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L'Hopital's Rule

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1. 

 

“Hello? Is this Tony Stark?”

Commonly, when Tony heard those words, it was in a business-casual tone on the opposite end of a landline or cellphone. Sometimes the voice trying to contact him would hold barely staunched awe, excitement, or disgust. Tony’d been flirted with over the cell network. He'd been threatened. Coworkers made plans to save the world, and business deals came together to add millions to his bank account. People called Tony Stark for all sorts of reasons.

Tony patched the call through to FRIDAY without checking the number. Peter was going to call him tonight—as he called him every night, because neither of them had to ask. 

“Hello?”

That wasn’t Peter’s voice. It also wasn’t Rhodey or Pepper or May or any of the various others who had any sort of access to his personal contact information—judging by the fact that they were asking for his name. Frowning, Tony rubbed at his face. Then he clicked out of the missing persons database to squint at FRIDAY’s speaker on the opposite side of the room. His eyes were aching from the blue light of a monitor. 

“The one and only,” Tony replied. “Who are you? How did you get this number?”

“My name is Itzel,” said the woman over the phone. She sounded calm, almost soothing, and Tony could feel his anxiousness swirling. “I work at the Abrazo Hospital and I’m calling on behalf of my emergency room patient.”

Tony was on his feet before she could finish talking. “What happened?” he demanded. “Is Rhodes alright?”

It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten a call like this in the last two weeks. It wasn’t even the third. Thanos had only half a month ago been killed, the Dusted of the universe only half a month ago revived. And Tony had traded his five year state of constant grief for a 24/7 hotline of panic.

“Rhodes?” Itzel sounded more amused than bewildered. Tony could only imagine how used to this she’d gotten over these last weeks. “No, sir, Stephen Strange gave me your name as his emergency contact.”

Tony paused. 

“What?”

Itzel misinterpreted his question. “A ranger found him in the middle of the desert, looking like a cougar chew-toy. She assumed he was hiking the day of the Blip and brought him in. Yeah, he’s glaring at me right now. He’s still pretty out of it.”

Tony searched vaguely for words for a long second. He wasn’t successful. “What?”

“Sir?”

“Sorry.” Tony shook his head. “I, uh, wasn’t expecting a call.”

“He’s stable.”

Tony leaned back in his chair with half a mind to burst out laughing. The only words he’d ever heard from Stephen Strange had been those of planning on a flying donut and one-sided apologies on a planet of sand and endings. A week and a half ago he’d made brief eye contact with the man when Peter and Strange had slipped wearily off Quill’s spaceship coming back from Titan. If the doctor hadn’t reminded him, he might not have remembered Strange’s first name. 

Why in God’s name would the Greenwich wizard name Tony when pestered for a contact number? 

“You probably shouldn’t be telling me he's stable,” Tony said. “Doesn’t he have, like, next of kin or something?”

A thread of doubt crept into Itzel’s voice. “He was very clear about this number.”

Tony rubbed his face with his hands. He had an entire world falling apart at the seams, a teenager who couldn’t sleep, and people he cared about still missing even after two weeks. There was no time in his day for sleep, let alone hospital phone calls. 

But Tony wasn’t heartless enough to hang up on someone calling simply because they wanted someone to know a man was hurt and recovering. 

Okay,” he said. “Okay, sure, thank you. Itzel, was it?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m—glad Strange is okay. You said a park ranger found him?”

“Yeah. He was unconscious at the time, but woke up not long ago.” Itzel’s voice shifted, and Tony assumed she was talking to the man in question. “Yes, he picked up. Yes, he’s fine— I’m talking to him. Are you—okay, fine, I’ll ask him.”

Tony raised an eyebrow.

“Doctor Strange would like me to ask if you’re alright,” Itzel said, and Tony could almost hear her tired smile.   

“Me? He’s the one in the emergency room!”

Itzel’s laugh sounded like a horse’s snort. “He says you should sleep for a few hours.”

“Tell him ‘fat chance’. Tony reached sideways for a pen. “What’s the hospital again?” 

“Abrazo.” 

“No I got that part,” Tony huffed. “I mean where.” 

“Scottsdale Arizona.”

Tony blinked. “How the hell did he get over there?” 

“Sir?” 

“Nevermind. Thank you for calling. I’m afraid I can’t leave New York—” Not now, not for anything aside from politics and directed appearances and fallout fallout fallout — “but I’d appreciate it if you could let me know when he’s recovered?”

“Of course.” 

“Fantastic.” Tony’s eyes flickered back toward the screen and the names that flashed across it. He was making his way along it, trying to filter out the cases that had been resolved recently in comparison to the ones still open from the Blip.

There were quite a lot of Keeners in the Tennessee area.

“Mr. Stark?”

“I’m still here,” Tony said distractedly.

“It’s really none of my business, but you are that Tony Stark, right?”

“Iron Man? Savior of the known universe? Yeah, that’s me.” Tony grinned.

The phone was quiet for a few moments. Tony could hear machines in the background, voices calling out and dying down. When Itzel spoke, it was quiet. “It’s—I wanted to say thank you. My wife and daughter are alive because of you. I— just thank you.”

Tony smiled. “You’re welcome, Itzel. Keep me updated about Dumbledore there, yeah?”

“Of course.”

Tony dropped the call, a wave of his hand alerting FRIDAY to his preference. He ran his fingers through his greasy hair. It stuck up in dirty, tired spikes, and Tony imagined the smell of rot. He’d been down here too long. 

Peter hadn’t called yet, though. And though every Avenger was accounted for, every friend of the Parkers had eventually surfaced, and all of Tony’s contacts at the UN had made their way back to their posts, there were still people he couldn’t find. 

People who’d rematerialized on planes that had long since flown away and fallen to their deaths. People who’d become roadkill a moment after opening their eyes two weeks ago. People who found themselves in a world that had changed completely with no way home and no understanding of what had happened. Thanos’s true casualties.

Tony couldn’t find Maria Hill. He couldn’t find Everett Ross. And he couldn’t find Harley Keener, the teen’s once-lively text profile still a void after five years. 

He couldn't find them. So Tony spent his time trying to divide by zero. 

He rolled his chair back in front of the screen, putting the phone call and the enigma that was Strange out of his mind. At least he knew the wizard was still alive. That was more than he could say for too many others.

“Call Peter for me, FRI,” Tony said. His fingers were flying across his keyboard again. 

Peter picked up—because of course he did, he always did. Two weeks wasn’t long enough not to. Two weeks wasn’t a barrier against the panic of hearing the kid’s cheery, sixteen-year-old ringtone and wondering if he’d ever hear anything else. 

“Hi, Mr. Stark,” Peter said. He sounded happy.

Tony smiled. “Hey kid. Tell me about the day?”

 

∞/∞

 

Itzel never called him again. Neither did Strange.

When Tony, sitting on a cold kitchen counter with an artificially calm voice in the middle of the night, called the front desk of the hospital, they had nothing to say. 

The patient by that name disappeared the night he was brought in. Didn’t anyone call you?

 

 

2. 

 

The trill of Tony’s phone shattered the rainy quiet of the tiny donut shop, and Tony winced. Peter glanced at him as he fumbled to silence the machine. The sole other occupant in the little local joint looked up at them with a food-service sort of boredom, and Tony gave him an apologetic wave. 

“Who’s that?” Peter asked as Tony frowned at the screen. His mouth was full of jelly donut. “News about the people you’re looking for?”

A string of numbers flashed unknown on Tony’s screen. He declined and stuffed the phone back into his pocket. “Nah,” he said. He swiped a chunk of Peter’s donut between his forefinger and thumb and popped it into his mouth.

“Mr. Stark!” Peter protested over Tony’s noise of appreciation. He slapped at Tony’s hand. 

“I like yours better,” Tony declared. “What is that, cocaine?” 

Peter rolled his eyes. “You’re hopeless.”

“Don’t snort at me—okay, bad choice of words.” Hiding a smile, Tony raised his hands. 

Peter laughed. There was a smear of jelly on his chin; Tony reached out to wipe it away with his thumb. He took another bite of his own donut and tried to find a clean napkin. 

He was still slapping his hand around vaguely when the chair vibrated underneath him, his phone beginning to ring again. 

“What do you want?” Tony grumbled, pulling it free. He glared at the number. It was probably spam, though FRIDAY was supposed to be blocking all such lines. 

Peter’s fingers had started to drum on the table. A bit of Tony’s contentment drained away. 

The kid hadn’t had that habit before Titan. 

“I think you should answer it,” Peter said.

“No, I should buy you another donut and ask which kind May prefers so she doesn’t give me that look. You know the one.”

Peter’s fingers kept drumming. “I have a feeling it’s important,” he said.

Tony was already swiping to answer. The only person who’s gut he trusted more than Natasha was Peter, and Natasha’s instincts had saved all their lives on multiple occasions.

Peter relaxed slightly as Tony raised the phone to his ear. “Hello?”

“Is this Tony Stark?”

Tony put down his donut. “This is he.”

“I’m calling to inform you that Stephen Strange has been admitted to the MetroGeneral emergency room. You’re listed as his emergency contact.”

Again?

“What happened to him this time?” Tony wondered. Peter cocked his head; Tony held up a finger to stall him as he listened. 

“He… seems to be missing a few of his bones, sir.”

“Of course he is.” Tony rubbed his face with his hand. “God knows that isn’t the only thing he seems to be missing. Where did they go?”

