephen
Don’t you already have 4 PhDs

Tony
Always space on my wall for more

Stephen
I’ll talk to Columbia

Tony
Nooooo
MIT!!!!

Stephen
Too far

Tony
Are you serious right now
You can literally portal
With literal magic

Stephen
Fine, we’ll see which program is better

Tony
MIT :D

Rolling his eyes, Stephen tucked his phone away. He was dating a child.




You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
( Buckminster Fuller )




tbc
first draft: 2020.04.23
last edited: 2020.05.29




REFERENCES

(1) I imagine Stephen playing Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2 in E-flat major (the classic Rubinstein, of course).

(2) I like to dream about nanomedicine. It's the future of medical interventions and has the potential to replace a lot of the invasive, painful, and lengthy procedures we do to treat diseases. The applications really are endless, from targeted drug delivery to minimally invasive heart surgery... it makes my head spin. There's a lot of medical babble in this chapter because it's told from Stephen's perspective and like Stephen, I'm a neurosurgeon (in training). I hope it wasn't too much and that some of you find it interesting. I ran it through my editor who approved it since she thinks it enhances the perspective and realism of the chapter. Considering what we saw of Stephen's life before the accident in canon, we can safely say that his life revolved around the hospital so I can't avoid portraying it. In my honest opinion, there aren't enough Stephen-centric fics out there that give credence to his perspective as a physician, which, fair, if you don't have an insider's view, it's hard to write. So here's my contribution for the enrichment of the fandom! :D Let me know if you have any questions about the medical shit, I'm more than happy to elaborate.

(3) Canon-wise, Stephen's specialty interest seems to be in spinal regeneration and research, although of course that could just be because he was trying to fix his own nerve damage after the accident. But he also operated on a trauma case (gunshot wound) in the ER, perhaps as a favor to Christine. I wanted to clarify that this kind of specialty switching is actually unorthodox. Neurosurgeons actually specialize even further within the field: vascular neurosurgery (fixing arteries, veins, and neuro-circulation), tumor specialty (different types of brain cancer treatments & procedures), and spinal neurosurgery (everything spine) are three such common fields. Some neurosurgeons who have an expertise in epileptology also train for lobectomies, which is an option for patients who suffer really bad continuous seizures that cannot be controlled with medications. Stephen here is jumping all over the place, handling trauma cases one day and then vascular cases (aneurysm repairs) the next. It can be done; you just have to be insanely good. Emphasis on insane. I thought about it long and hard, but if I'm painting Stephen as a genius on par with Tony, then I can't deny him his extravagances. That the hospital lets him do this shit is a testament to his skill.

(4) Two of Tony's many cars: the Ferrari Stradale in hot-rod red, and the Bugatti Chiron in ocean blue.

(5) Detracting from canon Stephen Strange’s background because I can and I want to. :D There will be some similarities (I'm keeping Donna's death) but I decided to have fun with it. Just go with the flow, guys!

Chapter Text




Chaos: when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
( Edward Lorenz )




The scars are gone.

Loki turns his arm over and observes the smooth clarity of his skin, younger skin, unmarred with cuts and burns, still beautiful. Perhaps if he tries hard enough, he can pretend the torture had never happened.

Two servants slip into his bathing chambers, making him tense. “Your Highness,” they bow, bearing food enough for four people. He waves a hand and they leave it next to the bath. His shoulders don’t loosen until they have disappeared.

Steam curls around his limbs as he slips into the water. The groan that slips through his teeth is both pain and pleasure. A soul is not meant to be ripped from its vessel; what he has done is a violation of the highest order, a subversion of nature.

Just another Tuesday, really.

He laughs softly to himself, another mischief managed, this time something no one else has achieved, at least by his considerable reckoning. Back in time.

Back in time!

There will be no disastrous visits to Jötunheim this time around, Loki decides as he stuffs his mouth with figs and cheese. No falling, definitely no more falling, no torture, no Grandmaster, no horrid banshee of a sister, and as little dying as possible, fake or otherwise. No patricide, even.

He thinks of having to face Odin and then amends, maybe a little patricide.

Otherwise, as few complications as expeditiously possible, even better if the mortals survived their little jaunt through time. Loki chuckles again, delighted with his own achievement. That spell was forbidden for a reason, but he has never not once in his life respected boundaries, especially with seiðr. All boundaries are but conventions waiting to be broken; some of them are waiting for him!

A grape, a bit of goat cheese, and then a thin slice of smoked sausage. When his stomach doesn’t protest, he keeps going. He dips another fig in honey and sinks deeper into the bathwater, the luxuries of life as a prince of Asgard something almost unbelievable, as if from a long-forgotten dream. Was the elderberry juice always this delicious? Loki hums in delight and licks his fingers, reaching for the freshly baked bread. He was a fool to have given this up before.

Midway through a honey-roasted slice of ham, the palace shakes with the roar of the Asgardian people.

Hail King Thor, Loki thinks with much amusement, good riddance to Odin One-Eye.

And to think he had coveted that throne once. What a waste of freedom and time.




Time, a concept.

Loki has simultaneously far too much of it and not enough. He has spent the better part of a week recuperating in his quarters waiting for his seiðr to stabilize, meaning he’s bored out of his mind—but he doesn’t feel safe leaving the royal wing when he can’t adequately defend himself. The only highlight is when Mother comes to see to him.

She’s beautiful, Mother. Warm and golden and alive. She comes to him one morning, waking him with a gentle touch and even gentler words. “Hearken to me, my little falcon. Open your eyes.”

He obeys and basks in the warmth of her smile. “Mother.”

“Loki, darling,” says Frigga, “aren’t you a little too old to be falling asleep curled up in this little alcove?”

Loki unfurls from his perch next to the window and swings his legs around to sit next to her. “I was watching the sunset,” he tells her. In the distance, dawn threatens.

“I do not like your pallor,” Frigga frowns in concern, the back of her hand stroking his cheek. “What illness plagues you, my son?”

Am I your son? Loki wants to ask. Instead, he explains, “It is no illness, Mother, only overexertion.”

She brushes the hair back from his eyes and sighs. “Did you overreach with your seiðr again? You must be careful, Loki, how many times must I tell you? As gifted and powerful as you are, there are still boundaries you must respect.”

Loki takes her hand and kisses her palm. “I am sorry I missed Thor’s coronation. I did not think it fitting for the prince to faint midway through the newly crowned king’s speech.”

“Indeed I should think not,” Frigga scoffs, before heaving another sigh. “Your father was not pleased. And you know what sort of talk it will breed in court.”

“They can talk,” Loki shrugs, “I am still the prince, lest Thor see fit to banish me now that he is crowned.”

“Your brother would do no such thing.”

Oh, he so would, Loki thinks. “I jest, Mother. I know he wouldn’t. How would he run the King’s Council without my advice?”

Frigga straightens and tells him, “This is why you must take the time to rest now and recover your strength. The coronation is less important in the grand scheme of things. The Council is where the ruling happens. You must be there when Thor holds his first one.”

“Concerned about the mess he’ll make without me there?” Loki raises an eyebrow.

She levels him with a frown. “Your brother will be your most stalwart defender if you become his. This is how it was always meant to be, Loki, the two of you standing together to usher Asgard into a new era. Think of this as a rehearsal.”

A new era? By all accounts, Odin hadn’t planned for a new era. It was as if the tired old sod simply gave up and neglected to make preparations for his own death and Hela’s resulting freedom. All of Loki’s careful preparations gone to waste because of an old tyrant’s pride. Asgard had been ready. Asgard might have won.

Loki shakes his head and snorts, “Too expensive for a rehearsal, going by the amount of mead and meat the palace has served.”

“An ascension does not happen often,” Frigga chuckles, “we must give the people a chance to celebrate.”

Loki is of the firm opinion that Asgard, in its peacetime, does far too much celebrating altogether. But all the same, he doesn’t argue: it will indeed make the people happy for a time, and a happy people do not ask pernicious questions.

“Will you then continue to make my excuses, Mother? I think I shall stretch for a time and then break my fast. More sleep would do me good.”

Frigga agrees, pressing a soft kiss upon his forehead. It is both a benediction of pride and a declaration of love, against which Loki closes his eyes. When he opens them again, a golden apple sits within the cup of his two hands. He smiles.

Perhaps Mother does love me best after all.




He’s in his bath once again, savoring Iðunn’s apple slice by golden slice, when Thor barges into his quarters without preamble.

“LOKI!” the oaf bellows, jolting him from his chaotic, meandering thoughts. “You were not at my coronation! Do you spurn me with such jealousy that you deny my celebration your presence?”

At once, Loki hates him with the raging fury of a thousand suns.

“I am ill,” Loki hisses from within the cloud of steam, “and unfit for company, you foolish lout. Now get out of my quarters before I throw you out.”

Perhaps noting the quality of his voice, thinner and hoarse with disuse, Thor pauses and peers through the steam for a moment. “Oh. What ails you, then?”

“Overexertion, now leave.”

“Why would you exert yourself so when you knew my coronation was yesterday?” Thor demands, truly nothing more than a squalling child instead of a crowned king. Loki feels sorry for Asgard.

Perhaps I did not intend to exhaust myself to this extend, but in my eagerness, I overreached,” Loki waspishly snaps. “And perhaps I might have been crafting a gift to offer my newly crowned brother, a gift I wished to ensure would be fit for the King of Asgard. Unfortunately, I am now unable to finish the work given my exhaustion. I do beg of Your Majesty’s pardon; I shall endeavor to return to court as soon as I am able, and make a fitting offering to celebrate the crowning of our new King,” he spits.

Chastised, Thor turns an unbecoming puce color; it clashes with his red cloak. “V-Very well, then, I. Be on the mend. I—I shall—expect your presence at Council in the coming week.”

“I serve at Your Majesty’s pleasure,” Loki simpers, words dripping with honeyed malice. This boorish, immature Thor deserves it.

The King leaves, the doors slamming shut behind him. Loki rather thinks he’s the one who has the right to be slamming doors right now. Shoving another apple slice into his mouth, he fumes and plots and contemplates adding fratricide back to his list.




It isn’t until he’s walking into Asgard’s Arcanum that Loki allows the grief to hit him. The gilded doors close behind him and he cries; no one will ever know. This is a place he knows by heart, a place where he’s always been safe, a treasure trove of knowledge matched only by very few places elsewhere in the universe: this is his sanctuary.

There had been no time to save anything of it before the whole realm had gone up in flames.

Ragnarök. It can’t be allowed to happen.

He swipes angrily at the tears on his cheeks and goes to the Oracle. There is work to do.

Unlike Vanaheim, where the entire Vanir court may enter the Archive of the Mages, Asgard’s Eternal Arcanum sits within the heart of the palace under powerful, sentient wards. The doors always open for the royal family as a matter of course, but beyond them, only the King’s Council, a few scholars, and a handful of healers may work within its walls. A convenient place for a shy child to hide; Loki has fond memories from his early childhood spent exploring these vast repositories alone.

Somewhere within these halls are answers to several of his pressing questions. Finding the answers will not be easy, but Loki has to try, especially now that he has the time.

There isn’t much else I can do anyway, he frowns, flexing his fingers in an attempt to summon seiðr forth. Energy simmers from within his core, weak but at least this time without pain. Another week, perhaps, for complex spellwork. A fortnight and I’ll be battle-ready. For now, I must study.

With sure steps, he weaves through the shelves to stand before the Arcanum’s Oracle. Its ancient seiðr bathes his face in a wash of green light. He curls his hands around its cool surface and thinks for a time, juggling six different queries before he decides on the most important.

“Show me everything about the Infinity Stones,” Loki whispers to the Arcanum’s glowing heart. “Show me what we know about the Mad Titan who hunts them.”

The Oracle burns a bright, poisonous yellow and begins pulling tomes and scrolls from the shelves.

Loki smiles as knowledge congregates around him. Thousands of years of scholarship and history at his fingertips! The enchantment never fails to give him a youthful joy, one of the purest forms of joy he has ever felt. To know, after all, is as much a gift as it is a curse.

If the sentient wards make report of the Oracle’s stirring to Asgard’s King, it goes unheeded. The King is young yet, untrained with seiðr, and deeply asleep. Loki works through the night undisturbed.




“Here,” Loki tosses the silk pouch at Thor’s head. It bounces off the fool’s forehead with a satisfying thwip. “Your gift, you oaf.”

Thor holds the pouch in his hands and scowls. “You could have presented it in a more courtly manner!”

Loki sweeps into the room and takes his usual seat at the square table, kissing Frigga’s hand in greeting. “My boor of a brother, lecturing me on courtly manners? My, what powerful enchantment that golden throne must have, to transform our Thor into a courtly King.”

It takes no small glare from Odin to keep Thor from throttling him over the dinner table. Frigga sighs and bids them both to settle for the meal. “You are no longer children. I should not have to keep telling you both to behave.”

“Yes, Mother,” they both intone.

Odin breaks bread and they eat. Loki suppresses the grief and smiles gamely at his brother while assuring Frigga that he does feel better. He wants to say that he has entirely forgotten about these dinners, but he has spent too many years missing it to be convincing. The food is divine, as expected. Loki hoards the elderberry juice.

“Your absence was noted at the coronation,” Odin sternly frowns at Loki. Too bad that doesn’t affect him anymore.

Loki shrugs, peeling a shrimp out of its shell with his fingers. “It wasn’t my coronation. I’m certain Thor enjoyed himself.” When Odin remains unimpressed, he sighs and adds, “I shall be there at Council. Will you?”

“For the first one, yes,” Odin nods. “I did not have the luxury of my father being present at my first Council, but that was wartime and now we have peace. I intend to ease your brother into the burden of ruling while I can.”

“And what will you do once Thor takes upon the mantle entirely, Father?” Loki leans an elbow on the table with a speculative eye.

“It has been long since I have had rest,” Odin closes his one eye at the thought of it. “I have long wanted to revisit the mountains of my youth.”

The old man has a retirement plan. Lovely. “You shan’t be bored out of your mind?” Loki exchanges a look with Frigga, who merely smiles. Perhaps Mother too wants to be rid of Odin’s noxious commandeering. Norns know she’s put up with it for long enough.

“Not all of us require mischief on the daily to entertain us, child.”

“Pity,” Loki grins with a mouth full of teeth, “for it would be a brighter world otherwise.”

Odin and Frigga share a sigh. She remarks, “Enough mischief for the moon, my son. Your brother needs your counsel now more than ever.”

Loki says nothing, exchanging a look with Thor over the remaining hunk of venison that they divide into two. It occurs to him that the last meal they shared as brothers was a poor excuse for bread and some soup on that fate-forsaken ship.

They had been refugees then. Here they are now, princes again.

After dinner, they retreat towards the fire, Thor washing his hands at least before pawing eagerly at the silk pouch Loki gave him. Loki brings a flagon of wine and sprawls on the bearskin rug next to Mother’s knee.

“It’s a necklace,” Thor announces, holding the trinket up in the firelight.

“Astute as ever,” Loki snorts. “Put it on.”

Two snakes twine together in an intricate knot of silver and gold. The pendant hangs from an indestructible cord woven from Loki’s hair, a detail Thor does not need to know.

Thor’s hand hovers over it when the necklace sits at last upon his chest. “You have worked powerful seiðr into this necklace.”

Loki fishes an exact replica of the necklace from underneath his tunic, flashing the pendant at Thor. This one on a golden cord made with Thor’s hair—another detail Thor does not need to know. “It is bound to this one. Wear it always and I shall be able to find you wherever you are in the cosmos. Likewise, if you pay enough attention to your native seiðr for once, you will be able to find me.”

Thor opens his mouth and then closes it, dumbstruck. Even Odin seems surprised. Has Loki been that reticent of his affection to his brother that this much is now unusual? Loki can’t recall; Thor’s original coronation was so long ago. Anyway.

“Congratulations on your coronation, brother mine,” Loki toasts him with the wine. “You may yet surprise us all and become a fine king, if you try.”

Thor splutters, unsure whether to respond to the compliment or the thinly veiled insult. “Loki! Must you always be so fork-tongued?”

Someone has to keep that head of yours in check. Now that you’re king, who else would dare?”

Odin snorts at that, Frigga chuckling along while stroking a hand over Loki’s hair. Hard to fathom that in another life, Loki had sabotaged all of this so thoroughly that a thousand years’ worth of time spent as a family (albeit an imperfect one) became immaterial in the span of a night.

Well, he’s destroyed more in less time. He’s quite sure New York took all of an hour, maybe a little under.

Norns, what a drama queen I’m becoming. How… unbecoming.

That aside, Odin has been responding to his humor. Color Loki surprised! All these years and Loki never realized that Odin knew what humor was.

As they say, new life, new discoveries. I think I shall enjoy myself here.

Thor is certainly making this worthwhile. His brother—not the same one he left in the wreckage of the Statesman, but still his brother—stops him in the darkened halls later with a hand on the arm.

“Brother,” Thor looks soft and entreating, the way he does when he really needs something from Loki that Loki might not be inclined to give, “I thank you for the gift. I only—that is—you will be at Council with me, yes?”

“Yes, Thor, I did tell Father I would be.”

“Good. Great. I, ah,” Thor rubs the back of his neck, “you know I do not do well with the Council at times. I would have you with me and at my side. I would have an ally I can count on.”

Loki peers at him, wondering what prompted such insecurity to surface, before considering the new pendant hanging around Thor’s neck. He reaches for it and tugs, making Thor blink. “Despite your oafishness and simplicity, you are still my brother. Never forget that.”

Loki leaves him there, standing in the shadow between two burning braziers, likely confused and wrongfooted by Loki’s strange mood. Well, Loki has to keep them guessing somehow. It won’t do to be predictable.




A week after the coronation, the King’s Council convenes for the first time under King Thor. Instead of wearing his battle armor, Loki dresses in the robes of his station: Asgard’s Prince and First Mage, next in the line of succession. Before the mirror, he admires himself in emerald silk and gold brocade. It seems an age since he last wore these, the garb of a statesman instead of a warrior. He has been fighting and fleeing for so long.

He braids part of his hair in a long tail and lets the rest hang free. Bracers for his forearms, although hidden underneath the fall of his long sleeves. Rings for his fingers too, each with its own purpose. He brings his quill and a scroll to complete the appearance of full intent. Someone has to at least look the part, and Thor likely won’t.

Servants halt and bow before him when he sweeps through the halls. Asgard’s gardens are resplendent today, the training grounds looking just as lively when he passes by on his way. He spies Sif sparring with Hogun in the distance and represses a sigh; that’s another complication he will have to deal with soon enough. Or perhaps he can avoid them.

When he arrives, the Council is nearly complete. The Councilors too halt and bow before him, older though they are and more experienced in their stations.

“My felicitations, Prince Loki,” Lady Eir greets as she rises from her curtsy. “I am gratified to see that you are recovered. We grew concerned when you did not visit the healing halls for aid.”

Loki allows her a small smile. “A simple case of overexertion, Lady Eir, and certainly nothing to bother your healers with. It wouldn’t be the first time I tried a spell meant for more than one mage.”

Thor is not far behind, marching into the room with a serious countenance. Is that a bit of fear Loki scents in the air? As they all bow, Loki hides a smile.

“A good morn to you, Councilors!” Thor booms, breaking into a wide smile. Loki can feel the tension ease a touch, which is a shame; he rather likes tension. “Father will not be long. Shall we sit?”

The Councilors gather round the long table. Thor takes Loki in arm and grins down at him, pure and true. “Brother, it is good to see you. You look well.”

“Courtesy of a perfect golden apple,” Loki slants a smirk at Thor. “Perhaps I’m Mother’s favorite after all.”

Thor jostles him with mock disdain. “And you did not share?”

“Thor, you’re King. You can ask Iðunn for a whole bushel if you want.” Gathering his robes about him, Loki takes the seat at the right hand of the King. “Besides, I was ill, did you not hear?”

Thor sits at the head of the table, looking like he was born to be there. Which he was. Except he will probably set Asgard on fire again, or worse. Thor snorts, “Indeed so ill that you required servants to clean up your sick for you, from what I heard. Our First Mage, unable to even summon seiðr to help himself.”

Loki scowls, “It was no trifling spell. I’d bid you to a challenge, but I might prematurely beggar our realm a King. Oh, what am I saying, you don’t even cast spells, silly of me to forget.”

“No, I do not,” Thor gamely smiles, clasping Loki’s arm once again in a firm grip, “because you are here and you do them much better.”

Perhaps Thor does understand more of the game than Loki gives him credit for. The Councilors already look much more at ease after seeing such a display of easy camaraderie between the two brothers; a contest of succession is never a pleasant thing to start with under a new King’s rule. Odin strides in shortly thereafter, prompting them to compose themselves.

The Allfather sits at the end of the table after nodding to the young King. “Councilors, welcome. My sons, good morn.”

“Father,” Loki and Thor both echo over the Council’s murmured greetings. Awkward, this table. They rise to honor the Allfather, but cannot bow because of the new King, making it all quite confusing. As soon as they sit, Loki kicks Thor’s leg under the table.

“Let us begin, then,” Thor clears his throat and spreads his hands in an entreating motion. “Master Viseti, our tasks for the day?”

Master Viseti, their elderly Royal Scribe, rises and begins the presentation of affairs. “Our joyful felicitations for the royal ascension of King Thor to herald a new era of Asgard’s golden dominion.” Loki suppresses a snort. Golden, yes. Dominion? Midgard and Jotunheim would both beg to differ. “The Council convenes today under the guidance of Odin Allfather and King Thor, and acknowledges the presence of Asgard’s First Mage, His Highness Prince Loki; the Minister of War, Grand Commander Tyr; the Minister of Trade, Councilor Geirbjörn; the Minister of Agronomy, Councilor Agvalðr; the Minister of Laws, Councilor Salgerðr; Lady Eir, Guildmaster of the Healers; Lady Hildegunn, Guildmaster of the Weavers; Master Ragnar, Guildmaster of the Smiths; and Master Kjartan, Guildmaster of the Masons.”

The Council turns then to Loki, who begins the presentation on account of being the second highest ranking individual at the table.

“The mages of Asgard welcome our new King with great anticipation,” Loki intones, voice low and smile enchanting. “Our realm maintains its equilibrium, the shields at optimal output and the energy reservoirs at capacity. The Lady Iðunn foresees a plentiful harvest this season; our soil is rich and teeming with seiðr. Perhaps a score of apples may be made available for this year’s harvest feast. A fitting celebration for the year of your ascension, don’t you think?” he says to Thor, whose eyes brighten at the suggestion.

“A fine idea, brother. Will you speak with the Lady Iðunn for us, secure her favor and warm her to the idea?”

“As my King commands,” Loki dips his head in a show of magnanimous deference. Iðunn will not like it, but Loki wants Asgard’s people strengthened for the years to come, so he will press her into parting with her precious apples. And he will make sure the right people get them: the mages, the warriors, the healers, and the workers. Asgard’s mostly useless nobility can have whatever’s left.

Tyr follows after his lead, presenting a rapid report of Asgard’s military capacity. This is perhaps where Thor is most engaged, paying keen attention to the numbers that they have. Loki notes that the realm’s reserve number more than its active arms, a point that must be rectified. Asgard has long maintained a standing army as the Nine’s primary peacekeeper and protector, but it has been an age since the last great war. Some of their vigilance has grown lax under peace.

Geirbjörn happily informs them that Asgard’s trade remains hale and strong. The man is a consummate opportunist, making him extremely efficient at his post, but Loki is concerned that he will take advantage of Thor’s political inexperience. Odin Allfather is wise to such machinations in a way that Thor might never be; Loki will have to compensate.

He suppresses a sigh and stares into the middle distance, considering the variables of enticing Vanaheim and Alfheim both into compliance. Every part of the Nine capable of arms needs to be prepared for war. Stark and Strange, if they wake with their memories intact, will ready Midgard’s defenses; as mediocre as they are, their realm has seen more war and adapts with more grace than the other realms combined. On the contrary, neither Vanaheim nor Alfheim have had to take active part in warfare since the Scourge of Svartálfheim. Their roles during Asgard’s campaign against Jötunheim were only to maintain the trade embargoes the Allfather decreed; it will take significant persuasion to shove both realms off their comfortable perches and into preparation—the persuasion must be strong enough to convince them that Asgard’s considerable might will not be enough to hold the line.

A glance confirms that Thor is so far keeping up despite his mayfly attention span. As Salgerðr finishes his report, moving them along to the concerns of the guilds, Loki continues thinking about trade. Geirbjörn will not like the talk of war; nothing like conflict to disrupt the flow of luxury goods between the realms. Tyr, however, will be a valuable pawn. Loki must play his pieces with care and ensure that this Council listens to him when he at last delivers news of the threat.

Thank the Norns for Thor’s bloodlust, Loki glances over, he will be the easiest to persuade. Thor is feigning interest in the guildmasters’ reports but there is little in the way of entertainment during peacetime discussions like these.

The realm appears in perfect order.

A far sight above how the realm fared when Loki last took over the throne, albeit under Odin’s guise: Asgard caught unawares by the Dark Elves’ sudden invasion where they shouldn’t have been—the mages had warned Odin of the approaching Convergence, hadn’t they? But Odin didn’t listen, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Reportedly, Odin barely listened to Thor’s concerns about Jane Foster’s encounter with the Aether. How much regret must Odin have suffered after the fact, when he found his realm compromised, his firstborn absconded, his wife in Valhalla, and his second son a criminal everyone thought was dead?

Serves him right, the arrogant old coot. Loki has to fight the near-overwhelming urge to shoot a glare at the opposite end of the table, where Odin sits overseeing Thor’s first Council with a judgmental sort of silence. If Loki didn’t need the Allfather’s bolstering influence to rally the realms, he would get rid of the fool altogether.

Does Odin even want Asgard to survive beyond his reign? Perhaps the shriveled old meddler wants the histories to only tell of Asgard’s golden glory under his own name. Well, no matter; Loki now weaves a new yarn. Asgard must remain standing to act as the foremost deterrent against Thanos’ advance.

“…concludes our report of the realm’s affairs,” Master Viseti now declares with a deep bow towards Thor. Loki wrenches his attention back to the table and notes that Thor has mostly succeeded in keeping his attention intact. “Your Majesty, the Council would be heartened to hear your thoughts. What endeavor would you like to begin with?”

Everyone then turns to Thor, who blinks most adorably—taken aback, no doubt, with the sudden shift in focus. Odin usually drives the Council with a firmer hand on the agenda. Loki strokes his jaw with two fingers to remind himself to be quiet.

“Yes, well,” Thor clears his throat, “I—I should like to see the realms in person. Reassure them that Asgard maintains its promise to protect and defend their people.”

The statement is met with a moment of silence, a moment Loki hijacks with calculated approval.

“Indeed a fine idea, brother,” Loki smiles when Thor looks toward him with surprise. “Only that it will take some time before it is wise for you to go.” When Thor frowns in confusion, he adds, “We must warn the other realms so that they may be prepared to welcome Asgard’s King. And you have only just ascended; Asgard’s people, more than anyone else, should have the honor of knowing you as their King first.”

Thor’s frown evens out into a thoughtful one. “A moon’s time, perhaps? That will allow Vanaheim and Alfheim to prepare themselves for a delegation.”

Loki tilts his head, deferring to Geirbjörn and Salgerðr, who both scramble to agree.

“A moon’s time is wise, my King,” Geirbjörn smiles. “I shall speak with both realms and see to the feasibility of arrangements.”

“Perhaps more than a moon,” Salgerðr suggests. “The Elves like to take their time.”

“Asgard is and should always be your priority, my King,” Tyr rumbles, silencing the rest of the table. “Our people will take kindly to your rule if you grace them with your presence. It has been an age since the townsfolk beyond the city have seen a visit from the King, has it not?”

By the Norns, the nerve! Loki wants to laugh, barely restrains himself: a criticism of the old King and a conditional demand upon the new one without even batting an eyelash! Tyr grows brazen in his old age. Loki wants to say something blithe but holds his tongue; Odin looks unfazed, likely intending for Thor to learn from this, and Thor—

Thor gives Tyr a smile that makes it clear he missed the point. “I have always enjoyed the townsfolk. Thank you for a fine suggestion, Grand Commander, that requires less preparation. Master Viseti, let us arrange a visit across Asgard!”

Viseti bows, “As the King commands, so it shall be done.”

Loki levels Tyr and then Thor with consideration. It seems a conversation needs to be had.




 

It is Thor who approaches him first, much to Loki’s surprise. He is in his parlor, undoing his braids while the servants prepare his midday meal, when Thor comes sweeping into Loki’s rooms as if he owns the place.

I suppose he does, in fact, own the palace.

“Brother,” Loki raises an eyebrow where the servants all curtsy and bow, “to what do I owe the dubious pleasure?”

“Leave us,” Thor grunts. The servants bow again and scatter.

Loki calls after them, “Bring a flagon of mead and more meat; I shall not have my brother, King though he is, deprive me of my meal. Oh, and the sharp aged cheese, and more figs!” He pushes his hair over a shoulder and sits at the table, which through a bay window overlooks Mother’s garden and the rose maze. “Well?”

Thor huffs and unclasps his cloak, draping it over a scroll-laden divan with characteristic disregard. He observes the food and remarks, “You shall grow round, brother.”

Loki snorts. “You drink more mead than I; you shall grow round.” He thinks of that rotund Thor from that distant, distasteful future and smiles.

“I visit the training yards daily!” Thor scowls, reaching for said mead, “Whereas you, brother, laze about in here with your scrolls and books—”

Loki rolls his eyes, “Woe betide our realm should I cease with my scrolls and books and leave you with no skilled mage to uphold the shields and tend to the realm’s seiðr.”

“Asgard has other skilled mages,” Thor snorts.

“I haven’t met them! Pray tell wherefore are these fine people?”

“Oh, quit, brother. How come they always bring you finer cheese?”

“Perhaps because I have finer taste,” Loki puts a cluster of berries in his mouth. “Now tell me what brings you when we just saw each other at Council. You have until I finish my meal.”

“Only until then?” Thor mocks indignation. “You deny the King your time?”

“I, like said King, have duties to see to,” Loki archly responds, “duties I have neglected in a fortnight due to my illness. Although if the King will excuse me from them, I shall happily take the afternoon for myself.”

“And what, read some more?”

“You should try it sometime, it’s quite rewarding.”

Thor grunts with irritated amusement. A servant brings more mead and cheese and figs. They tear a loaf of bread into half and partake, Loki moaning delight at the spread of minced duck liver and garlic. Thor waits until the servants have gone again before he speaks.

“Brother, I thank you for your support at Council.”

“Except…?” When Thor frowns at him, Loki rolls his eyes again and says, “Oh, out with it, brother mine. I can tell there is a tail end to that statement. What do you want?”

“Might you—that is,” Thor sighs, “might you have a care to advise me in private next time?”

Ah,” Loki leans back in his chair, a goblet of wine in hand. He considers his brother carefully and in silence. Likely Thor feels jealous, indeed threatened, by the ease with which Loki handles the Council. Politics has always been one of Thor’s sore weaknesses; Thor believes the best in people, a shining quality until it makes a glaring target. But all the same, Thor is not wholly stupid; naïve sometimes and simple often, but never stupid. So Loki gives him the benefit of the doubt. “What troubles you, Thor, that you ask this of me?”

Thor licks his lips and picks flesh off the bones of the bird before them. “I simply do not want them to see us at odds.”

“We were not at odds today,” Loki points out.

“No, and indeed you gave me your support, for which I am thankful. Only, going forward, perhaps we might discuss in private first and then appear before them as a united front.”

Loki blinks and realizes he was right: that is fear on Thor’s face. Afraid of what? Loki runs through everything again and cannot see a threat against Thor’s rule, unless—

“Thor, you oaf. You know I have no designs on that stupid throne.”

Thor’s head snaps up in alarm. “Wha—no, or course, I’m not—”

Loki sighs irritably and lobs a fig at his brother’s thick head. “Rest assured you can have your gilded couch, I’ve no need of it and it’s ugly besides. Is this still because I missed your coronation? I already explained myself, how many more times must I tell you—”

“You were ill, yes, I am sorry, I understand,” Thor cuts in, red-faced. “I—forgive me, brother, you—I simply—”

“You ought to clear your head of such trifling concerns, Thor, and pay attention to what is happening around you instead. Father approaches the Odinsleep, have you noticed?” Loki spies surprise on Thor’s face and huffs, “Take the time to learn from him now, ask him questions, pester him if you must. When he sleeps, you will no longer have his influence to help you, not the least to help curb Tyr’s arrogance at Council.”

“But you will be with me,” Thor frowns, as if to challenge him otherwise.

Loki sighs again. “I will be with you.” How can Thor hope to cope otherwise?

Thor nods, and then nods again. “Good. That is—good. I thank you, brother, I… perhaps I shall spend time with Father today.”

“Do so and begone from my chambers,” Loki waves an arm to dismiss him, “your colors don’t match my motif; your cloak is an eyesore.”

Thor flicks a grape at him and shortly leaves, swallowing the last of the bread and taking the mead with him.




Loki shifts into a falcon’s wings in the dawn. A leap from his balcony and he soars toward the blushing sky, feathered wingtips skimming the clouds as he banks with the wind. Seiðr, all of it. Their morning sky and the climate and the clouds. Asgard is built on the surface of a seiðr-rich flat asteroid, the core of which is condensed from the bones of an ancient Celestial their great grandfather Órm slayed in battle. (1) They have no natural atmosphere but for the one made of ancient seiðr and intent; their climate is likewise contrived. The nearest sun is distant enough that its light is cold and inconsequential. Every dawn here is made of magic.

Riding a northerly wind, Loki crests over the mountains and points his beak downward to descend. It is a steep dive to the valley on the other side, where one of Asgard’s towns slumbers wreathed in fog. He cuts through it and slows to a glide over an orchard.

The harvest will indeed be healthy this year. Loki perches on the branch of an apple tree. One dangles mere inches from his beak but he daren’t touch it; he only waits. When Iðunn leaves the warmth of her cottage, emerging from the fog like a Norn from the legends, he shifts back into his princely form and sweeps a bow.

“Lady Iðunn.”

“My Prince,” she intones, her voice like bells ringing in the stillness. As ever, she is ageless, her braided hair a burnished brown, her face as smooth as a newborn’s skin. Her eyes, though—they gleam with powerful seiðr, golden and full of wisdom from thousands of years of life. At once, she sees the threads of time twisted around Loki’s soul; she is a powerful mage in her own right. “It is a grave undertaking, what you have committed. Your audacity knows no bounds.”

“Desperate measures,” Loki spreads his hands in askance, “and here I am, working to steer us from certain destruction.”

“The twilight of the gods has been foretold,” Iðunn folds her hands one over the other. “You cannot unravel the threads that have already been woven in order.”

Loki tilts his head, “Have I not done precisely that?”

“You are but one mage, Prince Loki.”

“Ah, but what am I the god of again?” When Loki smiles, it is like a knife. “My lady, tell me: when Bór gave you this orchard and set you this task, did he also gift you with the same lies he fed to the rest of Asgard?”

“Why would Bór lie to his people?”

Loki’s face falls flat. “Truly? You have to ask?”

“Bór was unlike Odin,” Iðunn frowns. “He did not seek war or conquest.” She sounds fonder of Bór than she does Odin, but that only signals her likely blindness against his faults.

“We might never know why he told his lies, but Ragnarök was not an invasion or submersion. (2) Yes, my lady, I lived it in another life. Ragnarök was hellfire,” Loki shudders at the very memory, “Borne from the depths of Muspelheim itself, delivered to our home by Thor’s own hands. Ragnarök was self-destruction because there was no other choice. In order to survive, we had to destroy ourselves.”

“Then perhaps that is what must happen,” she bows her head forward, shoulders heavy with the thought. “Perhaps we need to burn and henceforth embrace what rises from the ashes.”

Loki’s lips twist in disdain. Iðunn and Odin both, even Frigga, all of them—paralyzed by prophecy. That or their own guilt. Fitting that she died in that woe-begotten future.

He marshals his talent and says, “Would that we could and only we suffer the consequences, Lady Iðunn. But we must not forget that by right of conquest, we have taken charge of the wellbeing and survival of all Nine Realms—realms which will soon rely upon us for leadership or perish against a foe greater than what each of us, separately and on our own, can hope to overcome.” He pauses, licks his lips. “If Ragnarök were to take us in flames, Lady Iðunn, then let it take us with a fight. Such befits our legacy, more than a whimper of resistance against this coming enemy.”

Iðunn wavers. Loki can see it. She looks to her trees and thinks and sighs, the rising sun slanting its rays over the top of her head in golden beams of light.

With soft steps, she goes to a boulder nearby and sits. “What enemy approaches, Silvertongue?”

I have her, Loki grins to himself, approaching with care. He lowers himself on the grass near the boulder. “’Tis a long warning, my lady. Will you heed it?”

“Perhaps.” She reaches up to a nearby tree and plucks an apple from its branch, polishing it with her sleeve and then slicing it with a knife. She offers him the half and says, “Seiðr for a memory?”

Loki inclines his head. “A fair trade.”

He takes the half and begins. (3)




“Where have you been?”

Loki finds himself accosted as he steps out of the Arcanum. He blinks at her and looks at the gilded doors behind him.

“I mean, where else have you been?” Sif demands, arms crossed underneath her breasts. Well, she doesn’t have much. “You have barely shown your face since Thor’s coronation and you were seen leaving Iðunn’s orchards yesterday morn. What are you skulking about for? You best not be scheming to sabotage Thor!”

Despite himself, Loki is stunned. Has she always been this pedestrian?

“He won’t tell us, or worse yet, he’ll tell us lies,” Fandral points out. “He’s fork-tongued and a snake besides.”

Loki shrugs, “Thor does love snakes.” Volstagg snorts; Sif snarls. He sighs and says instead, “Sif, please. If I were indeed trying to sabotage Thor, I would do a better job at hiding it. Who do you think you’re talking to?”

“An untrustworthy pig,” she spits, eyes narrowed with ill-concealed fury. “Don’t think we’re not watching you.”

“I shake in my boots,” Loki rolls his eyes. “Now if you’re quite finished with your amateurish attempts at intimidation, I have work to do. Move aside.”

Loki moves to pass her but she catches him by the arm, yanking hard enough to hurt. “What did you see the Lady Iðunn about?”

He draws himself up to full height in irritation. With cold and measured disapproval, he says, “I am uncertain why a mere soldier such as yourself should have any right to know the business of the Royal Council. Although if you truly wanted to know for any reason beyond your own perceived self-importance, you might have asked your own father the Grand Commander, who is privy to the Council’s business unlike yourself. Ah, but why would Tyr tell you—his disobedient, wayward daughter—anything of consequence?”

Sif blanches in rage. Behind her, Fandral and Volstagg’s faces both darken with ill intent. Hogun remains as impassive as always, perhaps the only one amongst the Three with remaining common sense.

