Codey hadn’t meant to steal the book.
Really, he hadn’t. It had been mostly instinct, four nights ago when he’d been knocked down by the sudden flash of light and wind in Rockefeller Park. He’d been trying to do his geometry homework on one of the picnic tables, frustrated and stupidly determined to get it all done before he went home.
If he’d just left before it got dark, nothing would’ve happened. But Codey stayed, and so he was there when the fight erupted, all flashing colors and bright tears in reality and all those things he always saw on the TV. It sent his books and papers flying. It sent Cody flying too.
Of course, he hadn’t stayed long. Gathering everything he could into his arms and booking it to safety as fast as he could, Codey hadn’t realized he’d grabbed one book too many until he was safely back in his apartment with his blankets pulled over his head.
Codey Washington couldn’t remember the world before the Blip very well; he was only fourteen, and he’d spent most of his life in that half-empty world under the care of his grandfather. But if he’d learned anything about life in the years after Thanos had been killed, it was to be well and truly careful about things that usually only happened in stories.
The book seemed old—really old. When Codey leafed carefully through it, he couldn’t read a word of what it contained, though the strange diagrams and patterns sketched onto some of the pages were almost hypnotic. It must've been expensive.
Maybe even dangerous, if one of those things had dropped it that night.
I should return it, Codey thought. The good guys could need it.
He hadn't stuck around to see who the good guys were, but surely they’d appreciate some stupid kid not stealing their possessions. Codey carefully inspected the book's leather cover and interior binding, hoping for some sign of something. He didn’t find a name, or a publication designation, or anything that might count as a title. What he did find was a weird symbol stamped in the interior cover.
Codey squinted at it beneath the light of his flashlight. It wasn’t familiar, but it was something.
Though he wasn’t good with math, Codey could wrangle a computer to his will pretty often. The next time his grandfather was out, Codey slid into the chair in front of his desktop and searched up the symbol.
He found an aerial image from Google Maps of the same pattern on a window. The building it was attached to seemed normal enough; maybe a library of some kind. It was a place to start at least.
So Codey went. He bundled up his hair beneath a ball cap, put on his baggiest hoodie to hide his growing breasts, and bought a subway ticket.
The door to 177A Bleecker Street lay propped open when Codey got there. He was already inside, head bobbing casually to the music in his earbuds, when he realized it wasn’t a library at all.
177A was a sprawling, old fashioned, museum-like building, and Codey was instantly awestruck. His earbuds fell out as he craned his head to look around, eyes wide. He hugged the book to his chest. He felt like a kid from a fairytale. One of the good ones, where the kids were clever and the witches were cool.
“Hello?” Codey called, pulling the other earbud out. “Is anyone here?”
He stepped forward, further into the building. Under his feet, he could have sworn the mosaic floor had a different pattern than before. The old, beautiful wooden panels that framed the walls and arched into the ceiling glowed with light spilling down the stairs. Codey looked around again, then bounded forward. He took the stairs two at a time until reaching a small landing.
There, set into the upper wall, was the window. Codey opened the book; the two symbols were identical.
A hand fell on his shoulder.
Codey moved, spinning around and bringing the book up defensively in front of him. He met the eyes of a person in a red cape, with black eyebrows cleanly arched in amusement. Codey knew instantly that they were the magician from the park.
“Well, hello there,” the magician said.
“Hi,” Codey said suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“I’m Doctor Strange,” the magician replied, which was fitting. They didn’t seem upset that Codey had broken into their house. Well. Not broken in; the door was open.
“I’m Codey,” Codey announced. “Is this yours?”
He held out the book. Doctor Strange raised their hands and trailed them over the leather cover, and then they blinked. A moment later, they’d snatched the book from Codey’s hands with what could’ve been glee.
“Oh, thank the Vishanti,” they said. “You had it—I thought for sure Gerald had gotten it. Wong would be so pissed. Er. Freaked.”
Codey rolled his eyes. “It’s alright, I can say fuck. It’s legal. And yeah, you dropped it when you were… I don’t know, banishing Cthulhu back in the park a few days ago.”
“Not Cthulhu,” Strange said idly, flipping through the book. “Just a couple of fractaline acolytes from the Mandelibus dimension.”
“Oh.” That sounded dangerous. “What is it?”
“One of our spellbooks,” Strange told him. “You believe in magic, don’t you?”
“Why not?” Codey shrugged, winding his earbuds into a neat coil and tucking them into his pocket. “Who’s Gerald? Who’s Wong?”