“We’re working on figuring that out as we speak,” said the man over the phone ruefully. 

“Can I talk to him?” Tony asked.

“He’s currently unconscious. I pulled this number from his medical records—he’s got quite an extensive history. It seems your number was added three weeks ago by a doctor at Abrazo Scottsdale Campus.”

The man sounded skeptical, and Tony could only give him props for having common sense. He didn’t have any more insight into this situation than the guy. 

“Yeah, that’s right,” Tony sighed. “It was a mistake the last time around.” 

Must’ve been. Strange had never gotten back to him, after all. It seemed like he hadn’t even realized Tony’d been called in Abrazo; the engineer’s number was still marked as his emergency contact. Strange must’ve been really concussed. 

There was a pause from the other line. Then: “is it a mistake this time, too?”

“I guess not.” Tony gave Peter an apologetic grimace. The boy’s face was twisted with confusion, but he stayed respectfully quiet. His fingers had started to drum again. “You said he was unconscious?”

“What? Who?” Peter mouthed. 

“Yes. He sounded primarily… irritated when he first came in, but he was in enough pain to facilitate global anesthesia while we preformed our evaluation.”

“Irritated?”

“He, ah, was very adamant that he didn’t have time for this. He insulted quite a few of the staff and asked after a specific doctor. Shock, probably. His tibia and patella have mysteriously disappeared, after all.”

Tony doubted it. Not the mysterious disappearance part; that was almost funny, at this point. But as far as Tony knew, ‘grumpy and insulting’ was a perfect description of a sound-of-mind wizard. He’d eat his hat if Strange had actually entered any sort of shock. 

He didn’t have a hat, but that wasn’t the point. 

“Alright,” Tony said. “Thanks for letting me know, Mr…?”

“Silas.”

“Thanks. I’ll be over soon.” MetroGeneral was only about fifteen minutes from here, after all. “Don’t let him destroy anyone’s self worth.”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” said Silas, and the crackle in the line was one of amusement.

“Great, bye.”

Tony stared at the phone in his palm for an instant before slipping it back into his pocket. He resisted the urge to rub at his face again. This was supposed to be his day off, a nice afternoon with his pseudo-son while he waited for any of the agencies to get back to him about the names still missing from the un-snapping. 

“What was that about?” Peter asked. 

Tony scooped up his donut and glanced at the counter. 

“MetroGeneral Hospital,” Tony replied. He waved the donut. “Looks like we’re gonna need more of these.” 

 

∞/∞

 

Tony half expected Room 605 to be empty by the time he and Peter fought their way through the crowded waiting rooms and into the inpatient center. He wasn’t sure if he was relieved or annoyed to be wrong.

Stephen Strange was awake, injured, and superbly pissed off. His face was streaked with some sort of black liquid, and he was tying a red scarf around his bare neck as he glanced disgustedly down at the scrubs sliced to expose his… wound. He’d halfway levered himself out of the bed and onto one leg when the door slid open, and he didn’t look over his shoulder as he demanded, “what did you people do with my sling-ring?”

Tony slid into the room with a flat smile. “So doctors really do make the worst patients.” 

Strange’s head snapped up. His expression changed, though to what, Tony couldn't tell. Out of the rapid-fire series of micro-expressions that fluttered across Strange’s face like butterflies, Tony recognized only a disconnected sort of panic.

“Tony,” he said. He winced as he tried to move to face them, one hand ghosting over his leg—if it could still be called that. 

“The kid’s here too.” Tony stepped aside so Peter could bounce awkwardly in to stand beside him. “You interrupted donut Thursday.”

Strange’s brow furrowed. He stared at them; Tony figured he’d forgotten that they couldn’t hear his internal monologue as the seconds stretched into a minute and the silence grew awkward.

“But it’s fine!” Peter burst out. “Because. We brought the donuts with us! So, uh, if you want one—”

“How did you even know I was here?”
Tony got to the point. “I’m your emergency contact,” he said, striding into the room and turning the wheeling chair around to sit backwards against the backrest. 

Strange practically snorted. “No you’re not.” 

“He is, apparently,” Peter contributed. He hopscotched his way over to Tony, holding the donut box like a protective shield. 

“You don’t even know me.” Strange looked down at his hands when he protested.

Now, Tony Stark might’ve been a paranoid idiot, but he wasn’t stupid. He was friends with half a dozen spies and had talked circles around enemies and allies alike. He’d built a career out of hearing what people didn’t say, twisting his argument to reflect it. So he noticed the wording of Strange’s statement, awkward in its specifics.

You don’t even know me. Not, ‘I don’t know you, and you’ve certainly never given me your contact information’, nor even ‘we don’t know each other.’ You don’t even know me.

“How’d I end up as your emergency contact, then?” Tony wondered. “That’s not a rhetorical question, I’m actually quite confused.”

“I… how long?”

“Since your run in with the Arizona desert.”

Peter frowned. “What were you doing in Arizona?”

“Pursuing a broken dimensional seal,” Strange replied, “but that’s not important.”

“Yeah, you know what’s important? When in the world you had enough time to hack FRIDAY or buddy up to my friends enough to get my personal number.”

“I resent the implications of that,” Strange snapped back.

Tony snorted. “I find it hard to believe too. But what else could you have done?”

“Those actions are an offensive and criminal invasion of privacy,” Strange said. He wrinkled his nose, like he was the one being insulted in this situation. Tony crossed his arms on the chair back.

“And yet I’m here. So you must have done something," said Tony.

Strange’s jaw feathered. He tried to move again, and the small noise of pain he tried to swallow was his only response. 

"Just chill,” Tony sighed. “We’re already here. It’s happened twice. Have a donut and spill the beans.”

Strange’s expression shut down. “Where’d the doctors put my sling-ring?”

Tony threw up his hands. “Come on, wizard. It was Arizona. You were hurt. Concussed and confused, and you chose me of all possible people to know you were recovering. A man busy with recovery of the unsnapped who… doesn’t even know you.” He put pointed emphasis on the words and noted the way Strange winced. “Why?”

“It won’t happen again,” Strange said dismissively. “Apologies for the inconvenience.”

Peter put down the box of donuts and declared, “Doctor Strange remembers you from all those futures he saw on Titan.”

Tony stiffened. 

Strange whipped his head to the boy. “Peter,” he hissed, something like embarrassment burning across his features—before it was replaced by the pain the movement spurred. 

“Wait,” Tony said. He lifted one finger, very slowly. “Are you two friends?”

“We talked on Quill’s ship,” Peter said. “I call him sometimes.”

“And you never told me this?”

Peter shrugged. “It didn’t seem relevant. You were busy looking for Harley and the SHIELD people and all that. And besides, I figured you’d been in contact with him too.”

Tony’s finger pivoted to jab in Strange’s direction. “Explain.”

“Your ‘ward’ is smart and interesting and an occasional phone call—”

“No, I know that. Explain how ‘ultimate futures’ of a titan conflict could possibly gift you with my number and a reason to name me as emergency contact.”

“I was injured,” Strange said defensively. “I must have—forgotten which outcome we’d ended up in.” 

“Good try, Stephen.” Tony picked up the donut box, swinging it open on the back of the chair. “Can I call you Stephen? I am your emergency contact; that’s at least a first name basis. You didn’t answer the question.”

“Do you really need me to spell this out for you?” Stephen grumbled. “There were futures—lots of them—where you gave me your phone number. All the Avengers have it.”

“Yeah, and I have theirs. But I don’t see any of them getting damaged wizard alerts in the middle of the night.”

Stephen just looked at him, gaze even. “I saw a lot of futures, Dr. Stark.”

Tony took a bite of his donut and winced. “Don’t call me that,” he said. “Sounds weird coming from you. Tony.”

Glancing back at his leg, Stephen’s expression flickered with what might’ve been a smile. “Alright,” he said.

“Do you want a donut?” Peter asked.

Tony waved a hand, covering the box possessively. “Don’t bother the wizard,” he hushed exaggeratedly. “He’s missing his entire kneecap! Let him be!”

Peter swiped a donut anyway. He tossed it to Stephen, who caught it on one finger so it didn’t slip through shaking hands. Stephen eyed it almost suspiciously, then took a bite. Sticking his tongue out at Tony, Peter grabbed one for himself as well.

“How did you lose your kneecap?” Tony asked. The conspicuous swollen and misshapen leg was definitely playing the roll of ‘elephant in the room.’

“Imps,” Stephen said shortly.

Peter dropped his hand. “You’re joking.”

“Unfortunately not. Tricky bastards took my patella and tibia and fucked off.” 

“What the hell?” Tony demanded. “Why would they ever, ever have the need to make off with a living man’s bones?”

Stephen gestured to himself. The scarf around his neck helped. “The skeleton of a powerful sorcerer is a versatile spell component.”

Peter and Tony stared at him.

“What?”

“Dude, your life is weird,” Tony said. “And that’s coming from me. So. Congratulations.”

Stephen sighed, his hands twisting ambiently in the blankets beside him. He stared at his leg. Now that he was actively looking for it, Tony was able to spot the tension wrought into his spine and shoulders, the shadowed edges of his eyes. He was in pain. 

Tony felt almost angry at that. This man had died and seen the end of the world as many times as Tony—probably more. Hadn’t he spent enough time in pain?

“That must hurt like a son of one,” Tony said, because he was incapable of communicating compassionately, ask anyone. 

“It’s not very comfortable.”

“What are they thinking of doing?”