“Unhand me, soldier,” Loki softly tells her. “You forget your place.”

Her jaw clenches as she visibly wars with herself. Loki might have removed his arm from her grip but that would defeat the point. He waits until she releases him and then graces them all with a dark little smile.

“Your disrespect to your Prince has been noted.”

“What punishment might you give that Thor will allow?” Sif mocks.

“Nothing,” Loki smiles at her, “at least not yet. Only take care to remember who is the more useful between yourselves and I when the time comes and Thor needs help holding the realm together without Odin’s watchful eye.” With poison and malice, he bids them, “Good day, honored comrades. I’m certain you have other places to be. Thor’s lap, perhaps.”

 

Loki spins on a heel and stalks away, robes snapping behind him. What right does she have, questioning me out of turn? What privilege does she think she can enjoy to allow for such behavior? Simply because Thor considers them his precious friends—

He turns the corner and suppresses a snarl, hurrying for the privacy of his chambers. And to think he has had a good day! Ruined now, all because of Sif and the Warriors Three and their obnoxious brand of misrepresented loyalty.

Once safely inside his chambers, Loki sheds his outer robes and collapses into an armchair with a sigh. It has been a long while since he has had to suffer Sif’s hatred and the Warriors’ pointed distrust. He had forgotten how much it chafed. Disrespect, disregard, and ingratitude rolled into one bitter treat. Certainly some of it Loki deserves for all the times he has misdirected and obfuscated and deceived to sow chaos around them—but they also owe him their lives many times over and a life debt should never be ignored.

“Not that they would understand such things,” Loki mutters to himself, “for they only selectively award the boons of honor toward the people they like.”

They have never understood Loki, and what they do not understand, they fear. In time, fear becomes hate and breeds distrust.

Envy, too. Sif has always seethed with envy. Covetous of Thor’s affections, she has only grown more hateful of Loki over time. What poisonous things she must have thought of the Lady Jane when Thor brought her home. A Midgardian woman for Asgard’s golden Prince!

Loki swings his legs over the arm of the chair and sprawls sideways with no one around to see it. With great effort, he redirects his attention away from such trifling concerns. There are matters of greater importance at hand.

He procures one of two scrolls he has found in the Arcanum, a historical account of a part of Bór’s rule, a tale told by Bór’s consort Bestla. Surely an account more accurate than others in the ways that matter, for Bestla himself was a mage and a jötunn besides. With careful hands, Loki undoes the seals spelled into the scroll.

Tell me a story, grandfather. Make it a good one.

Bestla begins in the middle, telling of the Bifrost’s forging. A construct harnessing an immense amount of latent dimensional energy, the Bifrost transports matter from one point in space to another, near-instantaneous and without regard for the distance bridged. Less of a gate, more of a tunnel: an extremely efficient one, yet unmatched by any other innovation across the universe. The bridge acts as a conduit through which the Bifrost siphons energy from Asgard’s deep magical reservoirs. Its ever-shimmering light, prism-like in every shattered shade of color, is a literal visual representation of pure seiðr; it is Asgard’s finest invention. And Bór had forged it from secrets he and Bestla divined from the Space Stone.

“You knew, didn’t you,” Loki mutters, skimming further past the parts he already understands. “You knew the danger of harboring any one of the six.”

Bór hid away the Aether almost immediately after seizing it from the Dark Elves. They kept hold of the Space Stone for longer—time enough to unravel the mysteries and build a Bifrost out of its secrets—before it too was hidden away. The caution must have come from Bór himself. It makes no sense otherwise for Odin to part with such a valuable item. But part with it Odin did, leaving it to be forgotten on Midgard, where infantile civilizations would be unable to find the Stone much less begin to understand it.

Except Odin Allfather himself seems to have also forgotten.

Loki sighs in dismay.

Bestla’s words march onward through time, telling secrets about the Bifrost’s forging. An energy core made of uru and toru, transmuted together in the starfire of Nidavellir. A stabilizing mantle of seiðr drawn from the eyeballs of a dead Celestial. Binding runes painstakingly carved into its frame, by hand and likely with blood, for nothing else would be potent enough.

“But what about the Stone? Anything about the Stone?” Loki reaches the end of the scroll and makes a noise of frustration. One of the rarest surviving accounts of Bestla’s existence but nothing about the Stone!

Perhaps that’s how it survived Odin’s purge, Loki thinks darkly, because it only discusses the Bifrost, which can be broken and might again need repair.

It hadn’t taken him long to realize that the Arcanum holds precious little about Asgard’s histories during Odin’s rule with Hela. There is a hole there in the tapestry of their story. It gapes and mocks and begs explanation.

I simply didn’t notice because I wasn’t looking for it—and of course, no one speaks of it.

Loki was never one to purposefully study history by itself and out of context. He has always been more interested in magecraft and the study of seiðr, with politics as a close second. Things he is adept at, skills he can use. Asgard has too long of a history behind it—and so much of it obscured with time—that it never held his interest for very long. But now he comes to regret his mindless disregard of these studies, for surely the Vanir court holds much about Asgard that Asgard itself wants to forget. He chews on his thumbnail and wonders if he can afford to disappear to Vanaheim for a day or two. I need not use the Bifrost, comes the thought, I can skywalk through the branches of Yggdrasil…

Ah, but his seiðr isn’t yet strong enough. He grimaces.

Patience. Perseverance. He has waited under worse conditions.

Heaving himself from the armchair, he shuts the scroll and retrieves the next book from the desk. A few chapters and then perhaps he might sleep tonight. Norns know there shall be plenty of sleepless nights in the future.




On the second week of Thor’s rule, the Council table notes Odin’s absence.

“Odin Allfather is spending the morn with the Queen,” a herald announces to Thor and Loki’s mutual distaste.

“I’m sure they’ll have a lovely time,” Loki drily shifts his weight onto an elbow, passing hand over his face. But did they have to announce it?

Thor, who walks in with Geirbjörn, exchanges a moue of embarrassment with Loki. They are both grown, but neither of them wishes to hear about their parents’ activities in the bedchamber. The herald is dismissed, and the rest of the Councilors gather around the table with varying degrees of amusement and chagrin.

“Councilors, welcome all,” Thor wipes the embarrassment from his face and replaces it with a gamely smile, “shall we begin the day? I’m told we have much to discuss.”

Viseti opens the floor and, as the scribe, begins a new scroll to record the Council’s deliberations verbatim. Loki’s eyes track the seiðr-seeded quill as it inks itself and glides across the page, wondering if Viseti is old enough to remember Hela, if Viseti oversaw the records then too.

Did they even have a Council? Or did every decision come from Odin’s mouth alone?

Loki blinks back to the present when the table’s attention turns to him. He reports, “I have spoken to the Lady Iðunn regarding her harvest. She has agreed to set aside a number of bushels for this year’s harvest feast.”

“What wonderful news!” Geirbjörn exclaims, clapping his hands together. His many rings, adorned with precious gems from various worlds, glint under the sunlight. “The people will be delighted!”

“We thank you, Your Highness,” Agvalðr dips his head towards Loki.

“Yes, brother, well done,” Thor clasps his arm with a grin. “I know the Lady Iðunn is not easy to persuade, but if any of us were to manage it, it would be you.”

“Oh, she didn’t make it easy,” Loki levels Thor with a mischievous smile, “and as recompense for my labor, I shall demand a half of your apples at said feast. King or not, you owe me.”

Thor only laughs, loud and bright. If the oaf thinks Loki will forget and won’t collect, he’ll be in for a nasty surprise.

Tyr follows with a report of the army’s preparations for a contingent to accompany Thor on his visit to the other realms. A reasonable precaution and also a show of might, for Asgard’s King should easily afford to travel with only the highest level of protection. Tyr doesn’t finish, however. Thor interrupts.

“Grand Commander, my most sincere apologies. The preparations might no longer be necessary.”

Loki’s eyebrows fly up. Thor is indeed accustomed to traveling alone by Bifrost, or accompanied only by Sif and the Warriors Three, sometimes with Loki in tow—but he is King now. Surely—

“Minister Geirbjörn has brought forth a proposal that might preclude such preparations,” Thor smiles entreatingly.

Tyr frowns, “The King of Asgard travels always with an honor guard, Your Majesty. You require the protection.”

Loki bites his cheek and refrains from a sarcastic retort. Interjecting out of turn, Geirbjörn seizes the line and says, “But not if His Majesty remains here!”

The table looks toward Geirbjörn and then to Thor, whose smile remains fixed and gestures for the Minister of Trade to continue.

“His Majesty need not leave Asgard in order to meet with his subjects from the Nine Realms,” Geirbjörn clarifies for the rest of the Council. “Instead, we can bring the Nine Realms here to bear witness to King Thor! It shan’t tax the other realms overmuch as they won’t have to host our King, and it shan’t require our army to mobilize an honor guard likewise.”

“What say you, Grand Commander?” Thor turns to Tyr, Odin’s oldest friend and closest advisor, someone whose opinion Thor mightily respects.

Tyr rumbles thoughtfully. “It puts me at ease to know that you shall remain behind our shields and within our realm, my King.”

Even crotchety old Salgerðr agrees, “A most elegant solution. It never does a realm good to see its King off to long journeys at the dawn of their reign.”

“It has been an age since the dwarves of Nidavellir and the elves of Alfheim have graced our halls,” Geirbjörn rubs his hands with ill-concealed excitement. “And surely the Allmother will be delighted to meet with her brother and sister again. The Vanir court has been much missed.”

The Council hums in agreement, nods exchanged across the table. Thor spreads his hands and leans back with a grin. “So it is decided! Master Viseti, send invitations to the monarchs of each realm. Tell them that Asgard welcomes their presence for a renewal of alliances. ‘Tis a feast long overdue!”

“A banquet,” Geirbjörn eagerly smiles.

“A celebration,” Agvalðr agrees, “the first of many for our young King.”

But there is nothing to celebrate! Loki wants to yell. He keeps his mouth shut and smiles along with the rest of the table. Thor is a fool.




“You are a fool,” Loki tells his brother as soon as they are in private. He waves his hand and a shimmering golden spell surrounds them in silence. “You are a blithering, blinded fool.”

Thor bristles, wrenching his arm from Loki’s grasp. “What are you on about, Loki?”

“You shouldn’t have agreed so readily, you idiot!”

“It is a good idea, is it not?” Thor retorts, voice raised and bouncing against the limits of Loki’s spell. He is confused, that much is clear. “What is so undesirable about a mere banquet?”

Urgh.” Loki flexes his fingers, barely stopping from clawing at his own face. “I swear you get duller by the year.”

“Will you explain or will you simply insult me?” Thor brings himself up to his full height, glowering down at Loki with a mien of displeasure that would have been impressive had Loki not faced down worse.

I will insult you all I want; I am your brother!” Loki pauses, breathes, and begins again. “It isn’t the banquet that’s the problem, Thor, it’s you—the King—readily agreeing to whatever they suggest,” he spits. He paces toward the balcony and then back, rubbing his jaw. “Tell me, did you speak with Geirbjörn in private yesterday? Did he ask for a moment of your time as he passed you by in the halls, perhaps while you were on your way to the armory?”

“I—yes,” Thor frowns, taken aback. “How did you know?”

“Because everyone knows when you visit the armory, Thor, you do so every other afternoon!”

It was a task Odin had set to Thor centuries ago when they first came of age, a task Thor never grew out of. Thor considers the warriors of Asgard his brothers-at-arms; he goes to the armory to make friends. Odin has never discouraged it so Thor has never seen reason to stop.

Loki inhales, exhales, and pinches the bridge of his nose. A headache is beginning to prickle behind his eyes. “You cannot discuss such consequential decisions alone and in private with anyone else other than me, Thor.”

“What? Why ever not?”

“Because we,” Loki pokes a finger at Thor’s chest, “are brothers. We are royalty. They are not. Do you know what sort of message you just gave to the rest of your Councilors? You showed them that they can sway you. That they can sweet-talk you beyond the walls of that council room. That they can approach you in private and curry favors or advance their personal interests away from the scrutiny and judgment of the others. It is one thing, Thor, for you and me to speak in private as you have requested me to do, as I am doing now; it is another—”

Loki turns, pacing two steps away to marshal his temper and then two steps back to spread both hands in front of Thor.

“—you must be careful, brother,” Loki implores him. “There is much that goes on behind the scenes that you don’t understand. And they don’t want you to understand; they have their own interests, every single one of them, even me. That Council is not a place where you make friends, Thor. There is a reason Father keeps them all at a certain distance. Even Tyr doesn’t have Father’s private ear, much less Geirbjörn or Salgerðr. You cannot be seen playing favorites.”

Perhaps Loki’s words are taking some effect. Thor steps back and sits on the arm of a chair, steepling his fingers between his knees with a frown. “What would you have me do, then? Cancel the banquet?”

“No, no,” Loki waves his hand to dismiss the thought, “have your banquet if you wish, it changes nothing. Just remember in the future—you cannot allow one Councilor to monopolize your ear so visibly. It will sow discontent amongst them and create enemies. This was not so bad—be thankful Tyr was on your side today—but you may not be so lucky in the future.”

Silence settles between them for a moment, a silence that Loki does not like. He observes Thor and runs over his own words, weighing how much he has injured his brother’s pride and if this will turn into a tipping point.

A knock sounds on the door. Loki drops his spell, the two of them straightening to attention. “Enter,” Thor calls. A herald bows and then delivers his message.

“Your Majesty, Your Highness, word from the Allmother. The Allfather has fallen into the Odinsleep.”

Loki tips his head back, closes his eyes, and mutters a curse.




What do the Midgardians like to say?

Ah, yes. When it rains, it pours.

One must acknowledge Odin’s impeccable timing, the worst as always, leaving them to their devices when they are not yet prepared to be left alone. There he sleeps, restful as a swaddled newborn, the static hum of the healing pod encasing him in a golden shield. His gnarled hands are folded upon his chest, his face slack without the grim tension he always carries in wakefulness.

Mother sits at his side, forbearing and steadfast. Thor kneels at the edge of the bed, eyes closed perhaps in prayer. Lady Eir adjusts the pod settings one last time before she, too, leaves in a rustle of robes. Loki tips his head towards her in gratitude.

“You must help each other now more than ever,” Frigga tells them with a gentle smile. “I cannot leave your Father while he sleeps.”

“Yes, Mother,” Thor murmurs.

“Of course, Mother,” Loki agrees, because next to him, the Allmother is Asgard’s finest mage. Not a battlemage, no, but powerful in her own way. She is Odin’s best defense.

Thor clears his throat quietly and asks, “How long do you think he shall sleep this time, Mother?”

Frigga sighs. Her hand goes to hover over Odin’s forehead. “He is tired; this sleep is overdue. Longer than the usual, I think. A moon, perhaps more.”

Loki knows this is the last time Odin will sleep before the true death takes him to Valhalla. Loki will have to use this time wisely and untangle the spellwork that ties Hela to Asgard’s seiðr before Odin wakes again.

Thor stands, face clouded with the shadow of foreboding. Perhaps Thor also realizes what this sleep signifies. With effort, Loki watches Thor banish that dark cloud to fix a confident look upon his face. “See to him, Mother, and do not worry yourself about the realm. Loki and I shall see to its wellbeing.”

When Frigga smiles at them, it is much like a rising sun. “I know you will, my boys. This is what I have raised you for.”

They bow and take their leave, the gilded doors latching shut behind them. Shoulder to shoulder, with nary a word between them, Thor and Loki stride away from the Allfather’s quarters, down golden halls and through arched bridgeways until they are beyond the royal wing once more.

Time surges forward, taking them along with it, whether they are ready or not.




But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
( T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock )




The void is vast.

The Other’s fingers on his face. An intruder ripping through his mind. Seiðr in tatters. Shields in shards.

The void is vast.

He falls. He falls. The fall is endless. He screams. He falls. The fall is endless. He gasps for air. He falls.

The void is vast.

Time means nothing. Power means nothing. Space means nothing. There is only the mind. The mind, alone. His voice, alone. The fall is endless. He no longer screams. Or does he? If there is no one to hear it, does he make a sound?

The void is vast.

His skin ripples from one form into the next. Palest of Æsir. Bluest of jötunn. Feathers of a falcon. Foxfur in russet red. Palest of Æsir. Spines of a dragon. Scales of a snake. Blackest of panthers. Bluest of jötunn. What am I? What am I? There is no answer.

The void is vast.

There is only helplessness at the foot of a mad Titan. There is fury at the crumpled figure of his dead mother. There is impotent rage under the one eye of a man he once called his father. There is hopelessness in the face of his brother’s demise.

The void is vast, but in many ways, Loki prefers its sublime emptiness to the pain.




Loki gasps into consciousness and staggers into his bathing chamber. He dumps oil into the bathwater, sheds his sleeping robes, and then sinks into the heat. With a twist of his fingers, his seiðr drives the heat up—hot enough to turn his bare skin red, hot enough to scald his jötunn form, hot enough that the physical pain overcomes everything else. Hot enough to wake him.

He grips at his arms and shivers anyway.

I’m not falling, the thought goes on repeat, I’m not falling, I’m not falling, I’m not falling.

Water feels good against his face. He dips underneath the surface and stays there for a while, the world in shifting fractals of color around him. He runs fingers through his hair, digs his nails into his scalp.

I’m alive, he tells himself, I’m alive, I’m alive.

He breaks the surface with a breath. His hands are red. His skin is Æsir. His face, when he touches it, feels smooth and young. No ridges, no kin lines, no scars.

With a whisper of seiðr and a mere thought, his skin ripples blue, back into its true form, unshackled from the spellwork the Allfather cast upon him as a babe. The heat hurts. He holds his trembling hands before him now and notes the many shades of blue: cobalt and blackberry and hyperintense lazurite blending together towards his pitch-black nails. More like claws, what with how sharp they look. He tests the edge of one against a finger and watches it bleed. His blood is still dark red.

He touches his face again and feels the kin lines sprawling across his forehead and temples towards his cheekbones. There are two horns spiraling up and back from his hairline; they are sensitive to the touch. When he looks into the water, the reflection that meets him is that of a stranger.

That is Loki, he realizes. I am Loki.

Alone in the fog of his bathing chambers, Loki weeps.




There is nothing in the annals of Asgard that reference Hela’s birth. Frigga, the Allmother, is cited over and over again as Odin’s first and only bride. There is no mention of any other woman the Allfather might have taken to wife, no children born out of wedlock, no bastards and certainly nothing of Loki’s own dubious adoption on paper.

Loki sits among the books and scrolls and wonders then who else within Asgard knows of his heritage. Heimdall, surely. Tyr, perhaps. It certainly explains the Grand Commander’s plain dislike of him, something that has always been apparent even when Loki was but a child.

Tyr is renowned for the slaughter of jötnar. I must not forget this.

Frigga, of course, knows and never said a word about it. Is Geirbjörn old enough to have been in position back then? Perhaps. Salgerðr and Viseti most definitely are. But the Allfather does not confide in them and Loki doubts they were ever allowed in the royal wing. It would have been an easy thing to hide a pregnancy during such a prolonged war; indeed, it would have been wise, for a pregnant Frigga would have been a target, a potential leverage to be used against Asgard’s King. Thor was but a toddler then. He, too, would have been hidden.

Lady Eir must know; she has served as the royal family’s primary healer since before Thor’s birth. Iðunn likely knows too, or at least she must suspect. She is old enough to remember Bór and know Bestla; she must sense something of the eternal ice in Loki’s seiðr.

Who else?

Loki can’t think of anyone else.

Amongst those, then, must be a few who remember Hela. Heimdall knew her. Iðunn must too. Does Frigga know? Hela’s reign would have been before Frigga’s marriage to Odin, when she was still a Vanir princess. Frigga must know of her, at least. Tyr likely knows as well.

None of these people, comes the bitter realization, will tell me anything of consequence. Not willingly. Not without suspicion.

None except Iðunn.

Iðunn, who already knows he is from a foregone future. Iðunn, who is a powerful mage herself.

Loki stands at once and waves the scrolls back to their shelves. He has an orchard keeper to beseech.




Salt for pride. Mustard seed for lies. A rabbit’s heart for grief. Gristle for wrath. Loki brings these things as offerings to her door, alighting upon a tree branch as a falcon once again before shifting as a shadow into his humanoid form. In the dark of night and under distant stars, Iðunn’s orchard is otherworldly.

“Twice in a moon,” she greets as she opens her door, “how I am honored by your presence, Your Highness.”

Loki’s lip twitches. They both know there is no honor here; she would rather be resting and here he is, being annoying.

“It so happens that Asgard’s memory is short and your life is long,” he tells her, hands bearing his offerings for her perusal. She peers over the oilcloth’s contents and purses her lips. “Mayhap I should have included more mustard seed?”

“You should have,” she agrees, “but this will suffice. Come. You will bottle this bitterness for me tonight, and I shall feed it to the trees in the morning.”

Loki steps into her cottage, removing his cloak and hanging it on the rack near the door. Iðunn keeps it warm inside, the hearth ever burning. The cottage is small, perhaps four or five rooms: two here, two upstairs, and one below. A sitting room, a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathing chamber, and a cellar.

She invites him to sit at the hearth. Loki removes his boots and sprawls on the sheepskin rug, spreading the contents of the oilcloth before him.

Under her watchful eye, he works the spell. An old spell, its incantation flowing from his mouth like a brook gurgles over stone. It siphons emotion from his chest—salt for pride, mustard seed for lies… he has never done this before. It empties him out and afterwards he feels light, lighter than a living being, almost as if he has taken astral form. The emotions seep into the objects on the oilcloth and they congeal together into a dark morass that Iðunn captures in a jar.

The spell ends. Loki leans back against a footstool and breathes.

It is seiðr, stoppered in glass. His seiðr, or an offering of it. The siphoning spell is one of the safest ways to disembody the seiðr of the soul.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Loki runs a shaking hand through his hair. “I’ve had worse.”

“Doubtless,” Iðunn stands to put the jar aside in the kitchen. She reemerges with a pot of tea and two cups, one of which she offers to him. “Drink.” Loki brings the cup to his mouth and sips hot citrus. “Now ask your questions, Silvertongue.”

“I have other names, you know,” Loki sighs.

“Silvertongue is the one most appropriate here,” Iðunn smiles. “Silvertongue is what I shall call you.”

“Very well. I have to come to ask you because the Arcanum gave me nothing,” Loki looks up at her in askance, much like an apprentice looks up to a master. “What do you know of Odin’s daughter Hela?”

The smile freezes on Iðunn’s face.

“Ah, there. You do know something,” Loki triumphantly smiles, “someone who can tell me something at last.”

“Why have you not asked your own mother?”

“She sits with Odin as he sleeps, and she will not keep my questions a secret from Odin when he wakes. I know my mother. I know where her loyalty lies.”

Iðunn hums and sips her tea, eyes flicking over to the hearth. Eternal fire reflects in them, making her look even more ethereal and powerful. “Hela is not Odin’s daughter, not in the strictest sense of the word, for no woman birthed her. She was Odin’s creation.”

Loki’s suspicion, confirmed. “She was a weapon.”

“Precisely. How much have you been taught of the Princes Vili and Ve?”

“Odin’s brothers?” Loki frowns. “That they were forever at each other’s throats and ended up almost tearing the kingdom apart. That they died in battle, leaving Odin with the burden of the throne.” Loki examines his own words and then realizes, “That’s a lie.”

“Well, they did perish in battle,” Iðunn delicately shrugs, “and they did leave Odin the throne.”

“Hela killed them.” Loki considers her with shrewd eyes and smiles darkly, “You would be dead many times over if not for your orchard, wouldn’t you?”

Iðunn puts her teacup down. “Odin is no fool. He and I have an understanding; he needs my apples and I need his land. The trade is simple. I keep it simple. I avoid court for a reason, Silvertongue. I am no fool either.”

Nodding, Loki takes another mouthful of tea. It really is good tea. He might persuade her to part with the recipe before the night is over. “So Hela killed them for Odin, and then together they went on their merry way across the Nine Realms, subjugating them all… until Odin met Frigga, I assume?”

“No,” Iðunn shakes her head, “as I said, Odin is no fool. Even he, in his arrogance, came to realize how dangerous Hela had become. His sire Bór and his bearer Bestla would never have allowed him to create such a monstrosity, so he waited until they were both gone to Valhalla—but because they were both gone, he could not ask them for help to subdue her. There aren’t many constructs in the universe capable of containing an entity that feeds off of pure seiðr, Silvertongue. But Odin had command of one such item that could, in theory, create a separate dimension wherein she can be kept. Shackled, controlled. Separate from the realm from whence she draws her lifeforce.”

It hits Loki then, blinding and sudden. The Space Stone.

“It called itself the Tesseract,” Iðunn continues, oblivious to Loki’s epiphany. “I held it once in mine own hands. A powerful vessel for a powerful stone. Odin used it to create a separate branch dimension where she could be banished. And then Odin hid it away.”

On Midgard, where no one would think to look. Loki wants to laugh. Odin is no fool.

“This branch dimension, I assume, is much more stable and expansive than an ordinary dimensional foldspace created with seiðr,” Loki postulates.

“Correct. But it must be anchored to our dimension, as the anchor lends it its stability.”

Loki rubs his jaw as he recalls how Hela came forth to Midgard where Odin died. Odin used himself as the anchor.

“Say the anchor begins to falter. Can it be transferred to another?”

Iðunn frowns, confused. “An anchor does not falter, Silvertongue, not unless… not unless it’s…” Understanding dawns on her face, quickly followed by horror. “You don’t mean to say…”

“In that foregone future from whence I came, Hela emerged immediately after Odin’s death. That cannot happen this time, Iðunn. She is a force unstoppable by no means other than the complete destruction of Asgard, unless you know of a spell that can sever her connection to our homeworld’s native seiðr.”

She shakes her head once, the motion sharp and abrupt. “To unmake her would require great power. If Odin himself was unable to…”

“Perhaps he was unwilling to,” Loki shrugs, “I don’t put it past him to keep hold of his best weapon in the event of some catastrophic war he thinks he cannot win.”

“Odin should have used an object as an anchor,” Iðunn hisses in frustration.

“And perhaps he is a fool.” Loki shrugs again. “I can’t tell anymore, to be honest.”

“Since Odin bound her cage to his own soul, that bond can be transferred, but the process also requires great power. The new anchor must likewise be an object of great stability. You will have to find a suitable alternative,” Iðunn frowns at her empty teacup. She is silent for a moment, a silence Loki does not disturb. And then she says, “It is called the Soul Severing Spell. Do you know it?”

Loki stares at her—a flash of red, two sets of eyes, Thanos’ roar behind them, ‘Skilja!’—and then he laughs.

It turns out he had the answer all along.




Thor is distracted. Loki watches him wander in and begin the Council with an absent air, eyes unseeing and focused somewhere at the middle distance. Above Viseti’s bushy eyebrows, perhaps. Loki doesn’t attempt triangulating for too long.

He exchanges a look with Tyr, whose permanent scowl is more pronounced today. When Thor does not steer the Council one way or another, Loki shrugs and takes the helm.

“Minister Agvalðr,” he drums his fingers once on the table, “how fares our granaries?” When he gets a surprised blink in response, Loki explains, “We are about to host delegations from three different realms. We must feed them, of course—only the very best of Asgard’s vaunted hospitality—but all the same we cannot allow our stores to diminish below two thirds of its capacities. Thor’s reign is young; I will not have a famine cast a pall over it in its infancy.”

“What wisdom, Your Highness!” Geirbjörn remarks, turning to Agvalðr to add, “I should like to hear your reports as well, Minister. Our trade is doing well enough that we can help augment the resource cost for the delegations’ visit.”

Agvalðr outlines the capacities of their food stores, far more considerable than when Loki took the throne as Odin. Thor truly has it made; Loki almost wants to be jealous, except he’s too delighted to bother. A strong and healthy Asgard makes his job easier. A strong and healthy Asgard can withstand a war.

Geirbjörn, when he isn’t being perniciously opportunistic, does his position merit. He ropes the guildmasters into a prolonged conversation about cloth and wool, about steel and stone, and about jewels and marble. Æsir craftmanship is well regarded even beyond the Nine Realms, and although the dwarves of Nidavellir remain the authorities on weaponry and all manners of warcraft, Asgard’s smiths are not far behind. A goodly portion of them are jewelers: specialists in metallurgy, scrollwork, and gem-setting. The masons too produce fine marble both in raw form and in varieties of stonework sold across the realms as luxury goods. Asgard’s trade can be summed up in just that: luxury goods.

Loki is most certain that the cost for hosting such an extravagance will be astronomical. If it didn’t fit so well within his own plans, Loki would have vetoed the very idea. It is just as well that the harvest is predicted to be a bountiful one this year. He waits until the guildmasters are finished before he turns to Tyr to address the other point of imminent concern.

“Grand Commander, I should like to put more guards—stronger guards—around the royal wing whilst the delegations are here. The Allfather is asleep; I wish to take no risks.”

Tyr tips his head forward, scowl growing ever more pronounced. “None shall harm Odin in his sleep.” When Loki levels him with an unimpressed stare, the grizzled commander bitingly continues, “The guards will be increased.”

It will make moving around unnoticed a touch trickier, but Loki has handled worse. He adds, “More guards to the granaries and reservoirs as well. Recall the army’s reserve, if necessary.”

Geirbjörn blinks, hands rubbing at each other in some concern. “Surely there is no need for such incredible precautions, my Prince? The arriving delegations are old friends and allies from realms well known to Asgard!”

“And they are all coming here to test our young King,” Loki firmly rebuts with a stern glare distributed across the table. “One can never be too certain in times of great change like this. I swore to help secure my brother’s reign and protect Asgard’s interests, Councilors; ‘tis a vow I swore upon Hliðskjalf and Gungnir. I do not take it lightly.”

Silence descends upon the Council, Ministers and guildmasters alike bowing their heads under the yoke of his authority as Prince.

Strategically, Loki eases up a touch. “It would be the height of ignorance to assume that every realm we claim dominion upon bears us only good will,” he continues in a lighter, more conversational tone. “They might not have wanted to cross Odin Allfather, but they might be tempted to try Thor. I do not intend to make it easy should they muster an attempt. Minister Geirbjörn, Minister Salgerðr—both of you have spent as much as time as I amongst the Vanir court. Both of you know that their political climate can, at times, be divided and quite contrary to Asgard’s dominion.”

A grimace comes upon Geirbjörn’s countenance. Salgerðr dips his head and gravely acknowledges, “Freyr and Freyja do sometimes allow their court far more freedom than is wise.”

Loki spreads his hands in agreement. “I do not truly think it shall be significant problem, but it never hurts to be prepared. If these precautions are ultimately for nought, I am quite satisfied to be proven wrong. Unless we somehow deal our guests some form of severe disrespect, we shall do just fine. Asgard’s hospitality has always been beyond reproach, has it not?”

“Aye,” comes the consensus from around the table. Tyr agrees to double the guards as Loki has requested.

Careful not to exclude their King, Loki turns to Thor and asks, “Does the Council’s resolutions meet with your approval, brother?”

Thor snaps back from whence he was dreaming and smiles, “Aye, brother. Your help is appreciated.”

The smile is false, but only Loki can tell. The Council adjourns. Thor leaves and Loki does not see him for the rest of the week.




Several nights later, Loki slips into the Allfather’s chambers. Mother is there, sitting at the loom; Loki approaches with footsteps softer than snow.

“My son,” she smiles, lifting a hand for him to kiss. “A welcome visit. Will you dine with me this evening?”

“It would be my pleasure, Mother.” The smile that Loki responds with is genuine.

“If you will allow me to finish this section,” Frigga murmurs, adept hands working through the warp and weft of a new tapestry. Loki observes the patterns with some interest, wondering if she weaves them from her own dreams or Odin’s.

Wreathed in golden seiðr, Odin slumbers nearby. The servants slip in bearing food and wine, setting the table on the balcony where they might enjoy fresh air. The skies are fine tonight.

A moment more and Frigga rises from her task. Loki takes her in arm, escorting her to the table and dismissing the servants entirely. He pours her a glass of wine and together they sit, just as they have for hundreds of years. It is good to have his mother back.

“You look better, Loki, much better indeed,” Frigga strokes his cheekbone with gentle fingers before she samples a sweetmeat and some pie. “Tell me, how fares your brother?”

“Has he not visited?” Loki frowns as he spreads whipped butter over bread, “I shall remind him to show his face, Mother.”

Frigga dismisses it with a wave of her hand. Her rings catch the firelight, glinting ruby red and amber gold. “Thor is adjusting to his new role. It is understandable. He is busy.”

Loki rolls his eyes, inured to the excuses. “Mother, you and I both know there isn’t that much for him to do. The realm is at peace and Asgard runs itself like a well-oiled machine.”

“Still, he is adjusting,” Frigga indulgently smiles, so Loki lets it go. “Has he done well at Council? No horrible mishaps, I presume, given how well-rested you look.”

Loki can’t help but sigh again. “He can be so naïve, Mother. Are you certain he’s yours and Odin’s? Because neither of you are lacking in cunning. How Thor can be so simple, I simply don’t understand; it beggars the imagination!”

Frigga laughs, bright like the tinkling of glass bells. “Oh, little one, have some patience. Thor has his own ken about him; he simply needs some time. He sees what he wants to see, our Thor. He needs time to learn how to look underneath the underneath.”

“I’m concerned he might not have much time left,” Loki spoons a cluster of pomegranate seeds into his mouth and savors the explosion of flavor. He follows it with dried plums. “Geirbjörn has convinced him to invite delegations from the other realms here. Admittedly preferable instead of Thor visiting the realms in person. But you know how Thor is, Mother; he doesn’t even stop to think why Geirbjörn made the suggestion.”

“Geirbjörn has his vested interests,” Frigga hums in agreement. “He cares not for the dwarves but he will favor the Vanir and the elves.”

“Oh, I know,” Loki purses his lips at her with exasperation. “I know. Thor doesn’t.”

“Why don’t you warn him?”

“I have. He doesn’t listen.”

“Give him some time, darling,” she repeats, with some weight this time. “Thor has his own way of coming to terms with these things.”

Loki observes her in the ensuing silence. She forks a piece of honey cake onto her plate and tops it with a dollop of cream, an indulgence that has always been her particular favorite. It is a delicacy from Vanaheim, a realm more accustomed to the sweeter fare instead of the Æsir’s hearty, savory foods.

In truth, Frigga needs not sequester herself in the royal wing during the Odinsleep. There have been instances when she left his side in the past. She simply prefers not to, perhaps out of a sense of devotion to her husband, for she must indeed love him to remain an age unquestioning and steadfast at Odin’s side.

Or she thinks she loves him. Or she has grown to love him although he was and will always be her captor, comes the treacherous thoughts. Loki occupies his mouth with kidney pie and thinks, What did the Midgardians call it again? Barton called it… ah, yes. Stockholm Syndrome.

Here Queen Frigga sits, enjoying her indulgences in the gilded cage her captor built for her. Eternally beautiful and eternally bound, the threads of her fate inexorably tied with Odin Allfather, the tyrant who masquerades himself as a benevolent King. She knows better—she knows the truth—but perhaps she willingly blinds herself to it. Perhaps that is the only way to stay sane. Loki reminds himself that she is, even today, a prized Vanir hostage, even though everyone else seems to have forgotten.

All the more Loki wonders how Thor is her child. She has cunning spades, Frigga Allmother, to have survived Odin’s poisonous, oppressive court for so long. It is a fine line she dances along.

Perhaps that’s it, then, Loki realizes, perhaps she refuses to leave Odin because she wants to distance herself from Thor’s reign.

They split another serving of honey cake and Loki lathers more cream atop hers, earning himself a glittering smile. Her eyes are like the stars above, enchanting and kind; they threaten to pull Loki in.

You know how disastrous Thor will be as King, don’t you, Mother dearest? You know, and that’s why you’re stepping away.

After their companionable meal, Loki offers to sit at the Allfather’s bedside with a book so she can take her time in the bathing chambers.

“Are you certain, darling?” Frigga strokes a gentle hand upon his hair. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from your tasks.”

Please keep me from my tasks, Mother, just for one night,” Loki begs with a woeful face. “I grow sick of Agvalðr’s numbers and the royal correspondence. Truly, it never ends.”

Frigga chuckles, “Now, now, you’re a bit too old to be whining like that, Loki. And complaints about correspondence? You used to adore writing! Whatever happened to my little poet?”

“There’s nothing poetic about taxation records and treatises,” Loki huffs. “Better if it were fiction and the numbers don’t matter as much as the words.”

“Read your book, then, my darling, and enjoy the respite,” Frigga presses a kiss upon his brow as she rises from the table. “Your father appreciates your company, although he cannot rightly say as much. I will only be an hour.”

“Take the time you need, Mother. You need the respite too.”

They exchange soft smiles. Frigga leaves, long robes sweeping behind her in flutters of garnet and gold. Loki leaves the table to sit at Odin’s bedside, a dutiful son.




 

He only sits until he’s certain she has left the chamber. Wasting no time, Loki erects a shimmering barrier around the room and considers Odin, who lays there unsuspecting. Perhaps the old coot will feel this in his sleep—or perhaps not. Loki certainly will.

Putting his book aside, he makes himself comfortable in the chair—no point in standing only to fall afterward—and retrieves the Casket of Ancient Winters from a dimensional foldspace with a whisper of seiðr. It thrums in his hands, eager and pliant. It recognizes him, a mage of royal jötunn descent. It sits in his lap and turns his skin blue, a rippling transformation that overtakes his entire body. Oh, the things Odin would have to say.

He leaves the Casket on his lap and works a now-familiar spell that bathes the room in a violent red light. It doesn’t take as much from him as it did in that foregone future; he doesn’t have to punch through time here. He simply has to cut.

Skilja,” Loki whispers, and the spell severs the rope of malevolent energy tethered to Odin’s soul. It is easy to pick apart from the rest of the bonds wrapped around the old King; it is the only one singing with the Tesseract’s energy. Loki’s seiðr hearkens to it like an old friend.

It has hooks—tiny little greedy hooks—that attempt to catch at Loki’s still-unstable soul as soon as the bond is severed. Odin barely moves; a hitch of a breath, nothing more. With an immense amount of determination, he holds the malevolent bond away from himself and wrestles it—

“Grab on to this, you obstinate leech.”

The bond catches at the Casket and they war for a moment before the Casket’s energy wins out and it stabilizes as an anchor.

Loki holds his breath—

Is that it?

—and when nothing happens, he empties his lungs in a rush of air.

The Allfather slumbers on in his healing pod. The shields he erected continue to shimmer against the walls. The Casket sits in his lap, purring like a satisfied pet.

That’s it.

Glancing toward the hallway Frigga disappeared into, Loki quickly tucks the Casket back into the foldspace and collapses the shields. He returns to his Æsir skin and shakily reaches for a cup of water. He nearly spills it on himself.

