Standing at the edge of the ornate balcony outside her private rooms, the Sorceress Supreme, ruler of the Dark Dimension, stared at the horizon. Flashes of orange, edged in emerald green, shot up across the sky at irregular intervals. They looked like streaks of paint... or as though someone was marking their territory.
Clea's brows drew together at the thought and she raised her fingers to the azure jewel hanging on a thin silver chain around her neck. She took a breath, centering herself and focusing her energies, and closed her eyes, allowing her inner eye full breadth of view.
From here, the barrier keeping the Mindless Ones out of the realm she ruled couldn't be seen. The jagged flashes of color on the horizon were the only sign of its existence. Following that thought, she opened her far–sight wider, allowing her current surroundings to fade away as her mind traveled.
When she stood in front of the barrier, she stopped, gazing at the mystic shield that kept the hordes of Mindless Ones from sweeping into the rest of the Dark Dimension and overrunning it. Her mind swam with images of the mindless demons ravaging her realm, slaughtering her people with their innate brutality, and she shuddered.
Then she pushed the thoughts away and instead focused her attention on the barrier. It stood as strongly as ever to her mystic sight. Only the strange streaks of bright color betrayed the fact that something was wrong.
Clea sent a probe out, testing the barrier's strength, and felt reassured that it would continue to shield her people... but worried at the fact that she could feel it weakening, almost as she watched. And there was something else...
Frowning, she ended her vision, opening her eyes and staring sightlessly at the flashing lights on the horizon. The barrier felt wrong, somehow. It was held by Dormammu's power, even with the Faltine lord still chasing his body across dimensions; his distance from the Dark Dimension hadn't caused the strange weakening.
No, what confused her as she stood in thought was the strangely chaotic tinge to the barrier, some alien flavor of magic that she had never before encountered. Whatever that alien magic was, it prevented her from fixing the cracks in the Barrier. Even with the added power of the Flames of Regency aiding her, she couldn’t seem to get past the magic’s ever–shifting chaos to mend it.
As frustrating as it was, she could only hope that Stephen Strange's errand had gone well. With the history between him and Earth's Sorcerer Supreme, she wondered yet again if he had been the best choice to send... but such thoughts were pointless. The deed was done, and no use dwelling on it. All she could do now was watch the failing Barrier, ready her magics and her troops in case the unthinkable happened, and hope that Stephen would return soon... and that Tony Stark would be able to repair what she could not.
When he walked into the library, all Steve wanted was to find escape with a good book.
The day had been long and grueling, and dealing with giant robotic snakes trying to eat Manhattan had only been the icing on the cake. Hank and Tony's last–minute save with a sort of techno–magic computer virus had come too late to prevent Jan's exhaustion from firing her bio–bolts until she ran herself out of energy, or the deep bruising along his own left side from being thrown into an office building. He'd cracked at least two ribs – after all these years, it was a feeling Steve knew all too well – but they'd heal up within a day or two at worst.
Even Hank had some minor injuries from trying to tear apart the first giant snake, before they'd figured out that some kind of magical barrier made his efforts useless. That combination was unmistakably Doctor Doom's, much to their general frustration. Only after the virus managed to shut down the barriers could they really hurt the giant robots, and at that point, it had largely been Thor's doing, since the rest of them were exhausted from spending all afternoon fighting what amounted to a delaying action.
The entire team agreed on the way home that Doctor Doom needed to find some new hobbies.
Steve suspected that Doom's obsession with New York stemmed not only from whatever weird relationship Doom had with the Fantastic Four in general, and Reed Richards in particular, but also from a personal antipathy toward Tony. While Doom's obsessions ended up scarring him for life and sending him even further over the edge of insanity, Tony had managed to combine the same abilities in a way that left him still able to operate in the real world and, even more importantly, respected. The paparazzi might not like him – more for avoiding their nets in recent years, than for his earlier hellion years – but the people who counted knew and respected Tony's abilities, and that had to eat away at Doom.
With a sigh, Steve pushed away the thoughts of the fight and picked up the book he'd started a few days before. He planned on settling down in his favorite spot on the plush leather couch, a place he'd passed more hours than he could count and many of them in company with Tony.