Stephen snorted. “Well, they won’t be getting my bones back anytime soon. So I suppose I’ll have to manifest new ones.”

Tony almost spat out his donut. The chair back dug into his hands as he stared at Stephen, demanding, “manifest new bones?”

“It’s also not very comfortable.” Stephen glanced at the window of the hospital room, frowned, then swiveled his head toward the door. “It would be better in the Sanctum, but nobody’s going to let me out of here with only half a shin.”

“So you’re stuck,” Peter surmised. 

“Unfortunately.”

Tony popped the rest of his donut into his mouth. “Maybe you shouldn’t have been fucking with angry bone-gnomes in the first place. Or messing with coyotes in the Arizona desert. Being careful is possible, you know.”

Stephen raised an eyebrow at him. “Was that concern I heard, Tony Self-Sacrifice-Is-My-Middle-Name Stark?”

Tony huffed. “Hey, you decided to pick me as emergency contact in a delirious state of timeline dissociation. So. I had at least play the part.”

Stephen did smile that time—and it seemed to travel through his whole body, light falling across the entirety of him all at once. It was a little jarring. Stephen's tangled hair and dirty face only served to make him look more genuine.

Tony swallowed. He took another bite of his donut. “Go on, call me a hypocrite.”

“Thought I already did. I don’t like to repeat myself.”

“Mr. Stark does,” Peter contributed. Tony smacked him, and Peter slid away, laughing. 

“Yeah,” Stephen said. He took a tentative bite of his donut. His expression went thoughtful as he added, “I am sorry about that. The personal number thing. I’ll get it off the medical documents as soon as I can. I won’t disturb you again.”

Tony squinted at him. “Again? How many times are you planning on ending up in the ER, Strange?”

“It’s… a rather common enterprise,” Stephen mumbled.

“A ‘rather common’— you know what, I’m not even surprised.” Tony pinched the bridge of his nose and spun around in the chair. Peter watched him like a dog might watch a ceiling fan. 

“It’s part of the job description,” Stephen said. “I can’t exactly choose where the mystic threats show up.”

“So you end up here bimonthly? Seriously?”

Stephen smiled ruefully, and Tony took that for a yes. He gestured widely, exasperated. “Just leave me on the fucking form then, damn it.”

Stephen’s hands stilled. He looked up at Tony, his expression blown wide and almost vulnerable for no reason Tony could distinguish. “What?” 

“You’ve already got my number. Just let the doctors keep calling; it’ll be fun. It’s not like I’m busy reintegrating half the world population or anything.” 

“Oh.” Stephen nodded, understanding. “You’re joking. I’ll remove—”

“I’m not joking.”

Silence.

“I’m not joking,” Tony said again. “If you’re dead, I’d want to know. Peter too. It’s not like we’d hear about it any other way, what with you insisting on being all low-profile and all.”

“I’m not going to die. You don’t have any obligation over me.”

“You’re statistically more likely to die, apparently, than anyone else I know. And I know Colonel James Rhodes.” Tony grabbed another donut and looked through the hole at the wizard on the bed. “Capiche?”

“Sure.” Stephen was smiling again—and if Tony had known he was going to do that, Tony would’ve brought this up much earlier. 

“Fantastic. Now go re-manifest your bones or whatever.” Tony waved his hand demonstratively. “We’ll leave the donuts here.”

“Thanks,” Stephen snorted. He glared at his clothing again, then carefully eased himself back onto the bed. 

“Bye, Doctor Strange!” Peter chirped. He waved, and Stephen waved back. 

“Let’s go, kid.”

Peter slid out the door, holding it open for Tony. The sanded corners pressed into Tony’s palm as he passed through the doorway.

“Wait.”

Tony paused. 

Stephen cocked his head, just slightly. “7181467091,” he said.

“Are you having a stroke?” Tony turned around in the doorway, bracing it with his foot. Peter’s head peaked in around his elbow.

“It’s my number,” Stephen huffed. “Since I know yours, I figured it’s only fair.”

Tony found himself smiling. “Yeah,” he said. “Sounds good. I’ll remember it.”

Maybe he’d even use it.

 

 

3. 

 

Tony sat on the back of the penthouse couch, sipping coffee from a thermos and watching the sun slip behind the New York skyline. He hadn’t been up here in a while. Most of his time was spent in the workshop or the conference rooms, leaving the sun to stream through crystal bay windows into an empty lounge. Maybe he should change that. It was nice up here, even alone. There was something serene about it—in a disconnected way. 

Repairing the Compound was so far down on Tony’s list of priorities that only saw his attention if someone chucked the subject in his lap. So the team, when necessary, reconvened to Avengers Tower. Tony’d bought it back for double the price, despite an attempt to gift it at a lower cost. 

He didn’t exactly live here—but then, Tony didn’t exactly live anywhere. He just existed in a static, frozen state of hyperactivity, trapped and unable to stop moving. He just existed, drinking coffee after an Avengers meeting and watching the sky.

“Boss?”

Tony lifted heavy eyes. “Hm?”

“Stephen Strange has entered the Tower.”

Tony washed his teeth against a mouthful of coffee. He glanced at the time and resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Just send him up here, yeah?”

“He seems to know the way.”

Indeed, it wasn’t another minute before Stephen padded into the penthouse. He was clad mostly in civilian clothes aside from the heavy form of the Cloak, which waved and gestured at nearly every object it passed. Tony raised his mug mockingly toward the sorcerer.

“And here I thought you were dead!” he said. “But no, just late.”

Stephen’s gaze tracked the sinking sun, and he winced. “Did I miss the meeting?”

“By an hour, yeah.”

“Thank god.”

That shocked a chuckle out of Tony, and he pushed himself up from the couch. He lifted the fingers on one hand in substitute for bullet points. “Reintegration successes and pitfalls, the recovery of Everett Ross from where he was stranded in the Atlantic, and too many discussions of the changed global society or whatever. You didn’t miss much.”

“They found Ross?” Stephen asked.

“Yeah.” Tony shrugged. “He’s one of the lucky ones. The rest of my search programs are spitting out crickets.”

Stephen cocked his head, one hand fiddling with the wide leaves of a plant on one of the polished counters. It almost seemed to spruce up in his presence. Asshole. “Search programs?”

“Yeah, I’m the only one who can make anything competent in this hell hole,” Tony said distractedly. He walked around the couch, threading his fingers against his thermos as he went. It was still vaguely warm. “You didn’t need to come to the meeting anyway, probably.”

It wasn't a subtle dismissal, but Stephen didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he continued his wandering gait across the room, stepping into the light of the window. Tony had to squint to look at him. He stood just a little taller than the silhouettes of the buildings around them. Setting his hand against the window, Stephen traced the edge of the pane toward the door that led out onto the balcony. 

Tony dodged the attempt at silence. “I did text you the time. Like twice.”

“I came from Kamar-Taj.”

“Don’t tell me the time zones threw you off,” Tony scoffed.

Stephen shot Tony a smile over one shoulder. “No. The cell signals do tend to get interrupted by the wards, however. You should contact me over WiFi.”

“And you didn’t think to inform me of that first?” Tony threw his hands up, exasperation and amusement joining forces to remind him that not everyone sold trinkets for a living.

“I didn’t think you would actually try and text me as much as you have.” 

Tony squinted. The wizard had been replying consistently to him for a week and a half now. He was witty and infuriating—Tony might even say fun. “Why the hell not?”

Stephen shrugged. An excitable Cloak tapped the latch on the balcony door until it slid sideways, letting a brush of freezing evening air into the room. Tony held his coffee tighter.

“You’re busy. I’m busy. The world’s remembering what it feels like not to end, and so are we.”

Tony moved across the room, stepping into the sun beside Stephen. He watched the wall of the Tower slide away beneath them and remembered what it felt like to plunge down beside it. Glancing over, he could Stephen trailing a finger over the glass. He drew in patterns that didn’t smudge the class, and Tony wondered what they meant. 

“You know, usually when a guy gives me his number, it’s not expecting silence.”

Stephen smirked. “And usually when you give them yours, it’s not in an alternate universe to be used as hospital contact.”

“Nobody said a little variation wasn’t nice.”

“You’re impossible.” 

“I try.” Tony clapped his hand against the side of his thermos. He followed the draw of the wind until he’d pushed through the door and out onto the balcony. Steel and glass pressed against his socks. 

“You know it’s like six below, right?”

Tony waved a dismissive hand over his shoulder. “It’s only twenty degrees, come on.”

“That’s what I said.”

Tony glared at Stephen through the window. “You’re back in the States now, bitch.”

“I saved the world. The least you could do is measure temperature in a way that makes sense.” Stephen tucked his hands into the Cloak, shouldering out onto the balcony. His feet took him to the banister, and it almost looked like he couldn’t help himself, some urge to see beneath that he couldn’t ignore. 

Tony clicked his tongue. “You’re missing a very important detail. See, I saved the world.”

“Me, a little more than you.”

“False!”

Stephen laughed, one hand flickering through the air as if stitching at a fabric Tony couldn’t see. A thread of magic manifested by his knee. Smoothly, almost cheekily, the wizard took two steps to balance on top of the thin, steel railing that lined the balcony. 

Tony lurched forward involuntarily. “For fuck’s sake!”

“What?” Stephen took a few steps closer to him, swaying slightly on the beam.

“This, Stephen, is why you end up in the hospital so often.”