I am a bit winded. The exhaustion begins to crash around his shoulders. He shakes his head, disallowing himself from sleep; he still needs to return the Casket to the Vault. But that entire mess—Asgard’s destruction, that whole disaster—so easily mitigated! So readily fixed!

Loki sits there and holds his book and burns in anger, a rage that grows the longer he looks upon Odin’s peaceful face. How dare he be at peace. How dare he take the rest.

In an effort to mop up a catastrophic train of mistakes in that Norns forsaken future, Loki had worked himself to the bone for the sake of people who wouldn’t even recognize his sacrifices. And although some of those mistakes had been his to fix, a fair number of them had also been Odin’s! But all Odin did was die on some Midgardian cliff, fucking off to Valhalla and leaving the rest of his realm to be slaughtered, including his two beloved children.

—oh, excuse him, one child. Loki being adopted and all.

By the time Frigga returns, Loki’s hatred has reenergized him enough that he doesn’t sway when he gets to his feet. He manages to bid her a pleasant night and pretends to retire to his quarters when in truth he slips past the royal guards to return the Casket to the Vault.

When he relinquishes it upon the pedestal, its energy humming a distinctly disappointed note at being left alone again, Loki wishes Odin will notice that the anchor he has wrapped around himself is gone.

Against his better judgment, Loki wants that confrontation, if only to see the look on the Allfather’s face.

You probably thought it was impossible. Not so omnipotent now, are you, Odin One-Eye? You and your limited imagination.

Under the shadows of Asgard, Loki grins.




Heimdall acts unsurprised when Loki approaches him two days hence. “Your Highness,” the Gatekeeper intones, face blank but eyes blistering with power. Once upon a time, Loki had coveted that Sight.

“Gatekeeper,” he responds, pausing at the edge of the observatory, where the lip of the Bifrost ends and the gape of the void begins. “I trust you are aware of the delegations arriving from our neighboring realms.”

“Aye,” Heimdall tilts his head, “I have been informed by the Council. My preparations are complete.”

“Commendable,” Loki says, unimpressed. He considers the distant Asgerhild system, its binary stars twinkling as they swing around each other in their eternal dance. (4) The void is not as terrifying to look at as he thought it would be. “I would like for you to watch the delegations carefully as they prepare. I do not put it past anyone to attempt stirring trouble while the Allfather sleeps.”

“You suspect foul play?” Heimdall sounds surprised.

“Of course I do, why is everyone so constantly surprised?” Loki complains petulantly. Heimdall levels him with a look that used to cow him when he was young and naïve; it makes him snort. “Thor just ascended, Heimdall. It’s the perfect time to try something. It’s what I would do if I had a mind to sabotage him. And before you dare, no, I am not sabotaging him. Believe it or not, I’m actually trying to help him,” he adds, “this time.”

Heimdall doesn’t have to take his words for truth, naturally. Loki can lie. He isn’t Silvertongue for nothing.

It takes a moment, but eventually Heimdall agrees. “I shall direct my eyes towards Nidavellir, Vanaheim, and Alfheim. And towards you. No mischief shall pass my gaze.”

Loki steps away from the edge of the void—it calls to him, even now; it calls to the shattered, manic remnants of his old fears—and turns to level Heimdall with a smile at once angelic and poisonous. “Whatever mischief I hope to manage, I wouldn’t dare do so when I’m being watched from all corners. Don’t insult my intelligence, Gatekeeper. I might just take it to heart.”

As he makes his way back out of the observatory, Heimdall quietly says, “I thought you didn’t have a heart, Loki Skinchanger.”

Loki doesn’t pause, only snorts, fixing his eyes across the glimmering bridge. Asgard, what beauty. Golden and glorious under a contrived sunrise. He will ensure it survives this time, even if he’s convinced most of it doesn’t deserve to.

“A good day to you, Gatekeeper. Let’s hope you don’t insult our guests likewise when they arrive.”

He takes his time walking home. There is much to appreciate.




At nightfall, Loki sheds his robes and sinks into his bath, today laced with rose oil and heated to a comfortable level. The doors and windows are spelled shut, no servants to disturb his silence; mist fogs the bathing chamber in a cocoon of humid warmth. He indulges for a time. A hydrating potion for his hair, rejuvenating elixirs for his skin and nails… beauty takes time and effort to maintain, a tenet he learned at his mother’s feet and from the courtiers of Vanaheim. Unbidden, he wonders what standards of beauty they hold in Jotunheim.

Who knows; I might have an opportunity to find out in this lifetime.

Once he is finished grooming, he tips backwards and sets his neck against the edge of the bath. The elixirs need time to soak into his body; he closes his eyes and floats into a dream.

The void is vast. Midgard is far. But it is familiar and known to his soul, so he aims himself towards it and walks the space within dreams.

It takes an age to get close.

He reaches for Stark, an easy target. Soul burning bright with energy and ingenuity, a light like the burning heart of a star lodged in his mortal chest. Loki finds him and observes from a distance, unable to make contact since Stark is awake. And Stark is—

Is he dying?!

Loki gapes at the flickering of Stark’s mortal soul, its energy more visible and apparent when viewed from the dreamscape. The man is obviously ill, very ill, and toeing that line between life and death as so many mortals seem so fond of doing.

But I can’t have this particular mortal die—he’s too important!

Loki squints into the dream-vision, observing Stark as he goes about his Midgardian forge. The man appears hard at work, speaking to a disembodied voice and perusing interfaces that display information at speeds most mortals would find impossible to comprehend.

‘Let’s try dilithium in crystal form,’ (5) Stark mutters half to himself and half to the disembodied voice, who runs the simulation and, in seconds, shows a mediocre success rate of 63%. ‘Fuck, that’s a no go too?’ Stark drops his head in his hands and rubs at his forehead as if attempting to push back a persistent ache. When he leans back against his chair and tips his head up enough, Loki spies black veins (poison?) spreading up from his chest.

Just then, Stark’s soul flares with a violent shudder of light. Stark’s face twists into a grimace of intense pain—and at once Loki understands.

The two souls are still warring with each other, comes the realization, future against past, old against young. And then another more uncomfortable realization: I can’t help him. Not with this.

He hadn’t lied when he had warned them about the spell’s likely failure. He is honestly impressed that Stark is still ambulating and talking with this degree of soul attrition. Most mortals would have already died.

With an inhale, Loki gathers himself and shifts the dreamscape to find the other one. Strange, who should be just as easy to find, given that he is a sorcerer whose soul should resonate with eldritch energy.

Ah, there he is, Loki once again hones the dream-vision into a younger, softer Strange, who sits covered in blankets in an isolated cottage beside a lake. There is a book by his elbow and a teacup nearby, untouched. He looks to be in pain. Both are alive. Both souls are assimilating. But it is taking time.

Loki sighs.

What else can he expect? Mortals have such delicate tethers to their souls. There is nothing he can do for them but to watch and wait and hope that they are both strong enough to withstand the assimilation until its eventual end.

With some disappointment and a healthy dose of apprehension, Loki pulls back from the dreamscape and into his physical body, gasping awake as he sits up in steaming bathwater.

At least they are alive, he reassures himself. At least I am not alone.

He cups water into his palms and gently washes his face, shoulders shaking as a weight he hadn’t realized was there falls away in relief.

If he still believed in the Norns, he would have prayed for Stark and Strange’s survival.




Exhaustion clings to his limbs once more. Loki spends a whole day sleeping and only manages to lever himself out of bed on Council day because he knows he cannot afford to miss it. The transference of Hela’s anchor took a significant toll on his still-recovering seiðr reserves, and after that the dreamwalk, already challenging on an ordinary day—now it hurts to draw so much as a whisper of seiðr from his core. So he wakes early and takes his time with breakfast; he washes and dresses and does his braids by hand.

It helps center him, the normalcy of routine. By the time he leaves his quarters, he is convinced of his own capacity to carry through. He can do this. His seiðr may be overextended, but his mind is still his own.

The day is warm despite thick clouds meandering over the palace. Loki considers a flight to Iðunn’s orchard to beg for an apple or two. Perhaps tonight, after the realm’s affairs are in order. Tomorrow night, he is due for dinner with Mother.

Half of the Council is present when he arrives. They dip into respectful bows when he enters, returning to their own conversations when he does not engage anyone with a greeting. Instead, he sits at the table first and folds his hands over his stomach, content to wait for their King to arrive. Lady Eir approaches him with some concern.

“Your Highness, a good day to you,” she bows, keeping her voice level and low. “Your pallor is most concerning. Are you well, my Prince?”

She has seen to him and Thor since their childhood so Loki knows obfuscating is no use. He manages a small smile for her. “Another case of overexertion, my Lady, nothing rest and food cannot fix. I thank you for your concern.”

She looks unsatisfied and would have inquired further had Thor not walked in at that precise moment, setting the entire room into a flurry of bows and greetings. Loki rises from his chair to acknowledge his monarch, although he does not bow. Thor has not earned it yet. A nod will suffice.

“Good morning, Councilors!” Thor booms with his usual cheerful countenance. “I am heartened to see you all.”

They take their seats and begin. Loki has nothing of import to contribute this round, allowing the rest of the table to carry the conversation. Inevitably, they talk of the impending banquet and their foreign guests. Nothing like a celebration to get Asgard excited. Loki barely refrains from rolling his eyes.

“We should consider the elves’ food preferences,” Salgerðr tells Agvalðr. “They do not partake of meat. We will require a variety of dishes that will respect their tastes.”

And, “We plan to invite the dwarves to the smith’s enclave,” Ragnar relays to Kjartan. “With His Majesty’s permission, we are prepared to host them for a number of days to facilitate an exchange of knowledge. It’ll do our younger smiths some good to learn from the masters of Nidavellir. Afterward, perhaps they might visit your masons as well.”

And, “We are weaving a surplus of watercloth for trade with the Vanir,” Lady Hildegunn tells Geirbjörn. “I humbly solicit your assistance so that we may negotiate advantageous prices for our wares.”

Loki watches them and listens. He watches Thor too. Tyr watches them both, waiting for something Loki cannot fathom. Perhaps a mistake. Tyr always expects them to make mistakes.

At long last, Geirbjörn turns to Thor with a smile that makes the hair on Loki’s arm rise in disquiet. “Your Majesty, with your permission, I have a proposal for the table to consider.”

Thor straightens and motions on with an encouraging smile. Loki keeps from twisting his lips into a grimace; Thor has yet to steer the table’s conversation today and now cedes the first motion to another Councilor. Poorly done.

“We have received word of a preliminary list of attendees within the separate delegations,” Geirbjörn relays, “and I am gratified to inform the Council that all three monarchs have agreed to come with members of their family in tow. Freyr and Freyja come with their eldest child, the Princess Astrilde. It is her first visit to Asgard.”

Oh, Loki inhales, dread crawling up his throat. Oh no.

Geirbjörn continues, “The Dwarvenlord Eitri brings his two sons Sindri and Andvari. Sindri has visited Asgard in the past; Andvari has not. Finally, the Elvenking Eärandil brings the Elvenqueen Aelflaed and their second eldest daughter, Princess Idril. She has also never visited us before.”

“That is welcome news,” Thor nods. “We shall be sure to show them the best of our realm.”

“Aye, Your Majesty.” Geirbjörn fidgets for a moment, before inhaling and steeling himself to forge on. “Please forgive me for my forthrightness, but such an auspicious occasion as this does not come about often between our realms, therefore I feel the need to put forth this proposal. The Princesses Astrilde and Idril are both unmarried and of age with yourself, Your Majesty. You are young and strong, but the first order of a new reign is to guarantee the line of succession. It would secure the realm to have an heir—and here we have an opportunity for you to acquaint yourself with two princesses from two of our allied realms. Perhaps it is a felicitous time to begin considering the matter of marriage.”

Thor is blinking in complete surprise. Loki doesn’t know whether to scream or to laugh.

The gall! The absolute nerve of this man! To dictate to the King the first order of his own reign?! And beyond that, the barefaced calculation Geirbjörn doesn’t even try to hide—ah, but why bother, when this oaf is so easily led? Like sheep; the dull and concussed kind!

“W-Well, I,” Thor clears his throat, “I don’t see why not? That is, I dare say, a… fine idea. You are correct; we do not invite royal delegations often. It is…”

“An opportunity,” Salgerðr suggests with a hum. The elder minister looks contemplative, weighing the idea surely in terms of political advantages and historical context.

“Your Majesty shall have a chance to acquaint yourself with your royal peers, at the very least,” the Lady Hildegunn quietly smiles. “It is never a waste of time to make true friends.”

Thor meets her with an equally kind smile. “You are correct, of course, my lady.” He turns back to Geirbjörn and declares again, “A fine idea, Minister, thank you. I shall give the matter of… marriage its due consideration when I meet with these princesses.”

Geirbjörn demurs with a bow and what is meant to be a bashful smile. “I aim to please, Your Majesty.”

The only one who looks as constipated as Loki feels is Tyr, who has remained wordless the entire time.




“Thor,” Loki hisses, marching after his brother as they make for the royal wing. “Thor!”

He yanks his brother into a solar Mother sometimes uses to entertain guests at sunset when the view from the bay windows are breathtaking. Throwing up privacy shields, Loki rounds on Thor with a snarl.

“What was that?!”

“What was what?” Thor frowns, crossing his arms and centering his stance. Oh, the King is in a fighting mood today.

Very well. Loki sets his jaw. “That spectacle of a Council was a bloody political disaster, Thor, what do you think you’re doing?! You’re letting them lead you like a sheep!”

Thor’s expression grows thunderous. “I am no sheep. Have care of how you speak, brother.”

“I will speak to you however I like! Is that not why you keep me around?” Loki throws his hands up in exasperation. “You should have done more to direct that conversation; you should not have allowed Geirbjörn to dictate to you the first order of your reign. He has no right!”

“Well, why didn’t you say so at the table!” Thor bellows, voice bouncing against the shields that shimmer over the walls. Outside, the clouds begin to thicken over the sky.

Loki scoffs. “Was it not you who asked me not to disagree with you in front of the others? So that we may appear as a united front? And yet you walk into these Council meetings with your mind seemingly made up after privately conferring with your Councilors are you are not supposed to do—”

“Quit telling me what I’m not supposed to do!” Thor yells louder, as if attempting to push his point with sheer volume. “I am still King!”

“A King who is letting himself be led into asinine decisions!” Loki snaps back, unable to help himself. “A King who allows his own Councilors to blatantly disrespect and manipulate him! A gullible King!”

“And what, you think you’ll do better?” Thor challenges, stepping up to Loki with power bristling about his frame.

Loki does not allow himself to be intimidated, instead narrowing his eyes back at Thor. “You’re not making it very difficult to be better, Thor.”

“It wasn’t enough for you to appropriate the entirety of the prior week’s Council meeting,” Thor spits back, “now you seek to preempt me here too? With decisions that pertain directly to me, with matters of marriage? Why, Loki, do you not wish for me to marry so that my heir will not supplant you in the line of succession, is that it?”

What??

What?” Loki blinks, “What idiocy do you speak of now?”

“Don’t play coy now, Loki; I have figured your game. At every turn, you have sought to undermine me before the Council, or manipulate them to your own tune, or derail me from following their sage advice. I expected better of you!” shouts Thor, for all intents looking quite distraught at some imagined betrayal. “I trusted you to have my back! You swore you would support me!”

And I am!” Loki shoves a hand through his hair, whirls around, and turns again to face Thor. He stabs at the idiot’s chest with a finger and says, “Everything I have been doing—every bit of maneuvering I’ve done and every piece of advice I’ve given you—all of it is to secure the future of your kingdom. This kingdom! This golden realm that is your home, our home, Thor—Asgard is my home too. I want only the best for it! I want only the best for you! But none of that will come to pass if you won’t listen to me.

“I listen to you and all I hear are lies, Loki. Lies and deception. Sif was right. You twist other people’s words—you twist my words, your own words—and what comes out on the other side is the farthest from the truth,” Thor shakes his head, “so no, brother, I won’t listen to your paranoia. I am capable of making my own decisions.”

“Capable, yes,” Loki scoffs with a note of hysteria, “but equipped? Far from it! This entire business, this celebration, this banquet? It’s a game and they’re playing you like a pawn. The King, a pawn! Because you don’t understand, Thor, you understand nothing about politics—”

Have a care how you speak, Prince! I am your King!

Thunder crashes against the palace walls, the windows shaking with its pressure. Loki reels back, momentarily stunned into silence.

“I understand enough!” Lightning crackles at Thor’s fingertips and in the depths of his stormy blue eyes. “You will cease at once. I do not need you to tell me how to run my kingdom. I no longer require your presence at Council. You are to exclusively resume your duties as First Mage henceforth.”

Sif was right, Thor had said.

That half-wit of a bitch. She got into Thor’s head again.

Loki knows there is no turning Thor around once Sif and the Warriors Three have fixed him upon a point. This time, it appears Loki is the point.

Frustration and hatred and fury choke the air from within his chest—nothing I do is enough, I am never enough, I am trying to help you, we are not ready, we will all diebut Thor stands there, immense and immovable, a mirror image of fury that Loki cannot sway.

So Loki does the only thing he can do—the very thing he tried not to do because, after all this time, he still loves his brother.

He steps back into a bow and says, “As Your Majesty commands.”

Make your mistakes as you will, brother. They are now yours and yours alone.

Loki turns on his heel and leaves Thor behind.




People are good and bad both. I am a villain in someone’s story just like someone is in mine.
( Hayley Williams of Paramore )




All is well that Thor banished him from Council. Less for Loki to worry about, less to distract him from more important tasks. Without the added burden of the royal correspondence or the office of the Prince, what remains are the duties of the First Mage. They are easy and comprise mostly of maintenance. Loki would have checked on Asgard’s shields and reservoirs anyway; shoring them up is part of his task to ensure Asgard is in shape for prolonged warfare.

He had wallowed in a black morass of despair and fury for all of a day before forcibly refocusing himself. All that hatred and anger he sets aside to crystallize and sharpen into a blade: such is how the finest weapons of the mind are made. He girds himself with an armor of fury and relishes how readily his seiðr responds. Bestla’s accounts do mention that jötnar mages are driven strongly by heights of emotion. Loki is only proving Bestla right.

Silver linings on a black cloud.

Loki reminds himself of this every morning of every day.

With his newfound freedom and wealth of time, he works. There are weapons he can enchant, relics he can craft, and spells he can learn. Offensive spells, defensive spells, more intricate warding, and seiðr of the mind. Loki needs a strong, impenetrable mind. He cannot be rendered so vulnerable to the Other’s touch ever again.

I know too much, comes the thought. I cannot be captured. They cannot look into me.

It will spell disaster if they do.

One of his many contrived defenses, deceptive in its simplicity: a pair of silver cuff earrings into which he carves runes of power. It requires several days to finish and a pint of his blood, but every bit of his labor is worth the security. They soon cling to his ears, thin and discrete, easily mistaken for mere accessory.

And there is more.

He enchants his bracers too, a pair made of uru and mithril, its surface writhing with the likeness of a mighty serpent. A rune carved into each scale of the mythic beast, altogether weaving a spell that summons a phase shield when activated. Loki will take anything that helps augment his defense.

Once he has recovered enough from the transference of Hela’s anchor and his attempted dreamwalk, he turns his considerable energies toward crafting a focus. A physical focus is the first and most obvious option, but after some consideration, Loki opts for the second option. He uses his blood to paint the focus into his own skin.

Better one that will never leave my person, Loki grimly thinks, a focus that no one can take away from me.

He paints the intricate sigil into his chest and everyday pours a share of seiðr into it, filling it with energy set aside as a contingency for desperate times to come. (6) He vows never to be caught unawares when weakened again. Once is more than enough.

If the Councilors are concerned about his absence at the following meeting, he does not hear about it. He does not care. Thor will blunder along but soon enough Odin will wake. And when he does, there will be a reckoning of epic proportions.

Thor might just get himself banished again, Loki thinks with some amusement, and that’ll do him some good. It seemed to knock sense into him the first time around. He needs that push.

Only this time around, the push won’t be coming from Loki. Thor will push himself over a cliff.




“Loki,” Frigga sighs with a measure of dismay. “Is there nothing I can say to convince you otherwise?”

I’m not the one who requires convincing, Mother. Your son Thor is the one who refuses to listen,” Loki scoffs, sprawling back against his chair and popping grapes into his mouth. A breeze blows in from the sea, ruffling the drapes and the napkins on the table and the fall of Frigga’s hair.

Frigga sighs again, the very picture of a fretting mother. She picks at her honey cake with a disconsolate air. “I’m not certain Thor can handle all of this by himself.”

Loki shrugs. “Well, apparently, he doesn’t need my help. Perhaps he’ll take help from you, Mother. At the very least he can’t yell at your face like he did to me.”

“Oh, his temper,” Frigga grimaces in distaste, “he gets that from his father. Odin threw such magnificent fits when he was younger. Inconsolable, I tell you, whenever he didn’t get his way of things.”

“The apple never falls far from the tree, isn’t that what they say?”

Further into the chamber, halfway visible from behind sheer white drapes, the Allfather continues to sleep underneath a shimmering golden dome. Loki sighs. What a luxury, the Odinsleep.

“Has he at least come to visit you?” Loki asks, “Because being King is no excuse to forget his Mother.”

“He has, once. He didn’t stay long, though. Something about a discussion with Agvalðr and Tyr.” Frigga shakes her head. “The Council is running circles around him, aren’t they?”

“Cylinders, at this point.” And you won’t do anything about it, Loki thinks, some Mother you are. His mouth twists with disillusionment as he looks out over the darkening sea.

“Well, it will be good to see my brother and sister, at least,” Frigga declares after a moment of silence. She reaches over the table to pour them both a steaming cup of tea. “Which of their children are they bringing to visit, do you know?”

“Only Astrilde,” Loki tells her. “Geirbjörn is playing matchmaker. One of Eärandil’s daughters is also visiting.”

Frigga snorts, sudden and almost unladylike. “Thor, marrying an elf? Unlikely.”

“Highly unlikely,” Loki agrees. The Light Elves are as taciturn as they are beautiful, more concerned with laws and literature than warcraft. They are the Nine Realms’ preferred arbiters of conflict for a good reason. The closest Loki has seen them come to a display of emotion was during the reading of a particularly harrowing poem about the Demise of the Valkyries. He doubts Thor will find common ground with an elf who cares more for words than actions.

Frigga hums in consideration. “Astrilde is a fine young lady. I daresay she can make a future for herself here.”

Another Vanir hostage, Mother? You would allow your niece to be caged like you? But Loki doesn’t voice these thoughts, instead occupying his mouth with his cup of tea. The citrus tea Iðunn had brewed for him is better; he doesn’t voice that thought either.

“Well, then, my son.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“How have you been occupying your plentiful time?” she smiles, entreating and genuinely curious. “Any new spells you’ve learnt? Perhaps a new language from some far-flung realm in another galaxy?”

“Oh, a new language! What a grand idea, Mother. I shall attempt to find one,” Loki nods with eagerness. “I’ve been reading about the histories of Asgard, in fact. The more I tend to the seiðr reservoirs underneath the palace, the more I grow curious about their making. The Arcanum has several interesting volumes that talk about the creation of Asgard. It is not as the legends would have us believe.”

“Oh?” Frigga’s eyebrows crawl up to her hairline. “An unusual interest for you, darling.”

“It was a serendipitous development. I was reading a spellbook on something entirely other and came upon a mention of the reservoirs. Imagine my surprise as I discover all these hidden stories that contradict what we have been taught to believe,” Loki smiles behind his teacup. “Grandfather Bestla’s accounts have been most enlightening. It helps to have a different perspective on such matters, wouldn’t you agree, Mother?”

It’s a subtle thing, but Loki catches her fingers tighten around the teacup. Now you know I know. What will you do next, Queen Frigga? The board is set.

She pastes a smile on her face and manages a chuckle. “Curiosity is often the first passion and the last in great and generous minds like yours. I’m glad you’re finding some entertainment to keep you busy, my love.” (7)

Deflection and avoidance, just as Loki had expected.

“I am considering a trip to Vanaheim, in fact,” Loki continues, skillfully keeping the bitterness out of his voice. He looks down at the dregs on the bottom of his teacup and reads upheaval. “The Archive of the Mages might have more about Celestials and their origins, or the nature of seiðr and its preservation. Mere curiosity, as you say. I am hardly needed here anyway; I might as well put my time to good use.”

Frigga’s smile falters again. “I wish you would wait a while and allow your brother a chance to come to you with an apology.”

Loki levels her with a disbelieving look. “Thor doesn’t apologize, Mother. Not truly, and especially not to me.”

She sighs again. She hates seeing them at odds; she always has, ever since they were children.

“The Allfather will wake soon,” Loki glances toward the resting chamber where Odin lays unaware. “I can tell that his sleep is past the midpoint. Whatever Thor breaks will eventually be set to right. No need to worry.”

“That is not the cause of my worry, Loki. The realm always sets itself to right over time. No; what I worry over is this rift between the two of you. I do not want it to widen or deepen any further than it already has. Nothing can be more harmful to this kingdom than you and your brother forever at odds, you know this.” Her eyes are sad and imploring as they fix themselves upon his face.

This time, it is Loki who sighs. “I know this, Mother, but Thor does not. He doesn’t see it, not yet.” He pauses, considering his words, before slowly admitting, “Perhaps it is wretched of me to wish ill upon his reign, but I want him to stumble and make a mistake of his own making. I think that it is the only way he will realize how stubborn and foolish he’s been. Thor learns by doing, not by listening; you cannot truly caution him the way I tried to. That was my mistake. He needs this experience. Perhaps my lesson, in this instance, is how to step back and let him make his own mistakes. Norns know I’ve been covering up for them for long enough.”

They are both quiet after that. Loki finishes the last of the figs and the jug of elderberry juice. Frigga demolishes the honey cake. Servants come by to retrieve the empty plates and refill the pot of tea with more hot water. Beyond the balcony, night has fully fallen over the churning waves of Asgard’s sea.

It isn’t until Loki is about to retire for the night that Frigga responds to his words. “Your wisdom is truly beyond your years, Loki. Let us hope you are right and let us hope Thor’s mistakes are not too great of a wound for him to bear.”

“That is all we can do, Mother. Indeed, that is all we can do.”

She presses a kiss to each of his cheeks and sends him off with a whispered ‘good night.’




The life of a poet, Loki thinks, lies not merely in the finite language-dance of expression, but in the nearly infinite combinations of perception and memory. He became a poet the first time he beheld the staggering, desolate beauty of space.

To walk into the gap between worlds is to tiptoe along the edges of the void. He only has himself to thank for his survival after falling from the lip of the broken Bifrost; his intimacy with the emptiness allowed him to maintain a semblance of equilibrium, although the effort significantly weakened him. Time loses grasp of meaning in the darkness between stars.

Has anyone else survived freefall in space? Loki wonders this as his feet pick through a familiar path that links the sunrise kingdom of Asgard to the sunset realm of Vanaheim. There are precious few mages in the Nine Realms who can match such an achievement; there is no one else who can skywalk, this he knows for certain. Loki Skywalker did earn his moniker with great skill.

Not for the first time, he wonders how much he is truly capable of if he applies himself. If he is prepared and strong, if he isn’t weakened with prior injuries, if his mind is not in tatters from the careless hands of captors, if he isn’t emotionally compromised. Bestla wrote tales of great power about the royal mages of Jotunheim, tales that are so tall Loki would deem them improbable if he isn’t already proving Bestla right. Loki keeps his eyes trained upon the path, each step deep in thought.

What are we? he wonders. What were the Celestials hoping for when they made us? Are there any Celestials left? Do they know of the Stones?

Questions that tug Loki onward, questions that bear answering.

It is simultaneously an eternity and but a second later when his feet alight upon soft grass, the paths between their worlds leaving him at the edge of a Vanir forest. A fragile twilight hangs upon the realm, light from their twin distant suns fading from violet to fuchsia to purple. The sky here seems more delicate than in Asgard, like translucent china. In the distance, the crepe-like silhouette of the spires of the Royal Court, a mirage above the sweep of lush trees. (8)

Loki shifts into a Vanir skin and begins to walk.

Past royal oaks and giant elms, past a crowd of aspens and a procession of redwoods, past a hill. She approaches the edge of the Vanir capital city Heiðrun and draws her hood up. Slipping into the busy streets, no one pays her mind.

Vanaheim exercises more open borders than perhaps any other realm in the Nine, a fact Loki often takes advantage of. In her youth, her unsolicited visits were often discovered, but over time she grew to make less mistakes. There are perhaps two or three mages left in this kingdom capable of recognizing her guise and only one who would know it is she.

Not here for a royal visit, though, so it doesn’t matter, Loki dismisses. She will see the Queen Freyja at Asgard soon enough.

It takes an hour before she reaches the pearlescent gates of the Royal Court. The doors are open—they always are—and she passes a gaggle of visiting Xandarians on her way in.

“Guðrun Bragisdottir,” Loki introduces herself. She lets her hood down and gives the record keeper a tired smile. “I come to seek knowledge from the Archive of the Mages.” (9)

They let her in. The Vanir are liberal with their sharing of knowledge and Guðrun is a frequent visitor besides. Loki is still waiting for someone to discover her true identity; she has now been visiting under this guise for more than six centuries.

A final flash of the sinking suns turn the Court’s bone-white spires into molten gold—for a moment it looks like Asgard, like home—before it ignites into a kaleidoscope of oranges and russets and then red and finally a murky dark brown. Guðrun steps under the pointed arches of the Court as night falls.

The Archive is immense and monumental. (10) Where Asgard’s Arcanum spins out into a maze of golden halls and shelves half-shrouded in shadow and silence, the Vanir Archive soars tall with plenty of light and space. Mages of all types and levels of expertise flit within the transepts, partaking of this gift the Vanir King and Queen offer their allied realms. Loki had flourished here. This is a second home.

Guðrun, a frequent visitor, does not require a guide. She climbs to the third level and helps herself to a deserted transept that she knows is full of written works about Asgard and its Kings. She hardly ever came here as Loki. What more did Loki need to know about his own home? Loki was here to learn about everything Asgard couldn’t teach him; Loki ignored what Vanaheim knew about Asgard and grew to rue his own ignorance in time.

 

Time, a concept.

She sheds her cloak and makes herself comfortable, partaking of the rosewater provided for guests of the Archive. There is much for her to study and plenty of books waiting for her hands to open them once more.

Tucked into an alcove under an arched window overlooking the nighttime glitter of the Vanir capital, Guðrun begins to read.




Monsters, they call the jötnar.

Goats, they call the Midgardians.

Devilspawn, they call the Dark Elves.

This is how Asgard flaunts its might as the victor. Asgard erases history with force and allows time to take care of the rest. There are very few remaining in Asgard who remember a time before Odin, so few that Odin’s lies have been universally acknowledged as truth. Loki should have known better. Should have suspected earlier. Isn’t he called Liesmith? But no—the lies Odin have crafted far eclipse anything Loki has ever attempted to lie about in his entire life.

Odin is the Warrior King. He is, in fact, the youngest of three brothers, Prince Vili being the eldest and Prince Ve the second-born. Both elder brothers warred against each other and almost tore Asgard apart. Loki knows this much.

What Loki doesn’t know is this:

While his brothers were fighting, Odin created a weapon, called it his daughter, and named it Hela. If anyone had asked why he needed such a weapon, Odin would have answered, ‘For victory.’ Conquest was what he intended all along; why settle for just Asgard, when out there waited so much more?

Bór died of old age and perhaps a splitting headache; Loki can almost sympathize. Vili and Ve fought. While they were both distracted, Odin unleashed Hela upon the realm and killed all of their soldiers, saving them for last. Vili and Ve’s deaths have been forgotten in the annals of Asgard. And so Odin became King.

Odin took Hela and swept over the Nine Realms like a black plague. With the Valkyries at their command, they were unstoppable. One by one, the realms fell into order: Alfheim first, unwilling to commit to much warfare, and Nidavellir, whose dwarves were adept at forging weapons but not wielding them. Muspelheim had to be browbeaten into submission. Vanaheim and Jotunheim quickly followed after watching that. Midgard was easy, populated by infantile civilizations that only just discovered organized warfare and the manifold benefits of a written language. They were occupied with their own local conflicts that Odin and Hela didn’t even bother. Svartálfheim was by that point a non-issue, the entire planet nothing but a scorched husk of its old self. Niflheim, that misty wasteland of a realm, was where the Asgardians came from, and when they made for their new home, they left nothing behind.

Again, Loki knows this much. What Loki puts together in addition to that is:

The war on Jotunheim was not a war. Not at first, anyway. Odin had sealed Hela away in a dimension of her own, a cage built using the Tesseract, and then left that Tesseract—a relic from his father’s reign—hidden away on a northern territory of Midgard. The jötnar, on an exploratory mood, then visited Midgard. Odin struck them down and chased them back to their own realm, accusing Laufey-King of attempting to terraform an already inhabited planet. Accusations that inflammatory never go down well.

The elves attempted to arbitrate between the realms for a while. Odin’s bearer Bestla was a renowned mage from the royal lineage of Jotunheim, after all. But Laufey-King knew how to hold a grudge and would not suffer the insult to the pride of his people. What was their crime, Laufey-King asked, when all they did was visit Midgard as all allied realms under Asgard’s protection were allowed to do? Odin did not have a satisfactory answer. Laufey-King refused to bend.

The war on Jotunheim was, in truth, a matter of pride. Isolated incidents of aggression escalated into small sieges and guerilla warfare. When it became at last a full-scale conflict, Alfheim, Niðavellir, and Vanaheim all retreated behind Asgard’s protection. As much as the Vanir enjoyed their long-standing friendship with the powerful jötnar mages, Frigga was still Allmother and Asgard’s Queen.

Jotunheim might have stood a chance if Vanaheim chose to side with them. Loki and Thor might have been born to a different political order then.

As always, it ended in Asgard’s favor. Jotunheim was swept aside and rendered inconsequential, their people demonized, and their most prized relic pillaged at the end of the conflict. Laufey-King’s consort Farbauti was a casualty of the final battle at Utgardr. And to add insult to injury, Odin took Loki too.

Loki wonders if he was truly abandoned at a temple. If Laufey mourned his loss. Did Farbauti get to hold his child before he, too, was killed?

Loki wonders.


Before Odin reigned Bór the Builder King. Bór was the one who built the golden palace and gave Asgard its name. Bór took Bestla as consort, a powerful jötnar mage who helped him divine the secrets of the Tesseract such that they might build the Bifrost with it. It was never meant to be a weapon. It was built to be a bridge between realms.

An easier means for Bestla to traverse the distance between Asgard and Jotunheim. An easier means for Bór’s people to trade goods with neighboring Vanaheim. But when Svartálfheim’s Aether-worshipping fanatics came threatening at the door, Bór had no choice but to call their arms and go to war. It was the first true war Asgard fought, and as unfledged as they were, they almost lost—until Bestla, ruthless and cunning Bestla, opened the newly built Bifrost and aimed it at Svartálfheim itself.

Svartálfheim’s Black Fleet had just returned from attempting to overtake Nidavellir at the time. Most of them perished in the space between one breath and the next. The few who survived had nothing left to cling to. Bór seized the Aether and used the Tesseract to contain it the same way Odin would use it to contain Hela three thousand star-years hence.

Not one, not two, but three Infinity Stones within the Nine Realms.

Loki closes one scroll and moves on to the next. He keeps reading.


Where did the Tesseract come from? It was already there at the beginning of Bór’s reign. He must have inherited it from his father Órm.

Órm the Mighty. Not a King, for Asgard was not yet a kingdom and its people still eked out a living within the grey mists of Niflheim. But Órm was an accomplished warrior and had command of a wealth of native seiðr. Loki finds a scroll that tells of Órm’s long-forgotten adventures near the dawn of their universe, adventures that would have entertained Thor to no end.

It was Órm who discovered the fire-breathing sentient dragons of Muspelheim, Órm who first wandered into the rich forests of Vanaheim, and Órm who helped primitive Midgardians carve their first runes into rocks. Órm left his homeworld Niflheim and traversed the galaxy perhaps through the same paths Loki now walks with the help of his native seiðr; Órm might have been the first Skywalker. (11)

Somewhere along the line, he met a Celestial and learned about the First Host. The Celestial taught Órm much, and when there was nothing left to learn, Órm turned coat and slayed him.

It must have been an epic battle. Loki can only imagine.

The scroll states that Órm took the Celestial’s body apart and used it to build a realm of his own. All these things Órm learned from the mythical and immensely powerful giants who were the first conscious entities in the universe. When Asgard became habitable, Órm returned to Niflheim and took his people there using an artefact he took from the dead Celestial, which means—

The Celestial had the Tesseract. The Celestials knew about the Stones.

Loki huffs, downing the last of his tepid tea.

Of course the Celestials knew about them; they probably built the protections around them.

Like Vormir, an entire realm, containing nothing but the Soul Stone and the enchantments that protect it. Morag, whose many temples are submerged under boiling, predator-ridden seas. How then do civilizations on planets like Svartálfheim and Midgard come to possess Stones of their own? Perhaps a Celestial left it there for some purpose after seeding the planet?

Loki wonders.

The more answers he unearths, the more questions they birth.




To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem. Loki watches a mass of them gathered at the foot of the palace, where the great doors are thrown open to welcome foreign delegations. In the distance, the Bifrost blisters with seiðr and light—once, and then twice, and then thrice. Vanaheim, Alfheim, and Niðavellir. (12)

The people of Asgard welcome their visitors, carpeting the glittering bridge with rose and tulip petals. A resounding atmosphere of celebration has engulfed the entire realm. The city is full to bursting; Loki expects the great feast to be a cacophonous affair tonight.

With deft fingers, he finishes braiding together the two parts of his hair. Today he wears his colors, emerald green and royal gold, padded tunic cut along the lines of his shoulders and torso, flaring as it reaches the length of the floor. Underneath, his leather breeches are black, the boots made from rare dragonskin and therefore impervious to physical insult. His great cloak is among the finest of its kind, woven prodigiously from precious elven crystal-silk and Asgardian watercloth; it shimmers and ripples when at last draped upon his shoulders, a near-obscene statement of wealth.

Loki looks upon himself in the mirror and sees a king.

“Perhaps a circlet, my Prince,” suggests Solveig, the principal maidservant who has seen to his personal needs since his majority. A valet would have been more appropriate for a Prince—and this was often a point Sif liked to deride his manhood with—but Solveig’s discretion and taste are beyond repute. Loki looks over what she offers in consideration.

“No,” he declines after a pause, “it would be overdone.”

Solveig bows and returns the circlets to the jewelry chest. She returns with a selection of rings instead.

“Determined to bedeck me in jewels today, Solveig?” Loki has to smile.