The sound of someone clearing their throat in an exaggeratedly polite fashion made Steve's teeth grind. No one who lived in the house would make such a production of interrupting him, and Tony would have been talking to him before he was even all the way into the room. Jarvis would have accomplished his errand and disappeared again without Steve even knowing he'd been there. With a sigh, Steve composed himself, settling his face into polite blandness, and turned to face Stephen Strange.
Strange had only been in the house for a few days, but that short time had already been far too long. His skill at pushing buttons and directing scathingly polite insults at people nearly surpassed Tony's own, and he felt no compunction whatsoever at aiming those abilities at the Avengers.
For some reason, he seemed especially taken with digging at Steve, and Steve had no problem at all in guessing why: No matter how far he hadn't gotten with Tony and his hopes for a relationship between them, they were unmistakably close to one another. Given what Tony had told him of his and Strange's prior relationship, Steve wasn't surprised that Strange seemed to take a special joy in taking jabs at him. If that were all of it, Steve wouldn't be bothered; he'd grown up being bullied by boys who were better at it than Stephen Strange. No, what got under his skin was Strange's never-ending series of thinly-veiled insults and cutting remarks about Tony.
"Did you need something?" He tried to keep his voice politely neutral. He probably failed.
Strange's mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile. "Oh, please, don't let me interrupt you, Captain Rogers. I just didn't think it would be a good idea to sneak up on you."
"It's generally not." Steve shrugged and sat down, acutely aware of the other man's presence in the room as Strange crossed from the doorway to the shelves, browsing them with casual interest.
"I see he's expanded his collection since I was here last." Strange's voice was overly casual, and Steve kept silent. "When I lived here, his focus was much more narrow, all bent on his magical studies. Except of course for the books he inherited from his parents." A pause, and Steve let out a slow breath, trying to rein in his temper. Whatever Strange hoped to accomplish by riling him up, he had no intention of giving the man the satisfaction of succeeding.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Strange stop, his fingers trailing over one of the books in the far corner of the room before pulling it out. A quiet noise left his throat, and Steve looked hastily down at his own book again as Strange turned toward the sitting area. The other man sat in one of the chairs across from Steve, his gaze an odd mix of surprise and resentment as he opened the volume in his hands. Steve caught a glimpse of something bright, like a bookmark or a photo, fluttering to the ground, and Strange snorted.
"The man is too sentimental for his own good." The words were sharp-edged but held a note of wistfulness. Biting his lip, Steve told himself to stop reading his own emotions into other people, and remained quiet. After a few minutes of strained silence between them, Strange looked up at him. "Do you know his history, Captain?"
Steve's eyes narrowed. "Yes."
Strange laughed, and Steve's fingers itched with the urge to reach up and make him stop, make him stop laughing, stop speaking, stop trying to rip holes in other people... He drew in a breath and tightened his grip on the book he held.
"Do you really?" For an instant, Strange looked regretful, but the expression was gone too quickly for Steve to be sure he'd seen it. "When I lived here, evenings this quiet were a rare thing indeed. Usually we would be in the Sanctum, working at all hours of the night." He cast a quick sidelong glance at Steve, smirking as he added, "Or finding other ways to keep busy."
The words cut through Steve with an unexpected sharpness and he blinked against the pain in his chest. It didn't mean anything. He knew that Strange had lived here before, knew that Strange had spent most of those years sleeping in Tony's bed. It didn't mean anything now, years and betrayals later. He also knew that his growing irritation showed on his face, no matter how much he tried to hide it.
"Something wrong, Captain?" The question sounded so innocuous, but the tone held mockery, and abruptly Steve was sick of it.
"Enough, Strange." His voice sounded rough to his own ears, and he realized as he stood up that he was shaking, anger running thick through his veins. "Enough games. Whatever problems you have with Tony, they don't involve the rest of us and they don't matter right now. You came here to ask him for help, for a favor. Stop taking out your anger out on him and on the rest of us."
Instead of answering, Strange leaned back in the chair, looking him over with a leisurely gaze. Then his mouth curved up, into a shark's-tooth grin. "You want him."
Steve started, the words catching him off-guard.
"You want him, and you don't know how to have him." Strange's voice lowered and he stood, letting his book drop to the chair, his gaze never leaving Steve's face. "You want him, and my presence is interfering. Does he keep ignoring you, Captain, or pushing you away? Is he unwilling to allow you in close to him, too afraid to let you love him?"
Steve stood frozen in place, his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists at his sides. He knew he was trembling, knew it would look to Strange as though he were upset by the cold, cutting words. He wasn't.