Stephen gestured pointedly to the Cloak, which was flared around his ankles. It fluttered slightly in the 93-story wind. Tony watched it anticipate and counterbalance for a long moment, his eyebrow creeping progressively higher. 

Stephen just kept walking, one foot in front of the other, like an artist on a trapeze. There was an ease there, a calmness that Tony almost envied. So he didn’t say anything else. Instead, leaned his elbows over the edge of the balcony and crossed one leg over the other, squinting at the peach and silver horizon. 

“So what is it, then?” Tony asked. “Do you just like to tempt fate?” 

“There’s no such thing,” Stephen said easily.

Tony looked at him, remembering the glint of green light and the resignation in those multicolored eyes as they turned to dust. “No,” he said. “I suppose not.”

Stephen wandered over to stand beside Tony, and the hem of the Cloak reached out to poke at Tony’s fingers on the railing. Tony offered it a smile. The Cloak tugged lightly on his bitten fingernails, and the softness of the fabric took Tony aback. 

“How’s Peter?” Stephen asked.

Tony poked at the Cloak. “He’s doing really well,” he said. “Finally stopped guilting himself for keeping out of school for the semester.”

Stephen snorted. “He was dead for five years; I think that justifies a little time off.”

Somehow, Tony managed not to wince at that. “I still can’t believe it sometimes,” he said.

“What?”

“That… you’re all back. That I can hug Peter and high-five Sam and call T’Challa on weekends. That you, wizard boy, can be roosting on my balcony like a fucking gargoyle and it’s not even a symptom of my deranged mind.” Tony tapped his elbow toward the man. 

“But?”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “How do you know there’s a but?”

“Some of them will never come home. Thanos left a legacy, and no matter how many souls find their way home, we’ll never be able to wipe it away.”

Stephen kept his eyes on the buildings, and so did Tony. He didn’t need to be told about those still missing. Tony thought about Harley Keener, who’s last text had been ‘saw you got abducted on the news. bout fuckin time. have fun in space’ and a waving emoji. He thought about how long he’d searched that Tennessee barn, how many professors he’d called, how many hardware stores he’d frequented with dwindling hope.

Peter would’ve liked Harley. Not for the first time, Tony wished he’d been faster. 

He sighed and sank down to rest his chin against the railing. The glinting edges of faraway windows seemed like prisms, mirrors, and Tony imagined if anything was looking out from them. 

We’ll never be able to wipe it away.

“Pessimistic, much?” Tony snorted.

“That wasn’t my intention,” Stephen said, his lip quirking up. “I’m as delighted as you that we’re all not dead, trust me. I just also thank the ones who didn’t make it for that chance.”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “You should.”

Stephen hummed, looking over his shoulder at the door. He was shivering a little. So was Tony.

“You sure I didn’t miss anything in the meeting?” Stephen asked.

“Who do you trust more, your nonexistent experience or me?”

“It’s a tight competition.”

Tony rolled his eyes, jabbing his elbow at Stephen again. “Ha, ha,” he said. “You’re hilarious. Are you leaving yet?”

Stephen looked at him. “Do you want me to?”

And that was the question, wasn’t it? The empty penthouse and the useless search databases. The footprints of the Avengers still tracking dust into the meeting room and the laughter of the people Tony still had. It made negative space seem so much deeper. The past and future towered on either side of the infinitesimal space they all stood, a division of zero and a limit of infinity. A coin had three sides, after all. Looking back or looking forward. 

“Nah,” Tony said, pushing away from the railing. “Want a drink?”

 

∞/∞

 

Wong emailed Tony three days later. 

“Hello? Is this Tony Stark?”

Tony snatched a phone and dialed him over WiFi. Wong picked up on the very last ring, and Tony didn’t wait to hear his voice before saying, “You know perfectly well what my email is, Wong. What’s wrong?” 

“Apparently I’m supposed to contact you.”

“Why?” Tony set down his sandwich and reached for the computer. “Has the Secretary been bothering you guys again?”

“It’s Strange.”

Tony stood, hesitation evaporating. “What happened? Is he alright?”

“New York Sanctum. You know where it is.” 

Wong hung up without another word, leaving Tony with his mouth open and words halfway up his throat in the middle of a darkened workshop. He let his hand drop slowly and glared at the black phone screen. It twinkled cheekily back at him. Tony almost threw it at something, but contained the urge quite impressively. Something should have descended from the heavens to give him a medal for self control. Anytime now.

“What in God’s name did I ever do to deserve this kind of wizard treatment?” Tony demanded. 

No one answered. FRIDAY blinked lightly in the corner. “Should I plot you a route?” 

Tony sighed. “Yes please.”

FRIDAY was efficient. She always was. Algorithms and experience lead Tony to Greenwich Village in less than half an hour, and he landed on the roof of the Sanctum to dissolve the suit. The car probably would’ve been faster. Thermal action in New York was a bitch. 

Tony considered busting a hole in the roof to make up for the fact that no one fucking told him anything anymore. But the wizards were broke. Tony was annoyed, not cruel; it was December.

“Ugh, I’d just end up paying for it anyway,” Tony muttered. He folded away his repulsor and wandered over to the edge of the roof. It was simple to drop down onto the sidewalk. Less simple, apparently, was getting the door to open.

Tony rapped his knuckles against it. Then banged his fist. Then he set both his wrists against it, hammering until the idiot doors caught his drift and swung open.

“Thank you,” Tony said. 

He slipped in onto the jade and amber floor tiles. He could have sworn the mosaic was in a different pattern then it had been the last time he’d seen it. But Tony couldn’t exactly remember the last time he’d seen it, so there was nothing to prove there. The stairs arched up before him, and various relics focused their reflections blindingly on him. Tony squinted and shuffled forward a little more.

Wong, standing on the first landing of the stairs, gestured with two fingers. The doors slide shut. Tony gave them a suspicious look.

“Stark,” Wong greeted, already climbing back up the stairs.

Tony broke into a trot to catch up to him. “I’m here,” he said. “Now can you please tell me what’s going on?”

Wong lead him into one of the impossible hallways—no way this building had space for all of them. “Strange has woken up,” he said.

“Was he unconscious?”

“Waking up generally implies that, yes.”

“Oh good, you’re in a funny mood,” Tony grumbled. 

Wong ignored him. He shouldered open one of the doors on the left side of the hallway. The intricately layered wood creaked at the connection, and Tony took a moment to analyze the patterning formed by the overlapping planks. It was almost like knotwork. 

Turning back to the room, Tony began, “so if he’s awake, then he must hav—ave-ave-what the fuck?”

Wong was standing at the foot of the bed in a rather nondescript bedroom, but it wasn’t the furniture that made Tony question his life decisions. Stephen curled around himself on the dark blankets, unmoving—and Stephen also floated transparently in the air three feet above them, his legs dangling casually and a book in his lap. He looked like he’d been rescued from Antarctic oceans. White as a sheet—and traced with veins that were not supposed to be that greenish color, Tony was sure of that—Stephen’s more visible body explained why Tony’d gotten a call. 

Even if it had been from Wong and not the ER for once. What was up with that?

“Hi Tony.” Ghost-Stephen looked up from his book.

“Fuck no,” Tony declared. “I refuse to be involved in afterlife shenanigans.”

“I’m not a ghost.”

“Then what! Is happening!” Tony waved his hands aggressively, but as he was not one of these idiotic Masters of the Mystic Arts, nothing came of it.

“My soul has regrown enough of its decimated awareness to allow me to manifest in my astral form,” Stephen said.

“As if that makes any sense to me.”

“The battle went sour, alright? I’m stuck like this until I finish recovering.” Stephen ran a hand through astral hair—it threw Tony off, and for a moment, Tony couldn’t put his finger on why. Then he realized it was because Stephen’s hand wasn’t shaking.

“Of course you are. I should slap you.”

Wong contributed, “you should be thanking us. The dimensional barriers were weakened by the snap; how do you think any of us are all still alive with no Stones to stabilize the universe?”

Tony glared at him, then at Stephen. “How many wizards am I paid to deal with? None. Remember that.” 

“You like us.” Stephen smirked. 

“Absolutely preposterous.”

Wong rolled his eyes. “I’ll leave you to it,” he rumbled with some nonsensical mix of disapproval and amusement. He closed the door behind him. 

Tony waved at the hardwood sarcastically. Then he pivoted to look at Stephen. “Why did you call me?”

“Because there’s another Avengers meeting,” Stephen said, “and I’m going to miss it again.”

Tony clicked his tongue. “Wrong answer.”

“Because I’m stuck in astral from and it’s boring.”

“Hm, nope.” 

Stephen raised an eyebrow, then leaned forward on his immaterial knee. It was only the slightest movement, but he seemed to get a dozen times longer. “I wanted to see you?”

“That one, I can tolerate.” Tony grinned to hide his swallow and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. He nudged physical-Stephen’s foot out of the way. He didn’t so much as twitch.

“You’re pretty out of it, here,” Tony observed.

“Yes, limbo energies tend to do that.”

Tony coughed incredulously. “You got done in by how low can you go?”

“No, douchebag, limbo. The in-between state that is neither one universe nor the next. It’s the nothingness that makes up the multiverse, and it fills the gaps between realities.”

“And what were you doing swimming in it?”

Stephen hummed. “If I’d been completely overwhelmed, I’d be dead. I was simply attempting to mend a weak point in our dimensional fabric before it became prevalent enough to cause harm.”

Frowning, Tony tapped his ankle. “How’d you know it was going to be a problem?"