“It is most appropriate for the occasion, Your Highness,” she insists, “and you are Asgard’s Prince.”

Three rings, then; two for his left hand and a bejeweled one for the right. He tucks the edge of his enchanted bracers under the sleeve of his fine tunic. Solveig fixes jeweled cuffs at the base and tail of his braid.

Frigga enters his quarters with a smile. “There you are, my darling.”

Solveig bows and steps aside. Loki presents himself and asks, “How do I look, Mother?”

“Magnificent,” she pronounces with great feeling, reaching over to stroke his cheek. “You might just outshine Thor today.”

Loki snorts. “Did Orvar manage to convince him out of his battle armor and into robes?”

“They compromised,” Frigga chuckles. “Thor has forgone his cape and instead wears a great cloak. It looks a little odd, but he’ll manage.” With sheer charisma and force of cheer, no doubt.

“Well, you are a dazzling sight, Mother dearest.” He offers her his arm and together they leave his quarters, Loki squeezing Solveig’s hand in gratitude. “Shame Father is missing the occasion. Was it not he who gifted you this gown?”

Frigga laughs—Loki delights when he makes her laugh. She confesses, “It might be a welcome occasion to reunite with my brother and sister without Odin constantly breathing over my shoulder. One would almost think I haven’t married him yet with the way he acts around Freyr.”

“Well,” Loki shrugs, “it is Freyr.”

“Oh, Freyr is all bark and no bite,” she dismisses with a flick of her wrist. “The more Odin acts like a territorial toddler, the more Freyr strives to provoke him!”

Indeed, the true threat is Queen Freyja the Quicksilver. Capricious and mercurial, with a whimsical veneer and an underlying malicious streak, she is renowned for having little mercy. Only Freyr stands a chance of pacifying her at her worst and most temperamental.

The delegations are already in the throne room when they arrive, and so is Thor. Loki and Frigga are announced, the hall falling into an almost deafening hush as they ascend up the steps to the dais beside the throne. Mother bears to sit upon Thor’s left, Loki at the right.

Loki knows they look at him and admire. He can feel the weight of their eyes upon his skin. The crystal-silk great cloak is hard to ignore, which is why he chose it. He suppresses a smile.

“Asgard welcomes its allies for a renewal of bonds—a celebration,” Thor booms above the great hall, “the likes of which we have not had in an age. Hearken, our friends from great and vigorous realms! It is the dawn of a new age, and I am honored to have you with us!”

Not bad, Loki considers as Thor beams down upon a cheering crowd. Even the gruff dwarves soften a touch.

Thor descends to greet the monarchs, an unprecedented move as Odin never did leave the great throne, not even to acknowledge the monarchs of their allied realms. To Odin, they are subjects, not equals; Thor sets a different tone.

Loki and Frigga shadow Thor, coming down to stand a step behind and beside him. Thor greets the Vanir monarchs with a bright grin and open arms. “King Freyr and Queen Freyja—Uncle and Aunt, welcome once again to Asgard! It brings me great joy to see you after so many years.”

“King Thor!” Freyr returns with characteristic cheer, “Why, I almost didn’t recognize you! How you’ve grown. A King now, of your own right!”

“Nephew,” Freyja likewise grins, her bright smile full of teeth. “Felicitations on your ascension! Frigga, dear sister, you must be so proud.”

Frigga laughs, embracing her sister with verve. “I am indeed! It is good to see you, sister.”

“And here is the Prince of Asgard!” Freyr turns at last to Loki—only to pause. The King’s smile takes a heartbeat to return to life. “My, my, Prince Loki, what a sight you have grown into. Freyja, beloved, look at him! The awkward young thing we fostered is no more.”

“In his place stands a beautiful young man,” Freyja agrees, sweeping her eyes up and down Loki’s frame. “Well met, nephew.” She offers her hand; Loki takes it and kisses the glittering ring on her finger.

“King Freyr, Queen Freyja—always a distinct pleasure.”

Freyr and Freyja share a playful laugh. An understanding zips between them that no one else is privy to. They then part to present their daughter Astrilde, who steps up between her parents, the very image of Vanir beauty. Waves of auburn hair, glittering hazel eyes, and skin fairer than even her mother’s. She curtsies before Thor and gifts him a smile.

“Your Majesty, I am honored.”

“Well met, Princess Astrilde,” Thor kisses the back of her hand, “’tis true that your beauty is beyond repute.”

Astrilde dips her eyes down, smile widening.

She’s a fox, this one. Loki recalls her as a child, precocious and playful, although Loki doubts that she remembers him from so many centuries ago.

Loathe to keep the other delegations waiting, Thor moves on to exchange greetings with the dwarves, who tower above them in gruff silence. Thor is not deterred; he grins and booms, “Lord Eitri, it has been far too long! Welcome to Asgard, old friend! I am delighted to have you here; you and your sons always have a place at my table!”

Eitri softens a touch, always having preferred Thor over Odin. Loki suspects Eitri’s respect is due to Thor’s easy command of Mjölnir, a weapon forged under the starfire of Niðavellir.

“Thor-King,” Eitri punches his right fist into his left palm, a salute echoed by both of his sons, “you honor us with your invitation. Our felicitations for your ascension. We likewise honor the terms of our alliance with the golden realm of Asgard.”

Thor exchanges an arm clasp with Eitri and then one with each of his sons Sindri and Andvari. “Frigga-Allmother. Loki-Prince,” Eitri salutes them both, before Thor moves on to the elves.

In a single unified motion, the elven delegation place a palm on their chests and dip their heads into a brief bow. “King Thor of Asgard,” they intone as one, “we come in peace.”

Thor mirrors the gesture and responds, “Esteemed Elvenkind, Asgard offers you safety. Be welcome in our home.”

Well, well. Someone remembered his lessons.
Loki wonders how long Thor must have agonized over these practiced words.

“Eärandil Elvenking,” Thor extends an arm to the tall, dark-haired elf, “and Aelflaed Elvenqueen, ‘tis a great honor to have your presence at this celebration. I thank you for your time.”

“It has been too long since we last laid our eyes upon the golden realm,” Aelflaed solemnly agrees. “You were but a child then; here you are now.”

“A peaceful ascension,” Eärandil says, “is occasion enough for great celebration. We rejoice with your realm, King Thor.”

The Elvenking’s words bring a broad smile to bear upon Thor’s face. He is then introduced to Alfheim’s second princess, a lissome, light-haired elf whose skin is so pale she seems almost translucent under Asgard’s golden sunlight. She places a long-fingered hand upon her chest and fixes Thor with eyes as dark a star-studded night sky.

“King Thor,” she greets, voice somber and melodious, “my felicitations.”

“Well met, Princess Idril,” Thor remembers not to touch her, a faux pas that even Loki would not have been able to save him from. “Your presence brings me great delight.”

Frigga exchanges soft words with the Elvenking and Queen, Loki dipping his head low in a shallow bow. Greetings over and done with, Thor takes a few steps up and opens his arms to entreat the great hall.

“Friends and allies! Welcome all to Asgard! We renew our ties and celebrate our realms today! We feast!”

Asgard roars in jubilation.




“You are so silent, child,” Freyja later sides up to Loki, her half-drunk husband in tow. “’Tis most unlike the Loki we know.” She takes a sip from her jeweled chalice and, with brazen disregard for form, asks him upfront, “Are you perchance in disfavor?”

A startled laugh erupts from Loki’s lips. “Only you would dare, dear Aunt!”

“Well, are you?” Freyr asks, coming up to Loki’s other side such that they bracket him and cut off all avenues of escape. They are in a gamely mood tonight.

“Depends, Uncle. What do you define as disfavor?” Loki grins, well-used to the wiles of Vanir royalty.

“Did he banish you from your position as First Mage?” Freyja gasps, although even she mustn’t believe it.

Loki chuckles, “No, no, nothing so drastic. I gave him a scolding a few weeks ago and he’s still sulking about it, that’s all.”

The three of them look toward the hall in unison, eyes alighting upon Thor’s form. Asgard’s King is keeping company with the dwarves and a handful of Asgardian warriors, no doubt exchanging tall tales of battle and adventure. Evening has turned into night, but the feast shows no sign of being close to over.

“Eärandil’s daughter is quite beautiful, don’t you think?” Freyr leans into Loki’s shoulder with a hum. “Idril Evenstar, they call her. I hear she’s an eloquent arbiter.”

Another laugh bubbles up in Loki’s throat. “Bit transparent, Uncle, don’t you think? Attempting to pair me off with her so that your daughter can bag Thor?”

“You can’t honestly be expecting Thor to marry an elf,” Freyja snorts derisively. “Bed, perhaps. Marry? Pah!”

“Mother said the same thing,” Loki grins.

“Frigga has her wits about her; she is my sister. Speaking of whom,” Freyja homes in on the Allmother, who sits in deep discussion with the Elvenqueen and Princess Idril, “why so serious? By the Norns, this is a feast! Oh, the more time she spends in this staid kingdom, the less entertaining she becomes.”

“Watch your words, dear Aunt,” Loki warns her playfully, “for she is still my mother and I am obliged to defend her honor.”

“Freyja against Loki! I should like to see this! Yes, please,” Freyr laughs raucously, jostling against Loki in his enthusiasm. Loki bears the physical proximity with ease born of centuries of practice.

For a brief moment, he considers joining them in bed as they are clearly propositioning him for. It won’t be the first time, and it likely won’t be the last. But when he imagines it—the physical pleasure, the brief oblivion it brings—he finds he can’t work up the appetite.

I have other concerns now, comes the quiet thought, more important concerns than that of mine own pleasure, the simple gratification of the flesh.

He eventually extracts himself from their grasp, retreating to Frigga’s side briefly before making excuses as the night grows deep. When he leaves the great hall, the feast is still in full swing. He notes that some of the elven delegation have also left, the Elvenqueen and her daughter among them. All of the Vanir are still eating and drinking. Loki knows they won’t be done until dawn.

Before retiring to his quarters, he slips into the Allfather’s chambers and stands at the foot of Odin’s healing pod. He promised Frigga he would visit tonight. Odin continues to sleep, each day closer to waking at last.

“Mother will be back in a handful of hours, or as soon as the feast lets her leave,” Loki tells the old man. “You know she can’t afford not to show her face. Your son saw fit to invite every realm’s monarch, after all.”

He lifts his eyes to the wards on the walls, placed there no doubt by the Allmother herself. Loki reinforces them with more of his own. It will take a very powerful adversary to push through these shields now.

“You need to wake soon,” Loki continues talking to Odin, “because Thor doesn’t know what he’s doing. You need to wake before he inevitably breaks something that can’t be fixed.”

He thinks of Thor and Astrilde, of Freyr and Freyja and Frigga, of the Elvenking and Queen, of Eitri—who was the last of his kind in that foregone future. All of them feasting, all of them celebrating, all of them in blissful ignorance. None of them know what enemy comes for them. Only Loki knows. Only he prepares.

“Thor won’t listen to me. No one listens to me,” Loki quietly tells the man he once called father. “You probably won’t listen to me either, come to think. We’ll see about it when you wake. Perhaps you’ll be more reasonable if I sway Mother first.”

Eventually, he tires of standing. He takes the chair next to the bed, the one Mother sits in every day, and steeples his fingers together in deep thought. That the delegations are all in Asgard is an opportunity he cannot waste. Somehow he must warn them—although he doesn’t know how. If he doesn’t have the King behind him, his words don’t have as much weight.

Eitri might be convinced, if I catch him in private conversation, Loki thinks. The Elvenking too.

But the Vanir royalty are too close, too familiar; if he tries to sway them, they will surely ask Frigga. And Frigga, as he has established, will not lift a finger without Odin’s express approval.

“Are you up for one last war, Odin One-Eye?” Loki wonders, voice barely above a whisper. “Will you help me save the Nine Realms, or will you hinder me too?”

Odin does not answer. Hours later, Frigga finds him still sitting there, kisses his forehead, and sends him to bed.

“You didn’t need to stay the entire night, my love.”

“It’s alright, Mother,” Loki sighs, gifting her with a tired smile. “Plenty of things to think of.”

“Lay your head to rest now, my son. You worry enough for all of Asgard.”

Loki can only respond with a mirthless chuckle.




Within days, it becomes clear that no work will be done while their guests are in the palace. Everyone is far too occupied with making nice and eating their way through the palace kitchens. Thor is enjoying himself, at least: the erstwhile King spends his days exchanging stories with the Vanir host, or debating weaponry and warcraft with the dwarves at the dining table, or attempting to charm the Elvenkind. He is the least successful with the latter.

Salgerðr and Viseti spend much time with the Elvenking, discussing particulars of law and royal justice.

Boring, Loki snorts. Justice is overrated and laws only beg to be broken.

Geirbjörn and Hildegunn field much of the Vanir attention, always talking trade and goods whenever Loki happens upon them. Which is not often, but that’s beside the point. Astrilde seems to be orbiting Thor with some success; twice Loki spots them ambulating the gardens, Thor behaving for once like a proper royal. If she does end up marrying him, Loki thinks parsimoniously, she’ll be in for quite a surprise.

For his part, Loki retreats to the safety of the Arcanum, content to read and continue practicing his spellwork. It is best to minimize his interactions with the royal delegations, lest he be accused of sabotaging Thor’s reign once again. He hopes the Council is having fun managing Thor on the daily. Preventing the oaf from committing political suicide is after all a full-time occupation.

It is on one such afternoon, while he is days deep into a dense treatise on scrying and the Sight, that Idril Evenstar finds him in the Arcanum.

“I apologize for my interruption,” she halts at the other end of the shelf, “I was unaware of your presence here, Your Highness.”

Loki looks up and lowers the book. “Princess Idril. Well met. Your apology is unnecessary. The Arcanum is open to distinguished guests of the royal family.” When she doesn’t immediately leave, he adds, “Might you be looking for a specific reference? The Oracle is helpful if you cannot find what you seek.”

“I was merely exploring,” Idril replies slowly, “but since I have come upon you, Prince Loki, I must confess a great level of curiosity. I am told that you are an accomplished scholar and an exceptional mage. Might we have a conversation, Your Highness?”

“Aren’t we already?” Loki smiles, although he does rise from his chair. “The blue solar catches a pleasant sea breeze at this time of day. I will gladly talk over tea if you are otherwise unoccupied this afternoon, Princess.”

Loki tucks the book under his arm and escorts her out of the Arcanum towards the solar that overlooks the bay. They pass several guards and a posse of Vanir nobility, who note their presence and will no doubt spread gossip by dinnertime. He wonders if Eärandil also wishes to matchmake him with Idril the same way Freyr had expressed at the banquet.

At the solar, Loki sends for a full service of tea for two. As he speaks with a maidservant, the elven Princess walks to the balcony and opens the glass doors. The breeze is more than pleasant. Loki waves his hand to resituate the chairs and table to face the balcony. Idril turns at the whisper of his seiðr.

“A beautiful view, isn’t it? I sometimes come here to read,” Loki motions to the opposite chair as he takes a seat.

Idril regards the bay as she also sits, her dark eyes squinting toward the distance. “The Bifrost is a marvel. It was my first time traversing space within it.”

“Always a jarring experience, but marvelous, yes. Is it too bright for your eyes, Princess? We may lower the drapes if you like.”

If Asgard is the sunrise kingdom and Vanaheim the sunset realm, Alfheim is forever half-lit in the hues of blue and grey that happen shortly before a sun breaks the horizon. Alfheim is a distant exoplanet so far removed from their system’s sun that the surface temperatures are far colder than Vanaheim and certainly colder than Asgard’s eternal spring. They are not nearly as cold and dark as Jotunheim, an ice giant whose dense atmosphere and polar vortices keep the planet’s surface isolated from almost all sunlight, but Alfheim’s dim environment has encouraged the evolution of incredibly sensitive eyes among the Elvenkind. (8)

No wonder she’s squinting. It must be painful after some time.

“That is kind of you, Prince Loki, but I am fine. I am growing accustomed to it. Seiðr helps too.”

“That it does,” Loki acknowledges as the servants come with their tea. She looks over the treats with curiosity, perhaps unfamiliar with their nature. “Honey cakes, my Mother’s favorite. Rhubarb pie, which pairs well with either lavender or ginger tea. Roasted fig tartlets with vanilla and goat cheese.”

“Which one will you be having?”

“All of them.”

Idril laughs, a quiet sound. She takes a honey cake and they sample their tea. After some silence, she asks, “Have you been to Alfheim, Your Highness?”

“Several times in the past, although I never met you. Once or twice might have been before you were born. I do recall the Elvenqueen was with child during one of our visits—perhaps one of your younger siblings.”

“One of them, certainly. I have plenty of siblings, as you know. How did you find our realm?”

She sounds genuinely curious, so Loki decides to be honest. “Strange—and I mean that in the most complimentary manner. It was different and therefore interesting. The Repository is a thing of beauty. I only wish I had more time to spend within its halls.”

She smiles, her eyes picking up a sparkle. “Father would readily grant you permission to visit, you need only ask. The Elvenkind regard scholars with only utmost respect.”

“And you, Princess, what manner of scholarship do you pursue?” Loki asks. “I can tell you are training in magecraft likewise; what sort of mage do you aim to become?”

“I do not yet know,” Idril thoughtfully confesses, “which is partly why I wished to speak with you. To gain some perspective, if I may. I have met my share of Vanir mages when they visit our realm, but Asgardian mages are even rarer than Elven ones. And I am told you are one of the strongest in the Nine Realms.”

Loki chuckles, flattered despite himself. “Dare I ask who you’ve been speaking to, Princess? I fear I’ll fall short of such high expectations.”

“Master Atli of Vanaheim tutored me for a time.”

Ahh, Atli. I see,” Loki shakes his head in chagrin. “He was apprenticed to one of the Grand Masters when I was fostered at Vanaheim many star-years ago. He was always a bit of a gossip.”

Idril nods in happy agreement. “He told me many colorful stories, some of which are about you. Apparently, you were the cause of much upset amongst the Grand Masters during your tenure there. He told me there is no part of magecraft that gave you any degree of difficulty, and that you simply took to the craft like fish to water. He was quite an admirer.”

Loki huffs, barely keeping from rolling his eyes. Atli was a bootlicker, is what he was. Quite competent, however, and useful in court. Loki now wonders just what Idril will ask for after buttering him up this much.

“Seiðr has always come naturally to me. A matter of instinct. Magecraft builds upon that; magecraft is merely us attempting to make sense of the natural chaos of life—the entropy of energy. It is not for everyone, but there are a few who are born with a gift.”

“And you are one of them,” she says.

“I happen to be one of them,” he nods. Reclining in his chair, Loki observes her with sharp eyes. “You seek something from me, Princess. Say your piece and let us be forthright with each other. You are a guest of my house; I wish to ensure that you are provided for in every way that matters.”

A sharp frown crosses her face and momentarily, Loki wonders if he crossed a line. But that thought flies out of his head when Idril firmly tells him, “It is not about a betrothal, although I know that is being discussed.”

“Discretely,” Loki quirks a smile, “and presumably away from our ears.”

“Yes,” she sighs, a put-upon expression gracing her face. “Although I understand the political expediency, I barely know you or King Thor. Furthermore, I consider myself unprepared for marriage. I am too young.”

Loki toasts her with a teacup. “With respect, I agree.”

Idril nods again, her frown easing up a touch. “It is a matter that might be reconsidered at a later time. But as of now, there are other pursuits I would like to explore.”

“Such as magecraft,” Loki fills in for her, finally sensing where this is headed.

“Such as magecraft, yes. I do not rightly know if you have ever taken an apprentice, or if you are interested in teaching at all, but I would like to learn from you, Prince Loki. I would like to learn from the best.”

Figure that. Loki is very flattered, indeed fighting a grin from crossing his face.

With a more subdued note, Idril continues, “I am not familiar with the formal process of ratifying such an arrangement in this realm. Please accept my apologies for this unorthodox proposal.”

“We do not have a formal process for mage apprenticeships in Asgard,” Loki informs her. “We hardly train mages in this realm, after all. Our mages almost always foster in Vanaheim, where the Grand Masters are far more experienced at teaching magecraft to novices. It is simply safer that way. I was an exception to the rule; I learned at my mother’s lap, and from the Lady Eir, and from tutors brought in from Vanaheim, until I was old enough to be sent there instead.”

“Oh,” she says with considerable disappointment.

After a pause, Loki takes pity and gives her a small smile. “That an exception has been made once means that it can be made again. Will you speak with your father, Princess Idril, and secure a time for us to have a discussion? I do not wish to overstep my bounds. You are his daughter, after all. I am certain we can negotiate an arrangement. I shall in turn speak with my brother the King.”

Idril notably brightens, the sparkle returning to the depths of her dark eyes. “Of course, Prince Loki. I shall speak with him tonight. I thank you for giving this matter due consideration.”

“Of course,” Loki tips his head, invariably pleased with the outcome. He now has an excuse to meet with the Elvenking in private. He looks down at the table and then levels her with a more playful smile. “Take the fig tartlets now or forever hold your peace, Princess. I am coming for them.”

She gives a tiny gasp and steals the last fig tartlet from the plate. Her cheeks dimple into a smile that betrays her youth. Loki thinks that if he plays this just right, Idril Evenstar might just become a friend.




He finds Thor leaving the training yard after a bout with two warriors from Vanaheim and Eitri’s younger son. Asgard’s King is in a cheerful mood, which works towards Loki’s advantage.

He waits by the doors leading back into the palace. When Thor is close enough that Loki does not have to call out, he asks, “Your Majesty, a moment of your time?”

Thor falters but manages to mask it with surprise instead of showing his hesitation. Loki leads him to an adjacent courtyard, where they are sufficiently isolated while still remaining in plain sight.

Loki does not allow Thor to speak although the oaf opens his mouth. Instead, Loki preempts, “The Princess Idril has approached me with a proposal.”

“Oh,” Thor blinks again, this time truly taken aback. He seems genuinely discomfited and unsure of how to respond, perhaps in light of how disastrous their last conversation had ended.

“It is not for a betrothal,” Loki continues, “so you may rest assured your prospects remain unchallenged. It regards something else entirely.”

“Oh. Alright. What did she want?”

“She wishes to apprentice with me to advance her magecraft. It seems she was tutored by Atli—from Vanaheim, you might recall—and from him, she has heard of my skill. She expressed her interest with great eloquence; I can see the truth of her intentions.”

“I see,” Thor frowns, clearly not seeing. “What—er, how do I figure in this discussion?”

“You are the King,” Loki intones, carefully erasing any trace of derision or condescension lest Thor react negatively again. “I serve at your command. Mages scarcely train or apprentice within Asgard; I am an exception, solely because of my station, and I conveyed as much to the Princess. If her father the Elvenking were to allow her this opportunity, the arrangement of her apprenticeship would require your permission, as she would have to stay here within the palace and assist me with parts of my duty as the First Mage. I simply wanted to apprise you of this matter so that you may give it your due consideration.”

“Oh. Yes, well,” Thor shifts his weight and clears his throat with growing discomfort, “it sounds like a fine idea. I don’t see why not.”

Loki keeps his face devoid of disgust and says, “If I may ask that you take your time with deliberation, Your Majesty. Princess Idril’s prolonged tenure within the kingdom might be misconstrued as your favor upon her as a prospective bride.”

Thor grimaces. “Ah. I didn’t think of that. You’re right.”

Loki pauses, waits, and then continues. “I have asked Princess Idril to arrange a discussion with Eärandil Elvenking, as I wish to ascertain how much the Princess has told her father of her intentions. You are of course within your rights to partake in that discussion.”

“Would it not make things easier if we simply announced her apprenticeship to the kingdom, in such a way that her reasons for a prolonged stay in Asgard is made clear?” Thor blurts out, rocking on his heels in thought.

“If that is what you wish, Your Majesty. I merely await your decision.”

“You—you can decide whether or not you want to take her under your wing. I defer that to your judgment. For my part, I have no qualms about having her here, so long as her father approves. We’ll just—yes, we’ll just announce it.” Thor rapidly blinks at him, as if waiting for a contradiction.

Loki does not give him that satisfaction. He calmly says, “As your Majesty commands.” After a breath, he adds, “I shall inform you of the outcome once I have spoken with the Elvenking. I thank you for your time and bid you a pleasant afternoon, King Thor.”

“I—yes.” Thor looks like he wants to say more, perhaps something about the godawful tension straining between them, but he only swallows and says, “Yes. A pleasant afternoon likewise.”

Dipping his head forward into a bow, Loki departs in a swirl of cobalt-colored robes. Behind him, Thor stands under Asgard’s eternal seiðr sunlight, bewildered and lost.




It hurts unexpectedly, this rift between himself and Thor. He wonders if it hurts this Thor too.

Unbidden, Loki remembers the other King Thor, the one from that foregone future. The one Loki forgave. The one Loki could have grown to love again. That Thor would have listened to his counsel. They would have never suffered such superficial strife.

But that Thor was no more, and now Loki must make do with this one, this unfledged King whose judgments are hasty and whose deliberations lack depth. Loki is almost tempted to repeat history and sabotage Thor again so that the oaf might learn a lesson or three. It would be so easy.

But that is what they expect of me here, Loki reminds himself, and far be it for me to obey expectations. Such things are meant to be flaunted.

So Loki does something nobody expects him to do; he takes a morning away from the palace and approaches Eitri at Asgard’s royal forge. Upon seeing him approach, Ragnar bows but does not bother to hide his surprise.

“Your Highness Prince Loki,” Ragnar raises his voice, halting the rest of the forge’s activity. “You honor us with your presence this morning. We were not expecting your visit.”

Loki does not frequent the forge; no doubt Ragnar is confused and perhaps even alarmed. Loki acknowledges their respect and responds, “At ease, Master Ragnar. I come to speak with Lord Eitri this morn.”

Eitri relinquishes a hammer and dusts of his large hands. “Black is the day Loki Liesmith comes to speak with me of his own accord. Our memory is long, Your Highness. We have not forgotten your trickery.”

“Excellent,” Loki grins with a mouthful of teeth, “as I now come to you to repay my debt, with an opportunity for you to acquire an advantage. An hour of your time, Lord Eitri; take your sons with you as witnesses. It has been a while since you last took a commission this challenging.”

Eitri frowns but follows, Sindri and Andvari in tow.

 

Ragnar lends them his office as Guildmaster, a generosity Loki will have to reward. As soon as they are past the doors, he throws up privacy shields and motions for the dwarves to sit.

"Is this a commission you ask of us on behalf of Asgard?” Eitri asks.

“You might say that,” Loki leans his hip against Ragnar’s desk, folding his arms under the fall of his robes. “What I ask for is unusual in its nature.”

“Out with it, then. And beware that it will be for a hefty sum, Prince.”

Loki considers Eitri against the risk he is about to take. There is, however, no better recourse than this, for Eitri and his dwarven delegation will soon return to Niðavellir and likely not visit Asgard for a long time to come.

“In a few years hence,” he somberly says, “a client will approach you with a peculiar request. He will ask for something that has never been made before. Indeed, it is something that should never be forged.”

Eitri’s frown grows, now more confused than apprehensive.

“Because you are the penultimate master of your craft, you understand why that is and you will refuse. But he will threaten you with the destruction of all that you hold dear, so in the end, you will forge it for him. And that will be the beginning of the downfall of the Nine Realms.”

“What?” Eitri reels back. “What trickery is this?”

“His name is Thanos, and he will ask you to forge a tool capable of wielding the power of six Infinity Stones.”

Impossible.”

“There is no such thing,” Loki raises both eyebrows in challenge, “and you know you can forge it, you most of all, Lord Eitri, Forgemaster of Niðavellir.”

“From whence comes this foreknowledge?” Eitri demands, and furthermore, “How might we take you for your word when you have so cleverly tricked us before?”

“When you last met me, I was yet to come into majority. I have grown since then. Perhaps you might have heard of my mastery of magecraft. I have walked to the edges of neighboring realities; I am capable of dreamwalking and foresight.”

Eitri and Sindri both pale and grunt in tandem. Andvari only looks confused.

Loki continues, “What I warn you of has already come to pass in another reality. Eitri, if you do not heed me, you will become the last of your kind.”

“The last?

“The very last,” Loki gravely nods, “for he keeps you alive as a reward for your outstanding skill. He has a twisted sense of mercy, Thanos. You’re better off refusing it altogether.”

Silence stretches between them, thick and tense with unspoken questions. Eitri is intelligent; Loki hardly needs to spell things out for him. Loki needs that intelligence to come in to play and justify the risk he is taking with this.

“This dreamsight of yours,” Eitri quietly says, “have you told your brother, the King?”

“I would if he would listen to me,” Loki shrugs, “but as of yet, he is unwilling to lend an ear.”

“You are waiting until the Allfather wakes from his sleep,” Eitri guesses. It’s not so far from the truth.

“The Allfather will know better how to respond to a threat of this magnitude. I would not have told you, only I’m uncertain if we’ll ever see each other again. My warning might very well mean your survival.”

“How exactly is this a commission, Prince Loki?” Andvari asks, bewildered. “You are not asking anything from us; instead, you have given us information.”

“’Tis a commission because I ask of you to outright refuse him entry to Niðavellir when he comes,” Loki straightens to standing. “Your borders are customarily open for trade, are they not? But in this instance, I ask of you to close them without question. Close them and call for Asgard’s aid at once. Throw the forge-shields up as high as they can go. Do not even treat with him. Do not let him in.”

Eitri makes a disquieted noise, fists clenching at his sides. “Even if I were to believe you—even if this Thanos came to Niðavellir's orbit on his vessel—even if I were to forge such a tool—it is useless if he does not possess the Infinity Stones.” The Dwarvenlord pauses and then, “No one possesses all six of the Infinity Stones.”

“That can change.”

“No one knows where they are.”

Loki smiles. “I do.”

Eitri’s eyes grow wide, before narrowing again, this time into a squint. “And how do I know for certain that you won’t use the Stones yourself, if you know of their whereabouts?”

Loki chuckles, “I’m not asking you to forge the tool for me to wield, am I? And you know as well as I do that no single entity can wield multiple Stones directly and survive.”

Eitri looks unconvinced. Fair enough; Loki would be unconvinced too if their positions were reversed.

“I am a mage, Lord Eitri, and a damn good one that. The best in Asgard and I daresay one of the best in the Nine Realms. I, of all people, intimately understand why the Stones cannot be used for any lasting achievement that does not result in catastrophe. There are laws that cannot be broken without dire consequence. I am many things, but self-sabotaging is not one of them.”

The mulish, difficult expression on the Dwarvenlord’s face softens a touch. It seems Eitri finds Loki most convincing at his most self-serving.

“If we call,” Eitri slowly asks, “Asgard will come with aid?”

Allowing a sharp smile to slice across his face, Loki says, “Asgard remembers its vow of protection upon the Nine Realms. Asgard will come, Lord Eitri. Asgard cannot afford to ignore you.”

Another stretch of tense silence. Eitri nods, now subdued with heavy thoughts.

“Likewise,” Loki quietly continues, “if I call for you, know that it regards this coming threat. If he comes for other realms first, Asgard will send a warning throughout the Nine Realms. We must all be prepared.”

“Aye,” Eitri grimly sighs, “that we must.”

“I thank you, Forgemaster. Your consideration has given me some peace of mind.”

“But you have taken mine, Prince Loki, with that silver tongue of yours and the prospect of a future too grim.” Eitri turns to take his sons back outside, where the forge is in full swing, Asgard’s smiths learning from the expertise of the dwarves. “For all that it’s worth, I hope your foresight is wrong.”

“I too hope I’m wrong,” Loki sighs, “but unfortunately, I already know I’m right.”




Eitri is quiet and thoughtful at dinner that night. Loki watches from the King’s table and exchanges a brief nod with the Princess Idril, who responds with a genuine smile.

Ah, there goes Freyr, misconstruing a simple exchange for something more. Loki notes that the Vanir King is jollier than usual as dinner proceeds into merriment and dancing once again. Astrilde is attempting to secure a dance with Thor when Loki leaves the great hall.

On his way, he passes Tyr and two of his generals, standing just beyond the great hall in what appears to be a serious discussion. Loki eyes them; they turn and give him shallow bows. Something is brewing there. He wonders if Thor is aware.

Loki proceeds towards the royal wing and then below it, past the vaults, down endless spiraling stairs, onward until he is beyond the palace wards entirely. Here he passes under truly ancient and powerful enchantments which are tied to the royal Asgardian bloodline and only permit those of royal descent to enter. This is the heart of Asgard, the seiðr-rich core of the asteroid; these are the reservoirs borne from a murdered Celestial’s bones.

It has only been Loki visiting here for the past few months. The wards tell him as much. Odin and Frigga last visited in the past star-year. For Thor, it has been more than a while.

He makes his customary hour-long walk along the edges of the large circular cavern, one hand raised to hover above the surface of the rune-ridden walls. The cavern is dark enough that they are barely visible, if not for the seiðr giving them a bright roseate glow. That and the… bones piled in the middle of the cavern, although they do not look anything like bones. Something organic, yes, something teeming with energy. Softer than rock to the touch and slightly warm, like coral from the tropical isles of Midgard or seastone from the subequatorial reeves of Vanaheim. Nothing about it looks or seems humanoid. As he always does, Loki stands opposite the mouth of the cavern and observes in quiet awe the thirteen pillars siphoning energy from what he now knows are the remains of a Celestial. The particulars of such a construct beggars the imagination—even his imagination.

Órm must have learned this from the Celestial too, Loki frowns, for how would he have known to construct such a marvel otherwise? His homeworld of Niflheim boasted no great magical advancement. Niflheim is regarded a wasteland for a reason.

What is visible within this cavern, of course, is but a small piece of the Celestial’s remains. More of it remains hidden underground, and surely pieces of the Celestial scattered across Asgard’s surface. How else can one explain their abnormally rich soil? By all accounts, they should be incapable of growing anything, much less wheat of such high quality or indeed Iðunn’s magnificent apples which are in essence seiðr condensed into an edible form.

Loki keeps walking. The wards around the reservoirs remain strong and intact. He touches every crevice of it with his own seiðr and makes certain, for he trusts no one else to do so. Odin has certainly neglected this place. Although perhaps I am also to blame for that. The old sod hasn’t had much to do about the reservoirs since I took over as First Mage.

As he leaves the cavern, allowing the heavy stone doors to slide shut behind him, he wonders how exactly he is related to Bestla by blood. The wards here allow him inside with nary a challenge, which can only mean that he is still of the royal Asgardian bloodline despite having been stolen from Laufey and Farbauti at the end of the war against Jotunheim. Perhaps Bestla is a distant granduncle to Laufey. Or is he related through Farbauti? By all remaining accounts he has read in Asgard as well as his own brief encounter with Laufey in a past life, it seems that Farbauti was the mage between the two.

Thor and I are still cousins, Loki notes with much amusement, although to what degree remains to be seen, and I may never find out. He considers that as he ascends into the royal wing toward his own quarters. Do I want to find out?

More questions without easy answers. Loki passes a lower hall from within which he hears Thor’s telltale laughter over Fandral’s words and Sif’s protestations. Sitting around a fire again, no doubt, and enjoying an easy security in their fates that Loki wishes he can even pretend to.

Upstairs, darkness and silence. Loki welcomes the embrace of his bed and lays his weary head to rest.




The Elvenking requests his audience the very next morning.

A good thing I slept, Loki muses as he weaves precious stones into his braids and slips rings upon his fingers. He wears black and gold today with only hints of green and blue brocade on the pattern of his robes.

Servants have prepared the blue solar once again for a lengthy discussion. The sea breeze is not as pleasant as it was when he and Idril sat for tea, but the view is just as beautiful, surely something Eärandil will appreciate. Loki is told the Elvenking is an admirer of aesthetic.

He is not made to wait long. Eärandil arrives without company beyond his two guards who are doubtless drafted from the very best of Alfheim’s warriors. Although it is not a warrior culture they espouse, the Elvenkind are regarded the next best combatants behind the berserker army of Asgard. Loki knows better than to underestimate them.

“Eärandil Elvenking,” Loki folds a hand over his chest and bows, “a great honor to have a share of your time.”

“Well met, Prince Loki of Asgard. I am likewise honored to converse with a mind of great ken as yours,” Eärandil might actually grace him with a smile just then, something Loki quietly considers an achievement. “Your reputation precedes you,” the Elvenking says as he gracefully sits, “as you have achieved much since we last met.”

“It has been an age since then,” Loki acknowledges, pouring for his guest the best meadowsweet mead Asgard can provide. He does this by hand and without the aid of seiðr, a sign of respect. “I have been provided plenty of opportunity to learn. I am fortunate.”

“Fate does indeed regard you well,” Eärandil agrees, keen eyes boring into Loki’s face. He crosses one leg over the other and leans sideways to rest his weight on an elbow. “You are young yet; you have many years ahead of you. Freedom, too, to pursue whatever you should wish. That is a rarity amongst our kind. Tell me, Loki: have you divined for yourself a purpose beyond your station here in Asgard as its First Mage and Prince?”

Loki sips his own share of mead and reclines against his chair, meeting Eärandil eye to eye. “Indeed I have.”

Eärandil motions for him to continue. Loki reminds himself that the Elvenking is here to evaluate him as a mentor to the Princess Idril; Loki is here for something else.

“I am foremost a mage. Would that I could, I wish to devote myself to the study of seiðr, of nature, and the intersections therein. However, as Asgard’s finest and I daresay one of the Nine Realms’ strongest mages, I am also obligated to the advancement and protection of our civilizations. My brother is young and will require my aid for some time yet. Until Asgard—and with it the Nine Realms—rests secure, I cannot prioritize mine own pursuits.”

I wish, Loki inwardly sighs, but such is not my fate. Not yet. Not until the Mad Titan is gone.

“So you will remain here,” Eärandil concludes for him after a moment, although with a note of question in his tone. “You will keep to Asgard and its interests.”

Loki tilts his head a touch. “I shall go where Asgard needs me, Elvenking. And yes, I shall keep to Asgard’s interests. I am its Prince, after all.”

Something flickers within Eärandil’s eyes.

Does he know?

“Indeed, and it is a precarious position you occupy,” Eärandil takes a mouthful of the mead at last. He appears pleased with it. “Your brother, King Thor, he is young and quite untested. Tell me truly: do you think him a fitting match for my daughter?”

“The Princess Idril would be better served otherwise,” Loki answers at once. He rather likes Idril; he doesn’t want to condemn her to an unhappy marriage, especially not with their long lives. “Thor is a warrior at heart, this you know. He will not take well to someone of her temperament, or at least what I have come to know of her temperament the few times we have spoken.”

Eärandil makes a thoughtful noise, lips pursed. “I thought as much. Mayhap the Princess Astrilde will be a better match.”

“Mayhap,” Loki hedges. He’s not so sure about that one either.