He was furious.
"Has he even allowed you to sleep with him?" Strange paused and cocked his head, considering. "Has he even let you kiss him?"
Steve took a half-step forward before he caught himself. A triumphant gleam shone in Strange's eyes, and Steve sucked in a deep, shuddering breath as he wrestled with his anger, forcing it down, back, regaining his control. When he spoke, his voice low and rasping, fury edged every word. "You. Will. Stop."
He saw Strange blink, saw the man lose some of his confident pose as he took in Steve's taut form and seemed to realize for the first time what he was actually seeing. When Strange paled at the furious glow in his eyes, Steve smiled, showing all of his teeth. "I am done with you, Strange. You may be Tony's guest, but you're staying in the Avengers' home, and if you push much more, you may just find out why we have that name."
Steve cut him off, taking another step forward. "I can. I am not going to sit back and listen to you cut down a man who's trying to help you. I know you two have a screwed up history, but if he can get over it long enough to help you out now, you can get over it long enough to let him."
He stopped, and took another breath, forcing his voice back to a ragged semblance of calm. "Honestly, if I had it my way, I'd send your ass home now and let you explain to your people how you antagonized the only person who could help them because you couldn't let go of the past."
Strange's mouth compressed into a tight, thin line, and Steve allowed his smile to relax.
"Good thing for you, it's not up to me. It's up to Tony, and he seems to feel that he still owes you, even after you stabbed him in the back." He saw Strange flinch at that, and felt a flash of satisfaction. "I suggest you get some control over that mouth of yours before it makes him realize that he doesn't."
He turned sharply and walked out of the room, closing the door sharply behind him. Only when he reached his bedroom, safe behind its closed door, did he allow himself to slump, his eyes shut as he pressed back against the wall.
Goddammit. He hadn't reacted well to that at all, and that was a hell of an understatement. No matter how hard he tried to deny it, Strange's words just cut too close to home, too true to deny. Tony did keep shutting him out, did keep pushing him away, and it was killing him. He knew himself, knew his own feelings, and knew that he loved Tony Stark, through and through.
If he could just convince Tony of that fact, life would be so much better.
If Tony would just give him a chance to try, everything would be better.
He turned, frustration spilling out of him, and punched the wall, for once not caring how much damage he caused. Neither the sharp crack of breaking plaster and splintering wood nor the pain of tearing flesh and cracking bone penetrated the angry, frustrated haze that seemed to wrap around him like a shroud.
"Have you tried the Invocation of Cyttorak?"
"Of course I have," Tony snapped, pushing his hair back from his forehead in a frustrated motion. He stared down at the main computer console in his laboratory, watching as mystic symbols swirled through the air in the holographic display while beside them a series of readings scrolled down. Reaching out, he tapped the scrolling text, pausing it while he considered the results of his last test. Across the table, Stephen Strange narrowed his eyes at him.
"I don't think you're taking this seriously."
The sharp-edged words snapped Tony's attention back from the gleaming display in front of him, angry words on his own tongue before he bit them back. Stephen still knew how to push his buttons, but if Tony fell back into their old games, any time they had to track down the problems in the Dark Dimension would be lost to their fighting over old hurts.
Instead, he straightened up, saving the readings with a quick gesture before shutting down the display altogether. "I think it's time for a break."
"What? You're kidding, Stark. This isn't the time for breaks... or for half-assed attempts at help. If you were actually trying, you would've found something by now." Strange crossed his arms over his chest, glaring at him. "We're talking about my home being destroyed, and you're wandering off to go moon over your defrosted toy soldier."
Tony's shoulders tensed, and he drew in a slow breath and released it before answering calmly, "I've been at this for the past eight hours, Stephen. I need to take a break and eat. So do you." He paused, then added in a softer tone, "There was a time when you would have been the one reminding me about that."
Stephen's jaw clenched, but Tony caught a glimpse of some fleeting emotion in his eyes before he nodded. "Fine. But after we eat, it's back down here."
They remained quiet as they exited Tony's Sanctum, although Tony felt Stephen's gaze on him the entire time he sealed the door, right up until they got up the stairs and into the kitchen. All Tony wanted was some caffeine, some protein, and some sleep. Two out of three wouldn't be so bad, he thought wryly as he opened the refrigerator.