“I’ve seen the future, you remember,” Stephen said condescendingly.

“I would slap you if you weren’t simultaneously a corpse and a ghost.”

“You’re deliberately misinterpreting this.”

Tony threw his hands into the air. “Can you just tell me if you’re alright? Please?”

“I’m alright.”

“Thank you.” Huffing, Tony fiddled sharply with the collar of his jacket. The cotton shouldn’t itch as much as it did, but it was folded awkwardly from the flight. 

“When was the last time you slept?” Stephen asked. His not-ghost had floated down to sit beside Tony on the bed.

Tony gave him a half-hearted glare. “I’ve been working,” he said by way of reply. “And so have you, apparently. Dimensional weak-points? Is that common?”

“Not since Thanos.”

Tony nodded slowly. “Because the Reality Stone is no longer around to support the edges of the universe.”

“Precisely.”

“Is there anything to do about it?” Tony asked. “Anyway we can… strengthen it again?”

Stephen shook his head. “It’s irreversible,” he said. “This is the way our universe is, now. There’s no going back.”

“And yet you’re here.” Tony looked through him. “Trying to undo it anyway.”

“And yet,” Stephen agreed. His voice didn’t waver, but his iridescent form did.

“No way to wipe away Thanos’s legacy, huh?” Tony said pointedly.

Stephen smiled, reaching out to put a hand on Tony’s knee. “That doesn’t mean we don’t try, does it?” 

 

 

4.

 

Tony pressed his forehead against the cool surface of the conference table, smashing his nose into the metal. His breath puffed irritatedly around his ears. In his lap, he fiddled with the edge of his tie until the loose thread had drawn into a snag and ruined the silk. 

The room was empty, but it still rang with the negotiations of half a dozen world governments. Thirty days and counting since the Avengers had brought the dusted back, infrastructure was thin, and a world forced into cooperation was trying to stretch assets far enough to reach every person within their borders. There weren't enough. Not enough funds, not enough resources, not enough eyes to find all those who were still, still missing. 

Just like Thanos had promised.

Tony shut that thought down before his spiraling, exhausted thoughts could fall any further. He lifted his face from the table and watched the fog of his breath slowly evaporate. 

The silent room pressed down on him from all sides. Air felt heavy these days. Silence felt inevitable. Tony threw himself at walls of impossibility and still believed he’d break through, hydroplaning across a silver liquid surface and playing the future’s odds. 

He’d only known one person to gamble against time and win. 

Tony clasped his hands on the surface of the table and sighed. At least he was doing some good—and at least there were people to do good for. There was rightness and hardship and anger and delight in the crowded streets again, and Tony would take fear over grief any day. 

Even that was worth it. 

When the cheery notes of his ringtone lit the room, Tony turned impassive eyes on the machine by his hands. He considered just staring at it, waiting until the problem went away on its own. But he still lifted his fingers and swiped right—he hadn’t heard from Stephen in more than twenty-four hours.

“Hello? Is this Tony Stark? I’m calling on the behalf of—”

“Stephen Strange, yeah, I know. What happened to him this time?” Tony sighed. He put the phone on speaker so he had both hands free to shake at god. 

The momentary silence from the line was something taken-aback. Tony resisted the urgent to roll his eyes—not very well. “Which hospital?” Tony asked. “How badly is he hurt? Did he misplace more bones?”

“I think you might be confused. I’m Officer Silva from the NYPD.” 

Tony squinted at the phone. “And?”

“And we currently have Stephen Strange in custody. He is entitled to a phone call to inform someone of his detention.”

Tony burst out laughing. “You arrested Stephen Strange? You arrested Stephen Strange. Oh, and here I thought this day was going to be shit.”

“Sir?” said the poor officer hesitantly.

Tony was still laughing. “God, I can’t believe—what did he do? Please tell me it was something stupid. I need this kind of ammo in my life.”

“He is here on a charge of grand theft.”

Tony wheezed. “Put him on,” he managed. “I promise I’m not involved in the crime; I’m Tony Stark.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Silva. There was a crackle of static and background noise as the phone changed hands.

Then a deep, familiar voice echoed through the speaker. “I can explain,” Stephen grumbled.

Tony’s laughter drowned out his words. “Oh my God, Stephen,” he spluttered. “You really got fucking arrested. I’m going to lord this over you for the rest of ever, mark my words.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tony could hear the wizard’s death-glare. “If these narrow-minded imbeciles would believe my story, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Wiping the tears out of his eyes, Tony warned, “you might not want to grumble about your supposed crime over your single allotted call if you don’t want to get the line cut off. Speaking of, it's legally supposed to be yours; why’d the officer call me?”

A little of the irritation drained out of Stephen’s voice. “The phone they gave me had small buttons. I, ah, can usually manage it. It’s just been a bad few days.”

Tony glanced out the window of the conference room. It’d been raining for half the week now. Air pressure was a bitch. Even halfway across the city, Tony was certain Stephen was tucking shaking hands into his cosplay wizard robes and looking away. 

“Are you in the middle of something? ” Stephen asked. 

“Just finished something, actually,” Tony said. He stood up from the table, kicking his chair aside irreverently. “And my search programs are still giving me crickets.”

Stephen hummed. “Search programs?”

“Yeah,” Tony replied distractedly as he made his way out of the room and toward the garage. “I’m looking for someone. I’ll be at the station soon. Which one are you at?”

“24 Precinct.”

“Damn it.”

“Sorry, I’ll try to get arrested in a more convenient location next time,” Stephen huffed. 

Tony shoved his arm into the sleeve of his coat, pinching the phone between his jaw and shoulder. “See that you do.”

“You’re a douchebag.”

“And you're an asshole. Be there soon. And Stephen?”

“Hm?”

“I’ll get this cleared up,” Tony said. “Nothing to it. Yeah?”

“Yeah.” There was a smile in the sorcerer’s voice. “That’s, ah, why I called. Thank you.”

“‘Course. How could I say no to blackmail material?” Tony flipped the phone in one hand, holding it to his mouth for one last quip. “I’m telling Wong you needed bail money if you don’t buy me dinner. Thursday.”

He hung up before he could tell if Stephen was laughing or stuttering, flipped his phone in one hand, and dialed his lawyer. Then he made for Manhattan.

 

∞/∞

 

Tony dragged his heels across the carpeted floor, folded uncomfortably into a flash furniture chair. Beside him, Stephen was staring hard enough at the darkened office window that Tony thought it might melt. Try as the wizard might, however, no sound drifted through the reception office except for late-night radio. 

“Relax,” Tony huffed.

“I’m relaxed,” Stephen said tensely, every muscle spring-coiled.

Tony reached out to press lightly on his shoulder. It didn’t do shit. Sighing, Tony said, “look, the professionals are getting it worked out in there. All we have to do is wait here until we get you out of trouble. Again, might I add.”

“I know,” Stephen agreed. But he was still looking like a firecracker about to pop off. 

“Then what’s the problem?”

Stephen’s hands shook noticeably and intensely, even braced against the armrests of the chair. “They confiscated the vase,” he said tersely. As if that made any sense to Tony whatsoever. 

“Use your words.”

“The vase. That I stole. They confiscated it before I had time to perform the proper spellwork.” 

Tony blinked. “You stole a vase? That must’ve been some vase for you to get charged with grand theft.”

“Antique Russian silver,” Stephen answered shortly. 

Tony whistled, pressing his footprint into the carpet. “Damn, okay. You know there are better outlets for kleptomaniac tendencies—”

Stephen smacked Tony lightly with the back of his wrist. “You know perfectly well who has the kleptomaniac tendencies around here.” 

Tony couldn’t exactly argue with that. This man wouldn’t even get a glass of water at the Tower without asking first—which was actually kind of endearing. Not that Tony would ever admit it. 

Settling back against the chair to watch the movement behind the tinted glass before them, Tony hummed. “Why’d you steal a thousand dollar vase, then?”

“Demons.”

Tony whipped his head sideways. “Excuse me?”

“It’s an ancient silver vase carved with ominous runes,” Stephen snorted. “What do you mortals expect?”

“A couple of anthropology visits! The occasional ghost!”

“Demons are far more common than bound spirits,” Stephen said. He’d only gotten tenser. “And a hell of a lot more difficult. Once they absorb enough Mystic energy to come out of dormancy, it’s straight into sinister influencing—and if they’ve found a strong enough deposit, it can only be weeks until the first possessions.”

“Let me guess: this one was progressing quickly.”

Stephen shook his head. “No, actually.”

Tony frowned, leaning forward onto the armrest. “Then why didn’t you just—I don’t know, talk to the owners?”

“It might’ve started influencing them already. Revealing my knowledge would’ve put them in more danger.”

“‘Might’ve’?” Tony repeated. He had half a mind to throw this idiot back in jail until he could finally get an answer that made any sense whatsoever. “How the hell do you know?”

“I don’t.” 

Tony spluttered for a second. They were in the 24th precinct because Stephen had decided not to check his hunch? “So you couldn’t tell if the vase was haunted and you knew it wasn’t going to progress through to possession anytime soon, but you still went and got yourself arrested for making off with it? How did you even know it wasn’t a normal vase? It hasn’t even done anything yet!”

Stephen looked unperturbed. “The contained demon turned hostile in half the futures I saw. And people died. So I’m being pragmatic.”

“The futures—you mean on Titan? You went future walking and it included demon highlights?”

Stephen raised an eyebrow at him, the light shadowing down over one eye. “You sound surprised.”