For a short time they sit in companionable silence, neither willing to redirect the conversation. Loki’s mind entertains seven lines of thought at once. Across from him Eärandil sits, a study in stillness. The Elvenking’s features are aquiline and indeed noble, easily worthy of great works of art. His fine hair gleams under Asgardian sunlight, so pale that it creates an illusion of emitting light next to near-translucent skin and glittering grey eyes. Light Elves, indeed.

“My daughter wishes to learn from you,” Eärandil begins again, voice low and just above a whisper. “I am inclined to let her. I only find myself… apprehensive of Asgard’s culture around magecraft.”

Loki’s lip twists. “Its ill-concealed derision of magecraft, you mean. Such caution is well-warranted, Your Majesty, although you may rest secure in the knowledge that she will be under less scrutiny for it in light of her gender. It is more acceptable for women to wield seiðr here than it is for men.”

“And what travesty that is,” Eärandil sighs. “It is as if Asgard has forgotten Bestla.”

“Asgard has forgotten Bestla,” Loki raises both eyebrows, “amongst other things.”

A note of tension stretches between them until Loki seizes it and pulls.

“You came into power around the same time Odin began his conquest of the Nine Realms,” Loki leans forward with intent. “Alfheim was the first to bend under his rule. But it was not Odin you feared, was it?” Eärandil meets him eye to eye, unspoken secrets burgeoning between them. “You know her. You remember.”

Loki recalls with sudden and startling clarity the only time he has ever seen a display of emotion from the Elvenkind. A reading of an old poem about the Demise of the Valkyries. Aelflaed Elvenqueen had been among the readers that night, their visiting delegation gathered under the strange stars of Alfheim’s night sky. Loki and Thor had sat side by side under thick furs and the warmth of their mother’s hands, both gripped by a story whose provenance and truth they knew little about.

What a meretricious move, Eärandil Elvenking, to read that poem to Odin-King on the rare occasion he visited your realm with family! To remind Odin how he fed his own Valkyries to Hela’s fathomless rage!

Suddenly, Loki finds himself incredibly partial to the Elvenking and his people.

“I am more surprised that you know of her, Prince Loki,” Eärandil toys with his glass of mead, a smile flickering along the edges of his lips. “Has Odin Allfather lapsed in his old age? Or has he willingly told you of his erasure of his own mistakes?”

Loki waves the very thought aside. “Oh, Odin is not so generous. I was fostered in Vanaheim for a time, you might recall. The Archive of the Mages has a long memory.”

It stands to reason that Alfheim folded under threat of Hela. In Iðunn’s words, there aren’t many constructs in the universe capable of containing an entity that feeds off of pure seiðr. As vaunted as Alfheim’s warriors were, there would have been no match, only a massacre. Eärandil’s judgment to sue for peace was sound.

I can use this, Loki realizes, because amongst all the leaders of the Nine Realms, Eärandil is likely the most rational. The Elvenking will respond accordingly to a threat of great magnitude; pride will not be an issue. And neither will trust, for I have sown neither mischief nor chaos amongst the Elvenkind and therefore still enjoy their high regard.

So he wets his lips with mead and tries for honesty. “Truly, Your Majesty, I am flattered by Idril’s request and your regard of me. I would accept her as an apprentice this very day, except—”

“Except?” Eärandil raises a single eyebrow in surprise.

Loki responds with a grim smile, “Except I anticipate much upheaval to come in the near future. I might be needed outside of Asgard for errands where I cannot rightly take your daughter along.”

“You anticipate leaving Asgard?” Eärandil now raises both eyebrows. “I had thought you planned on keeping to Asgard and protecting its interests.”

“Sometimes protecting Asgard’s interests goes beyond its borders, Your Majesty. Especially with what is to come.” Loki empties his glass of mead and sets it aside. He steeples his hands together and rests them atop his lap.

Eärandil considers him closely now with eyes that attempt to peer into his very soul. Loki would have been wary of that gaze were they in Alfheim where the Elvenking can leverage his realm’s natural seiðr to enhance his own psychic senses. Here, however, Loki can still rely upon his considerable mental shields.

“You have Seen something,” Eärandil deduces, “although I was not aware that the Sight is one of your many talents.”

“It is not,” Loki says. “I am, however, capable of dreamwalking. I have touched the edges of other realities. I have seen what might befall us. The possibilities are not pleasant.”

Perhaps Loki takes too much risk here. He has now told two leaders from two different realms more than he has told his own mother or brother, indeed more than anyone except for Iðunn who would have seen through a lie.

But the risk of failure is greater, Loki justifies himself. I must warn them now. There might not be another chance.

Who knows if events will fall into their same places as it did in the past timeline? If there is naught but uncertainty ahead, then let Loki take the chaos and build something out of it.

“You have not requested to speak with me today because of my daughter’s request,” Eärandil leans back in his own chair. “You have come to warn me instead.”

Loki dips his head with a sharp smile.

“What threat comes, Prince Loki? What have you seen?”

“I do not yet know its shape or full breadth, but as soon as I know more, Asgard will call out a warning.”

“Why does King Thor not address this to us now?” Eärandil tilts his head and strokes his jaw with long fingers. “He does not know. You have not told him.” And then, after another brief pause, “You await Odin Allfather’s awakening.”

It is the same conclusion Eitri arrived upon. Loki sees no harm in allowing Eärandil the same.

“Wise judgment,” Eärandil agrees with a nod. “King Thor is yet young.”

“That, and I do not yet know how to warn him—and the Council—of such a nebulous threat,” Loki shrugs. “As you have already divined, Your Majesty, Asgard does not regard magecraft with much trust, never mind how much of this golden realm is built upon it. Until I know more, I must move with great care.”

They sit in thoughtful silence again. The drapes ruffle with a weak breeze. Loki turns his gaze outward to look over the sea and at the Bifrost in the distance. So far their conversation has been a moderate success; Eärandil appears mostly convinced, or at least appropriately cautioned.

“You are justified in your reticence with my daughter’s apprenticeship. ‘Tis with delicate steps you dance here, Prince Loki. I would not feel at ease leaving my daughter alone in a realm at the brink of such… upheaval.”

“Then we have come upon an understanding, Elvenking.” Loki does not hide his genuine pleasure.

Eärandil opens his mouth to ask a question that he reconsiders for a moment before forging on. “And this… threat you have foreseen. Will you speak of it with me once you know more?”

Eärandil Elvenking asks directly for Loki. Not Asgard, not Odin—Loki.

He evens out his pleasure into a solemn smile. “I will call for you at the agreed upon time: this I swear with the weight of a seiðmaðr’s vow.”

Eärandil straightens, lifting his chin and then folding a hand over his chest in acknowledgement. “This vow I do accept. Upon your call I shall hearken.”

Thus Loki secures the Elvenking’s promise.




It is news amongst the court that Loki has refused the Princess Idril’s proposition the following week. It is even whispered that Loki refused despite the Elvenking speaking with him in private. Loki overhears Geirbjörn praising his discretion and judgment—it would not have looked good if Loki accepted a proposition from one of Thor’s prospective brides, after all. They think he abstained for Thor’s sake.

Loki wants to laugh.

“I think they have sorely misunderstood the situation,” Idril quietly confesses to him another afternoon that they sit for tea. “They are all under the impression that I have propositioned you for marriage.”

Loki licks his lips of honey and snorts. “The court sees what it wants to see, Princess. Such is the way it has always been. Allow them their misconceptions; it does us no harm.”

After a measured conversation, Idril has accepted Loki’s concerns as valid reasons for his refusal of her apprenticeship, although upon the condition that Loki will reconsider at a later time. “When the realms are more at ease,” Idril had said, “and your brother King Thor is more settled in his station.”

“Indeed,” Loki had smiled and said nothing more. All that has been discussed between himself and the Elvenking remain private.

 

Thor, for one, has not approached him about the matter. Likely Thor still feels the strain of tension between them, for Loki has yet to forgive him and likewise Thor has yet to apologize. If Thor thinks that Loki will bend first, he is sorely mistaken. Loki does not forget. Loki hardly ever forgives.

So from the corners of court he continues to watch, mingling sparingly and with care. By now the foreign delegations have noted his distance and reticence from the young King. Eitri and Eärandil are apprised of why, or at least they have drawn their own conclusions; Freyr and Freyja have probably done the same, although a different conclusion, one closer to the truth.

The Prince Loki is in disfavor. King Thor has quarreled with him, although about what, no one knows for certain.

Loki is unbothered by this. It matters little that he is in disfavor within Asgardian court; he has always been, what’s new? It matters more than he has the other realms’ ear. He has secured two out of three.

The third one is the trickiest.

The fortnight draws to a close. The delegations will soon leave, and with them, Loki’s opportunity. He considers the Vanir nobility and wonders if he can get away without warning them. Freyr and Freyja are unlikely to take him seriously anyhow. They are too close—too privy to the workings of the Asgardian royal family—to not suspect Loki of mischief. They know his mischief. They will think he is attempting to sabotage Thor.

Really, the lot of them are so easy. If I truly tried to sabotage Thor, it would already be done and nobody the wiser. Did they figure it out when I let the jötnar into Asgard? No.

He shakes his head and sighs, sequestered in a balcony overlooking the hall where all manner of negotiations continue amongst Asgardian nobility and Dwarvenlords, Vanir nobility and the Elvenkind. Thor sits with Sif, Volstagg, and two vaguely familiar Vanir men tonight, deep into a tale of battle being told with much aplomb. Astrilde sits with her parents and Frigga, who are laughing about one thing or another. Eärandil and his wife are in discussion with Eitri and the Dwarvenlords about a commission.

Loki finishes his wine and retires to the royal wing.

His quarters are dark and silent. When he sinks into the bathwater, eyes falling shut in meditation, he finds it easy to slip into a dream.



The void is vast. Midgard is far.

Loki traverses the length of a dream and reaches for Stark, whose soul burns brighter now—

He is no longer dying.

Peering closer, Loki can see only one soul. The assimilation is complete; Stark survived it. A vicious triumph slashes across Loki’s chest. He watches the mortal work in his Midgardian forge, hands deep inside the mechanism of one of his armors. A loud, rhythmic sort of music blasts from an unidentified, invisible source; Stark bobs his head to its time.

And the other one, the sorcerer, where is he?

Loki forcibly shifts the dreamscape and finds the sorcerer, whose soul has also successfully assimilated into its vessel. Strange is also hands deep inside a delicate mechanism, but this one is of a mortal body, prostrate and unconscious upon a table. Strange might have noticed the whisper of Loki’s dream-presence if not for his attuned concentration to the task at hand.

The sorcerer is also a Midgardian healer, that’s right. A doctor, they call him. He observes the butchery they call healing and muses, How crude.

As they are both awake, Loki cannot make contact. He observes them for a moment longer before he withdraws, heeding the tug of his corporeal body across the vast emptiness of space.

The void is vast. He surfaces from a dream with but a breath, and in the foggy darkness of his bathing chambers, he laughs.




A final feast is held on the eve of the delegations’ departure. This time it is more private, held within a smaller banquet hall rather than the great hall. The table consists only of the delegations and Asgard’s most privileged persons, amongst them the Councilors and their families. Loki is afforded a front-row seat to the machinations of the most powerful amongst the Nine Realms; it is a rare thing to watch and a marvelous political lesson from which to learn. It has been an age since so much wealth and power in this quadrant of the universe communed together in one room.

Loki does not sit beside Thor, instead opting to dine with the Elves tonight. He wishes to continue building rapport with Idril, and the Elven conversation is more riveting besides. Half of the feast passes by in keen discussion with two of Eärandil’s most experienced diplomats; they regale Loki with tales of a harrowing negotiation they navigated during the height of the Kree-Nova War several hundred star-years ago.

Thor and Frigga sit surrounded with the Vanir and Asgardians, including Thor’s precious friends Sif and the Warriors Three. Much laughter and lively chatter animate that end of the table; the mead flows mightily to quench their great thirst. Geirbjörn looks quite pleased with himself, seated at a position of honor with his wife and eldest son. At one point, Loki spies Fandral cajoling the Princess Astrilde with his usual charm.

Perhaps I should have sat closer, Loki entertains the thought, for connections are surely being made across the table this very second.

But later in the night, Loki finds himself thankful that he is far enough to miss the beginning of Thor’s mistake.

“And precisely what are you implying, dear nephew?” Freyja’s voice cuts across the room, silencing the rest of the table in one fell swoop.

Loki’s head snaps around, seeking Thor, who perhaps looks a little contrite, but not by much. Frigga sits next to him, worried, a hand on his arm.

“I mean you no offence, honored Aunt,” Thor attempts a smile, Loki knows that look, oh Norns what now, “I simply wish to be honest. I have deliberated upon the matter at great length. Although the Princess Astrilde is a great beauty, I am under advisement that I should marry an Æsir bride. It is better this way, don’t you agree?”

Loki is struck speechless.

“Oh, do enlighten us, Thor,” Freyja’s tone drips with malice, “for we were under the impression that you were considering my daughter with some sincerity.

“Sister,” Frigga attempts to mediate, “I think—”

Quiet, Frigga. Your son, the King, wishes to speak.” Freyja’s sharp tone make several among the table flinch.

Thor speaks louder, “Well, I simply think—” ‘simply’ is the operative word here, “—that it shall be the most appropriate arrangement, given how difficult it is to bridge the differences of culture and norm between our respective realms!”

Frigga visibly pales next to Thor; she removes her hand from her son’s arm. Loki lowers his cutlery upon his plate and looks across the table to meet Eärandil’s eye. Flicking a glance toward Eitri, whose eyebrows have disappeared into his bushy hair, and toward Geirbjörn, who looks fit to burst into tears, Loki hazards an intervention. (He doesn’t want to, but he tries.)

“Now, brother,” Loki delicately entreats, “I daresay Asgard is perfectly capable of accommodating the needs of your future bride, whichever realm she may hail from.”

Thor’s frown grows even fiercer—is he drunk?!—and the oaf declares, “That is precisely my point! Asgard should not have to adjust to the needs of a foreign bride! It shall be easier—on me and on your daughters, King Freyr and Eärandil Elvenking—if we keep to our own kind. There shall be less misunderstandings that way! Your realms, after all, follow markedly different customs, some of which are not done in Asgard.”

Like magecraft? Loki hisses within the confines of his own mind. Fury flares bright within his chest; he momentarily struggles to control it. Beside him, Idril stiffens and leans away, sensing the sudden chill of his seiðr.

“Our own kind, indeed,” Freyr laughs low, although without mirth. “Do you understand your own words, King Thor?”

He does not, Loki wants to yell, but he can only clench his fists in silence.

“Uncle, I would have thought you would approve,” Thor smiles now at Freyr, and he does look a little red around the edges, perhaps a mite too far into his cups, “this way, neither Vanaheim nor Alfheim must give Asgard a bride in tribute!”

Loki cannot bear to look upon Frigga’s face. This is an unmitigated disaster.

Thor turns to the Vanir princess and gamely says, “I am certain you will find yourself a suitable husband soon enough, Princess Astrilde. You are beautiful and—”

“Do not speak to my daughter, Thor, King of Asgard. You have forfeited the right to do so,” Freyja stands and looks down upon Thor, who blinks in surprise. He does not understand her anger. “Indeed, you are wise beyond your years; we should keep to our own kind. Vanaheim thanks you for your outstanding hospitality, King Thor. This has indeed been a celebration to remember.”

She leaves and takes her husband and daughter with her, the rest of the Vanir delegation following in flustered haste. Geirbjörn, Hildegunn, and Frigga follow after them, likely to attempt salvaging what remains unburnt of the bridge Thor just torched.

The Elves and the Dwarves, for their part, wait until the Vanir are gone before rising from the table to take their leave.

“You—you may stay and finish the feast, honored guests!” Thor gestures to the table, a bewildered frown adorning his reddening face.

“With respect, Thor-King, we will take our leave,” Eitri rumbles, at least gracing Thor with a salute. It is more than Thor deserves. The Elvenkind merely bow in unison and then sweep through the doors. Loki watches them go.

In his mind, there is one blinding thought:

Thor, you fucking idiot.




At the table, parts of the Asgardian Council remain. Viseti is there, and so too Salgerðr, both looking quite grim and deep in thought. Tyr swirls the wine in his glass and takes a sip, looking perhaps the most at ease of the bunch—

It’s Tyr, of course it’s Tyr! The warmongering fool has been baying to finish what he and Odin started!

Loki takes note of Tyr’s two daughters, Solja and Sif, both invited on account of their father’s position in Council. Solja is picking at the fruit on her plate and exchanging heavy looks with her husband Bron. Sif has moved to sit next to Thor—oh, you conniving bitch, look at you, immediately there the moment your competition is gone!—she is now speaking to him in a low, soothing tone.

Loki’s departure from Council clearly left Thor open for such audacious manipulation. Thor likely doesn’t see the manipulation in it, for everything Tyr has planted in Thor’s mind reflects Thor’s own desires.

Thor wants war. Thor dislikes diplomacy. Thor does not wish to marry. Thor does not care for the foreign practices of other realms.

He likely believes this entire ploy was his own bright idea.

So much has happened in the short time he was gone. So much damage wrought simply because Loki was not there to mitigate it. He does not know what has transpired behind the scenes beyond his own conjecture; he cannot tell how far Tyr has gotten into Thor’s head.

Should I have made more of an effort to bridge the rift between us? Should I have been there to help him after all?

Unable to remain seated any longer, Loki rises from his seat. Thor’s head pops up, watching him with darkening eyes.

“And where are you going, Loki?” Thor challenges, as if Loki requires his dismissal before he may leave the table.

The sheer nerve.

“Away from your idiocy, where else?” Loki spits. “Oh, and—well done, Thor. Even I couldn’t have sabotaged every single one of Asgard’s hard-won alliances all at once and over dinner. Truly, an achievement! This one is all yours.”

He spins on his heel and stalks out of the banquet hall, heading for the first solar with a balcony and then leaping from the railing into the form of a falcon.

Into the night and away from the palace, Loki soars high. Higher than the troubles that threaten. Higher than the concerns of a kingdom. Higher than everything else.

I don’t have to stay, he muses, sweeping over the tops of pine trees and up toward the ridge of Asgard’s mountains. I could leave now and go to Midgard; I’ve already delivered my warning to two realms.

But if he goes, he knows Tyr will take advantage of the disorder in Asgard. There might be war before the turn of a moon. Even if Odin wakes, there might still be war, for the Allfather will not relinquish his pride and rightly refuse to stop once blood is drawn.

If he stays, this mess is his to fix. No one else will lift a finger to fix it; no one else can. Loki doubts Frigga will convince Freyja of anything. The offense dealt is too much to soothe with words.

Loki perches upon a tree and tucks himself under its thick branches. The night grows above him, the stars sublime and silent.

To stay or to go? To stay… or to go?




Loki returns in time to see the Elves and the Dwarves off. The Vanir delegation left under cover of night, unable to wait until the following morning, indeed unable to stomach the thought of having to face King Thor again.

“I am sorry to part on such a note,” Idril bids, a hand upon her chest. “I am hopeful for a reconciliation between our realms.”

Loki bows his head. “Likewise, Princess. I shall attempt to work towards a solution.”

Eärandil and Aelflaed both regard Loki as they step into the Bifrost’s domain, their daughter following after them. Loki folds a hand upon his chest in respect.

Eärandil Elvenking returns the gesture. “This shall not be the last we speak to each other, Prince Loki.”

“No, it is not,” Loki nods, recalling the promise he has given. “Until then, Elvenking, fare thee well.”

They are gone in a blast of light.

Shortly after them, the Dwarven delegation come forward for their turn. Likewise Loki bows to them, and although they do not regard him with the same rapport as the Elves, they still honor him with a salute that Loki echoes in respect.

“I heed your words, Loki of Asgard,” Eitri says. “Do not make me regret it.”

“You won’t,” Loki avows, and then they too are gone in a blast of light.

It is the height of disrespect that no one else from the royal family came to see the delegations home. Loki marches back toward the palace, intent on finding Thor and ripping the idiot a new one, but he is interrupted by Geirbjörn at the steps that lead into the great hall. The Councilor appears in keen distress.

“My Prince! My Prince, please, a moment of your time!”

Loki halts in some alarm. Geirbjörn reaches out as if to clasp his arm before thinking better of it.

“My Prince, we are in a grave predicament,” Geirbjörn lowers his voice a notch, fingers knotting together in anxiety. “The Vanir delegation left, Prince Loki, and with them they took a sizable number of the mages who work with our guilds. The mages who imbue watercloth with seiðr, Your Highness, and the mages who temper our precious stones and steel for the jewelers and smiths!”

Oh, fuck.

Loki turns and heads for the healing halls at once. “I need to speak with the Lady Eir.”

“But Prince Loki—”

“Our healers, Geirbjörn,” Loki hisses in anger, “they are Vanir too!”

Not all of them, but a majority of them. True enough, when they reach the healing halls, the Lady Eir meets him with grim resignation.

“How many?” Loki asks, dreading the answer.

“More than half,” she bows her head. “I did my best to convince them to stay, Your Highness. Please accept my deepest apologies. I could not keep them from leaving.”

Loki puts his face in both hands, wondering how to even begin fixing the mess Thor has wrought. Will he always be doomed to this fate, mopping up after Thor’s mistakes, righting all the things Thor has done wrong? And, at the end of the day, will he be blamed once again for things not having gone the right way when all he does is try to help?

To stay or to go? To stay… or to go?

“Might I ask, Prince Loki,” Geirbjörn says quietly, anxiously, behind him, “why have you been absent from Council the past moon?”

Loki barks out a laugh, dropping his hands and tipping his head back in defeat. “Thor banished me from Council, Geirbjörn, because I scolded him for being a simple fool. I dared to contradict him—I’m the only one on that Council who can contradict him—and for my boldness, I was banished. Far be it for anyone to gainsay King Thor, least of all his own brother.”

Geirbjörn and Eir have no words with which to respond. They share a moment of quiet uncertainty, a moment shattered in the next by a herald who comes careening around the end of the hall.

“Prince Loki! Prince Loki, please, a missive from the Queen!” The herald comes to a screeching halt before him and snaps into a bow. “You are summoned, my Prince, to the royal wing! The Allfather awakens!”

It’s too early. It’s too early for him to be awake.

Loki breaks into a dead run.




Thor is already there when Loki arrives. Frigga sits supporting her husband, who leans heavily on Gungnir, one eye bristling with fury.

LEAVE US!” Odin-King roars.

Eir, Geirbjörn, and all the guards bow hastily out of the room. With a whisper of his seiðr, Loki pushes the golden doors shut.

“Father,” Thor begins, approaching with caution and wariness, as though fielding a feral animal. “I am—heartened to see you awake!”

“Indeed, you must be,” Odin levels his son with a glare, “for you cannot even fathom the mess you have made in but two moons of your rule.”

Thor is taken aback. There is a moment of silence during which Thor gathers his wits about him—or at least Loki hopes Thor is gathering his wits about him, because whatever words he says next will determine the extent of Odin’s ire.

“Father, you have just awoken,” Thor tries, “and you know not what I have done. There is—there is no mess to be had! I had—we had a successful visit from the other realms!”

“The other realms?” Odin echoes slowly.

“The other realms under Asgard’s rule,” and here Thor even tries for a grin. It falters under the Allfather’s glare.

Odin rises from his healing pod, leaning still upon Gungnir but menacing nonetheless. They are not in the Bifrost this time, but the scene still looks eerily familiar. Loki clasps his hands behind his back and keeps his mouth shut.

“Do you think I do not see in my sleep?” Odin steps up towards Thor, who steps back. “Do you think me blind, or dead, or indeed a fool?”

“N-No, of course not, Father, I—”

“What I have built over the course of a thousand star-years,” Odin’s rumble turns once again into a roar, “you have destroyed in a day!”

Offended, Thor draws himself up and attempts a defense. “I have not destroyed anything! Father, it is they who choose to misinterpret my words! And I only spoke the truth; why should Asgard bend to their whims?”

You arrogant, foolish child! Blind to the destruction you wreak! Deaf to the counsel of your mother and brother!” Odin straightens and brandishes the tip of Gungnir at Thor’s chest. “A King you call yourself but a King you are not. You are a disappointment, Thor. And to think you are my son.

Unable to restrain himself any longer, Thor explodes in righteous fury.

You are the disappointment!” Thor roars back at Odin’s face, “You, you’re the reason Asgard grows weak! You tire of war in your old age and you hide behind your alliances—pah! Alliances! They all want what Asgard has, what they cannot have! Why should we cater to them?! We have defeated them! We can defeat them again!

Frigga stands, perhaps meaning to step between them. Loki sends her a warning look. Don’t, he mouths to her. She knots her fingers together and bites her lip.

“The other realms must learn to fear me, just as they once feared you,” Thor claims.

“That is pride and vanity talking, not leadership! You have forgotten everything I taught you about a warrior’s patience!”

“While you wait and be patient, the Nine Realms laugh at us,” Thor spits. “They plot, they scheme, they maneuver behind our backs! The old ways are done, Father; a new order must be made! Speeches mean nothing. We must show them our might!”

You are a vain, greedy, cruel boy!”

And you are an old man and a fool!”

 

Silence, just for a moment.

“Indeed, perhaps I was a fool to think you were ready.”

Loki steps forward, “Father—”

Odin snarls at Loki’s face, silencing him. He then takes a few steps forward, bringing himself face to face with his elder son. “Thor Odinson, you have betrayed the oaths you swore to uphold Asgard and its interests as its King. Through your arrogance and stupidity, you have opened these peaceful realms and innocent lives to the horror and desolation of war.”

In the Allfather’s hand, Gungnir crackles with seiðr so dense and rich it makes Loki’s teeth ache.

“You are unworthy of these realms!” Odin rips Thor’s mantle from his shoulders, “You are unworthy of your title!” and Odin rips the emblems from Thor’s armor, “You are unworthy of the mother whose bloodline you have slandered, forgotten, and betrayed!”

Gungnir’s glowing spearpoint comes level with Thor’s chest.

“I, Odin Allfather, cast you out.”

 

Loki bows his head and closes his eyes. Indeed, some things are simply meant to be.




The banishment takes a lot out of Odin. Loki watches him send Mjölnir after Thor and thereafter summarily collapse, leaning against Gungnir for support as he heaves breath after precious breath. Frigga appears similarly in shock, both hands pressed to her tearful face.

Loki pours a glass of water and offers it to the Allfather without a word.

Odin levels him with a look that Loki meets eye to eye. The old man takes the water and downs it, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as he sets the glass aside.

“And what have you to say for yourself, hm?”

Loki shakes his head. “I have no excuses to make, Allfather.”

Odin huffs, leaning back to observe him in silence. Whatever the old man is looking for, Loki refuses to give. He remains still and similarly watchful, hands steepled upon his lap, the very opposite of Thor’s unbridled temper.

“Come,” Odin stands then, holding out an arm to his wife. “My Queen, attend me.”

Frigga supports Odin and together the three of them make way through the royal wing toward the direction of the throne room.

“Summon the Council,” Odin barks at the nearest herald they pass, “and whosoever may be present as witness to the throne room at once.”

“Husband, surely whatever this can wait,” Frigga whispers, still visibly distraught over her son’s banishment. “You need to rest.”

Odin only grunts in either acknowledgement or denial. Loki wordlessly keeps pace; he knows better than to gainsay the Allfather when in such a mood.

Hliðskalf welcomes Odin Allfather as if he never left. Odin sits there, Gungnir in hand, as the Council and a sizable number of Asgard’s nobility gather with subdued whispers. Their eyes dart around in search for Thor, but it is Frigga who stands at Odin’s left and Loki at his right.

After a suitable amount of time has passed and the Councilors are all present, Odin slams the butt of his spear into the ground once, twice, and thrice. The throne room falls deathly silent.

“I, Odin Allfather, gather you here to stand witness to my judgment. My son Thor has failed in his duty to you, people of Asgard, and to the rest of the Nine Realms. His flagrant transgressions are such that Frigga Allmother saw fit to prematurely wake me from my sleep. As such, Thor Odinson has been banished—” a communal gasp, “—from Asgard until and unless he proves himself worthy of his title as Prince and Protector of the Nine Realms once more!”

The gathered court reels in shock. Sif and the Warriors Three are amongst them, pale-faced and aghast. The Councilors too. Even Tyr could not have expected Odin to exile his own golden son.

“I do, however, require more rest,” Odin quietly declares, “hence my second pronouncement to which you will all bear witness. Loki Odinson—kneel.”

What?

The court stares at Loki. Loki stares at Odin. He then flicks a glance up at Frigga, and then at the Councilors, and then back at Odin, whose frown deepens as if to say, Do not make me repeat myself.

So Loki goes before Odin Allfather and kneels with as much grace as he can muster.

“Loki, son of Odin and Frigga, you kneel before the golden throne of Asgard and the eyes of its people who bear lawful witness,” Odin intones, presenting Gungnir before him. “Lay your hand upon Gungnir, a construct of Asgard’s seiðr, and speak only the truth.”

Loki opens both palms to receive Gungnir’s familiar weight. Odin holds on to it with one hand, and from this close distance, Loki can see it tremble in exhaustion.

“Do you hereby swear your absolute loyalty to Asgard and its people?”

Loki swallows and says, “This I solemnly swear.”

“Do you hereby swear to affirm and uphold Asgard’s interests to the best of your ability?”

“This I solemnly swear.”

“Do you hereby swear to faithfully discharge justice as Asgard’s King, with the integrity and diligence that the throne demands?”

“This I solemnly swear.”

Odin releases Gungnir to his grasp at last, and Loki shudders as Asgard’s seiðr flows through him like torrential rain. When he looks up, Odin looks on the verge of the sleep once again.

“Perhaps you can succeed where your brother has failed,” the old man says quietly, before raising his voice to a declaration. “Rise, Loki Odinson—King of Asgard!

Loki rises and turns.

Before him, Asgard kneels.

Hail King Loki!” they cry, heads bent low, “Long live the King!

 

The board is set. The players are in position. Let the great game begin.




Horloge! dieu sinister, effrayant, impassible,
Dont le doigt nous menace et nous dit: Souviens-toi!
Souviens-toi que le Temps est un joueur avide
Qui gagne sans tricher, à tout coup! c'est la loi.
Le jour décroît; la nuit augmente; Souviens-toi!
Le gouffre a toujours soif; la clepsydre se vide.

The clock! A sinister, impassive god
Whose threatening finger says to us, Remember!
Remember, Time is greedy at the game
And wins on every roll! Perfectly legal.
The day runs down; the night comes on; remember!
The water clock bleeds into the abyss.
( Excerpt from L’Horloge, Charles Baudelaire )




tbc
first draft: 2020.06.23
last edited: 2020.06.30




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Since canon conceptualized Asgard as a realm built on what looked like an asteroid, I decided to go to town and make my own origin story. (Worldbuilding ftw! \ (•◡•) /) I mention the Celestials here, which are part of the Marvel comic canon, but those who have read much of the comics will notice that I’m not entirely being canon-compliant. The part about Celestials seeding worlds is compliant, but the Asgardians = Eternals is not. In canon, the Eternals are a separate entity from the Asgardians. I’m ignoring that. You can read more about this here.

(2) The Ragnarök of Norse mythology is very different from MCU’s depiction of it, I’m sure a majority of you know this already. Loki actually points that discrepancy out here; the tale they are told growing up is not what he saw happen in his past-future. A little bit of meta to make it fun.

(3) In the mythology, Iðunn is a goddess associated with eternal youth and fertility. She was instrumental in providing the gods with their eternal life. In the Prose Edda, the jötunn Thiazi forced Loki into luring Iðunn out of Asgard into a wood, from where Thiazi then kidnaps her while in the form of an eagle. Her absence from Asgard causes all the gods to grow old and grey; they soon realize that her kidnapping is Loki’s fault. Loki makes a promise to fetch her back and takes the form of a falcon to infiltrate Thiazi’s home. Loki then turns her into a nut and takes her back to Asgard. – This story inspires Loki’s favored falcon form in this fic, and although I haven’t decided if I’m keeping the story, suffice it to say that Loki and Iðunn have a lot of history. – Another point: although I am giving the Asgardians their long lives (“eternal youth”), I’m not tying it to the apples. The apples are essentially condensed seiðr and serve to energize them, accelerating their healing and giving mages like Loki a power boost. They are, however, indigenous to Asgard and a unique produce of Iðunn’s orchard.

(4) Asgerhild is otherwise known to us Earthbound folk as Alpha Centauri.

(5) I pulled dilithium from the Star Trek fandom, where it is an invented material instrumental in controlling the faster-than-lightspeed warp drives powering their ships. In their canon, dilithium is an extremely hard crystalline mineral that occurs naturally in some planets.

(6) An energy or magical focus, in this case, would look like a light tattoo and act as a, well, focus within which the mage can stockpile seiðr over time. Think of it as a power bank that the mage can charge up by setting aside bits of energy into it every day, say 10% a day. The mage naturally regenerates the “spent” energy after resting, and when they’re back to 100% the next day, they set aside 10% again. The focus keeps it all stored up for use later, super useful for high-drain spells. A focus can be painted on the skin like Loki is doing or it can be a physical item (a gem, jewelry, even a weapon) made of specific materials capable of holding the energy. Naturally, if it’s an item, it can be stolen, so tattooing it is smarter. (For those in the Naruto fandom, think Tsunade’s forehead tattoo that stockpiles chakra.)

(7) “Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.” – Samuel Johnson

(8) If Asgard is the golden realm, and their architecture thematic is literally golden, then I envision Vanaheim’s cities to be made of white stone. Almost like Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings, except less vertical and more spread out, surrounded by verdant forests and vast grassy plains such that the cities’ white spires rise out of a field of green. I also called Vanaheim the sunset realm; they have an extended ‘golden hour’ period where the sun hangs low and gives everything an orange glow. In contrast, Alfheim is a darker realm where everything is in hues of blue because of their distant cold sun. Their architecture is dominated by a fragile-looking (but incredibly strong) glass-like substance. Lastly, Midgard (our puny little planet) is all grey metal and concrete where the cities are concerned. So each realm has its color scheme: Asgard in gold, Vanaheim in white, Alfheim in dark blues, and Midgard in grey. I got the idea from V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series.

(9) Guðrun Bragisdottir, Loki’s female alter ego, is the actress Eva Green in my headcanon. Because she’s fucking gorgeous and I have a ladycrush and it’s my fic so I can. (▰˘◡˘▰)

(10) Asgard’s library is more like a baroque grand library with dark wood and marble, narrow halls, and tight shelves. It’s also restricted, so it’s mostly silent and deserted except for Loki (the most frequent flyer). Think Admont Abbey or the Klementinum in Prague.

Vanaheim’s Archive, meanwhile, is all white and very bright, with huge great halls—I mean, huge—into which smaller, narrower transepts feed in from either side. I imagine it to have a vibe similar to the famous Tianjin Binhai Library in China.

(11) Loki Skywalker was initially coined by Neil Gaiman in the Sandman series. No, it’s not a Star Wars reference, sorry! I wouldn’t even know where to begin with Star Wars, as I’m more of a Trekkie and only watched some of the Star Wars franchise with marginal interest.

(12) “To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.” – Douglas Adams

(13) I made up a lot of Asgard’s history in this fic because I can and it fit my headcanon. I know it doesn’t obey mythology; I don’t really care. (MCU threw that out of the window, so you could say I’m just following their lead. ◔ ⌣ ◔) I employed a lot of political theory in organizing their history, extrapolated from the little we’re given in MCU canon. If you’re interested in this kind of talk, hit me up in the comments and I can go into more detail.

(14) Asgard is obviously a top-down monarchy, where the Allfather’s word is absolute. I imagine Niðavellir to function more like a commune, with a leader who is chosen for their forging skill and contribution to the commune; essentially they function closest to a meritocracy out of the various realms. Vanaheim, meanwhile, is a plutarchy built on an open intergalactic market with a titular King & Queen; their monarchy can’t really be called a true monarchy anymore because their authority got undermined by Asgard’s meddling and Odin putting himself as the overlord. Alfheim, likewise, has a monarchical order that they maintained despite Odin’s meddling. Their approach to leadership is more technocratic-meritocratic; that is, only those who are skilled enough can lead. In order to maintain their position as their realm’s leaders, Eärandil’s line needs to maintain a high level of education and mastery over various fields and trades. Lastly, the Jötnar are arranged in tribes who answer to a King in Utgarðr, with each tribe having a designated leader. Tribe leadership can be an inherited title, but it’s not unheard of for a challenger to usurp a leader and establish a new line.

(15) Yes, I took Eärandil from Lord of the Rings. ◔ ⌣ ◔

(16) This chapter was extraordinarily hard to write, not only because of the change in prose style (a necessary shift in order to remain loyal to Loki’s characterization) but also because I’ve never written an alien before?!?! Tony and Stephen are both human, born and raised in America, with specific life experiences that inform their daily decisions, personalities, and self-concept. Loki, on the other hand, is raised as a Prince of Asgard, well-traveled throughout the Nine Realms, and moreover a mage. Just stop and think about that. When your characters do not have the same (or similar) life experiences as you do, they’re bound not to have the same earthbound concerns as you do. Anthropomorphizing non-human (or even non-living) beings is an age-old practice for us, but to be faithful to Loki’s character and background, I tried my best to twist my writing voice into an entirely different shape that would be distinct from Tony and Stephen’s POV. Let me know if I achieved it. (✿´‿`)

Chapter Text




You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
( Buckminster Fuller )




Stark Industries to relocate corporate HQ to NYC – NY Times
18 February 2010

CEO Tony Stark, alias Iron Man, announced the move through a press release earlier today, identifying it as an integral step for the tech giant’s comprehensive rebranding campaign. “Think of it as a makeover. I hate being daily reminded of what we used to be,” Mr. Stark explained, citing his decision as ‘strategic’ and ‘bottom-line common sense.’

The relocation follows after Mr. Stark’s public renouncement of the weapons industry ten months ago and his subsequent global peacekeeping endeavors as the independent agent known as Iron Man. Stark Industries has historically been embedded within the US military-industrial complex and has suffered significant revenue instability since it removed itself from its main stream of income. Mr. Stark declined to forecast his plans for regrouping the multinational multi-billion dollar corporation but appears to have a high degree of confidence that they will be able to recoup.

There have been reported plans of a new skyscraper in Manhattan as well as a number of properties being considered for purchase in Brooklyn, Queens, and neighboring New Jersey.

Tony Stark will not surrender the Iron Man armor – CNN Politics
1 March 2010

“You want my armor, but you can’t have it. You can forget it. I am Iron Man; the suit and I are one.”

Tony Stark likened surrendering the armor to the US government as ‘tantamount to indentured servitude or prostitution, depending on what state you’re in’ during a fiery congressional hearing called to question his independent global peacekeeping efforts as Iron Man.