Eyeing the contents, he called over his shoulder, "Sandwiches okay?" At Stephen's answering grunt, he began pulling out the necessary items, laying them out on the counter. Catching sight of the bright sunlight outside, Tony glanced at the clock before swearing.
Stephen raised his eyebrows. "Problem?"
"I didn't realize it was so late. Steve had me scheduled for sparring about..."
"Two hours ago."
Steve's voice sounded calm to the casual listener, but Tony winced as he turned to face his friend, hearing the tension coiled beneath Steve's even words. The look on Steve's face made Tony feel even worse; the pinched line between blond eyebrows had to be Tony's least favorite of all Steve's expressions. All too often, he was responsible for putting it there. Steve pushed himself away from the doorway he'd been leaning in, inserting himself into the space at Tony's side with stunning casualness.
"Let me. If you've already been working long enough that you forgot our sparring match, I doubt that you should really be handling sharp objects." The teasing tone made Tony's lips twitch upwards in response, even as he clearly heard the unspoken reprimand behind them.
Raising his hands in surrender, Tony sat down at the table across from Stephen. When he glanced up, he found Strange watching him with a strangely intent gaze. He raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry, and Stephen smirked.
"I never thought I'd see the great Anthony Stark so... domesticated," he drawled. Tony bit back the first three responses that leapt to mind, not willing to take Stephen's bait with Steve right there.
"If this is domestic, he must have been living with wolves when you knew him." They both jumped as Steve sat down a plate of sandwiches between them, pointedly placing a tall glass of water in front of Tony.
"I feel like I should be insulted," Tony muttered between bites. A brief smile flashed across Steve's face, only to be replaced with a serious gaze when he met Stephen's eyes.
"How's the research going?"
Strange's lips compressed into a tight line and Tony used the sandwich as an excuse to remain silent, slowly chewing his bite before swallowing. He picked up the glass and took a long drink of water before setting it back down and sighing.
"Not well." He ignored Stephen's snort. "The biggest problem is simply not being there myself to see the effects first-hand." He raised a hand even as Stephen opened his mouth, having had this debate out with the man more times than he could count over the last week. "However, I'm reluctant to actually attempt the journey to the Dark Dimension until I have a better idea of what I – we – will be up against. With the resources Stephen brought with him, I've been able to study the great barrier. Not in depth, but enough to recognize the patterns within it and be able to detect flaws or changes to it."
"What else do you need, then, if that's not enough?"
Tony leaned back, his appetite fading in the face of Steve's expectant look. "Ideally? Infinite power. If I'm going to end up facing one of the Faltine, as the current theory goes, I'll need it. The reason I beat Dormammu last time is because I tricked him, not because I was better than him. The Faltine are almost as old as the universe, and possibly older, since no one knows where or when they originated."
"It sounds as though you could use my brother's advice." A new voice interrupted him, and Tony twisted in his chair to look at Thor with a raised eyebrow. The god of thunder stood in the doorway, looking strangely hesitant.
"I'm not sure Loki would feel all that helpful toward us," he said dryly. "Come on, sit down already. You look like hell."
And he did. Normally, Thor's appearance was immaculate, all polished armor and flowing cape and golden hair. Currently, he looked as though he'd gone ten rounds with Galactus and then had to pull himself back to the Mansion through mud. Steve half-stood, as though to help the god, but Thor shook his head and walked slowly to the table, dropping into a chair with none of his usual exuberance.
"In truth, friend Tony, my appearance suits how I feel. I was journeying through Vanaheim, when I was waylaid by a great beast, the likes of which I had never before seen. I know not if I disturbed its slumber or if was truly blood-mad, but it was a tremendous battle." He fell silent, his fingers rubbing the edge of Mjolnir in an absent motion.
"Obviously you won," Stephen said. "But why were you there in the first place?" Tony and Steve exchanged a quick look and Tony knew that Steve was thinking the same thing as him.
Thor let out a great sigh, his eyes showing a familiar sorrow. "I was searching for my brother."
"Didn't he try to kill you last time he saw you?" Steve asked.
"Nay." A flicker of... embarrassment? lit in Thor's eyes as he hesitated, choosing his words with care. "Loki did seek me out, while you were battling the Red Skull. However, his actions were... not a confrontation, but a challenge. I must confess, I still find myself at a loss to fully explain them, but they bolster my hope that Loki is not fully lost to madness."