“What else did you see?” 

Stephen shrugged. “Just… things. Threats we faced trying to stop Thanos—threats we faced trying to undo the Snap after we failed. Some things stayed constant. Some things didn’t. When I delt with the demon before, it was only after it had murdered four people. If I could do it here before it could even begin to draw attention… It was worth it.”

“You’ve seen various endings,” Tony mused. “Various answers.”

“Yes.”

Something like hope stirred in Tony’s gut. He tried to keep it off his face. “Do you happen… did you happen to—you know, nevermind.”

Stephen looked at him, something in his expression softening. “What is it?”

“Nothing. Good luck with the vase.”

Stephen kept watching him, grey eyes seeming green when Tony tried not to meet his gaze. There was a knowingness there. An understanding. It felt almost comforting, like Stephen was reaching out to him with something soft and focused and colorful. 

“When I called you,” he said, “you mentioned you were looking for someone.”

Tony sighed. He felt his shoulders creep up toward his ears as he leaned forward, hunching away, around his heart. The plastic frame of the chair squeaked. A car alarm went off outside the cracked door to their left, and Tony tapped his fingers to the rhythm of its shrill cry. 

Did it even count as looking anymore? 

“Yeah,” he said, because he’d lied enough in the past five years, and Stephen Strange hadn’t come back to life for that. He deserved more than that. “I’ve been looking for a lot of people. But there’s this kid I met in Tennessee, Harley Keener. He probably saved my life back in 2012, and we’ve kept in touch. Real good kid, y’know? I was planning to introduce him to Peter, see if they’d hit it off like I hoped, but then…” 

“Thanos.”

“Yeah. He blipped, never resurfaced.” Tony’s fingers played across the surface of the chair, and the car kept screaming. His eyes flickered shut. “I have no idea if he’s dead or alive. No idea.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tony huffed a half-smile. He lifted his hands to curl them beneath his chin, eyeing Stephen sideways. “You don’t happen to remember him from any of those futures, do you?”

“No,” Stephen said. “I met him, I think, but only briefly. He….”

“What?”

Stephen’s throat bobbed. There was a faraway emotion in his eyes, turned upon tinted glass in front of them. “He came to your funeral.”

“Oh.”

Stephen continued distractedly, and Tony could almost see the memories falling in front of his eyes, turning his face into something ancient, something inhuman. “In the worlds you lived, he was often never found. And when he was, it wasn’t alive.”

Tony flinched. The words fell heavy and silent, prickling against cold skin and shredded visions, and Tony couldn’t raise his defenses fast enough. 

“It’ll be different this time,” Stephen said, and he sounded like he believed it. “It’s already different.” 

“How?”

“Because we won,” Stephen replied simply. “And that means something.”

Tony looked at him, wondering how he could sound so light, so kind, so confident. He remembered the way Stephen had looked at the sky after he’d come back to life, stepping off the Guardian’s ship like something ethereal. He remembered the way the sorcerer had smiled with his head tilted up toward the blue, for no one but himself. Tony remembered watching Stephen, Peter clutched tight to his chest, and thinking that maybe everything would be alright. 

He still felt like that, watching him. 

“You think it was worth it,” Tony realized. “You… wanted this world. You love it. Chose it.”

There was that faraway look again. Pain and guilt and curiosity and joy, undirected and universal, swam behind the expression of a man who had become just a little more than human. 

“I did,” Stephen said. “I do.”

“Enough to steal an old flowerpot before it even becomes evil and drag a billionaire across the city.”

Stephen laughed, and he was back on Earth again, back with Tony. “Definitely enough for that.”

“I look forward to my little outings to save your ass.”

Stephen raised an eyebrow at him. “And Thursday?”

“Thursda—oh.” Tony grinned. “So that’s a yes?”

“Wong doesn’t need anymore blackmail material” was Stephen’s reply. 

“Understandable. We’ll keep your little B&E afternoon between us.”

“Good. I know a place in Nepal.” Stephen sat back against the chair, fixing his gaze on the tinted window again. 

“Perfect,” Tony agreed.

Stephen snorted. “Assuming I’m not in jail.”

 

 

5.

 

Tony was starting to wonder if it was legally possible to sue one’s own son for harassment. 

Peter looked supernaturally attentive, sitting across the table from Tony with his eyebrows tied to his hairline. His voice was soaked with suspicious delight, and he eyed Tony over the rim of a mug of coffee. “So basically what you’re saying is you went on a date with the Titan time wizard and hit it off.”

“I thought I’d made that rather clear,” Tony grumbled into his croissant. 

“He took you to Nepal? To get fresh curry and lamb? Dude.”

“Don’t call me dude.”

Peter was unswayed. “And then you took a walk in the unexplored valleys of the Himalayas. And sat by a wood stove in a magic library and played chess for the rest of the night. This sounds absolutely unreal.”

“Like I said.” Tony took a large bite of croissant. “It went well.”

“That’s the most extra first date I’ve ever heard about in my life,” Peter said, slapping his hands on the table for emphasis. Another patron at a nearby table jumped, but the sound didn’t carry through the little, crowded restaurant. “He must really like you.”

“That’s the thing,” Tony said. “I got the feeling—I don’t know, that it wasn’t the first time. That he knew what makes me happy and what I’d find fun already, but was still looking for new things anyway.”

Peter sipped dramatically from his glass. “I rest my case.”

“You’re impossible.”

“What? Isn’t it a good thing Doctor Strange feels like someone who could know you?”

Tony glanced down at his plate, scraping the crumbling remains of the croissant toward one end of the ceramic. “I think he already does. He’s seen the future, you know.”

“Yeah, I’m aware. So what?”

Tony huffed, pointing a finger at the boy. “This is why I don’t invite you to breakfast.”

“C’mon Mr. Stark! You had a great time! You like the guy! Why does it matter that he’s lived a couple of extra lives?” Peter frowned as soon as the words left his mouth. “I mean, it does matter, of course it does, but not in the way that should drive you off. More like the ‘damn magic is weird and I better make sure I effectively communicate my concerns in a relationship’ way.”

“Is that a ‘way’? Because I’ve certainly never heard of it.”

Peter pouted at him.

Sighing, Tony pushed his plate toward the middle of the table. “Okay, okay, you’re right. The future thing doesn’t bother me.”

“What does bother you?”

Tony shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Bull.”

“I don’t!” Tony threw his hands up. His fork clattered off the edge of the dish. “Stephen's so sharp and defensive and dedicated and connected. He pours his soul into everything, even if he doesn’t have enough left to spare. How am I supposed to do anything for a man who can look at the stars over Everest and want to know the distance between them?”

Peter set down his glass. His eyes were a little kind, a little knowing. “Tell him the length of a light year.”

“He already knows, Peter, in this hypothetical scenario.” Tony folded his hands on the table, watching the way his sleeves bunched around his wrists.

“But he’s asking you anyway. You don’t have to do something to be worthy of love, Mr. Stark.” Peter grinned, catching a drip of coffee on his fingertip. “He’s leaving things up to you, and I think you really like that. You’re not used to it, and you don’t know what to do with it, but you like it.”

Tony grumbled something incomprehensible under his breath. “So what do you suggest I do, oh great teenage psychologist?”

“Go on another date with him, obviously.”

“A week from Wednesday,” Tony admitted. “And I’m buying this time.”

Peter whooped, sitting back in his chair. “Nice! You’re way ahead of me!”

Tony shook his head. A smile pulled on his lips as his phone began to chirp in his pocket, and he said, “I can absolutely compete with Everest, just so you know. I am excellent at these things.” He fished his phone into his hand.

“Oh, I have no doubt.”

“Good. Remember it,” Tony chuckled. He raised a finger to pause the conversation a moment as he pressed the phone to his ear. “Yeah?”

“Hello? Is this Tony Stark?”

The lightness in Tony’s chest burned into anxiousness. He didn’t know that voice. “That’s me,” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to know this number from the medical records of a currently unconscious Stephen Strange, would you?”

“Have you already been called?”

Fuck. Tony met Peter’s eyes across the table. He pulled his wallet out of the pocket of his jacket and began to fish for bills, and it was all the signal the boy needed to gulp down the last of his coffee and gather his things. 

“No, I haven’t,” Tony told the woman on the other end of the line. “It’s just, ah, a rather common occurrence. What happened to him?”

“He must not have received the evacuation order.”

Tony didn’t like the sound of that. “Where the hell are you?” he demanded. “What evacuation order?”

The nurse hesitated, confusion bleeding into her tone. “The wildfire, sir.”

Tony really, really didn’t like the sound of that. In fact, the obvious connection behind those two statements made him queasy. Call him selfish, but the last time he’d seen Stephen Strange, it had been drowsy in the light of a crackling fire, smiling and content and all in one piece. Tony would rather not replace that image with one of his wizard in pain. 

“What wildfire?”

“Cameron Pass. It sparked last night. Mr. Strange was found after it was contained at a little more than ten thousand acres.”

“Doctor,” Tony corrected tightly, “and you misunderstand me.

“Sir?”

Tony shoved his chair back with enough force to tip it over. He didn’t bother to right it before striding for the door and shouldering it open hard enough to hurt. Peter made a noise of protest. He bounded after Tony, pausing awkwardly to push in both chairs, and Tony hardly heard him. 

“Look,” Tony snapped, “I live in New York, okay? So does the man you’ve found, hard as it is to believe, and I’m positive there haven’t been any wildfires in the city since I laid eyes on him a day and a half ago, so I’m going to need you to be a little more specific.” 