In the ensuing months since the newly vaunted superhero’s debut, the Middle Eastern conflict has simmered down to a handful of isolated drone strikes and small bombing attempts. Iraqi Armed Forces have entered peace negotiations with the US in a historic milestone that mere months ago seemed impossible during the region’s bloodiest stalemate. The US government has since expressed great interest in securing assembly specifications for the Iron Man armor with the intention of replicating the Iron Man suits for military use. Stark reportedly invented this technological marvel during his three-month long captivity in Afghanistan.

However, Stark refused to bend. “No more selling weapons,” he emphasized during the hearing, even when faced with pointed opposition from former supporters such as Senators Stern (R) and Dwight (R). With rare, impassioned eloquence, Stark reminded the courtroom of his harrowing captivity and the evidence of corruption he unearthed during his tenure in the Middle East, where underhanded weapons dealers were providing hostile forces with Stark technology for financial kickback.

“If I can’t guarantee that you’re going to make sure my toys stay within the right hands, then you can’t have any of them,” Stark said, “especially not the suit.”

When threatened with criminal charges, Stark cited the Second Amendment to support his continued exclusive ownership of his technology, including the weaponized armor. “I believe I have the right to bear arms in this country, and if you’d like to contradict me, take it up with the NRA first.” The NRA has unilaterally endorsed Stark’s stance on this matter and has offered to lobby for support should Stark be summoned for a second congressional hearing on this issue.

Stark Industries has historically produced some of the most advanced tactical weaponry and artillery the US military has in its possession. In light of the multinational corporation’s recent turnaround, uncertainty remains whether a suitable replacement can be found for Tony Stark’s celebrated genius.

‘I can keep them safe, I can bring them home’: Stark strikes a deal for the soldiers – Washington Post
5 March 2010

After a week of heated negotiations at Capitol Hill, Stark Industries CEO Tony Stark has secured a deal with the United States Armed Forces and the executive government. Bypassing congressional involvement, Stark spoke at length with George Spencer (Secretary of Defense), Mark Rosenberg (Secretary of the Treasury), Senate Minority Leader John James Friedman (D), and President Ellis on Friday morning, emerging after several hours with an announcement that surprised both Congress and the media.

“Regardless of where we each stand with our philosophy about America and its wars, I think we can all agree that America’s soldiers, who sign up to risk their life on the battlefield, deserve only the very best protection and compensation we can give them after they’ve served their time,” said Stark in a rare display of measured compromise. “I won’t make any more weapons to sell—no negotiating that—but I can help keep the soldiers safe. I can help them recover from their injuries. I can help bring them home.”

According to their CEO, Stark Industries will shift its production output from weaponry to tactical defense systems, armored vehicles and rescue units, improved radar and detection technology, next-generation body armor for field combatants, advanced military-grade medical equipment, and cybernetic prosthetics for soldiers who have suffered injuries requiring amputation.

Biotechnology is an entirely novel venture for Stark Industries, a frontier Stark claims to have been eager to explore. Media sources have been quick to identify that Tony Stark has recently been keeping company with Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon and scientist with both research and practical expertise in the field of targeted neuroregeneration.

Mr. Stark declined to comment on their association; Dr. Strange was likewise unavailable to provide his input.

Stark sells prime real estates for $1.7bn – Business Insider
7 March 2010

Tony Stark reportedly sold several properties to various investors and private entities for a stunning sum of $1.7 billion dollars, the latest in a series of sudden and unprecedented moves from the billionaire and renowned engineer. Among the properties are high-rise penthouses in Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg, an historic hacienda in Yucatan, Mexico, a private island in the Miami Keys, a cliffside vacation house in Santorini, and Mr. Stark’s oft-visited sprawling mansion in Las Vegas.

Among the buyers was Marriott International, who appropriated the Miami and Santorini properties with bids exceeding $500 million. The Las Vegas mansion, popular for having hosted many of Mr. Stark’s star-studded parties, was bought by actor Leonardo DiCaprio for an undisclosed amount.

Mr. Stark was unavailable to comment on the transactions, which have generated much speculation in light of recent strategic moves he has made in Washington. Stark Industries likewise declined to comment given the real estates were Mr. Stark’s private properties.




March 2010

“You can go ahead to the hotel, Hap,” Tony bid as he made to step out of the car.

“Will you need to be fetched?” Happy asked in his usual gruff and unhappy manner, made even unhappier by the late afternoon Manhattan traffic.

“Nope!” Tony shut the door, sliding his shades on, briefcase securely in hand. The crowd at New York Presbyterian’s roundabout was pleasantly slack, making it easy to quickly disappear into the lobby before the paparazzi could cotton on to his presence in the city. At the reception, he leaned lightly against the glass desk and asked, “Where can I find Dr. Strange?”

The receptionist blinked and clarified, “Do you have an appointment, sir?”

“No, no. I’m a friend of Dr. Stephen Strange, neurosurgeon,” Tony took his shades off and leveled her with a charming smile, guaranteed to fluster even the most stoic nuns. She flushed and looked down towards her computer screen.

“Erm, yes, sir, let me check here.” While she was looking, Tony spared an internal sigh at their outdated computers. DELL, seriously? “Dr. Strange is a consulting neurosurgeon and likely doesn’t have an office on campus. I could page him if you like?”

“Oh, no, no,” Tony dismissed the idea, “I’ll just text him then. Shame, I wanted to surprise him.”

JARVIS helpfully tracked Stephen’s phone for him, displaying the hospital’s floor map on his own phone with a little blue dot indicating his target’s location. Tony veered towards the elevators and thumbed through his view of Stephen’s calendar to double-check that the doctor wasn’t actively doing surgery at this time.

Over the past month, while Tony was alternating between wrangling Congress versus his own board of directors, the makeup of Stephen’s daily life had also undergone drastic changes. Stephen had negotiated a lighter workload at Metropolitan and was now spending the other half of his week at Presbyterian doing specialty surgeries, with time left over to begin the bare bones of a research protocol.

Gone were the emergent cases that would keep the doctor tied up for hours on end, instead replaced with pre-planned time-bound surgeries, some of which were so technically difficult it literally made Stephen’s colleagues weep. A more senior neurosurgeon would usually be preferred for such cases, but Stephen’s skill spoke for itself and his currently heightened profile made him an enticing bet. Obviously, Stephen was not above using his and Tony’s very public association to further his own agenda and fast-track his own career.

Tony liked that in a man, in fact. People were going to talk anyway; best put all the noise to work.

He stepped off the elevator to the ninth floor and wove around people in the hallways until he reached the unit’s nursing station. According to JARVIS, Stephen was—

“Oh, there you are,” Tony grinned, lifting his voice. “Hey, babycakes!”

Stephen’s head shot up as he turned, blinking in surprise. Likewise, the entire nursing station paused and turned around.

“Darling, hi,” Stephen quickly shut the folder and returned it to the rack. “What are you doing here?”

“Picking you up,” Tony shrugged, easy as you please. “I’ve got us a dinner date. Are you still busy? I can wait!” One of the nurses surreptitiously took a photo of Tony standing there, not that Tony was making a point to hide. Another nurse was mouthing to their friend ‘babycakes’ with ill-suppressed mirth, while the friend mouthed ‘darling’ back.

Stephen waved his badge in front of a receiver and logged himself out of the computer, gathering his coat to make a hasty exit. Too late, oh well, they already made the scene. With a skyward eyeroll, Stephen took him by the arm and marched him away from the nursing station, saying, “Let’s go to the doctor’s lounge, it’s a bit more quiet than this place.”

Two nurses gasped in dismay and an older Asian one called out after them, “How dare you say the Q word, doc! We raised you better than that!”

“Ooh, shit,” Tony snickered, “did you piss off your nurses? That’s never a good idea, even I know that much.”

“Speaking from experience, are we?” They turned a corner before Stephen yanked him into a room that was badge-access only. “What happened to reassuring your board about your reckless decisions? Last I checked, your HQ was still in LA.”

“I’ve been talking to them all week, babe, I can only stomach so much of their faces.”

Two other doctors looked up from their workstations inside the lounge, one blinking in stupor characteristic of an overworked minion. Stephen ignored them both so Tony followed his suit.

“And how goes the mass buy-out? Any of them cluing in yet?”

“Of course not. They won’t know until it’s almost done.”

Tony was in the process of preparing a mass buy-out of his shareholders in order to streamline SI’s decision-making in the future. All of the bullshit board meetings were fast getting old and before long he wouldn’t have time for them anymore anyway. Changes would go over so much easier when Tony was the sole owner of the entire company, although it was financially riskier.

“I’ve only got a few more notes to co-sign,” Stephen said, parking himself at a corner away from the other two doctors in the lounge. While Stephen was logging in, Tony fetched a swiveling chair and spun on it as he considered the lounge’s view over the river. Roosevelt Island was visible from here, beyond it, Astoria and the rest of Queens. There was an ideal location for a secondary administrative facility.

“Hungry for anything in particular?” Tony asked, returning to his phone to thumb through some dinner options. “Except for me, of course; you’ll have to wait until after dessert for that.” That earned a cough from the other side of the room.

Unfazed, Stephen shot back, “There’s still time before dinner, we can have an appetizer.”

“Babe,” Tony smiled, mock-scandalized, “if we start, I’m not sure we’ll be able to stop.”

“Unlike you, I have some restraint,” Stephen sniffed, before demanding, “Put that reputation to good use, I’m craving Michelin stars for dinner.”

“You know you just contradicted yourself, right?” Tony chuckled, looking over the list JARVIS was now paring down to starred establishments. “Japanese, Italian… French? Robuchon has an atelier here, so does Boulud. And of course Le Bernardin.”

“Can you get into Le Bernardin?” Stephen raised an eyebrow.

Can I get in there, he asks,” Tony wore a dark look as he flipped the phone to his ear, JARVIS already dialing the number. “Let’s see how unreasonable I can be. I want a whole salon, less eyesores that way.”

Stephen then laughed, snatching the phone away and ending the call. “I’m joking. Le Bernardin’s overdone. There are better options.”

“Okay then, New Yorker, surprise me!” Tony kicked back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Take me somewhere you would usually go.”

“Call Marea and get us a table,” Stephen gave him back his phone. “I’ve been wanting to try the octopus fusilli, I’ve heard it’s divine.”

“Italian?” gasped Tony. “I commend you, sir, that’s a ballsy choice! If they fuck shit up, you bet your momma I’m gonna tell them so.”

“I’m not the one whose cooking you’ll be slagging; I don’t care,” Stephen shrugged.

Tony spent the next fifteen minutes on the phone negotiating a table at what was apparently a full house tonight, except people tend to make space for two more if one of the two was Tony fucking Stark. Stephen finished his final tasks while half-listening to the conversation with a tilted smile, much like a cat pleased with its own apparent ingenuity. Tony could read the thought straight out of that expression: look what I can make Tony Stark do.

He should be uncomfortable with that—he used to be, he usually made a point to rebel whenever people began to try to make him do things or act a certain way—but for some reason, Stephen’s (admittedly transparent and superficial) manipulations did not register in his hindbrain as a threat. Instead, Tony almost felt—pleased?—that Stephen was becoming comfortable enough to demand things of him. That meant that Stephen was becoming likewise invested.

That meant that Stephen was intending to stay.

All things considered, Tony was coping well with this new life. They both were, at least on the surface. They were functional. They were focused on their goal. Nevertheless, the enormity of what they had done and what they had yet to accomplish often loomed above them, and Tony’s new preferred coping mechanism was to cling to his only ally in this twisted reality, even if it meant fostering an unhealthy codependence.

No point in sidestepping the inevitable, after all. They only had each other.

The daily phone call was now a fixture of their routine. A missed call was out of the norm (had yet to happen, actually) and signaled a likely emergency; it also meant that both of them missed a dinner. Their virtual workflow was burgeoning with radical ideas, everything from biomechanics to the physics of interstellar travel, in case the need for a vessel arose in the future (Tony hoped not). They were both down to two panic attacks per week, a marked improvement from last month, and Tony reassuringly responded well to Stephen’s meditation techniques for reorienting himself afterwards.

Perhaps the only bad habit they both clung to was their respective addiction to work, which was why Tony was here. As soon as Stephen clicked out of the last patient’s chart, Tony plucked at his sleeve and whined, “Are you done yet? I’m starving.”

Stephen logged out and stood at last. “Come on, then. Let me change and we can go.”




Dinner was nice; drinks after was nicer. Stephen brought them to a speakeasy that was packed on a Friday night, but by then they were both relaxed after wine and food and didn’t care. Tony liked his whiskey the exact same way Stephen did, so they sat at the bar in a tight corner sharing a double pour and personal space. There were eyes on them—there were always eyes—so Tony carefully slotted one knee between Stephen’s legs and made sure to lean close.

“Are you sure you don’t want to live at the Tower when it’s finished?” Stephen asked, stealing the tumbler from Tony’s lazy fingers and taking a sip. “At least up there they won’t be able to look at you so much.”

“Tsk, tsk, no, babe, they’ll still be looking; they’ll just be more creative about it.” Tony leaned into the bar, which dug into his ribs, and considered the jut of Stephen’s frankly outrageous cheekbones in the half-light. From this distance, those crystalline blue eyes were rather grey. “Best live somewhere else and use the Tower as a nice decoy. It’s not like I can’t afford it.”

“What about Pepper?” Stephen asked, making Tony blink.

“What about her?”

“She’s vulnerable and a target for anyone who wants to hurt you. She should stay somewhere protected.”

Tony had to smile. “Ah, that. I’ve thought of that, yeah. I have something lined up for her, which she’ll hopefully like. If not, I can always have her choose and then secure it afterwards.”

“I can ward her residence too,” Stephen offered hesitantly, “if you want, that is.”

“Yes, please, that’ll help me sleep at night.”

Stephen snorted, “You don’t sleep at night.”

Tony took a swig of the whiskey as he waggled his eyebrows. “Why would I when there are other things to do, eh?”

That earned him an eyeroll, which made Tony want to laugh. Struck by a sudden urge to make sure that Stephen remained his friend despite the complications of this relationship they were staging, Tony leaned forward and said next to Stephen’s ear, “Hey, you’ll tell me when I’m laying it on too thick, right? I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

Stephen chuckled and replied likewise, “You’ll have to try harder than that to make me uncomfortable, darling.”

Tony reared back, grinning and declaring, “Excellent! Another drink?”

“Same for me,” Stephen exchanged a nod with the bartender, before turning back to their erstwhile date. “Now tell me about DC.”

Groaning, Tony slumped forward, “Oh dear lord, can you make them all drop dead of something undetectable? How about heart attacks? They all look like unhealthy pigs anyway, it wouldn’t even be a stretch! You wanna hear what Stern tried to threaten me with? He tried to get me indicted on unlawful possession of a firearm.

Stephen laughed. “Is he for real?”

“Newsflash to the asshole, I make the firearms! Or used to, anyway, but my point stands,” Tony fumed, running a hand through his hair, “I swear to god, I can’t get rid of that asshole fast enough. He’s got it coming, ohh, he’s got it coming.”

Tony couldn’t wait until he could expose that lying scumbag HYDRA piece of shit. Vindication was going to be even sweeter the second time around.

He sighed and shifted to less incendiary topics, retelling his DC escapades for Stephen who was fortunately too busy to pay attention to the details of political drivel. At this point, Stephen didn’t need to know anyway; Tony could handle it for now. They made a point not to consume their daily call time speaking about ultimately inconsequential people, so these developments were all news to the doctor.

“I did see the article about your compromise with the Secretary of Defense,” Stephen acknowledged with a nod, “Nice PR touch, very patriotic American. I’m sure the right-wing gun-toters in Texas are worshipping your very likeness right now.”

“Eugh, did you have to go there?” Tony shuddered.

“You know I’m not wrong,” Stephen shrugged. “Anyway, it seemed to work; now they like you again.”

Their prosthetics project was also well underway, prototype designs almost complete. They had started it well before the mess in DC exploded; it was always wise to be several steps ahead whenever possible. Tony didn’t speak of it, though, not when a woman—probably a reporter—was subtly edging closer towards their corner.

“What, do we need to make out?” Stephen noticed without turning around.

Tony smiled and minutely shook his head, “Nah, if we do that, they’ll think we’re a fling. I only make out in public with flings. We want them to think we’re serious, yeah?”

“Then what’s your move?”

“Let’s get outta here,” Tony decided after a heartbeat, because two more snitches were creeping their way towards the bar and that was just too much trouble. Stephen easily slid off his stool and tossed several bills on the bar, not bothering to ask for the receipt as Tony grabbed his briefcase to make their hasty exit. Tony put a hand on the doctor’s back to make it look like they were in a hurry for specific reasons; Stephen went along with it because, well, that was the name of their game.

They took a greenlit crosswalk towards the general direction of Grand Central and the Chrysler Building. A couple of blocks and they turned a corner into the foyer of a penthouse complex with sleek, modernist interiors. A private elevator took them to the seventh floor, which opened directly into Stephen’s penthouse with a code. Primitive, but Tony couldn’t judge; not every house was outfitted with JARVIS. It was dark and cool inside, the anteroom angled in such a way that the rest of the living area remained hidden away to the side.

“Mi casa, su casa,” Stephen quietly ushered him in, “although I only have one bedroom. You can take the bed.”

“Nope, none of that nonsense. We’ve shared a bed before, we survived. This is your house. And you’re sure as hell not sleeping on that couch, it looks like hell on the back.”

Stephen tossed his keys on the table, removed his jacket, and poured a glass of water. “It’s actually pretty comfortable.”

“It looks hard as a rock, so I don’t believe you.” Tony put the briefcase down and went to the grand piano perched by the bay windows, which were floor-to-ceiling and afforded a nice view of the streets below. They were tinted for privacy, of course, but the outdoor view created a sense of space that was priceless in a gridlocked city like this. “What do I have to bribe you with for you to play for me, doc?”

“I’ll play if you sing,” Stephen shrugged, sliding into the seat with an entreating half-smile. “I’ve heard the rumors. A rock band in college?”

“Ehh, who didn’t fuck around with a rock band in a garage back then?” Tony dismissed, “I’m not that good.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. What songs do you know?”

“No, no, nonono, what songs can you play?”

“You’re being insulting now.”

“Okay, wait, rock songs don’t really go over well on piano accompaniment,” Tony reasoned laughingly.

“Queen does,” Stephen banged out a few chords from the famous rhapsody; Tony couldn’t help it, he was almost tipsy, this was hilarious, also Queen.

Mama… I just killed a man,” Tony sang and snickered, “put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.

“Keep going,” Stephen encouraged when Tony paused to let out a peal of laughter.

“Gimme a break, I haven’t sang in forever,” Tony cleared his throat and continued with the piano. “Mama… life had just begun, but now I’ve gone and thrown it aaaall awaaaay…” Whirling around, Tony threw his arms open and belted, “Mama! Oooh! Didn’t mean to make you cry; if I’m not back again this time tomorrow, carry on… carry on… as if nothing really matters…

Freddie Mercury’s legendary theatrics never failed to chuff. Tony laughed harder than he had in—shit, forever, really, when was the last time he’d done something so silly and hilarious and pointless? He collapsed into the couch, which was indeed softer than it looked, and snickered through the rest of the song Stephen continued to play with aplomb.

“Not bad, Stark,” the good doctor remarked while playing, “six out of ten.”

“What!” Tony shot up from the couch again, “Six?! Six?! That was at least an eight!”

“Hm, upon the beholder’s ears, I suppose,” Stephen smirked at him, the smug bastard, so Tony chucked a throw pillow at the asshole’s face and called it a night.

“I,” he declared, “am going to bed.”

“Acknowledging defeat, I see.”

“I’m going to bed.” It was Stephen’s bed, but whatever; anyway, it was definitely at least an eight, the doctor was clearly delirious from working too much. Tony stood and made it as far as the hallway, until he realized he had no clue where he was going and said, “Which way is the bed?”

Huffing, Stephen lowered the cover over the piano keys and followed after him. “This way, your highness,” his hand pushed on the middle of Tony’s back, moving them forward. Stephen’s bedroom was at the end of the hall to the left, across from another room that might have once been a guest bedroom but was now a home office.

“Go ahead,” Stephen motioned towards the en suite, which was cozier than Tony’s spacious master bathroom in Malibu but no less functional. Tony borrowed clothes, took a quick shower, and brushed his teeth, all the while a grin lingering on his face from an enjoyable evening with a friend.

Tony emerged and they switched. The bedside lamps cast the bedroom with a pensive glow, the curtains only slightly cracked to let past a little bit from light from the streets. He closed them, knowing that it would be too bright once they turned the lamps off.

It was a queen bed, large enough for both of them to avoid too much awkwardness. Tony picked the side away from the door. He noted the reading material stacked at the bedside and would have perused them if he had any more energy left; as it was, the weight of the week crept upon his bones and made him crawl under the covers.

“JARVIS, wake me whenever Stephen wakes up.” He yawned. “Also, remind me to rig you into this penthouse in the morning.”

“Noted, sir. Good night,” JARVIS’ lovely voice quietly responded from his phone. It was small and distinctly lackluster compared to JARVIS’ resounding presence in the Malibu mansion: that had to be fixed.

Tony drifted into oblivion, retaining only enough awareness to note when Stephen climbed into bed. Only then did he surrender to the dreams.




Stephen woke at six (on a weekend, blasphemy!) and the movement woke Tony too.

“Mmph,” he rolled over and pressed his nose into what might have been a shoulder or an arm. “Nonsrisyt.”

“What?” Stephen said, voice rough with sleep.

“Not sunrise yet,” Tony lifted his face from the pillow just enough to sound coherent. “Why we awake?”

Stephen hummed, making some sort of motion that jostled the arm or shoulder Tony’s face was pressed into. Neither of them made any motion to leave the bed. Tony began dozing again, lulled by the sleep-warm sheets and the body beside him, until another bleep from the bedside table disturbed the peace.

“Sorry,” Stephen silenced it, “I usually go for a morning run on off days.”

Grunting, Tony blinked his eyes open at last, squinting at the rise and fall of Stephen’s chest over the curve of a shoulder. At some point during the night, they had gravitated together in the middle of the bed. It was a much smaller bed than Tony’s own so he supposed it couldn’t be helped. At least he wasn’t drooling or hungover, that was a plus.

“Morning runs are so East Coast hipster; do you stop and get an overpriced avocado egg white toast too?” Tony flopped on his back and away from the neighboring shoulder, yawning.

“There’s a place on Park and 60th,” Stephen chuckled. “Great espresso.”

When caffeine beckoned, Tony rose. Against his better judgment, they dressed for a cold-ass morning run, Tony having packed more than just the Iron Man suit in his briefcase for a change. He didn’t want to question too much why waking up like this with the doctor wasn’t as horribly awkward as he expected it to be, so he occupied himself with double-checking the nanite housing on his chest before warming up.

They took a northward route to the general vicinity of Central Park, where Tony imagined most New Yorkers passed through on their hipster morning runs. Stephen had a longer stride but Tony went a touch faster, slowing down only for stoplights and ignoring pedestrians altogether. Tony did not like running, but he was a strong runner; Tony did not like endurance training, but he could endure. He survived the desert, didn’t he? He survived Siberia too. He survived Titan, and space, and its aftermath.

“’Scuzi,” he called out at a food stand guy he almost ran over. He dodged around a barista putting out a sidewalk sign and startled some poor lady’s golden retriever; the dog lost its shit and ran after him, barking up a storm. “Oh, hey bud! Running with me? Okay, come on!”

The poor owner.

In twenty minutes, they passed billionaire’s row and bore left towards the park proper, where they stopped over Gapstow Bridge to catch their breath. The sun broke over the skyline on the east, light splintering over the pond in glitters. Tony turned south and looked up at the towers beyond 59th.

“Maybe I should change plans after all,” he framed the skyline with his hands, fingers squaring on either side of Trump Tower. “This view will be so much better once I’m done.”

“No,” Stephen glanced up at the tower too, “because you know he’s not gonna sell it to you without strong-arming you into putting his name on it. The man’s not exactly he most reasonable person. He might want to hold on to his eyesore of a status symbol, never mind how much you’re offering.”

Tony sighed and shoved his hands back into his pockets. “Well, I suppose Pep would kill me if I tried to back out of the deals now, they’re almost done.”

“She would rip you a new one, at least,” Stephen agreed. “It would have been so much easier to acquire properties in Midtown, but you had to go and get yourself a waterside property.”

“Babe, you know as well as I do that location is everything in business,” Tony reasoned as they began walking back towards the 5th Ave entrance and the hipster café Stephen wanted to patronize. “Besides, waterside! Think of all the possibilities!”

“If it collapses, there’ll be a miniature tidal wave.”

“You’re rude.”

“I’m right.”

Tony swatted Stephen’s arm, “Don’t collapse my tower before it’s even built!”

The hipster café was not far, in fact spilling right onto Lexington where the expensive people gathered to show off their clothes (“athleisure”) and cool sensibilities. Tony and Stephen ironically fit right in, except they were perhaps one of the few who were actually finishing off a real workout. Basically no one else was sweating.

“Do they even have sweat glands?” Tony whispered to Stephen, “I mean, are they capable of sweating?”

“You do realize you’re just as much of a rich, privileged celebrity?”

Tony stuck his nose up in the air. “I have the advantage of being a rebel. I’ve always been a renegade.”

“Whatever you say,” Stephen chuckled, ordering two espressos and two cappuccinos, as well as a loaf of freshly baked bread.

“No avocadoes?” Tony gasped, shoving Stephen aside and handing his card over instead. “Hi, please add extra sugar to my cappuccino, thanks.” The barista flushed, stammered, and almost dropped the card.

“I’ll make eggs at the house.” Stephen found them a corner to wait and asked, “Do you plan on staying over the week? I’ll have to restock on food, I barely have enough to feed myself at home.”

I’m buying,” Tony argued.

“I’m not fussing about the money,” Stephen rolled his eyes, “I just want to be prepared. I work all week, so shopping will have to be sometime today or tomorrow.”

I can go grocery shopping!” Tony indignantly insisted, all the while internally agape at how fucking domestic the conversation was.

“And what, fill the pantry with junk food? I think JARVIS will agree that you can’t be trusted to feed yourself a healthy diet without supervision.”

Tony made a wounded noise but didn’t get another word in edgewise as their order was called out. They threw back their espresso shots and carried the rest home, Tony still insisting that he was perfectly capable of a grocery run by himself, thank you very much. He had three doctorates and ran a multinational billion-dollar corporation; he was a capable adult!

Stephen only gave him a short, mean laugh.

Asshole,” Tony wanted to snarl, but instead he was laughing along as they crossed a street and turned a corner. “Jerk face. Bastard!”

They ribbed each other all the way back to the penthouse, Tony finding more and more juvenile insults to aggravate the doctor into retaliation. When they arrived, Stephen immediately gave him a second key for the private elevators and the resident stairwell.

“Unless of course you’d prefer to stay at a hotel,” Stephen shrugged, “which is fine, whatever’s easier for you.”

Tony took the key, unused to the feeling of being welcomed into someone else’s abode since he was usually the one welcoming (ungrateful) people into his domain. He smiled and said, “Nah. I kinda like your penthouse, it’s nice and cozy. Also, no nosy hotel staff, so that’s a definite plus.”

“Can’t catch a break, can you?” Stephen shook his head. He made for the kitchen and put down the bread. “I’ll make the eggs, so you can shower first.”

Tony went. It still wasn’t awkward. He kept waiting for the discomfort to hit him while he was toweling dry, while he was shaving, while he put the briefcase with the Iron Man armor aside, while he made Stephen’s bed. The bed they slept in last night—although nothing but actual sleep happened—side by side, together.

Had it been so long since he had close company like this that the concept of together was now an alien one?

I had Pepper, Tony frowned, except he was slowly coming to realize that what they had in the future past was something different, something born from a desperate urge to cling to something warm and good and normal in a crumbling world.

I had Rhodey, Tony thought, except that was different too. Rhodey was his oldest friend, his staunchest defender and truest believer, his brother. Their bond was born from time and the indomitable fabric of shared memory.

This thing with Stephen—this partnership, this friendship—was shaping up to be something entirely other. He couldn’t think of the last time he had an unquestioning, transparent connection with someone like this, a connection that was unburdened with the need for prevarication or lies. He didn’t have to play his worries down or pretend to be okay. He didn’t have to explain his motivations. He didn’t have to play at being normal or, future forbid, stop being Iron Man.

So what did he have to be with Stephen?

Nothing, Tony realized, thumb hovering frozen over his phone screen. I don’t have to be anything. I can just—be me. We just work. We make sense. I don’t have to pretend to be anything other than what I am—I can’t, because he’s already seen all of what I can be.

Fourteen million odd futures, wasn’t it? Even Tony, whose brain was accustomed to handling large numbers and probabilities, struggled with the weight of what it must have felt like, seeing fourteen million lives albeit in the span of a minute.

How is Stephen even staying sane?

Shattering his soliloquy, his phone rang and Stephen came into the room at the same time. Tony answered, “Morning, Pep, hi,” as he nodded to the doctor to indicate that he was done. He moved to the living room just as he heard the shower turn back on.

“Tony, where in the world are you?” Pepper breathlessly demanded, “Happy texted me and said you never checked into the hotel and JARVIS has been fielding his calls; what in the world?”

“Ah, yeah, that,” Tony had entirely forgotten about the protocol he had set for JARVIS to redirect non-priority calls when he was with Stephen. “JARVIS might have taken the protocol a little bit farther than I expected, sorry. I’m at Stephen’s; I spent the night.”

“Oh,” Pepper said, and then gasped, “Oh, right, Manhattan!”

“So he’s got a penthouse in Murray Hill, it’s actually kinda close to where the meeting will be on Monday.” In fact, Tony could see the tower they would be convening in from the living room windows. “I’ll call Hap and let him know where I’m at.”

Pepper cleared her throat and very professionally inquired, “Will you be staying there for—for the week, then? I can cancel your hotel reservations.”

“Ehh, I can do that! It’s the weekend, Pep, take your break,” Tony thumbed a command to JARVIS, who dialed the Langham on a separate line. “Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be takin’ it easy, y’know, grocery shopping and such, because darling Stephanie’s under the impression I’m not capable of grocery shopping by myself—what? Why are you laughing? Don’t laugh at me! You don’t get to laugh at me, I’m your boss.”

“That’s it, I’m asking him to get this on video,” Pepper shamelessly snickered on the line. “Jim has to see this. You, grocery shopping! Do you even know how to pick produce? Do you even know what an actual shopping cart is aside from the online ones?”

“Do I even—excuse you?!” Tony yelped. “I resent that!”

“Resent it all you want, it’s true! Okay, I texted Stephen, he has to come with you now,” Pepper laughed.

“Damnit, Pepper!” Tony yelled, although the grin he had on was splitting his face. “I will prove you wrong, wait and see!”

“I certainly will,” she chuckled, sounding far too pleased with herself. Tony knew the exact smile she would be wearing at this exact minute; he knew the fond wickedness in it like he knew the back of his own hands. “Well, it seems you’ll be adequately occupied for the weekend, I think I can check out. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

Tony exhaled against the phone, eyes falling shut in a mellow, sweet remembrance. “That’ll be all, Miss Potts. Enjoy your weekend, I’ll see you Monday bright and early.”

They hung up and he stood there for a while, gazing out at New York City waking up to a beautiful Saturday morning. JARVIS shortly informed him that his reservations at the Langham have been cancelled, although Happy’s accommodations remained available for use. Five or ten minutes later, Stephen emerged from the bedroom and beckoned him over with a tilt of the head.

“Breakfast?”

Tony turned his back on the view with a soft smile. “Sure.”




“…so the mounting port would have to be implanted first, the severed nerves re-anastomosed to the genetically engineered biofiber with the nanites acting as the construction workers,” Tony spun the hologram around, encouraging his phone to make the display larger where it hovered between himself and the doctor. “Then the biofiber will transmit the electrical activity into the built-in synaptic translator and from there the conduction is pretty easy.”

Stephen nodded along, poking the holo to zoom into the port. “The problem will be customizing the fit. Each port will have to be unique to each user. Apart from molding it to their body, we have to consider muscle mass, bone density, tissue integrity, and weight.”

“Right, can’t be too heavy, it’ll fuck with their balance,” Tony agreed. “So synthesizing the biofiber will have to come first and I was thinking of—you expecting someone?”

The doorbell rang twice in a row; both of them lifted their heads from where they were bent over the table together, the remnants of their bread-and-omelet breakfast pushed aside.

“No?” Stephen frowned.

“I’ll get it,” Tony stood and made for the door at once, shoulders tensing on instinct. Stephen straightened but didn’t follow too closely behind him, instead hovering in the hallway where he had a view of the door.

The bell rang again, irritably if Tony had to put a mood to it, right as he yanked the door open. “Coming, coming, keep your panties on!”

The woman on the other side yelped in surprise. “Oh! Um. Hi?”

“Hi,” Tony blinked, taking her in. Brown hair, green eyes, freshly showered, but wearing scrubs. “Wait, are you Christine?”

“You’re Tony Stark,” she blinked back in awe.

“Jesus, Christine, pick your jaw up off the floor, you’re catching flies,” Stephen gave a windy sigh from the direction of the kitchen. “Tony, let her in.”

Tony’s face broke out in a wide grin. “Hi!” he stepped aside and then closed the door behind her. “I’ve been waiting to meet you! Stephen’s told me some things but I think he tends to run his mouth and it’s all bullshit.”

Christine Palmer gave a most unladylike yet effortlessly charming snort. “Oh my god, he found someone who can call him out.”

“Don’t you accuse me of bullshit, Tony Stark,” Stephen snarked back. He turned towards his friend and asked, “What’s up?”

“I brought breakfast, but I see you already ate,” she put a paper bag on the counter, eyeing the empty plates and the dishes in the sink. “If I knew you had company, I wouldn’t have come; sorry. Not that it’s not nice to meet you, of course, Mr. Stark,” she smiled at Tony.

“Just Tony,” Tony smiled back, because, aw, she was the genuinely nice kind. “I should call you Saint Christine, though, for putting up with this asshole for so long. Since Columbia, right?”

Christine snickered, “If he wasn’t a pretty face, really, I wouldn’t’ve bothered.”

Stephen made an affronted noise, rearing like an angry cat; Tony burst out in bright laughter. “I like her! Oh, she’s gotta meet Pepper. They have to meet, that’s like my best worst idea of the month!”

“Definitely the worst,” Stephen glowered, “do you really want to introduce them to each other?”

“Who am I meeting?” asked Christine.

“Pepper Potts, my assistant,” Tony grinned. “Brilliant, beautiful, and takes absolutely no bullshit.”

“Wait, she isn’t your girlfriend?” Christine wondered, before looking between them again and catching herself, “Oh shit. Right, you’re dating Stephen now, wow. I’m so, uh, confused.”

“Alert and oriented times one,” Stephen drawled in response. “The neurologist in the room thinks you ought to go home and sleep, Christine.”

“Sorry! Okay, alright, I can go, I didn’t mean to barge into your Saturday morning… thing,” she held up both hands, sheepishly laughing.

“Babycakes! You can’t just kick her out, she just got here, that’s rude.”

Christine choked on her laughter. “Babycakes?”

Stephen cut her off though and frowned, “She just got off shift, she needs to go home and sleep anyway.”

“Oh my god, I’ve never seen this from the outside before, it’s kind of disturbing,” Christine gasped, eyes crinkling as she directed her bright smile at Tony. Seeing his confusion, she explained, “Stephen’s super possessive, as in unhealthily possessive. If he’s dating you, he wants to monopolize your time and attention whenever possible. That’s why he’s kicking me out.”

Oh, Tony realized, that’s why he’s okay with the daily calls and the visits every weekend. But wait—we’re not actually dating, though?

“I resent that,” Stephen scowled.

“Resent it all you want, it’s true,” she shrugged.

“Speaking from experience, I take it?” Tony leaned against the counter with an elbow. “I’ll take any advice the seasoned veteran can dish.”

A mildly awkward, somewhat sheepish, but entirely honest expression stole over Christine’s face then, perhaps unaccustomed to people calling out her prior relationship with Stephen. Maybe that wasn’t a thing that doctors did to each other in the doctor world. When Stephen didn’t intervene to stop her, she slowly answered, “…I think whatever you’re doing is fine? Obviously whatever you’re doing is working, so no need to fix what isn’t broken.”

Tony’s lip quirked. Neither he nor Stephen could pretend at being unbroken, but okay.

“Just be warned that he’s clingy,” Christine added, earning another affronted noise from Stephen, “and demanding and way, way too intense.”

Tony shot an amused grin at Stephen. “So you’re the clingy girlfriend!”

Stephen was the opposite of amused. “So you’ve told me several times, Christine.”

“And you wouldn’t fix it,” Christine pointedly responded. She turned to Tony again, “He won’t fix it. He doesn’t think anything is wrong with it.”

“Well,” Tony chuckled, barely restraining the loud laughter that wanted to escape from his chest, “like you said, no need to fix what ain’t broken, right? I kinda like him the way he is. Besides, if he’s intense, I’m worse. I think that’s pretty self-explanatory,” he waved an arm as if to say, behold, this is me.

Christine’s face momentarily went blank with shock before a dawning realization came over her. “Oh,” she blinked, “oh, I see.”

Then an awkward pause: the kind of awkward that Tony should have been suffering since he started sharing a bed with someone he wasn’t even actually dating.

“Right, I’m going now,” Christine turned, gathering her bag from the countertop in a transparent attempt at a hasty exit. “It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Sta—er, Tony. Stephen, see you at work?”

“Sure,” Stephen said, “be careful on your way home.”

The two of them shadowed her on the way to the door. Right before she left, Tony called out, “Hey, whenever you’re free, still up for that dinner? I really do want you to meet Pepper, she’s great.”

Christine paused in the open doorway. She couldn’t very well refuse if she wanted to be polite. “Um, sure, Stephen can text me the details. Thank you! And, er, good luck!”

The door closed behind her. Turning back to an unamused Stephen, Tony said, “She’s cute! I like her. Genuinely a nice person. How did you ever keep her around for so long?”

“She stays because she’s a genuinely nice person,” Stephen sighed, “too nice, in fact. I gave her so much shit.”

The doctor gained a faraway look in his eyes, a look that Tony routinely saw in the mirror whenever he was thinking of all the things he wished he hadn’t done. Regret and self-recrimination. It wasn’t a good look on anybody, so Tony took Stephen by the shoulders and dragged him back to the kitchen.

“Let’s get those dishes squared away and then get back to work, doc. You were telling me about port customization.”

The rest of the day thereafter was spent sprawled in the living room, Stephen reading the latest and most intriguing in biotech while Tony tore apart his desktop and home entertainment systems to upgrade and reconfigure and secure JARVIS into a new temporary home. There was no sense in dwelling on past mistakes when there was so much of their future waiting to be rewritten.




Let today be the day you stop being haunted by the ghost of yesterday.
( Steve Maraboli )




Montana was cold.