Strange's expression seemed to be a mix of disbelief and derision, and Tony spoke quickly, because he didn't think any of them really needed their resident god upset because a house guest insulted his brother. Even if he did seem strangely close to that brother. Adopted brother. Whatever. "I know you're not much of a magic-user, Thor, but do you think that Loki could have been responsible for the problems with the Great Barrier?"
Thor tilted his head, frowning as he thought. "It is... difficult to say. Loki is capable of far more than ever I thought, but I believe that interference with something like the barrier that you and Stephen have described would take power of a similar nature. I cannot imagine that Loki's chaotic touch, however powerful, would be enough to change such a powerful enchantment. Asgardian magics – and Jotun – are unique, if I recall my schooling correctly." Thor shrugged. "You would be better off asking Loki these sorts of questions. Barring him, perhaps my mother; she is believed to be the most skilled magic-weaver in Asgard."
Well, so much for that theory. Tony made a mental note to query Thor at some point on what exactly Loki could do; their one encounter with the mad trickster so far had been brief enough that Tony didn't even have an idea of Loki's basic power level.
"We should probably get back down to the Sanctum," Tony said, reluctant to move. He picked up his half-eaten sandwich and finished it before rising. Steve reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, keeping him in place.
"You need to get some sleep. You've been up since yesterday morning."
"If we keep delaying–" Stephen started to say, but whatever he saw on Steve's face made him stop.
"You both need some rest. If you keep pushing yourselves, you'll collapse and then you'll take even longer to get back."
Tony opened his mouth to argue and found himself yawning widely. Sighing at the triumphant smirk on Steve's face, he gave in to the inevitable. "Fine. But I'm setting my alarm for four hours."
Steve didn't look happy with his declaration, but he nodded and released his grip. Tony regretted the loss of the warmth from Steve's hand, but caught himself before he reached up to rub at the spot with his own fingers. Bad enough when he slipped up in front of Steve, especially since Strange's arrival, but to do so in front of other people? Biting back the bitter thoughts, Tony headed upstairs, wishing fervently that of all people, Stephen Strange hadn't ended up on his doorstep asking for help.
The week since his arrival had seemed more like years, until Tony remembered the urgency of their task, and then it felt as though time was flying by. Either way, Strange had eaten all of his already-sparse spare time. Missing the sparring match with Steve that morning was only the latest in a string of similar events, and Tony wouldn't be surprised to find that Stephen was causing them on purpose.
His mouth twisted as he entered his bedroom. If Strange wanted to sabotage his relationship with Steve, he didn't have to try too hard. The friendship they'd developed in the last year had deepened into something more, something unexpected, for both of them... and every time Steve approached him, Tony pushed him away and ran. Even before he'd turned up again, Strange had been interfering in his life.
Something about that thought stopped Tony in his tracks. Ultimately, everything that he was – besides the genius billionaire industrialist, of course – was due to Stephen Strange. If Tony hadn't been drinking at that party they'd attended, if he hadn't driven, if Stephen hadn't come with him, if he hadn't gotten in that wreck... So many ifs. His mind spun, with a tantalizing discovery hovering just out of his reach, no matter how he twisted his thoughts to try to fit them together.
Tony sank down onto his bed, exhaustion crashing down onto him. Apparently Steve was right about needing some rest. Not that he'd ever tell him that; it was difficult enough already for Steve to let him be when he was working in the Sanctum without giving him more fuel for his arguments.
Maybe he'd figure out what was eluding him when he woke up.
Hunched over the grimoire he was translating, Tony didn't hear anyone approaching him. Too focused on his half-legible scribbled notes, frowning at the sigils that stubbornly refused to make sense, when a hand dropped onto his shoulder, he jumped. Cutting off the curse that escaped him, he turned his head and found Steve grinning at him. He grumbled, but set down his pen and leaned back, raising his eyebrows in a silent query.
"Jan and Hank just got back." Steve paused, then added, his voice low, "Jan ran into Strange in the kitchen." Tony winced. Jan and Strange had never been the best of friends, although she'd tried to get on with the man for Tony's sake. Steve's mouth quirked, and Tony read annoyance and amusement in the expression. "In order to prevent any more of a scene, I had to call for a team meeting. They're getting unpacked and cleaned up right now."