The woman was unaffected by his hostility, which Tony would have been grateful for if he weren’t so fucking pissed. “Greely,” she said.

“Where?”

“Colorado.”

Tony leaned back against the window behind him, pressing his fingers to his forehead. The sounds of pedestrians and traffic swirled around him. They crackled like flames on wet wood. The sidewalk seemed to press cold through Tony’s shoes and up into his socks, making him shift against his own weight. 

“Mr. Stark?” Peter said tentatively. He was holding the restaurant door slightly ajar.

“How bad is it?” Tony asked. He looked at Peter as he did.

“It’s severe,” the nurse said. “He was lucky to be found at all.”

Tony laughed mirthlessly. “If that fire’s been contained, you were lucky he was there.”

“Is this about Doctor Strange?” Peter asked. 

“Yeah,” Tony said. He swallowed. “How severe is severe?”

Peter’s eyes widened. 

“Serious. He isn’t critical, but he’s unresponsive and his vital signs are unstable. Indicators are questionable.”

“So, bad,” Tony’s fingers dug against his skull a little harder, as if he could claw back that fleeting comfort he’d convinced himself it was safe to feel. He’d already seen Stephen die. He’d already blamed him, mourned him, already scraped blood away from his own skin and gotten back to saving the world.

Like he always did. Like every pain-wrought being had, eyes turned away from infinity. Tony wasn’t doing it again, didn’t want to do it again. 

How many lives had Stephen saved with his own this time?

“Okay. Okay. I’m—where?”

“UCHealth Emergency Center,” the woman replied. She sounded knowing, sounded kind. 

“I’ll be there. Thank you.”

Tony dropped his hand from his face. The glare off windshields made him squint as he slowly began to put his thoughts back in order, one small shred at a time. He stared across the street, jumping when Peter put a hand on his shoulder. The boy watched him, doe eyes wide and scared, and Tony remembered watching him die too. 

“Stephen’s… I don’t know. Fucked up royally again?” Tony snorted flatly. “They found him in the Rocky Mountains in the middle of a goddamn fire, and if it’s not the fault of some interdimensional-whatever, I’ll eat my hat. Fuck.” 

Peter nodded. He looked shaken. Maybe because Tony was. 

But all he asked, certain and concerned, was “when are we flying out?”

“We aren’t flying to Colorado.”

“We have to!” Peter’s shoulders straightened. “Doctor Strange needs us.”

“Oh, we’re going to Colorado; don’t think so little of me,” Tony said. He shoved himself away from the wall and strode toward the edge of the busy street. He’d parked a block away. Already clicking his phone back open, Tony charted his route to the Village internally and raised his eyes toward the edges of the surrounding buildings. Peter darted after him. Peter’s fingers were tapping along his jeans.

“You see,” Tony said, lacing his fingers with the kid’s, “I know another wizard who owes me a favor.”

 

∞/∞

 

Stephen looked small when he was unconscious. 

It wasn’t his posture that changed; he kept his hands curled beneath his chin and his spine stretched long, only his head tucked. But his eyes were closed, and with them went spirit. The energy that always surrounded Stephen, the extra-mortal aura forged in time and magic, disappeared. He looked young. He looked reachable. 

Tony had wondered, the first time he’d received that emergency contact call, how anyone could have mistaken Stephen for anything less than what he was. He’d wondered how someone could have found a bloody, disoriented man in the desert—the same man who’d gathered the universe against Thanos—and not seen magic. Not seen power. Not seen the nature of time.

How could these people have missed all of that?

Now, Tony sat at the edge of a bleached white bedside and watched a human man struggle to breathe, and thought he might have been missing something too.

Wong was in the lobby getting yet more tea. He took longer each time he left and stayed less time each time he returned, and Tony had started to put together the proper lies to reassure the other wizard. Wong had already been here when Tony had called him—would have been even if Tony hadn’t. But Tony had, and they’d stood in this darkened doorway together and tried to remember how to be out of control. 

Tony didn’t remember. He got the feeling Wong didn’t either.

Peter propped himself up by his elbows in the chair beside Tony. His phone was pressed against his hand, but the boy hadn’t seemed to be able to focus on it when he’d tried to entertain himself. The silence was awkward, but ignoring it was worse. Peter just sat, and Tony sat beside him and thought about what he knew and what he didn’t, what he’d found and what he never would.

Tony wanted to reach a hand over the edge of the bed and take the scarred, bandaged hand pressed close to Stephen’s chest. He didn’t. He couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t aggravate the burns, couldn’t be sure something about the position wasn't facilitating Stephen’s breathing. Fire was still burning across his skin. Patchy areas of blisters taunted of pain, taunted of vulnerability, and they textured beneath his chin, in the hollow of his neck, on the insides of his wrists. Stephen’s skin was washed out where it wasn’t struck red, like the smoke had bled the color from it. 

He looked small, unconscious before them, with pain on his face and fear in the set of his shoulders. 

Up the Rocky Mountains, a fire was under control. It had destroyed a single structure and taken this single casualty. 

“What the hell, Strange,” Tony muttered. He tugged at the bunched, loose sheet, and almost imagined Stephen shifting.

Peter startled at the sudden comment. Looking at Tony, he asked, “what is it?”

“Nothing,” Tony said. “Absolutely nothing. Apparently it’s against wizard code to have a sense of self-preservation, so clearly we’re overreacting here.”

Peter eyed him. Then he looked at the way Tony’s hand had fisted around white fabric and winced. “Mr. Stark.”

“What was it?” Tony demanded of the unconscious man. “What kind of monster turned the mountains into kindling and you into a sauté roast, huh? What under the sun possessed you to go alone? What if you strand yourself in some wilderness somewhere and somebody doesn’t find you, ever think of that?”

Monitors beeped evenly, and Stephen’s breath kept rattling. Peter put his hand on Tony’s wrist. 

“I’d look for you,” Tony said quietly. He lifted his hand to rub his face, covering his eyes with the heavy, stinging skin of his palm. “But I can’t find everyone.”

“You found me.” Peter pulled his knees to his chest. 

Tony snorted. “That was all you, kid. And trust me, I’m grateful for it every time the sun decides to give coming up a try.”

“He’d find you too. When it really mattered, he would. Doctor Strange won’t die on us again.” 

Tony looked at the crumpled form on the hospital bed. The room was draped in the broken, bleeding shadows of strength scraped and leeched from a sorcerer who didn’t seem to care. And Tony couldn’t even reach out and take his hand without harming him. Couldn’t put the world back together without harming him. 

Every breath cut steel through Stephen's throat, and Tony could see how much it hurt. And he couldn’t stop thinking about how Stephen must’ve knelt, finally letting his magic wink out, and watched the fire take the trees around him. How he’d shielded the wounds on his left against the fire on his right until there was no direction at all. The mountains would have protected and exposed him all at once. And he would have been alone. 

Maybe he’d watched the sparks until they’d looked like stars. 

Because we won, and that means something. 

Tony couldn’t stand the room, suddenly, couldn’t stand the sound. He looked at Peter. He knew his expression was blown wide, but he didn’t care. This was Peter, after all, and that meant something too.

“Go find Wong, Peter,” Tony mumbled. “Please?”

Peter squeezed his arm. “Okay,” he said. Then he stood and darted from the room, tucking in the edge of Stephen’s blanket back into the frame of the mattress as he went. 

The door slid shut with a click. Tony squinted at it, then dragged his chair forward a few inches so he could rest his elbows on the bed beside Stephen. The man’s fingers twitched at the change of pressure. Tony sighed. 

He ran his fingers through his hair to the beep of the machines. Outside their standardized window, the objectively stunning view of the mountains was growing more shadowed with the setting sun. The vague sound of traffic reached Tony in the silence. He craned around in his chair to see if he could watch the speeding vehicles, watch the outside life. Remember.

When he looked at Stephen again, a sliver of iris looked back.

Tony smiled involuntarily. “Hey,” he said softly. “You awake in there?”

Stephen groaned. His eye slid shut again. 

Hands hovering awkwardly above the mattress, Tony leaned forward. “Wakey wakey, wizard.”

“Cuza’wha,” Stephen mumbled. 

“You got yourself shish-kebabbed by a mountain range,” Tony said. “Lucky some firefighter found you in time and got you in here. Wong and I got in a few hours ago.”

Stephen squinted at him. “Wasu’mental.”

Tony lifted his hand, smiling into his palm. “English?” he prompted.

Both eyes flickered open this time. They were dazed with pain and confusion, but Stephen kept seeking out Tony’s face. Tony waggled his fingers at him in a wave.

Stephen’s throat worked for a second. Tony watched him swallow down smoke and disorientation and gather words. His eyes never left Tony’s.

“Ow,” Stephen proclaimed. 

Tony snorted. “Yeah, no shit. How are you feeling?”

“Not… great,” Stephen slurred. “Who clawed all my skin off?”

“That would be the fire. And the cuts are from whatever beast you were fighting that ended up causing it, because I don’t think for a second that wasn’t what was happening out there.”

“Oh.” Stephen’s hand ghosted over his side. He bit his lip, only half strangling a yelp of pain as he pressed down.

Tony’s hands jerked forward before he contained them. “Don’t jab at it, for god’s sake. You’re supposed to be a doctor.”

“Which means I know how annoying burns are,” Stephen said with a grimace.