It was already March, but Montana was still cold, the wind biting into Tony’s cheeks as he stepped out of the plane. He hurried towards the car, closing the door behind him, and wondering how he ever adjusted to living here full-time.

The road to the property was still lined with frost that glistened under the pale sun. The entire place looked soulless although it was not abandoned: it was not the farmhouse that he inhabited with his wife, and it never would be again. In the fifteen short minutes it took him to drive from the airstrip to the house, Tony endured waves of melancholy that jostled him with every memory he superimposed over that clearing, and this garden, and the glittering water’s edge. So many memories over such a small span of time… he wondered too, with a detached sort of fascination, if he would ever be able to forgive himself.

At the doors, the custodian was waiting. Tony gave a few token words and was summarily left to his own devices in an echoing, empty house. At least the drapes were off the furniture, everything freshly dusted and clean. He went to the kitchen, which did not bear the modifications he had built into it for Pepper, and filled up a glass of water.

I can’t live here again.

The thought came loud and clear, with the tragic finality of breaking china.

Of course, I can’t. That would be too masochistic.

Very well, then. This house was not to become a real residence. It was still a valuable asset, though; Tony downed the water in one gulp and headed downstairs to see what he came here to see.

Below the house was an ordinary basement cellar where they stored their wine and produce. Below that were bunkers refitted in the future past for Pepper and their unborn child’s comfort; in this life, a number of newly furbished Legionnaires were currently converting it into a secure productions and operations base. It was a task Tony dare not trust into any construction company’s hands; these bases were between himself and JARVIS only.

Speak of the little devil, he comes to whisper in your ear. “Is there a reason this property is not as primed for Legionnaire production as the Malibu mansion, sir?” JARVIS asked. “I would have thought you would have relished the opportunity to have a second productions base. At the rate production is going, the Malibu mansion will become crowded quite soon.”

“We’ll certainly make a few here,” Tony responded, “but this place is a bolthole, not a manufacturing base. Shuttling raw materials in and out of here will attract attention over time, and I don’t want anyone to pay this place much attention.”

It would be especially conspicuous in such a remote corner of Montana, where both vehicular and air traffic were sparse to begin with. Malibu was far easier to manage as a productions base given its location and proximity to other Stark Industries facilities. Excuses were as plenty as the fish in the sea.

Tony reached the third basement level and rolled up his sleeves. “You know the drill, J.”

“The property is secured, sir. Please feel free to begin.”

He cracked the first crate open: if he worked fast enough, he might even beat his schedule and finish installing the arc reactor within a day.

There’s no reason to linger here, Tony thought with grim resignation. This is not home anymore.

That worked out well enough. After all, he was already building a new home somewhere else.




“There’s a pool,” Stephen told him later that night, dry exasperation echoing over the phone. “An Olympic-sized pool, Tony, why is there a pool?”

Tony shrugged, grin wide on his face as he dug into his dinner. “Sometimes I like to swim, don’t you? Anyway, what did you think of the garage? Too small? It can hold about ten cars, eleven if we want to flaunt safety regulations, which, I mean, we could—”

“We’re hardly gonna use the cars, Tony, everything is within walking distance and also I can portal.”

“I seem to recall you complaining at one point about me using you as an Uber service!” Tony shot back with a cackle. “What about a sauna? Hey, do you want a sauna? I can add a sauna here next to the gym—” he pinch-zooms at the holo with two fingers and indicates a space where a sauna could be built into the floorplan of their new Manhattan residence.

“I like the cold,” Stephen retorted, surely only because he enjoyed being contrary. The floorplan on Tony’s holo suddenly flickered to an upper level and a section of the wall began to blink. “Why is this section walled off?”

“Oh, that’s gonna be Pepper’s brownstone,” Tony said in between bites of roasted chicken. “She likes having her own space so I saved one of the original brownstones on the block for her. Three floors, lots of white walls for her to decorate, and privacy for her to decompress. She doesn’t have to share anything with us if she doesn’t want to, but she’ll still be protected under the same security system.”

Stephen made a noise of assent. “Well, since you’re building a whole gym downstairs, you might at least let her share that.”

“Yeah, our ground floor will connect with hers. She can share the garage too. Curbside parking is pesky in this city—not that she’ll ever have to drive herself, mind—but you get my point, you’re a New Yorker.”

The holo continued to flicker through property as Tony ate and Stephen browsed. It was a row of old brownstones in the Upper East Side, a whole block Tony purchased for security (and also because he could). It was all to be combined into one massive residence, perhaps the largest single residence in Manhattan, while maintaining as much of the exterior brownstone aesthetic as possible. Tony had always wanted to own one.

That's more than one, Tony, Pepper had remarked, but she knew better than to argue when he had clearly made up his mind.

His Californian sensibilities briefly upset retail and restaurant tenants on either end of the block, facing 2nd and 3rd Avenues respectively, until he told them they could stay under a better property rental agreement. They couldn’t possibly find competition for those prices in the entire city. It was a neat deal all around and bought them the favor of their immediate neighbors.

Wondering why Stephen seemed so surprised about the pool, Tony asked, “Did you not do a floor-by-floor tour in person? You had the clearance, babe!”

“I did, I'm just wrapping my head around the floorplan,” Stephen answered. “Also, there were areas blocked off by the construction crew and I didn’t want to bother them for no reason.”

“It’s not no reason,” Tony protested, “this is the perfect time to make changes if you wanted to!”

Stephen paused on the fourth floor, which in actuality should still only be open space, but on the holographic floorplan contained half a library and half a medical bay. It was early enough that Stephen could add all of his specifications and tailor the space just the way he liked it. The Wizard’s Domain, Tony called it, because if he was going to have his own entire floor to play in (the fifth floor), then Stephen should have one too.

“I think I can build a permanent portal here,” Stephen identified a half-wall that bisected the open space into two parts. “It doesn’t seem to be load-bearing.”

“It’s not. What’s a permanent portal?”

“A door that opens always to the same fixed places. It has to be tied to reciprocal doors on the other side. I can build one here and its reciprocal tie in the Tower, plus another one in the Malibu mansion if you like.”

Tony grinned, “A doortal!”

This was where Stephen would roll his eyes. “Juvenile.”

“Convenient!” Tony gushed, and then caught himself, “Oh, but we can’t abuse it, otherwise it’ll look suspicious. Only in case of emergencies.”

“I’ll have to borrow some tomes from the Ancient One to brush up on portals and warding,” Stephen remarked. He finally made it to the plan for the sixth and final floor, where the living space was designed to maximize sunlight and views. A spacious kitchen flowed seamlessly into the dining space, which continued into an entertainment area large enough to host a small party should there be a need for one.

Tony could see how it would look in a few more months: Stephen’s grand piano here, couches around the fireplace over there, and whatever décor Pepper would not doubt strong-arm them into for the mantelpiece. There was even a patio; Tony watched Stephen swipe into a panorama of what would be their view from the rooftop. Because he bought the whole block, they had quite a bit of space between them and the next structures over, so it didn’t matter as much that surrounding towers were taller.

“Nice, isn’t it?”

Stephen was silent for only a moment. “An herb garden,” he said, “and maybe some space for tea trees.”

The wizard was also a gardener, go figure! “Whatever you like, babe.”

Stairs from the patio led up to the top deck, open space that would serve well as a helipad or a landing dock for the Quinjet. Stephen spun the floorplan around and zoomed out, looking now over the map of the Upper East Side in consideration.

“It’s not that far from Presbyterian.”

“You could definitely walk,” Tony agreed. “I won’t walk. The Tower will be too far too walk. Well, why walk anyway when one can fly?”

Stephen snorted and said, “You know, we New Yorkers liked to joke about how friendly you must have gotten with the pigeons. You monopolized the immediate airspace about as much as they did, zooming around in your red and gold armor.”

“The pigeons don’t like me; I’m an interloper in their city!”

But before Tony could keep jesting, Stephen suddenly cut in with, “Thank you, Tony. This much is unnecessary, but you’ve given the place a lot of thought and even took me into consideration.”

“Well, of course I did!” Tony looked at the floorplan hovering before him and said, “It’s gonna be your home too.”

Silence stretched across the line, before Stephen re-centered the hologram.

“It’s great, Tony. It looks like a place from where we can build a better future.”

Damn it all, Stephen really knew when to say just the right thing! Pressing knuckles into the bow of his smile, Tony decided to let him have the last word this time. Compromise was the key to a harmonious relationship, after all, and this one was a relationship that Tony wanted to keep intact.

Later that night, when he went to sleep in a bed he used to share with a wife in a forgotten future, the loneliness no longer felt so absolute. He drifted off into dreams of warm sunlight through a set of French doors, the very same ones that would later lead out to the patio of a new home.




Stark Industries buys $2.4bn Manhattan real estate for the up-and-coming Stark Tower – Wall Street Journal
20 March 2010

Stark Industries closed a deal worth $2.4 billion USD to secure prime waterfront real estate in Battery Park City yesterday, confirming the first major Stark property acquisition in preparation for the corporate headquarters’ transcontinental relocation. CEO Tony Stark announced that the location was allocated for Stark Tower, a supertall that would dwarf even the One World Trade Center nearby.

The acquisition appeared to be well-received across Manhattan and beyond. “We look forward to the economic enrichment Stark Industries will bring to the city,” New York Governor Matteo Ciufi remarked after the announcement of the deal, “and I’m certain that the Tower will be a stunning addition to New York’s beloved skyline.”

“It’s meant to be a symbol of the future!” said Mr. Stark, who appeared bright-eyed and enthusiastic about his latest and most expensive business stratagem yet. Enterprising partners, however, will be disappointed to hear that Mr. Stark does not plan to lease any space within the supertall. “The whole thing will be SI, from the basement to the topmost suites—it’s as much out of necessity as it is for security, you understand.”

There are still reported plans for additional Stark Industries acquisitions in the city, including properties in Astoria and Brooklyn currently under negotiation.




The timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness, and knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
( Khalil Gibran, The Prophet )




April 2010

The days marched on. They were in a delicate stage, not quite yet cemented in good favor but also not demonized like Tony once was in a past life. People were genuinely confused about his sudden inexplicable moves, the global markets blindsided with each acquisition and press release. It created a level of uncertainty that Tony needed in order to have the higher ground from whereupon he could stand and clearly see the entire board—plus it’ll eventually give him the chance to tell everyone I told you so.

Some people were questioning whether he had finally snapped and was now unstable. Sometimes, when he went off on tangent in front of Pepper, he saw the same doubt in her eyes too. But even she couldn’t deny how good he looked, how levelheaded he was being, and how productive he has been for the past three months. He obviously wasn’t sick. He wasn’t spiraling.

So it could only be one thing.

The more erratic his decisions seemed to the public, the more heightened attention got turned towards his new and seemingly steady flame, Stephen Strange.

Conspiracy theories began to sprout left and right. People who had nothing better to do with their time speculated on whether Stephen Strange, formerly Stephen Alexander Hunter, was influencing Tony Stark. People tried to find a motive. Was it the money? Was it the fame? Was it the fact that Tony was Iron Man and Stephen Strange wanted a piece of that life too?

The two of them had a blast going through the most popular theory of each week, snickering over Tony’s homemade pasta (authentic and amazing and so much better than those so-called Michelin restaurants, don’t you know) whenever the media got details horrendously wrong.

In the interim, Tony flew everywhere, visiting SI facilities and in fact doing his work as a CEO who had a Fortune 500 company to reinvent. Sometimes he returned to New York to spend a weekend with Stephen; other times they stayed in California. Some weekends they did not see each other at all, subsisting only on their staple phone calls, a necessary sacrifice in order to keep their hectic timeline.

They did not get a chance to visit Columbia until late in April. Tony was back in New York to oversee the installation of the supertall’s arc reactor powerbase conductors, which were set deep in the structure’s subterranean foundations. The Japanese architects were efficient enough to release him from their tender clutches after lunch, because they were Japanese and holding him for any longer than promised would be horribly impolite. Happy picked him up from Battery Park City and they swung by Metropolitan to fetch Stephen, the doctor looking faintly harassed as he parted from Christine at the ER ambulance bay.

“What did she say now?” Tony chuckled as Stephen slid in next to him and slammed the door shut.

“Things that do not bear repeating,” the doctor momentously sighed, leaning back against the car seat and closing his eyes. “I’m ready for this week to be over. I’m done with people. You can’t cure stupid.”

Tony laughed, “I’m pretty sure it’s not a quantifiable disease, but okay, doc.”

“It is a disease,” Stephen insisted, “it spreads from one host to another, like a virus! Incredibly pathogenic. Very high mortality rate. It’s a pandemic by now. It’s gone everywhere.”

“Okay, I’ll bite; what pissed you off?”

Stephen began to regale him with the ill-begotten escapades of an unfortunate neurosurgery resident who thought it would be wise to hide a patient’s deterioration from his superior. If there was anything Stephen hated, it was intentional stupidity, which was only a step away from willful ignorance. Tony agreed with the sentiment, but he still laughed, savoring the few things that were capable of shattering Stephen Strange’s preternaturally perfect self-control.

“And then Christine had the gall to tell me to give the guy a break,” Stephen spat, “excuse me, what? There’s kindness and then there’s negligence. He didn’t sign up for the residency to get a break, he signed up for an education.

“So that’s what he’ll get from you,” Tony assuaged his friend, “a top-notch, hard-ass, and incredibly valuable education. I say rip him a new one—but also give him an opening to do better. See if he’s capable of learning from his mistakes and if he’s not, then you know you’re right to drop him like a hot potato.”

Stephen inhaled long and exhaled even longer, reaching inside for a measure of calm. They’ve been living in each other’s pockets long enough by now that Tony was well on his way to learning Stephen’s coping mechanisms just as Stephen was learning Tony’s own. They made good partners, actually. Tony could admit that he was happy about that.

“So anyway, after we get you into Columbia, we gotta go talk to MIT this weekend,” Tony tapped Stephen’s knee.

Why do you insist on MIT when Columbia has a perfectly respectable program?”

“But it’s not the best,” Tony argued, “and I wouldn’t betray my alma! How dare you insinuate such a thing!”

“Likewise, don’t ask me to betray my alma,” Stephen scowled.

“The folks at MIT are reasonable,” Tony said, “they’ll allow us to do a joint dissertation. The question is, will your Columbia people allow it?”

“Well, you like to boast about your dealmaker reputation, so let’s see you put it to work.”

“Oh, you’re on, babycakes!”

They debarked at Columbia’s lawn, where important-looking people were waiting to meet them. (Perks of being Tony Stark, genius superhero billionaire.) They were taken to the administrative building to meet with the university president. Stephen quietly inquired if a Professor Olson was present as he had requested, likely the dissertation chair he wanted for his third doctoral tenure at the university. (Perks of being Stephen Strange, genius neurosurgeon extraordinaire.)

Once hands were shaken and names exchanged, they sat down at a table and the president eagerly asked them how Columbia could be of service.

“Back for another one, eh?” Professor Olson grinned at Stephen from under an impressively thick white beard. With the balding head and the crooked teeth, the professor looked every bit the eccentric scientist. “I knew it wouldn’t be too long. Too curious for your own good.”

“Biomedical engineering this time,” Stephen responded, “except Tony wants to stay at MIT. We would like to inquire about the possibility of a joint dissertation between the two universities.”

“It would be much easier,” Tony followed, “since we’ll be working on the same project. Stephen’s signed on as a consultant to Stark Industries. Actually, that’s why we wanted the degree! We’re doing the footwork anyway, we figured we might as well get the degrees to show for it.”

The president cleared his throat. “What, concretely, would these projects entail?”

Tony leaned forward and slid his phone on the table, which promptly displayed a holo of the cybernetic prosthetics they were developing for the USAF. “There’s this one, although it’s already booked for the military to trial first. Admittedly, the VA can afford it and the soldiers deserve it, so that was an easy deal,” he shrugged.

Stephen further elaborated, “Fully integrated, seamlessly responsive biosyntactic cybernetic prosthetics made of metal alloy and carbon nanotubes for added integrity. A biofiber receptor relays the synaptic activity into a translator which then relays the impulse to the rest of the limb.”

“We’re almost in production for this, it’s really not that hard. I do understand that it’s already an ongoing project, however, and if our collaboration with the USAF will create a conflict of interest, we have another idea.” Tony flicked his fingers and pulled up a holo of DUM-E and Butterfingers’ more advanced younger sister. “Meet ROSA: Robotic Stereotactic Assistant, Stephen’s soon-to-be best helper in the OR suite. Micro-precise MRI-guided surgical technology for the smallest aneurysms or the most insidious brain tumors.”

(2)

“For the cases I can’t do with my own hands,” Stephen added, “because sometimes the slices are just too impossibly small.”

The president was struck silent for a moment, blinking at the holo hovering over the table, itself a piece of technology outlandishly advanced to almost seem like magic in this time and age. Professor Olson, for his part, simply leaned back and laughed.

“Don’t see why not! The way it looks like, you’ll be doing almost all the work by yourself and I won’t have to do a damn thing but sign my name on the dotted line,” the old man grinned crookedly at Stephen.

“That’s the idea. Tony and I will only get busier as SI’s bioengineering arm expands, which is why we need to get this done now.”

“I take it you’ll be speaking with MIT, Dr. Stark?” the president said after collecting himself. “I will speak with our admissions officer and attempt to figure out an arrangement on our end.”

Tony gave them a wide, satisfied smile. “Let me take care of the folks at MIT. I’ll have them talking to you before summer break starts.”

“That would be most appreciated, Dr. Stark,” Professor Olson bobbed his head, “as I’ll be out of town for the summertime.”

“Back to Vermont?” said Stephen.

“Escaping the heat waves. My old bones can’t take it anymore these days. Earth’s toasting and nobody cares.”

“Not for long,” Tony blinked, suddenly struck with an idea even as he peered out the window at the south lawn. He leaned towards the president again, “I have another proposition for you, although it’s a bit short notice.”

The president nodded, “Go on.”

“How would Columbia like to host the Stark Expo 2010?” Tony grinned.




“The Expo,” Stephen said as soon as they were back in the car.

“Yep!” Tony said, popping the ‘p’ with great relish. “They can’t possibly refuse us now!”

“If you’re giving them that much, Columbia will bend over backwards for whatever we want to do,” Stephen agreed. “What are you highlighting for the Expo?”

“The StarkPhone, amongst other things.” It would be about three months prior to the scheduled release date and the target demographic was the age group of Columbia’s current undergraduates. The phone wasn’t too expensive yet because Tony wanted to ease the new product into the market, but within a year or two, they would be pulling in massive revenue. Samsung and Apple had nothing on him in light of his foreknowledge; Tony could effectively render them obsolete within a year.

He told Stephen as much, outlining his other ideas for the event. It would be quite different from the Expo of their future past: for one, it would be much smaller and more contained, and for another, there would be no Justin Hammer to, ah, complicate matters. That was another threat he could render obsolete before it came to fruition.

“I want your ear on some of the plans; can we do take-out for a late lunch?” Tony asked, because he couldn’t very well discuss Hammer here or in a restaurant where random people could overhear.

“Sure. I want a shower anyway. I want Thai from that place in Hell’s Kitchen, the one we went to after you destroyed my wok.”

“It was an accident!”

“JARVIS says otherwise.”

“That little snitch.”

Happy turned to take them to the Thai place. Tony called ahead to place an order. Traffic was getting thicker, the weekend summer tourist crowd formidable at this time of day, so it took them some time to get to Hell’s Kitchen and then more time to cut across town to Murray Hill. By the end of it, Happy looked about ready to murder someone. Tony gave him a commiserating pat on the shoulder and sent him back to the hotel.

“Enjoy some drinks on me tonight,” Tony bid his chauffeur and erstwhile bodyguard. “Don’t forget, Pepper needs picking up tomorrow from the airport. Take care of what she needs, yeah? If she wants to go shopping, take her shopping.”

“I’ve got her, boss.”

“You’re the best, Hap!”

They walked into the foyer of Stephen’s penthouse complex, where the doorman tipped his head towards them and then promptly looked away. At least the staff here were discreet. That sort of service was nigh impossible to find in Los Angeles for Tony.

Once upstairs, they got rid of their jackets and ties, Tony rolling up his shirtsleeves to dig into the food. He was starving. The clock read half past two, but all he wanted was to stuff himself full of pad thai, take a shower, and pass out on the couch.

“JARVIS, if we pass out from all this food, wake us up before five,” Stephen instructed, to which JARVIS responded with an affirmative. “So what was it you wanted to talk about that couldn’t be said in front of Happy?”

“Or in a restaurant,” Tony muttered, “or anywhere really. Care to do that thing first?”

Stephen raised an eyebrow but straightened and swept his arm in two wide circles. A golden dome spread outwards from his hands, enveloping the entire penthouse in a shimmering shield that melted into the walls.

Tony breathed a sigh of relief. “I really, really can’t wait until we’re in the brownstone and this is a part of the built-in security.”

“I’m spoiling you.”

“Likewise, babe,” Tony wryly smiled. “So how much do you know about how the Expo went down in the future past?”

The future past, how apt,” Stephen chuckled under his breath. “Not much. I was off duty so I probably hit the gym and then went to sleep.”

“Right, well, there’s this guy Justin Hammer,” Tony began, “and he pretty much fucked the whole thing over.”

Tony told him how. It made for a somewhat long story; he had to explain how War Machine came to be.

“You’ve obviously changed that,” Stephen noted. “Rhodes doesn’t have that suit yet, does he?”

“No, my birthday’s not until next month,” Tony said. “Back then, I started misbehaving round about now, because I thought I was gonna die of palladium poisoning. I was wasted at my own party and horribly misused the suit—although gotta admit, that was a fun night—” Stephen made a doubtful noise, “—so Rhodey got pissed at me and took the suit to the Edwards Air Force Base. Then the military gave it to Hammer and the idiot actually had the gall to bring it to exhibit at my Expo opening two weeks later! Like, what the fuck, man?”

“He modified it, of course.”

“Of course he did, the shithead,” Tony stabbed a noddle with judicious fury. “Rhodey played right into it, he had no clue, you know, sometimes he’s just too lawful good!”

“Rhodes does what he believes is right,” Stephen agreed, “he and Steve Rogers are alike in that regard.”

That brought Tony up short. He looked up at the wizard, whose eyes were trained down on the food before them. Stephen hardly spoke about the future he came from, the future that Tony didn’t live to see. The future that was worth abandoning for this insane chance. Cautiously, Tony decided to probe.

“You worked with them,” he guessed, “in the future, where I was gone.”

Stephen actually flinched, fingers tightening around his chopsticks. Their eyes met over the counter and for a moment, nothing but silence echoed in the gap between them.

Stephen must have seen something in his face, a resolve or a recollection, because in the next moment he sagged into the countertop. “Rhodes took point as co-lead of the Avengers with Rogers after you—passed. Occasionally, I consulted with them whenever they required my help with matters of a more arcane nature. I couldn’t really stomach much of Rogers, so I made a point to speak with Rhodes whenever possible.”

Tony barked a mirthless laugh. “You and me both, babycakes. You and me both.”

A somber silence hovered around them for another moment. They sat there in recollection until Stephen cleared his throat.

“So what to do about this Justin Hammer? Rhodes doesn’t have a suit, you’re not going to misbehave at your party—”

“I’m not gonna throw a party,” Tony snorted, “ain’t nobody got time for that shit—”

“—and you’re not dying of palladium poisoning anymore. The Expo will be different this time around. Will he even be an issue?”

“I’d like to say he won’t, but that would be naïve of me, and we both know what we came back here for,” Tony met Stephen’s eyes again. “If we can’t change things—if we won’t choose to do it—then the risk is pointless.”

“But arguably, the more we change, the less foresight we can claim to have,” Stephen rubbed his jaw with his knuckles. “Is this big enough to be worth changing?”

“Is that what we’re doing now, deciding what’s big enough and what’s not?” Tony bitterly sighed, dropping his chopsticks and bracing his hands against the edge of the table. He didn’t like it. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

“It’s what we’re gonna have to do,” Stephen evenly told him. “We can’t change everything, even if we wanted to. We literally can’t. It’s realistically impossible. There’s too much happening at the same time, some of them important things that we don’t even know about.”

He was right, of course. Tony knew he was right. That didn’t make it any easier to swallow.

Stephen neatly put down his own chopsticks and continued, “Hammer hasn’t done anything to you yet. For all we know, Hammer hasn’t done anything at all.”

“No, no, I already know he’s working with Stern. They’re trying to replicate my armor and failing.”

“Who’s Stern?”

“That Republican senator with the pudgy face and duck lips, you know the one—”

“Thanks, I really needed that visual,” Stephen drolly interrupted, which made Tony smile. “Can you prove that they’re working together?”

“I did last time,” Tony shrugged, “the Pentagon’s not that hard to hack. Plus JARVIS has eyes in SHIELD and from there it’s only a short step into HYDRA’s lobby.”

“But if you throw the proof at the government, or even leak it to the press anonymously, you’re creating problems instead of solving them,” Stephen explained, which gave Tony pause. Again, Stephen was right. “I think you should wait. If they end up being an issue, then we deal with it. If not, then we leave them. How much of a role do they play in the big picture? How valuable are they for the endgame?”

“Well, if you put it like that…”

It was a liability, and Tony was uncomfortable leaving a liability alone. When he saw problems, he fixed them. Except this one isn’t a problem yet, he grappled, but I know it will be, so can’t I just—why can’t I just—

“Let go,” Stephen suddenly took his hand, the one that was still braced against the table, clutching the marble with enough force to bruise itself. “Let it go and breathe, Tony.”

Consciously, Tony unclenched his fingers. Stephen held on to his hand.

“You cannot control other people’s actions, only your own. What they do is on them—but if you push them into becoming your enemy, then that’s on you.”

A shadow came over Stephen’s face, perhaps a memory from the future they left. Did Stephen make that mistake, once upon a time? When the doctor didn’t quickly recover like he always did, Tony squeezed the hand that was still holding his own.

“Hey. You with me?”

Stephen inhaled, those blue eyes refocusing on Tony again. “Yeah. I’m here.”

“Good, ‘cause I think I lost you there for a second,” Tony allowed the concern to show in his voice. Anything that perturbed the doctor’s control was worth concern.

Stephen shook his head, “Sometimes I still get caught up in the future we left behind. But we left that behind now and there’s no going back. We’re here, now. Tony—” the doctor paused as if to weigh his words, before visibly steeling himself to continue, “—Tony, the world is not only yours to shoulder, at least not anymore. You do more than enough; you always have. Let me share your burden. Weren’t you the one who said it’s just us? And I told you that you have my loyalty. I don’t make that promise lightly.”

Remembering their conversation at the Malibu mansion, Tony swallowed and nodded. Hearing those words made his throat close up tight.

“When Hammer becomes a problem, we’ll deal with him together and I’ll have your back. But until then,” Stephen squeezed his hand one more time before letting go, “until then, we do the smart thing and wait for him to come to us.”

“…fine,” Tony sighed, “fine, I’ll—I can accept that.” And then, after a moment, he added, “With the explicit understanding that we’ll intervene if mass casualty or large-scale damage is imminent.”

“Of course,” Stephen agreed reasonably. He stood and began cleaning up the take-out containers, piling the few used dishes in the sink.

 

Tony watched and marveled at the reasonable, measured conversation they just had. It was something he experienced so rarely that it took him entirely by surprise. How did one deal with acknowledgement and validation again?

Moreover, what kind of relationship was this that it had the nerve to be so healthy? Tony couldn’t remember the last time he had anything resembling this level of rightness and ease. He and Pepper fought all the time; he routinely drove Rhodey crazy with his antics. That they both stayed with him through all the shit he put them through was a testament to their loyalty and nothing short of a miracle.

But here he and Stephen were, strategizing their approach to a complicated problem, and then calmly disagreeing, and then compromising.

Is this what they call adulting? Have I finally become a functioning adult?

JARVIS made them cappuccinos as a digestif. Tony took his to Stephen’s deceptively squishy couch and sat looking over a holo of the timeline they were changing. 2010 was a busy year the first time around; it was even worse this time, what with all the groundwork Tony needed to cover. Loathe as he was to leave Hammer untouched, it would take a load off of his plate. If Hammer wasn’t a problem, then there was nothing else immediately pressing until the Expo except for—Natashalie.

Tony sat up again and zoomed into the timeline. Stephen noticed and brought his coffee over. “Something the matter?”

“Why hasn’t she turned up?” Tony muttered. Fury should have sent Natasha by now.

“Who?”

“Natashalie. Black Widow. She got into SI by applying to be a personal assistant the first time around,” Tony explained. “SHIELD wanted eyes on me so Fury sent her on a sting.”

It was then that Stephen pointed out, “Well, we’re dating, right?”

It hit Tony like a brick. “Oh. They think I’m taken.

“For a bonafide genius, you can be an idiot.”

“Hey! Fine, be like that, see who cooks you pasta tomorrow!”

“I’ll cook,” Stephen chuckled, cracking open a tome he was working on, the one about warding runes and phase shields. “God forbid the media get wind of how Tony Stark has been reduced to menial household labor in this unfair relationship.”

Tony returned to the timeline he was looking at and realized that this was an indicator of their success. The world believed their lie. It was working.

We deserve to have things work out in our favor once in a while, don’t we? He collapsed the timeline and decided not to look the gift horse in the mouth. Of misfortunes, they’ve had plenty enough.

Tony let it go.




Life is what happens to us when we are making other plans.
( Allen Saunders )




May 2010

At long last, their new home was ready: it was time to move in.

Tony went first, overseeing the server boot-ups and, as he has done for every updated property, installing the arc reactor with his own two hands. He had designed and supervised the installation of the house’s network and surveillance systems himself, wanting only the very best home for JARVIS to operate comfortably within. The nanite foundry also required a delicate touch and took the better part of the day to install.

While he was occupied downstairs, staff came and went upstairs, hauling furniture and boxes of his stuff, some flown in from the Malibu mansion and some brand new. Happy oversaw them, dutifully checking each delivery at the door. Contractors pumped water into the new swimming pool and cleaned out the leftover materials still sitting on the rooftop deck.

On the second day, the interior decorator blew through the place with her staff, having already had discussions with Tony and Stephen about the few specifics they wanted. All the decorating was done in a day, topnotch efficiency to be expected of a company that Pepper recommended. This allowed Tony to remain in the workshop upstairs, which was off limits to everyone but his closest friends and required quite a bit work to set up. DUM-E and Butterfingers did not help, remaining gleefully underfoot the entire time.

Stephen came with all of his things on Wednesday; he didn’t have much in comparison and the penthouse was easy for the moving company to empty. The most difficult part was the grand piano, which had to be crane-lifted from street level to the sixth-floor patio and then eased through the French doors into the living area. Meanwhile, Tony brought his workshop to life, coaxing every holotable, console, and workstation online. He later caught the doctor doing the same for the Wizard’s Domain; Tony found it aggravating because Stephen did not use Dewey or alphabetization for the books, instead going by topic and genre.

“Only you understand how the books are organized,” Tony accused the doctor over dinner, “and I swear you intentionally do that to drive me crazy.”

“The shelves make perfect sense,” Stephen sniffed. “It’s not my fault if you can’t comprehend my system. And so sorry to burst your bubble, but I’ve been organizing my books like this since before I knew you.”

The cars arrived on Thursday, one by one tucked into the new garage with a considerable crowd spectating. It wasn’t everyday a truck came around the block with seven shiny exotic sports cars to unload: per Tony’s prediction, the spectacle made it beyond social media and into the local evening news. It didn’t help that Stephen came home in the Lamborghini just as the truck concluded its delivery.

“They’re not mentioning our names, though,” Tony noted as he scrolled through the assorted news feeds on his phone.

“The wards are working,” Stephen noted with pleasure, having spent weeks studying to master said wards. It apparently came in three distinct layers: the first and innermost a potent energy shield strong enough to rival a sanctum’s defenses, the second a cloaking ward that redirected people’s eyes and discouraged untoward attention from outsiders, and the third and outermost a ward that enveloped them in total silence. Nothing in and nothing out; no eavesdroppers, no breaches, and no spies.

“How exactly does it look from outside?” Tony asked with great curiosity. “Do they just forget that they saw us here? Do they not notice that it’s us to begin with?”

“They recall the experience just fine, but certain details are blurred or altered with suggestions their own imagination will supply. Human perception is incredibly fallible and easy to manipulate.”

“Where were you in my past life?” Tony complained, to which Stephen drolly responded, “Thirty blocks that way, slaving away in the hospital.” These days, it got easier and easier for them to speak about the future past in casual terms.

On Friday, Stephen was off. They went for their usual run and then did grocery shopping in the morning, stocking their pantry and kitchen with far too much food and the beginnings of an herb garden set out to grow on the patio. Tony got himself three tubs of Nutella despite JARVIS and Stephen’s pointed disapproval; it was his reward for a week of hard work. He deserved it.

“I deserve it,” he nodded again, gathering the Nutella into his arms and taking them to his workshop for his own private consumption. Sugar was an essential partner to caffeine on work-binges; this was a tried and tested formula, scientifically proven and peer-reviewed.

The subsequent afternoon was spent speaking to MIT to secure a dissertation chair now that the paperwork had gone through for their joint study. Once that was taken care of, Tony moved on to a comprehensive review of JARVIS’ installation log, ensuring that the home network was airtight and his integrated system—the very first iteration of a fully functioning StarkNest—was successfully online.

“All systems are fully operational, sir. The nanite foundry has sufficiently warmed up and will resume production in T-minus 35 minutes. I believe we have met your deadline with time to spare,” JARVIS sounded quite proud. Tony had wanted to take no more than a week for the move-in process, and it took exactly that.

“Like a well-oiled machine,” he spun around on his stool and flicked his palm up to summon rotating holos of his current works-in-progress. They hovered around him counterclockwise. “What do we want to work on tonight, JARVIS? Been a hot minute since I had an up-to-date workshop.” All that traveling to and from SI holdings in other states had taken time away from his productive binges, and while the townhouse in Murray Hill was cozy, spending so many weekends with Stephen had denied him the workspace he needed to do things like this.

“Perhaps fine-tuning TILDA, sir. It would be wise to polish her before the first payload launches in two months.”

Tony wheeled himself to a console and pulled up the young AI’s basecode. JARVIS was right; there was a lot of work to do here. TILDA—or Tactical Integrated Long-range Defense Augmentation—was the AI he built especially for the future space drones. With each new commercial satellite launched to expand Stark Industries’ global network went another payload of drones into low orbit. Given enough time, he could create what amounted to a network of drones draped around the globe, which would serve as their primary line of defense as well as an efficient intruder alarm system in the case of an unscheduled invasion. TILDA would be in charge of coordinating these drones, a tall task for such a young AI—and he wanted her to be able to work seamlessly with his other AIs should there be a need for him to deploy all of them at the same time. That required quite a bit of engineering finesse.

“Shall I play the Work It playlist, sir?”

“Hit it, J.”

This time around, he was wasting no time and asking for no one’s permission: he would arm the world, whether they liked it or not.




It was a rediscovered joy, playing at last in a workshop that was up to the standards of the future he left. His workshop was, without a doubt, the most advanced engineering laboratory on Earth, except maybe for the technologically superior Wakanda. Even then, they had things Wakanda had no conceivable way of acquiring. Some pieces of equipment were informed by alien tech that Tony had to learn while trying to survive space in the Milano. A few things were even imbued with Stephen’s magic—pieces of titanium alloy and a gauntlet that would become part of Mark 60—as a part of their ongoing experimentation merging magic with technology. If they could surround the Iron Man armor with magical shields and the capacity to portal, Tony would be nigh unstoppable in battle.

“J, how goes the production in the Malibu workshop?” Tony asked, looking up for a breath after about, oh, an hour of solid coding.

“Underway, sir. So far three more suits finished this week for a total of sixty-five Legionnaires.”

The Malibu workshop was now entirely gutted of his creature comforts, instead transmogrified into an assembly line for Legionnaires. Only the house above remained as is, available for use should they ever need to be in California again.

Tony worked for another three hours before Stephen came up to interrupt him.

“Dinner’s ready,” the doctor said, looking over his head. “Working on TILDA?”

“She’s gonna be gorgeous, wait and see,” Tony grinned, finishing another line of code before standing and stretching with a grunt. “Everything good with your med bay? Do you like it?”

“It’s phenomenal, thank you,” Stephen smiled.

“I have a feeling I’ll be the most frequent patient to grace that bay, so don’t thank me. I’m just investing in my future health.”

Stephen didn’t contradict that. They made their way upstairs to their new kitchen, where takeout was sitting on the counter.

“What did we buy all that food for if we were just gonna get takeout?” Tony laughed.

“We were both busy working,” Stephen shrugged, “we can cook tomorrow.”

“No, no, we’re eating out tomorrow! Dinner with friends, remember?” Tony began pulling containers from the paper bags, crooning at the smell of coconut curry. “Is this from that place around the corner? I’ve been wanting to try it since last month!”

Dinner isn’t the only meal in a day. Did they add the garlic naan like I asked for?”

“It’s here. Is Christine coming tomorrow?” Tony asked, because he’d been trying to get her to meet Pepper, but it had yet to happen. “Oh, by the way, Rhodey says he can come. He’ll drive in and stay the night.”

They sat down at the kitchen island with their spread, eating with their fingers (“Naan’s supposed to be eaten with your fingers,” Stephen insisted) and debating what restaurant to patronize for the celebratory move-in dinner. After half an hour of nothing, Tony gave up.

“Fuck it, let’s do pizza.”

“We went from Michelin stars to pizza?”

“Authentic New York pizza!” Tony swiped the last samosa from the box and said, “You can never go wrong with pizza. J, tell me the best place.”

Best is a relative quantifier, sir,” JARVIS responded, “and there are several long lists to be found on the internet. I suppose it depends who you ask.”

They kept debating the issue as they disposed of their trash, and as they ate dessert on their new patio, and as they returned downstairs to get ready for bed. In fact, they kept debating it until the following morning while they were breaking in the new gym on the ground floor.

“Look, what do you have against pizza?” Tony sighed, glaring upside-down at Stephen as he transitioned into a downward dog.

“Nothing, I just enjoy being contrary with you,” the asshole had the gall to chuckle.

Urgh, you’re a little shit, you know that?”

“So I’ve been told.”

“JARVIS, tell everyone it’ll be pizza.” Tony sank into a child’s pose and reached forward to stretch his shoulders and flank, grunting when a warm hand pushed his lower back down towards the floor.

“Your flexibility is not bad, but your breathing is for shit. Control, Tony.”

Tony inhaled and exhaled with Stephen. “Let me guess, yoga is its own study at Kamar-Taj.”

“We employ a martial art called the Gentle Palm,” Stephen said as they both stood and faced each other. “There’s nothing gentle about it.”