"Damn." Tony ran a hand through his already–mussed hair, wishing he'd had time for more than the short nap he'd allowed himself that afternoon.
"Yeah. I get the impression that Strange and Jan aren't exactly fond of each other." Steve didn't quite ask, but Tony nodded anyway.
"Good impression. Stephen's never really recovered from the accident." He made a face at his own statement of the obvious and added, "Emotionally, I mean. He was always an arrogant ass – that's probably what first attracted me to him, honestly. But since that night, he's never been able to relax around other people, especially anyone that knew him before. Calling it a trust issue would probably only be the tip of the iceberg." He let out a sigh and stretched, not missing Steve's gaze on him. "He's always been smart, and quick with the witty comebacks. Before that night, he wasn't so nasty about it."
Steve let out a noncommittal noise and Tony gave him a sidelong glance. "What's he said to you?"
In response, Steve shrugged. "Nothing you need to worry about."
Great. Now Tony wouldn't be able to worry about anything else for a while.
"Glowing descriptions of my sterling character, I'll assume." Tony kept his words light, although the rough tone of his voice probably gave him away. Before Steve could do anything more than open his mouth, he held up a hand and shook his head. "Never mind. Right now, I'm sure it's better that I don't know. Just..." He hesitated, debating, then said quietly, "Keep in mind that he's not lying." He saw the outrage in Steve's eyes and his mouth twisted into an unamused smile. "He'll exaggerate, and phrase things woundingly, but... he doesn't lie."
Standing up, Tony slid a marker into the book and closed it, placing it carefully within the warding circle on his desk. "I'll go hop in the shower and make myself presentable, Cap. Don't worry, I won't miss your meeting." Steve snorted, but left Tony alone in the lab without further discussion.
Once he was sure Steve was out of earshot, Tony rubbed a hand over his eyes and let out a pained noise. Stephen Strange had always been able to pinpoint his opponents' weaknesses with unerring accuracy. It was just Tony's luck to be on the wrong end of that ability these days.
Forcing his mind away from the dark train of thought, he went upstairs to his room, taking a shower that was too short for him to truly enjoy but long enough for the hot water to relax his straining body. He had to admit that he felt a hundred times better afterward, although he didn't plan on telling Steve that. The man already took too much delight in forcing him to take care of himself; knowing that Tony enjoyed it would only up the 'good-for-him' interruptions. Pulling on clean jeans and a t–-hirt, Tony glanced at the clock. About five minutes until the meeting started; plenty of time for him to go down and get a cup of coffee or three. Gods knew he'd need the fortification for the conversation ahead.
Ten minutes later found Tony wishing that he still kept Scotch in the house. At his side, Steve looked like he was wishing Scotch would do him any good. Shaking his head, Tony decided that he'd had enough. He stood up, calling all eyes to him.
"This has gone on long enough. Stephen, stop. Just... stop. You're antagonizing everyone here, on purpose, and it's not making any of us any more eager to help you. Jan... let it go. It's been years." Scowls met his words, but the room remained silent. Beside Jan, her arms crossed and an angry glint in her eyes as she glared at Strange, Hank looked confused more than upset. Then again, Hank hadn't known Strange before; he should count himself lucky for that, Tony thought uncharitably. On Steve's other side, Thor leaned on the table, looking better than he had earlier but still exhausted and bruised. For some reason, the conversation had captured his interest, and Tony wondered if the god knew more about the situation that he'd admitted. Shaking his head, he sat down again, meeting each person's eyes in turn.
"To recap: A week ago, while Jan and Hank were at the conference in London, Stephen Strange came to me for help. He's been living in the Dark Dimension for the past few years, and the leader of the people there, Clea, sent him to me to ask for assistance. The Great Barrier, which Dormammu erected eons ago, seems to be failing. Since Dormammu has been missing ever since my last trip to the Dark Dimension, there's serious doubt that it could be him who has affected the barrier, but supposedly, he's the only one who can."
"Why do we care?" Jan demanded, finally looking directly at Tony for the first time since the meeting started. "The Dark Dimension doesn't affect us, and so what if some sort of magical force field fails? It doesn't make any difference to us."