Rolling over so he was facing the ceiling, Stephen poked cautiously at the bandages across his neck and hands. His head swiveled awkwardly to try and take in the space. The bright light only made him frown more—not that he’d been doing much else. Stephen tried lopsidedly to push himself upright, and Tony jumped to help him with the bed.

“Careful there,” Tony said. He left his hand resting to the right of Stephen’s spine. “You’re banged up pretty bad.”

“Can tell,” Stephen muttered. 

“Yeah, I suppose you can.” Tony bit back the accusation in his tone, but Stephen heard it anyway. 

The wizard looked at him coolly, hands settling in his lap. “I know that look. That’s the 'what the hell' look.”

“Damn right it is,” Tony huffed. He shoved himself back in the chair so he was too far away to reach for Stephen’s hand, which was becoming a more and more distracting desire as the moments wore on. “What the hell?”

“I told you this is a common occurrence,” Stephen said. 

“How? How can you possibly get into this much trouble?” Tony asked

“You know that. I’ve seen this elemental before—the damage it could do. The fire would’ve gone on for months if I hadn’t headed the creature off.”

“Elemental?” Tony shook his head, exasperated. “You—Okay, fine, whatever.”

Stephen’s gaze hardened slightly. “It is my responsibility as a sorcerer, Stark.”

Tony gritted his teeth. “No it isn’t,” he hissed. “Just because you know where threats are coming from doesn’t mean you have to be there to anticipate them! You almost died. Three times in as many weeks!”

“And if I hadn’t, then it would have been someone else!” Stephen snapped back. He winced as he spoke, his voice rough, but he didn’t quiet. “It would have been these people. These people, the victims who get our attention, the catastrophes who warn us of others to come. Who we can’t save.”

“We can’t save everyone.”

Stephen shook his head. Fire roiled in his tone, and it wasn’t from the smoke. “I don’t care,” he growled. “I’ve had enough of that. I’ve—I’ve had the blood of trillions on my hands and then wiped clean. And it’s enough. No more.”

Tony did reach out, then. He stretched a hand toward what he saw crumbling, hypocrisy making it shake. “It’s not your fault, Stephen,” he said. “And even if it was, it’s over now. They’re back.”

“Not everyone.”

“Maybe not, but enough,” Tony said, throwing the word back at him. 

Stephen didn’t even flinch. When he looked at Tony, his eyes were old. “So what? So what; I still remember. I’ve lived in the worlds where they didn’t return. And I won’t live in those worlds again, not in the shadows of them created when even one person dies that I could have saved.”

“Stephen.”

“No more.” Stephen took Tony’s hand, the crusted edges of his bandages rubbing roughly against Tony’s fingers. Stephen didn’t look at him.

“Stephen.”

“Some things stay gone, Tony. Some things can’t just be snapped back.”

“You don’t have to tell me that. You don’t have to tell me that like I don’t know.”

Stephen shook his head, and Tony saw the way it pulled at his blisters, the way it turned white gauze red. “I know you can’t let go of the snap,” Stephen said. “I know you can’t move on because of the one you couldn’t save, the one you can’t find.”

Tony went still in his chair, in his soul. 

Looking up, Stephen met his eyes. “I know Harley Keener makes it seem like Thanos is closing his hand around the back of your neck and keeping you down, keeping you dying. You say the unsnapping was enough, but you don’t believe it. And neither do I.”

“We should,” Tony said. He held Stephen’s hand tighter.

“Yeah, we should,” huffed Stephen. There was a broken shred of amusement in his tone. “But we don’t. You’re the man who thinks about after , and I’ve seen that after— every after— and can’t let it go.”

“How can you say that? How can you think that all this is up to you?”

“Because it is.”

There were stars in Tony’s vision—the unforgiving stars seen outside a spaceship, the ones seen in the dusk light of Titan. He thought about jade light and metallic armor. He thought about Thanos and Infinity Stones. It didn’t matter, hadn’t ever mattered. Maybe Tony did think about after, far more than he should, with his eyes turned away from the things he couldn’t fix.

Tony was never going to be able to divide by zero.

Stephen was still looking at him, pained eyes dilated in the light. Tony’s hands itched where they brushed up against the rough surfaces of the sorcerer’s bandages. Pain wound the whole of Stephen's form, and he didn’t regret it. Stephen couldn’t fix this either. Tony knew it—they both did. 

But Thanos wasn’t the only one who had left a legacy.

“No,” Tony declared. “No it’s not all up to you. Stephen, you live in a world, in a universe , and that universe is not going to turn its back on you.”

Stephen opened his mouth, but Tony cut him off. “Yes, I do know that,” Tony said. “Because I’m not going to turn my back on you, got it? After isn’t on you, and it isn’t up to you. You are human, and I’m not going to forget that again.”

Stephen blinked at him. His eyes had gone a little wide. 

Tony blew out a breath, dropping his head between his shoulders. He looked up at Stephen from under unruly hair and said, “Next time you go up against an elemental, I’m coming with you.”

Stephen smiled. “Okay.”

 

 

+1

 

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come in?”

Tony leaned over the edge of the counter, swiping a dirty coffee mug from the other side and moving to rinse it out. His shoulder hiked to press his phone against his ear. With both hands free, he made quick work of the cleaning, though not of the coffee. It took him far longer than it should have to untangle his hand from the lights Peter had twined around the neck of the sink.

“No, I’m fine,” Stephen sighed across the line. “It was nothing.”

“Just a light poisoning?” Tony said, raising an eyebrow as fumbled.

“Accidental poisoning.”

“Doctor Saroyan seemed almost exasperated when she got around to calling me,” Tony chuckled. “So I figured you were fine if you were up to terrorizing the staff. Which hospital?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’ll be out of here in a few more hours.”

“Alright, if you say so.” Tony wandered across the kitchen to the coffee machine, brushing aside a few of Stephen’s abandoned teabags as he went. “Am I going to have to quarantine you for unidentified mystical contaminants before tonight, or…?”

“I told you,” Stephen grumbled, “I simply misjudged the location of my portal.”

Tony poured himself a very large helping of coffee into the mug and slurped. Pointedly. “And popped out of spacetime to collapse in front of some poor bastard. Now why might that concern me, hm?”

Stephen huffed. Tony just smiled.

“Hey, at least they called 911 and not the police.”

“Yes, I’d rather not have a repeat of that.”

“Me neither.” Tony shifted the phone into his other hand. “So, you’ll be done soon?” he said.

“Just as soon as the doctors clear me. Or until I can get my sling-ring back. You know, I think I’ll go looking for that now.”

“Maybe you should, I don’t know, rest?” Tony suggested, fully aware that it was futile. “Recover from being poisoned? Get cleared for duty by the professionals.”

Stephen sounded disgruntled. “I am a professional. Certified, need I remind you.”

“Yes, right, however could I have forgotten,” Tony drawled. He rolled his eyes and sipped his coffee again. 

“Goodbye, Tony,” Stephen chuckled. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah. Don’t bully too many—”

Stephen had hung up before Tony finished his thought, and Tony dropped the phone to the countertop with a shake of his head. If he had to guess, he’d say Stephen had been up and wandering the halls of whatever hospital had the misfortune to admit him for the entirety of the call. It wouldn’t be long until he found his ring. Hopefully the Cloak, too. 

Tony hooked an ankle around the leg of the nearest chair and dragged it underneath him. He got himself comfortable. Flicking a monitor into existence on the counter, he braced his mug against one palm and settled in to work. He could at least be productive while he waited. 

It was only a few minutes before he was up again—the lights around the sink were on a blinking setting, and Tony was pretty sure it was draining his sanity out through his nostrils. The control box plugged into the nearest outlet. Tony knelt beside it, fiddling with the dials only Peter had ever figured out how to effectively wire, when his phone trilled again. 

Tony looked at the wires in his hands, then glared over his shoulder at his phone. It ignored him and continued its ringing. Sighing, Tony dropped the lights and swiped to answer the call, already ready with his business voice.

“Hello? Is this Tony Stark?”

“Yep,” Tony said. 

“I’m calling on the behalf of—”

“I already got a call.” Tony cut the man off, moving back across the room to keep fiddling with the plugs. “Stephen Strange should be cleared to leave in a few hours, unidentified toxins, blah blah blah. I’ve heard it already. Just got off the phone with him, actually.”

“No, sir. Though we have him to thank for finding this number.” The nurse barked a quick laugh, and Tony refrained from interrupting him. “He ‘escaped’ his ward and managed to make it to in-patient—and we’re lucky he did. Doctor Strange has identified one of our recovering coma patients, and you were listed as emergency contact.”

Tony leaned over the phone, a frown twisting his lips. “Where are you?” he asked. 

“Nashville Central Hospital.”

Tennessee. 

Tony swallowed. His hands were shaking. “Who?”

“Harley Keener.”

The mug fell from Tony’s hands. It shattered into uncountable pieces, a limit of infinity.

And Tony was laughing, laughing when the sparks of magic opened in the heart of his home, laughing when he raced to the bedside of the boy he’d thought would haunt him forever, laughing when a scarred hand pulled him close. Laughing, because he’d thought he’d lost this universe forever.

“Thank you,” Tony breathed into Stephen’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

Stephen laced his fingers with Tony’s, as he’d laced their fates together all those years ago, and if this was Thanos’s legacy, Tony could live with it. If this was after, Tony could love it.

Against him, Stephen smiled. 

“Let’s divide by zero.”