“Let’s see it, then,” Tony stepped into a ready stance, years of combat experience and several different martial disciplines informing his own style. His was born more of practicality than anything else. It would be interesting to see how well he held up against a classically trained martial artist.

As always when they spun together, it was a playful dance. Tony always lunged first, Stephen dodging his fists by the breadth of a hair. Stephen caught his fist and pulled him into an arm lock; Tony broke out of it with a move he learned from Natasha. The two of them then began trading blows in a rapid, dirty fistfight that Stephen had to break up with spinning kicks before he lost.

“You don’t use your hands as much,” Tony noted.

“Force of habit,” Stephen acknowledged, “I have to break it.”

“Your old injury?”

“It used to hurt when I punched anything,” Stephen lunged forward with well-placed jabs, landing one of them on Tony’s upper arm, “but not anymore.”

Gentle Palm made a moving work of art out of Stephen. A few were executed so beautifully that Tony would have gotten pummeled in distraction had it not been for his own instincts saving him. He did have several years of the superhero life on Stephen, and while the Iron Man armor wasn’t originally meant for close-range combat, he had learned not to slack on training for whenever the armor was unavailable—and especially after Siberia.

Stephen then stepped into Tony’s space a little too far; Tony took him by the shoulder and threw him sideways into the floor. He pinned the wizard down with a knee and held his position despite a brief lurching struggle.

“Don’t look so surprised,” Tony grinned, looming over Stephen as he braced his weight on a fist. “I threw punches with super soldiers for the better part of a decade. I picked up a few things.” He sat back, straddling the doctor’s stomach. “That was the same move that got you down last time. We gotta work on getting you to avoid it.”

Stephen sagged against the mat. “I was never the best at hand-to-hand combat. Spellwork is my strength.”

“I dunno, you looked pretty good to me,” Tony shrugged. “I mean, you’re not Rogers or Natashalie, but you’re up there.”

“Thanks, I think.” Stephen patted his knee to make him get off. “Karl—Master Mordo, you met him—is a much stronger physical combatant than I am. He was my trainer, but I became a master much too fast didn’t really finish my formal physical training. Before I knew it, I was taking up the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, and after that there was no more time.”

“We can work on it. I think we should spar at least twice or thrice a week. Certainly can’t get rusty,” Tony rose and offered Stephen a hand.

Stephen took it and yanked him in, landing a punch.

“Ow, shit!” Tony yelped, breaking free and hopping away. He fell into a defensive stance and scowled, “Is that how we’re gonna play then?”

“We’re working on it,” Stephen smirked, beckoning him back. “Round two.”

They kept at it for the better part of the morning, stopping only when they could barely breathe. Tony didn’t want to go all the way upstairs so he made use of the shower built into the gym. A nap, he thought to himself, after a snack. God, I’ve become an old man.

He changed into fresh clothes and later laid himself out on the couch in the living space upstairs, savoring the fresh spring air from the open French doors while Stephen puttered about in the kitchen for tea. He was bullied into drinking half a liter of fluids before Stephen left him alone in favor of the piano.

For some time, there was only Liszt and the peace of a sunny afternoon. Tony felt good about himself and the world around him. He should have known that the universe liked to knock him down a peg or two in times like these.




Dinner was at seven, plenty of time to get ready. Happy was supposed to take Pepper from her hotel and swing by to fetch Christine, while Rhodey was driving in. Tony and Stephen left the brownstone a little after six in the diamond-white Aston Martin Valkyrie. Not his most expensive car but certainly the most head-turning one.

“Seems like such a sin to drive her on these streets,” Stephen sighed, running a reverent hand over the car’s supple leather interior. “I bet she can outpace the Lambo. But Manhattan traffic’s too slow to do anything with her.”

“Yeah, but slow traffic also means I get to show this baby off,” Tony grinned. “J, let’s play some music.”

They cruised down 2nd Avenue until they entered East Village, a trip that would have been much faster if they’d taken the subway except neither of them were willing. The restaurant JARVIS had picked for them was a typical hole-in-the-wall establishment. It was limited seating and the owners usually didn’t take reservations, but for Iron Man they did. Tony only had to promise to pose for a photo and give an autograph.

Rhodey was already there when they arrived, arms crossed and shaking his head as Tony parked curbside right in front of the restaurant’s doors. A queue for the restaurant was well underway, but every person there was now gawking at the Aston Martin, phones whipped out to snap photographic proof. When the car doors opened upwards like wings, a communal croon of awe greeted them.

“Seriously?” Rhodey deadpanned.

“Platypus!” Tony draped himself over his friend, who acted put upon but graced him with a hug all the same. “Ready for a break from DC? Don’t know how you do it, but better you than me.”

“You’ve been to DC quite a bit lately, though,” Rhodey remarked.

Tony released him with a grin. “Yeah, but I got Steph to look forward to after wrangling Congress.”

“Hey, man,” Rhodey exchanged a handshake with Stephen, “thanks for keeping a handle on this one. I know it’s hard work.”

“I was looking forward to seeing Pepper again, actually,” Stephen adjusted his blazer, “because I think I need to review the return policy.”

Rhodey laughed as Tony squawked in offence. “You can’t return me anymore, you moved in with me!”

“Tones, he can always move out,” Rhodey winked conspiratorially at Stephen as they walked into the restaurant. “Give him enough grief and he just might.”

It was obvious that the restaurant owners didn’t really believe Iron Man would come but had a table ready for six anyway. When they walked in and Tony removed his shades, the proprietor spluttered in surprise, stuttering as he seated them the corner near the window. “W-Will this be okay, Mr. Stark? The, uh, the oven side of the room gets a little too warm sometimes.”

“It’s perfect,” Tony smiled. “Did you want the picture now or later?”

The owner’s wife promptly came out from behind the still and prepared for a pose. Tony recruited Rhodey to take the picture for them. While he was occupied posing for their reserved seats, the rest of the party came in, Stephen welcoming them near the doors.

“Wow, a photo shoot already,” Christine was saying to Stephen when Tony and Rhodey returned to the table, “that celebrity life must be something to adjust to, huh, Stephen?”

Stephen only responded with a flat glare.

Tony slid into a seat next to Stephen, wedging the doctor into the corner against the window. Rhodey slid in next to him, with Happy, Christine, and Pepper sitting on the opposite side. “Pep, this is Christine! Christine, Pep!”

“Yes, Tony, we met in the car,” Pepper chuckled, looking up briefly from the menu before exchanging a glance with Christine. She asked Stephen, “How much caffeine did he have before this?”

“Only three cups today,” Stephen said without looking up from the menu. He poked Tony’s arm and said, “Let’s split an amatriciana.”

“I want antipasti,” Pepper hummed, “what sounds good to everyone, salumi or mortadella?”

“Ooh, mortadella,” said Christine.

“I’ll eat whatever you get,” said Rhodey, a sentiment Happy echoed.

“Have either of you been here before?” Pepper asked Stephen and Christine.

“Nope.”

“Yes, we have! The Upper West Side branch,” Christine smiled at Pepper, “it’s not that far from Columbia.”

“Wait,” Stephen frowned, “oh yeah, we have. A long time ago.”

They placed their orders, Tony asking for whatever the owner judged to be his best pizza while Stephen asked for two bottles of Lambrusco.

“How goes the move-in?” Rhodey asked.

“Done!” Tony spread his arms and threw one each behind the two men on either side of him. “Steph likes his new digs, don’t you, babe?”

“You can only compliment yourself so much before you choke,” Stephen drily retorted. To Pepper, he asked, “Can I give him back now, or did I pass the return period?”

Pepper rocked back in her chair with a hearty laugh. Christine likewise giggled, leaning into the table with an elbow. “You moved in together, Stephen, you who swore up and down that you would never give up your independence. I think you’ve blasted past the return-by date on this one.”

“You can’t walk out anymore, it’s too late, I have you hooked,” Tony said, leaning into Stephen’s shoulder. “Think about it: if you leave, you have no JARVIS, no library, no pool—”

“A pool?” Christine almost choked on her water.

“Tones, why the fuck is there a pool?” Rhodey sighed in dismay. “I told you not to do the pool.”

“But why not?”

“Oh, I don’t know, it’s a waste of space? It’s only Manhattan,” Rhodey emphasized.

“It’s not like I can’t afford it,” Tony whined—

“Actually, about that,” Pepper pointed a manicured finger at his nose, “if you don’t slow down, Mr. Stark, you’re gonna go broke in a few years.”

Tony staged a gasp. “A few ye—exCUSE you, Miss Potts! Broke is not in my vocabulary! I’ll recoup all the spending in two or three quarters, watch me!”

“Hm, I’ll believe it when I see it,” Pepper slyly smiled.

“Challenge accepted.”

“Okay, alright, calm down,” Rhodey tugged on the back of Tony’s blazer, “the pizza’s here and you’re in public. Behave.”

The pizza was delicious, the company even more so. Rhodey and Christine entertained everyone by rehashing Tony’s most embarrassing stunts and Stephen’s most atrocious behavior respectively; even Happy was able to relax enough midway into the meal that he too started sharing stories about Tony.

“You complain but remember that you were the one who insisted we had to meet,” Pepper laughed, bright-cheeked as she leaned against Christine.

“Anyway, so he dropped the knife on his crotch,” Rhodey continued, earning a wheeze of disbelief from Christine, “but he was lucky, it only cut his thigh—”

“I could have bled out! My legacy could have died!” Tony indignantly yelped, “This is not something to laugh about!”

Next to him, Stephen crossed his legs. “What ever possessed you to juggle knives when you were high?”

Tony retorted, “I was high. I wasn’t exactly rational.”

“Oh my god, I wish I was that ER doctor who treated you,” snickered Christine, to which Pepper responded, “Oh, nonono, you don’t, trust me, you don’t—he’s a horrible patient. Terrible. The worst.”

“I can attest to this,” Stephen agreed.

“Hey, I listen to you!” Tony cried.

“Sometimes.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re mean! Was there ever a time when his bedside manner was better than it is today?” Tony asked Christine, who burst out in bright laughter. “Because he’s a meanie! He’s a bossy meanie!”

“He’s actually much better now,” Christine confessed with a chuckle, actual tears of mirth in her eyes. “When we were in residency, I gave him this dare—”

“Ugh, this again?”

“—that he couldn’t manage an emergency vaginal delivery by himself,” she finished her wineglass and continued, “so he took the first case that came through the doors and oh my god, that poor mother—Stephen said, he said, ma’am, if you don’t start pushing, I’ll push you into the OR myself and do a C-section!”

“My god,” Pepper said, horrified, hand on her chest.

“That’s Tony-level right there,” Happy agreed.

Stephen rolled his eyes and said, “She was taking forever and kept screaming. If she had the energy to scream, she had the energy to push. But she wouldn’t listen.”

“And then, icing on the cake,” Christine leaned both elbows on the table, “after the case ended, this asshole over here told the poor mom, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Anyway, my skills are wasted on this—before he walked away!”

Tony wheezed, dropping his forehead on Stephen’s shoulder. He clung to his erstwhile ‘boyfriend’ and said, “You’re an asshole and I love it. You tell it like it is!”

“There’s two of them,” Rhodey sighed in dismay.

“Yep,” Happy succinctly agreed.

More stories, more laughter. Tony was happy and relaxed in the company of faithful friends. Before long, the restaurant became far too warm with all the wine and food they had consumed, so the six of them spilled out into the street after Tony paid the bill. The night was still young, at least for a Manhattan Saturday. There was still a queue outside, although shorter. Tony stretched and groaned, “I think we ate too much.”

“Probably, but it was so good,” Pepper said, adjusting her suit dress. “I’m about to burst.”

Rhodey was shrugging his jacket back on and asked, “Where did you—Tony, get down!

A familiar whip whizzed by his head, slicing the car in front of his Aston Martin into two. Screams rang out from behind him. Tony ducked.

What the fuck?!

Instinct made him sprint forward, past the smoking car and away from the majority of the crowd. This asshole was after him. He had to minimize the casualties. The lingering happiness of the evening scattered from him to leave behind only cold, focused calculation.

“Stephen, Rhodey, get the ladies out of here.”

“Tony—”

“I got this, Rhodey, get them out of here! J, let’s get NYPD on board, we need a barricade.”

“Affirmative, sir. NYPD’s ETA is 10 minutes.”

With a twist of his wristwatch, he called the suit. It took a minute before the modular Mark 34 came to him from the Aston Martin’s trunk. He could have used Mark 52, but—another whip came sailing over his head, he ducked and rolled, holding his arms out as the modular armor secured itself over his torso—

Mark 52 would give away the nanotech. This isn’t worth that.

“STARK!” Vanko called out, spinning both whips together in an electrified tornado, “Running away will do you no favors!” A whip whizzed through the street and sliced through yet another car.

“You’re ruining my night out with friends, bud,” Tony snapped. His anger rose so quickly that he could hear the blood rushing in his ears. He stood as the modular suit finished assembling its embrace around him.

Ivan Vanko, who stood on the street laughing like a fucking maniac, sent bolts of electricity crawling across the whips with a twist of his hands. “Big man hiding behind a suit of armor, look at you! You don’t know who I am—”

“And I don’t need to know. Anyway, monologue aside, let’s get this over with, preferably without wrecking my Aston Martin.”

Tony finally stepped onto the street, gauntlets pointed forward. He didn’t fire because he didn’t need to, waiting instead for Vanko’s move. Vanko threw a whip forward; Tony caught it. Another whip flashed up to coil around his neck and arm. Vanko supercharged them both with wreaths of lightning, which once upon a time would have shorted Tony’s armor.

In the improved Mark 32’s case, the armor greedily sucked up the energy.

The arc reactor on his chest glowed brighter with each surge. Tony kept a tight hold on the whips and asked, “That all you got in that fake reactor of yours?”

Clearly this was not how Vanko envisioned the encounter would go. Snarling, the man yanked at the whips—but Tony wouldn’t budge.

“No; you come to me.

Tony pulled and Vanko came sailing towards him; he met the man’s jaw with a fist. Vanko’s head snapped back with a crack, the whips loosening around Tony’s neck and arm as Vanko’s body hit a nearby car with a sick crunch. The man twitched once and then slumped motionless. When it became clear he wouldn’t get back up, Tony approached.

“J, he alive?”

“Life signs detected, but fading,” JARVIS displayed a rundown of Vanko’s vitals on his HUD. “It seems he has suffered a C-spine injury in addition to a skull fracture and a severe concussion. He was not wearing a helmet.”

Tony snorted, lowering his gauntlet. “Safety first, kids.”

“Tony!” Rhodey yelled from further down the street, “All clear?”

“Clear,” he verified, as three NYPD squad cars came careening around the corner. He took Vanko’s reactor and crushed it in one hand, killing the whips’ power source. “Officers, no need for the weapons. He’s out.”

Stepping back, he allowed the police officers to secure Vanko while watchfully monitoring the periphery for any more trouble. The media was arriving now, a few minutes too late; they would have to rely on bystander video if they wanted to see the actual fight. An officer approached him, so Tony flipped his faceplate open.

“M-Mr. Stark, sir, we’ll, uh, be needing your statement, sir.”

“Sure, I can give you video too. Anyone injured?”

“Uh, the gentleman over there rear-ended someone and it deployed his airbags, but uh, otherwise no one was hurt.”

“Do me a solid and send me the list of the people whose cars got damaged tonight, I’ll buy them a new one. Where do you want me to send the video?”

The officer gave him an email address and then took his statement, brief and to the point. It took all of ten minutes, but that was long enough for press coverage to set up at the barricade the police made near the end of the street. “Mr. Stark! Mr. Stark!” they were yelling. Tony went towards them. Press was best handled proactively, after all.

He passed his friends, who were still standing near the restaurant’s doors, and said, “Babe, take the car back home. Meet you all there, this should only take a minute.”

Stephen nodded and went. When Tony was assured that all of them were getting out of the scene, he turned back towards the press and gave them a showman’s grin.

“Hi, guys! You’re all looking very lively this evening!”

“Mr. Stark, who was that guy who just attacked you?”

“Fuck if I know, I was just out having dinner with my friends,” Tony shrugged and held two arms up as if to say, what can you do?

“Is he alive?”

“I think so, but he was out like a light. That’s why you wear a helmet when doing dangerous stunts, kids.”

“What are you gonna do about him now?”

“Nothing! That’s NYPD’s jurisdiction now, let’s respect them and help them do their jobs, alright?” Maybe he could use this to buy himself some support from the local police. They were going to have to put up with him for the foreseeable future, after all. “I gave an officer my full statement and video evidence of the short encounter. I’m as curious about that guy’s identity as all of you doubtlessly are, and the less we interfere with NYPD, the faster they can do their jobs and let us all know.”

“Mr. Stark, who were you having dinner with?”

“Now that,” Tony pointed at the reporter, “is just lazy journalism right there. You can find that out for yourself, buddy, we weren’t exactly hiding. But what’s a guy gotta do to have pizza in peace these days? I mean, come on.”

A wave of laughter swept over the small crowd at the same time as a flurry of shutterclicks and camera flashes.

“Right, gotta go now, wanna make sure my friends are ok. Later, folks.”

His faceplate slid back down and he blasted up into the air, accelerating until he was well above the skyline and felt like he could breathe again.

Why does the universe hate my fucking guts? I was having a good day,” he snarled with no one but JARVIS to hear him.

Now that the threat was neutralized, his anger and frustration boiled up to the surface. Tony flew higher and higher until there was nothing but empty space above him, distant stars twinkling beyond the planet’s atmosphere.

He had to admit that he had forgotten Vanko.

Or more precisely, he had forgotten to consider Vanko.

He had no plans to race in Monaco this time around so he had assumed the encounter wouldn’t happen—but Vanko effectively proved him wrong and Stephen right. The more they changed of this reality’s timeline, the less useful their foresight became. From here, it would become a delicate balancing act: some things they would have to change just as some things they would have to let go. Deciding which was which would be the tricky part.

I was also growing complacent.

Tony had to acknowledge that too. Domesticity and rest had a way of doing that to a person, especially when it had been so long since Tony knew peace like this. He had foreknowledge, a second chance, and a partner—the abundance of good fortune almost seemed obscene. His plans were working. For once, things were looking up.

And that’s fine, Tony thought to himself, that’s okay. I can let myself rest for now. I can allow myself to recover while there’s time. But I also can’t lose sight.

Wasn’t that what the Ancient One warned Stephen about? Losing sight was so easy, especially since they had almost ten years before Thanos. That could change, of course—perhaps it already did—but nevertheless, they had a lot of time.

We can’t allow ourselves to get lured into a false sense of security.

“Sir, Stephen and the others are five minutes out from the brownstone,” JARVIS informed him. “It might be prudent to return lest they arrive and find out that you have yet to come home.”

“Right, I should beat them.”

Tony cut his thrusters and allowed himself to freefall, twisting in the air to orient himself downwards before blasting off again. Manhattan came back into view as he blew past a shroud of low clouds, the city’s blazing lights blinding in the night.

The brownstone was only four blocks from the southeast corner of Central Park, easy to spot against the taller structures it stood next to. Holographic guidelights that only Tony could see illuminated the landing hatch built into the patio that Stephen wanted to make into an herb garden. A dozen meters away, Tony flipped topside-up and gently lowered into the open hatch. His workshop’s ambient lowlights greeted him as his armored feet touched down.

“Welcome home, sir. Diagnostics and repair sequence initialized. Please step out of the armor.”

Tony stepped out of Mark 32, patting the armor’s singed arm plates with fondness. “Damage should be mostly cosmetic, unless you’re telling me that power surge hurt the reactor somehow.”

“Negative. The arc reactor is capable of a much higher energy output.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“If I may, sir, Dr. Strange has arrived and is currently instructing me to direct you to the med bay at once.”

“Surprised he hasn’t come up here to drag me himself.”

“He knows the others don’t have clearance to enter your workshop, sir.”

Tony conceded that and had a ready smile for when they all rushed out of the elevator towards him. “I’m fine, I’m fine, that was small fry.”

“That was not fine!” Pepper exclaimed at the same time as Rhodey snapping, “Who was he?”

“Beats me, Platypus. Ow, what—”

“You’re bleeding,” Stephen quietly said, holding him by the jaw and tilting his face just so. “It’s a small cut. Come here and sit down.”

“I don’t even feel it, I promise.”

“You will when I stitch it shut.”

“Jesus, what is this? It’s like a, a miniature trauma bay,” Christine marveled at the med bay, now arranged just the way Stephen preferred. “Why do you have this here?”

“You have to ask that question after you saw that stunt?” Stephen said. “Tony’s a walking hazard. It’s only a matter of when and how.”

Tony found himself manhandled towards a desk where he was instructed to sit. One of the medibots rolled over and stopped next to Stephen’s leg with a bleep, holding up a kit that had basic first aid supplies. Stephen sanitized his hands and donned a pair of gloves to clean the cut with hydrogen peroxide.

“Tony, who was that guy and what did he want?” Rhodey asked, arms crossed and expression grim.

“Again, don’t know and didn’t ask,” Tony tried to move his head but Stephen held his jaw in a firm grip. “Babe, that’s making my eye sting.”

“Close your eyes,” Stephen quietly told him, stepping closer to begin stitching now that the cut was clean. Tony parted his knees to give Stephen space, putting a hand on the doctor’s hip to give himself something to hold on to. “This will briefly hurt,” Stephen warned.

“Um, don’t you have lidocaine?” Christine said from somewhere behind Stephen.

“Three stitches,” Stephen said, voice low and warm above him. “Do you need lidocaine, Tony?”

“Nope. High pain tolerance. Surgery in a cave followed by torture, remember? Just do it.”

He felt the needle slide into his skin and suppressed the reflexive flinch. Stephen’s breathing techniques came in handy; he focused on the steady rush of air in and out of his lungs, hands clenched tight over the doctor’s hips.

“He wouldn’t have attacked you in the middle of the street if he was no one,” Rhodey reasoned, perhaps seeking to distract him, “and those whips he had, they were also powered by a reactor like yours.”

“I know, I destroyed it,” Tony said without opening his eyes. “I’ll find out who he is, honeybear, I just think he’s not a problem anymore. Pretty sure he’s a goner, he cracked his C-spine when he hit that car.”

“Well, he asked for it,” Happy grunted somewhere to Tony’s left.

“NYPD will look into it and let me know. Pep, I told them to send me the details of the people whose cars got damaged. I want to pay for it.”

Pepper sighed. “Tony, you don’t need to do that.”

“But I want to, so let’s get it done.”

“That’s really nice of you,” Christine gently acknowledged, “but that really wasn’t your fault. You were just having dinner. You didn’t technically do any damage yourself.”

“That’s what I keep telling him, but he never listens to me,” Pepper hissed.

“Well, none of that damage would have happened if I wasn’t there—"

“Tony,” Stephen took his jaw with tight fingers, making him open his eyes. In the med bay’s white light, Stephen’s eyes were a firm, flinty grey. “You cannot control other people’s actions. What they do is on them. The world is not only yours to shoulder. We talked about this, remember?”

They held each other’s gaze, Tony vividly recalling their conversation. He wasn’t alone anymore. He had a partner now. Sighing, he closed his eyes again, allowing Stephen to finish the final stitch in silence. Once Stephen was done, he sighed, “Fine, it wasn’t my fault. But I still want to pay for it. I feel sorry for all those people, cars can be expensive.” He opened his eyes and looked up just in time to see the incredulous look on Rhodey’s face. “What?”

“You got him to admit it wasn’t his fault,” Rhodey said to Stephen, “what are you, magic?”

“Pft,” Tony grinned at Rhodey, “I guess it is a kind of magic.”

He didn’t need to see the eyeroll to know it was there.

“A shower,” Stephen declared, “and then to bed for you.”

“But I’m all keyed up now!” Tony whined.

“The doc can wear you out,” Rhodey snorted, shaking his head. “There a room I can borrow in this joint?”

JARVIS responded, “Your room is on the second floor, Colonel. Dr. Palmer and Mr. Hogan, you are welcome to choose a guest suite likewise. Miss Potts—”

“No, no, no! I want to show her, JARVIS!” Tony slid off the desk and would have headed for the elevator if not for Pepper’s vaunted restraint.

“Whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow morning. You need to rest, and so do I.” She leveled him with a gimlet stare under which he quailed. “JARVIS, I’ll also take a guest room, if that’s okay.”

“Of course, Miss Potts. There are plenty on the second floor.”

Crisis averted, they all went their separate ways, the med bay shutting down as soon as they all stepped into the elevator. Stephen and Tony debarked on the third floor where the master suite was located. They bid everyone good night and locked the suite, Tony’s shoulders sagging now that he knew he was completely safe.

“Are you alright?” Stephen’s hand landed on his shoulder, warm with concern. “That was unexpected.”

“No fucking shit,” Tony shuddered on the exhale, “and it could have gone so much worse.”

“You knew him.”

“Ivan Vanko. He fucked me up in Monaco.”

“Why wasn’t he in the timeline?” Stephen asked, referring to the timeline of changes they built with JARVIS.

“Because I had no intention of going racing in Monaco this time, that’s why. Ugh, it’s stupid. I was stupid. I fucked up.”

“Hey,” Stephen took him by the elbow, “Tony, stop. You dealt with it. It’s done.”

“It’s done,” Tony exhaled again.

“No casualties and minimal damage. I could have made it no damage if I could use my magic, but you did say you wanted to keep me a secret.”

“Damn right, I do.” Tony shrugged his jacket off. “A shower does sound good right about now. Can I run water over the stitches, or…?”

“You can, just be gentle. Unfortunately, I can’t completely heal it now since they’ve already seen it. But I can take away the pain and accelerate the healing.”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s just a cut.” And then, because Tony wanted Stephen to know that his presence and support was appreciated, he turned and said, “Thank you.”

Stephen looked at him with calm blue eyes. “You’re welcome.”

 

The shower was therapeutic. Water sluiced over his shoulders, the rainfall showerhead feeling divine on his skin. By the time he stepped out, his adrenaline high was crashing and the fatigue was catching up. All of the aches he carried from their morning spar made themselves known once again. He put on lounge pants and brushed his teeth next to Stephen. The cut didn’t look bad at all in the mirror, only about an inch long and not very swollen. He told JARVIS to dim the bedroom lights and crawled into bed.

I’m in a younger body, Tony thought, but I still feel like an old man.

‘Old souls’ suddenly made so much sense. That was what they were: old souls trapped in younger bodies. Tony imagined for a moment what this whole ordeal would have been like if came back to the past alone. He shuddered.

Perish the thought.

Unable to settle, he pulled one of the many pillows to his chest and hugged it, waiting for Stephen to come to bed. If he were alone, he would have had to strategize by himself, handle the fights by himself, gosh, handle the whole world by himself. There would have been no rest or respite. There would have been none of this.

Stephen came out of the bathroom then. “Still awake.”

“Can’t sleep,” Tony mumbled.

“What are you thinking about?” Stephen sank under the covers as JARVIS turned off the lights.

“What-ifs,” Tony said into the dark. “They’re in my head all the time, these what-ifs. What if I was alone? What if I didn’t have you? What if I fucked up? Do you ever think of the what-ifs?”

Stephen replied, equally quiet, almost whispering in the darkness, “What if I just doomed us to suffer the same failure by bringing us here? What if I broke the laws of nature for nothing but a worse outcome? What if I condemned you, after you’ve already sacrificed yourself for us, to a world of even more hurt? …I think about what-ifs all the time.”

In a rare moment of vulnerability, Tony reached for a hand in the darkness. This bed was the same size as the one in California, far larger than the cozy queen they shared in Stephen’s old townhouse, but if he slid a little closer, they were still close enough to touch. Stephen turned to face him and took his hand.

There were no more words. Together, they slid into a dream.




The void yawned around them, an empty expanse.

Water was under their feet.

Tony looked and saw Stephen standing next to him, lit from within like an ethereal human lantern. When he moved, the water rippled outwards into infinity.

“What is this place?” Tony asked, unable to find any defining feature in the strange environment.

“A dreamscape,” Stephen looked straight ahead. “Someone else is here.”

“Why water?” Tony stomped his bare foot and although the water rippled, it made no sound.

“Water is a conduit,” a familiar voice explained. “Midgard is a great distance to traverse from Asgard, even in dreams.”

Loki materialized before them, clad in robes of emerald and gold, long hair bound in braids. For a breathless moment, all three of them remained perfectly still, considering each other in the echoing expanse of this strange dreamscape. The last time they all stood together was when they took the biggest gamble ever made.

“What took you so long, Reindeer Games?”

“Asgard is a stubborn bitch to rule,” Loki spat, “and my oaf of a brother saw fit to create complications that we could have done entirely without.”

“Regretting the whole conquering bit now that you actually have to be responsible for shit, are you,” Stephen darkly smiled.

“Hold on, what kind of complications are we talking about here?” Tony asked, a little alarmed.

“It has been dealt with. Thor is currently on your realm, did you not know?” Tony and Stephen looked at each other; Loki clicked his tongue. “What have you been doing with your time? Laying idle while your backwater planet turns for another wasted day?”

“Watch it, Shakespeare.”

“We’ve been doing our own part,” Stephen interjected before Tony could get truly riled up. “The Time Stone is secure. The Tesseract remains with SHIELD and we have agreed to let that be for now.”

Loki hissed, “Pray tell why?”

“Because I can’t just get away with stealing it, dipshit, or I’ll start a fucking war,” Tony irritably sighed. “Look, Midgardian politics can be very messy and convoluted. If I grab the Tesseract now, I’ll lose the clout I’ve been working hard to build, and when the time comes for the real war, they won’t listen to me. If they don’t listen to me, they’re toast, because they sure as hell aren’t going to listen to Stephen. Humans don’t believe in magic, remember? They believe in technology and money. I have both.”

A pause, and then, “That still gives us only two stones,” Loki tipped his head backwards with a sigh. “He has the Mind Stone already. The Aether will remain hidden for another three years until the Convergence. The Power Stone is in what you call the Andromeda Galaxy. And the Soul Stone…”

“Vormir,” Stephen said, tone grave, “but it exacts a high cost.”

“What cost?” Tony asked, “And where’s Vormir?”

“Far,” Stephen frowned.

“Nothing is far when you have a Bifrost,” Loki corrected. “The problem is that I’m sure none of us are willing to pay the cost.”

“Aaand will someone tell me what’s the cost?”

“A sacrifice,” Stephen turned to Tony, “of the person you hold dearest to your heart. A soul for a soul.”

Tony reared back, aghast and stunned. What the hell was this, Harry Potter? Didn’t Stephen mention that he and the Avengers collected all the stones in the future he came from? Who— “Who the fuck did we sacrifice?”

“I was told it was the Black Widow,” Stephen sighed, “but I was also told that she sacrificed herself instead of letting Hawkeye take the fall.”

“Because Clint has kids, oh my god,” Tony clutched his stomach, struck with the odd and sudden urge to throw up. “I’m gonna be sick.”

“You see,” Loki looked upon the both of them with troubled eyes, “all three of us would be perfectly capable and willing to sacrificing ourselves, but that simply won’t do.”

“How about we just leave that fucking stone where it is and focus on the others?” Tony threw his arm out in frustration. “I mean, I’m assuming Purple Alien Mafia Boss doesn’t know where it is yet or he’d have taken it. So let’s—what about the Power Stone? I’m more than willing to hop on a spaceship and jet it to the Andromeda Galaxy if that’s what needs to be done.”

“You’re right, and moreover, none of us can afford to sacrifice ourselves, especially not so early in the game,” Stephen pinned them all with a flinty, stern look. “We have to survive until the end. Our survival greatly increases the chances for success.”

“Rest assured I have no plans for my early demise,” Loki folded his arms under the fall of his sleeves. “I will look towards the distant galaxies in search of the Power Stone. I have the Bifrost and can traverse great distances with more ease than either of you. In the meantime, keep watch over your two stones on Midgard and set eyes on a mortal woman by the name of Jane Foster. It is she who found the Aether in the reality from whence we came.”

“Jane Foster, the astrophysicist?” Tony blinked, “I know her work, she’s brilliant.”

“All the better. Use your considerable influence and keep her close, Stark. She will be a key.” Loki’s mouth twisted in an unpleasant grimace when he added, “She might be providing succor to Thor on Midgard at this very moment. Perhaps remain at a safe distance until Thor regains his powers and is once again called to Asgard. Thor might not appreciate other men vying for the attention of his dearly beloved. He can be kind, but if he perceives a threat, he can also be ruthless and stupid about it.”

“Wow, he pissed you off that much, huh.” Knowing Thor’s temper, though, Tony wasn’t surprised.

“He is responsible for many misdemeanors, not the least of which included a plague that beset itself upon the populace of Asgard.” At the alarm that crossed both of Tony and Stephen’s faces, Loki added, “I have cured it for him, of course, destined as I am to be forever mopping up his messes. Nevertheless he has shown himself to be an unfit king. He will have to work to regain the Asgardian Council’s trust if he wants to rule.”

“You mean to say you’re king right now?” Tony blinked in surprise. “Where’s Odin?”

“Asleep. It’s complicated,” Loki dismissed the issue with a wave of his hand. Complicated wasn’t enough of a descriptor to fit the ups and downs of the Asgardian royal family’s drama, in Tony’s honest opinion, but okay. “Since I am on the throne, I am yet unable to make my way to Midgard. You will have to fend for yourselves. As soon as I am able, I will reach out again. Do not call for me with your voice, as that would attract Heimdall the Gatekeeper’s Sight; he must not suspect anything. Simply visit this dreamscape if you have need of me.”

“I have no idea how to do that,” Tony said, but Stephen nodded.

“Understood,” said the wizard. “If you have a chance, look for the Guardians of the Galaxy. They’re a group led by a half-human known as Peter Quill. They will soon travel with Gamora, daughter of Thanos. At one point, they were in possession of the Power Stone. I’m unsure as to the timeline, but they will have clues.”

Loki tilted his head in acknowledgement. “What further information do you have for me?”

Tony shrugged, “That’s it, I think. The rest is, uh, Midgardian drudgery.”

“Do not be distracted by irrelevant concerns,” Loki leveled a stern gaze over them. “It took your future souls an age to assimilate to your mortal bodies and yet another age to wake; we cannot afford to waste any more time.”

“Rest assured we understand the stakes just as well as you do,” Stephen shot back. “We faced Thanos too, and unlike the two of you, I lived through the aftermath.”

Tony and Loki both looked at Stephen. Silence descended upon them once again.

“We shall speak again soon,” Loki dipped his head and began to disintegrate. “I must return to my duties. Asgard will not rule itself.”

“You’re annoying, bye.”

As soon as Loki disappeared from the dreamscape, it dissolved into a dark mist and Tony woke up.

“Must you antagonize him?” Stephen asked from somewhere beside him.

Tony exhaled and said, “I think it’s instinct by now, I’m sorry, what the fuck was that?” Their room was still pitch dark. His hand twitched in Stephen’s loose grip.

“Dreamwalking. It’s a very advanced technique, incredibly difficult at great distances. He’s… powerful to have managed that.”

“Could he not have, I don’t know, Bifrosted here and then back? That seems easier,” Tony mused. “JARVIS, buddy, add a reminder for me to contact Dr. Jane Foster in the morning.”

“Certainly, sir. Are you well? I detected a spike in your heart rate a minute ago.”

“I’m fine, J, just more weird magic shit. Well?”

“He said he couldn’t afford to let anyone know. Using the Bifrost would attract a lot of attention, both in Asgard and on Earth. Can you imagine how much press you’ll have to field if the Bifrost runes suddenly appeared on our roof deck? No, that’s too risky, he wouldn’t do something like that,” Stephen explained.

“Okay, point.”

“If I may interrupt once again, sir—who, precisely, is this person you are talking about?”

“Loki,” Tony said, “Prince of Asgard. King? Interim king. Odin’s not dead yet. Is Thor still Crown Prince? I’m confused. They’re confusing.”

“…I’m afraid the only reference I can find related to the words ‘Loki’ and ‘Asgard’ are from the Poetic Edda. Am I to understand that we are speaking of the selfsame mythologic gods?”

“Yep, except they’re not quite what the stories tell you they are. The world is full of strange things, JARVIS,” Tony sighed, “and it’s only about to get stranger.”

“Let’s talk tomorrow,” Stephen predictably put a halt to the conversation, adjusting his hold on Tony’s hand. “Sleep, Tony. We need to rest while we can.”

Tony slid forward and rested his forehead against Stephen’s knuckles. He closed his eyes and willed himself to sleep. This time he didn’t dream.




tbc
first draft: 2020.05.08
last edited: 2020.12.25




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) The brownstone is in the Upper East Side (I imagine around the 62nd St. + 2nd Ave. area) and has a total of six floors, two basements, and a rooftop deck. The ground floor (street level) has the pool, gym, and parking garage. The second floor has guest bedrooms arranged around the central elevator & grand staircase. The third floor has Tony & Stephen’s obscenely massive bedroom alongside a second master bedroom that is currently unoccupied. The fourth floor (aka The Wizard’s Domain) is half a med-bay and half a library, with a soon-to-be-installed doortal in one of the walls. The fifth floor is Tony’s workshop, where the Iron Man armors are stored. It has a continuous hatch that opens up to the sixth floor patio for Iron Man to launch through. The sixth floor is an open plan divided into 30% kitchen/dining, 40% entertainment/living, and 30% patio space for all of the tea trees. The landing deck (seventh floor) is accessible from the sixth floor patio via a staircase. The two basements are intended for the Stark Secure Servers, the nanite foundries, a secure vault, and the arc reactor powerbase that runs the whole house. I might put up floorplans in the future for those who are curious; I have them, they just need to be cleaned up and digitized.

(2) ROSA actually exists in real life and is a machine we use for stereotactic neurosurgery today. ROSA was first released in 2010. (Addendum: 2020.12.27)

Chapter Text

May 2010

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.”

“Thanks.”

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.

“Whtmsit.”

“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—”

“—Squidward!”

“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.

“…okay.”

“Okay?”

“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.”

“The reactor.”

“Yep.”

“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.”

“But that’s…”

“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.

“You sure?”

“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.

“That’s…”

“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.”

“Oof.”

“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.”

“Guilty?”

“I got really rich after 2001,” Tony sighed. “Went from multi-millionaire to billionaire. One guess.”

“9/11.”

“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.”

“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.

hf

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.

im sorry

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
patient dying?
go babe
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.”

“Yessir.”

“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.

Incandescent.

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.”

“I’m fine.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

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.”

“But.”

“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.”

“Correct.”

“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.




June 2010

The 21st century’s Einstein: Stark discovers an element & reinvents clean energy – Nature News
6 June 2010

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.

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.

“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.”

“Platypus!”

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.

No.”

“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 )




tbc
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

Bugatti Chiron

McLaren 765LT

Aston Martin Valkyrie

Lamborghini Sian

Lamborghini Huracan, Stephen's car