Strange's mouth opened, and Tony swiftly replied, "Because if the Great Barrier goes down, the Mindless Ones will overrun the Dark Dimension. Once that happens, whoever is responsible for affecting the barrier can turn them at any target they choose – and Earth is a likely target. For several reasons, it's a prime point of contention for magic users, especially the more powerful ones. Dormammu has wanted to rule it – or destroy it, if he can't rule it himself – for eons. The Mindless Ones would be a very effective way of managing either of those goals, since there are literally millions of them. They're not hard to kill, but they can drown any defending group in sheer numbers, because they don't stop. Ever."
"So you want to go to the Dark Dimension and repair the barrier, right?" Hank asked.
Tony nodded. "If I can. That's the problem. Dormammu is one of the Faltine and practically immortal. The power he wields is unique to him, and I'm not sure that I can actually affect the barrier at all – to take it down or to repair it. That's why I haven't left yet. I've been hoping to find something in my library that would help, but so far, all I've found are bits of ancient legends. Less than useful, especially when they seem to be hinting at the conclusions I've already come to: That I can't do it. But I have to try. At the very least, I should be able to find a way to slow down the degradation. There are other Faltine out there, and even if that doesn't pan out, Clea and I should be able to come up with an alternative. But we have to have time to do anything."
"And we don't have time," Strange snapped, leaning forward. "The Great Barrier has been weakening for some time, and it was approaching a dangerous level when Clea sent me here. God only knows what it's like now."
"Why did Clea wait so long before sending you for help?" Jan demanded. "If it's such a big deal, waiting until the last minute seems pretty stupid."
Strange's eyes narrowed, but his voice remained level as he answered. "She was trying to fix it herself. That's why I've been trying to convince the Sorcerer Supreme," and everyone in the room could hear the sneer in Strange's voice at the title, "that rehashing research already done is pointless. What we need to do is get to the Dark Dimension so that he can inspect the Great Barrier himself. Books won't help him figure out a solution this time."
Thor shifted in his chair, drawing Tony's gaze. The big blond met his gaze with a somewhat apologetic expression. "I find myself in agreement with Stephen Strange. If you have taken this much time in researching the problem and have not yet discovered anything of use, perhaps it would be best to make the journey to this Dark Dimension and investigate it first-hand." Across the table from Tony, Strange's smile grew triumphant, and Tony barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes.
"I agree." Steve's voice broke the uncomfortable silence and Tony's head jerked around, unable to keep his surprise from his face. Steve shrugged. "It's been a week and you haven't found anything. If this barrier's getting worse, we need to try to do something about it now."
Interlacing his fingers in front of him, Tony stared down at the table for a few minutes, aware of everyone's eyes on him. Finally, he looked up. "You're right. I keep hoping that I'll find something useful in the next grimoire, or the next history, or the next artifact, but we don't have time for me to keep looking."
It frustrated him beyond belief, because he knew that somewhere, something he had would be helpful – but he didn't have the luxury of taking the time to find out what it was. He'd already taken too much as it was, trying to stave off a trip he didn't want to make with a man he didn't want to be around. The realization that a large part of his delaying tactics had been due to his own personal discomfort didn't improve his mood. "We'll leave in the morning."
"We should go now," Strange protested.
"No. Tony's right. We'll leave in the morning. That way we'll be rested and as ready as we can be for whatever we're going to face." Steve's voice was firm, and Strange sagged back in his chair with a frown.
"We?" Jan questioned, leaning forward. "I thought just Tony and Strange were going."
"I made Tony promise not to leave without me – without us," Steve said, not even looking embarrassed at his slip. "We may not be magicians, but we're a team and we'll be there to provide backup and support, whatever he needs from us."
"I'm going." Jan stared at Strange, her eyes narrow, as she spoke. Beside her, Hank's eyes widened.
"But Jan, it's a different dimension – magic – and –"
"And Steve's right. We're a team, and I'm not staying behind while they risk their lives." Her voice softened as she turned to Hank. "I know you understand that." Hank took a breath, then nodded reluctantly.
"Then I'm going with you." He reached out to cover Jan's hand with his, and her expression melted into a smile.
"I also will accompany you. While I am not strong in magic, I am familiar with it and I may be able to assist," Thor declared, one hand landing on the table with a loud slap.
Tony bit back the words of protest that wanted to spill forth from his lips, instead looking around the table at each person in turn. Jan and Hank, hands still entwined, Thor looking determined, and Steve... watching him. He couldn't be sure what Steve saw in his face, but whatever it was, it made his lips curve. Feeling awkward, Tony yanked his gaze back to Stephen, who looked disgruntled.