Strange padded up the stairs toward the upper floor, their cape swishing behind them, and Codey darted after them. The hallway seemed inviting.
“Wong is my friend,” Strange explained. “Librarian and kicker of monster ass. And Gerald… well. Tell me, do you like dragons?”
Codey laughed. “Who doesn’t?”
Strange gave him a slanting grin in return. “Who indeed?” he agreed. “Tony would take one everywhere if given the chance, and when he looks at me in that way he does, I almost let him. Come on: I’ll introduce you.”
Codey had to trot to keep up with Strange’s long strides. “To Tony?”
“No, to Gerald. Tony’s in Wakanda until later tonight, though try not to go spreading that around.”
A little baffled, and more than a little excited, Codey agreed. Strange lead him through a warren of brightly lit passageways, progressively less dusty, until pushing open the door to a remarkably clean study.
“Gerald!” Strange called. “I brought a visitor. Come say hi.”
And Codey could reliably say he’d set himself no expectations at all, but when an honest to god dragon bumbled out from behind the desk, his mouth fell open.
Gerald was a stony grey color, long and four-legged and lacking wings. It’s scales were chipped, its features a little worn, like a statue come to life. It had a friendly sort of face. Fangs poked up from its lower lip, giving it the appearance of a smile. Eyes with carved pupils found Codey’s, and Gerald opened its mouth and made a whooshing sound.
“It likes you,” Strange said, as if that was obvious.
“Oh my gosh,” Codey squeaked, and knelt. Not quite sure what to do, he held out his knuckles like he might to a cat. Gerald lowered its head and, bottom jaw scraping the ground and catching bits of dust and lint along the way, raced over to nose up against him.
Codey laughed. “Oh, you’re so sweet!”
“It’s a menace is what it is,” Doctor Strange huffed. “Aren’t you, Gerald? You ate one of each of my pairs of socks last night.”
“It eats… socks?”
“And spoons,” Strange sighed. “It’s kind of… a long story. Before I came here, one of the sorcerers enchanted a statue in Kamar-Taj to help out with the cleaning, and Gerald was born. Vacuums don’t work in the Sanctum, so it’s kind of the best we’ve got.”
Codey hadn’t the faintest idea what half those words meant, but Gerald opened its mouth and made another happy whoosh, and Codey decided vacuum statue dragons were his new favorite thing ever. He pet it lightly between the horns. Gerald bobbed up and down on its stone legs and swished its tail.
Codey cooed. Gerald turned in a circle around itself and licked at Codey’s hand. Its tongue was rough rock.
Strange set the book on the table, inserting a bookmark between its pages. They dusted off the cover rather carefully. “Thank you for returning this, Mr. Codey,” Strange said. “It saves me a lot of trouble, honestly.”
Codey blinked. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his hoodie. “Um, yeah,” he said, something light in his throat. “No problem.”
Strange cocked their head at him, confusion flickering before Codey could remind himself not to stare. “Did I say something?”
“No,” Codey said hurriedly. “It’s just… how did you know I was a boy?”
Doctor Strange smiled. They leaned back against the edge of the desk, and Gerald moved to curiously chew on the toe of their boot. “I know a lot of things,” they said. “People’s auras are telling, sometimes, and I forget things like names and dispositions and identities aren’t visible to most people.”
“Technically my name’s Corra,” Codey pointed out.
Strange snorted. “Not according to your soul.”
That made Codey happier than he had any way to put into words. But his nerves weren’t all gone. He hadn’t told a lot of people, no more than two. “Do you… mind?”
That actually made Strange laugh. “Mind? Codey, I’m a nonbinary, asexual time sorcerer in a committed relationship with the man who killed Thanos three years ago. I’m about the last person who would mind.”
Codey let a smile bloom across his face. Gerald made vwoosh of support, and Codey found himself relaxing more than he had in weeks.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Of course.” Strange winked at him.
Codey took a breath that smelled of old wood and living stone and twined his earbuds around his fingers. Strange lifted Gerald into their arms, and the dragon wriggled like a disgruntled cat, limbs churning. Its tail swished. Depositing Gerald into the doorway, Strange dusted off their hands.
“I have to get back to work,” they said.
Codey understood. “Can I stay here for a bit?” he asked.
Strange inclined their head, and Codey knew this was one of the good fairytales.
“Of course,” said the doctor. “Just stay out of the way of Cthulhu.”