"Clea sent me here to fetch the Sorcerer Supreme, not bring back a battalion."
"Luckily for you, we're several men short of that," Steve replied sharply. "I suggest we all start getting ready. We should leave early."
Around the table, heads nodded. Jan and Hank disappeared up the stairs together, and Tony wondered if Hank was ever going to get up the nerve to propose to the woman he was so obviously head over heels in love with. He suspected Jan was getting ready to propose to Hank, if he took much longer. Thor stood up, looking grim.
"I will be ready. I only wish my brother was here to lend his assistance. I miss the days when he stood by my side." A hint of wistfulness crept into the thunder god's voice. Steve only nodded, and Thor left the room. Tony wasn't sure what preparations the god had to make, but found himself glad that Thor would be going.
"Just let me know when we're leaving." Strange pushed his chair back and glanced between Tony and Steve, his expression unreadable. "I've been ready for days."
After the door closed behind him, a familiar silence filled the room. When Tony looked up, he found Steve watching him, his eyes dark.
"I just..." Steve stopped, shook his head, and started over. "It amazes me that you give him so much power over you." When Tony only blinked at him, taken by surprise, Steve shrugged. "You're one of the strongest people I've ever met, and now that I've met Strange... why do you let him control you so much?"
Tony was offended. "I don't let him control me," he protested, aware even as he did that Steve was bringing up the same arguments he'd had with himself earlier. "I haven't even seen him in years. That doesn't make any sense, Steve."
"You know what I mean, Tony." Steve didn't rise to the bait, his voice level even though Tony could see sparks of irritation in his blue eyes. "You spent years trying to make up for what happened to him, and you still blame yourself because you couldn't. You still blame yourself for how things turned out between the two of you, and you're still letting that control your actions around me. That's not fair to me, Tony, and it's not fair to you."
Mouth gaping open, Tony stared at his best friend, speechless for the first time that he could remember. Steve's mouth twitched a little at the sight.
"You can't keep pushing me away because you're afraid that you'll hurt me. What happened between you and Stephen wasn't wonderful, but it doesn't mean that something like that will happen again. And it won't, Tony. I'm not Stephen Strange, and you're not the man you used to be. You can't keep hiding behind your fear and pushing me away."
Steve stood up, then leaned over and put a hand on Tony's shoulder, squeezing. "You can't push me away, Tony. I won't let you." Before Tony could find the words to reply, Steve was gone.
When they gathered in the Sanctum the next morning, Tony could tell that his team wasn't looking forward to the trip. Jan's current Wasp uniform, tight black and gold, clung to her body but her spine slumped even as her eyes sparkled with excitement as she took in the room she so seldom visited. Her flashing eyes remained narrow whenever she glanced at Strange.
Hank apparently picked up on her tension, his own shoulders tight with strain beneath his red and silver outfit, his silver helmet held securely in one hand, a bag full of equipment in the other. He didn't look around the Sanctum; while he and Tony worked well together on some things, Hank had never entirely gotten over his skepticism regarding Tony's magical skills. It meant that although Tony's lab was relatively familiar, the inner Sanctum, with inlaid pentagrams and sigils and summoning circles, bookshelves full of oversized books bound in skins that were obviously not leather, and the various magical artifacts scattered throughout the room, was not a place Hank was comfortable with. Tony found himself okay with that knowledge. He considered Hank a friend, but part of him had never quite gotten over the sneer that the other scientist had worn the day they met.
Thor didn't even blink as he watched Tony prepare, his arms folded across his chest as he stood in the corner, even his scarlet cloak calmly cascading down his back rather than flowing around him. Then again, it wasn't the first time he'd been in the room, and Tony mused that having Loki as a brother probably meant that the thunder god had seen far stranger things in his time than a glowing magical circle. Of course, since Tony had never been to Asgard, this could be their typical mode of transportation, for all he knew.
He wished, yet again, that Thor would let him examine Mjolnir. The stray readings he'd gotten off the hammer during battles were enough to entice Tony, but never enough to actually work with. Pushing that thought away, he glanced at Steve, only to quickly look away again when it turned out that the super soldier was watching him with a steady gaze. He could read other emotions in Steve's eyes, roiling just below the surface, but knew that Steve would never allow them to interfere during a mission. Especially not one like this, with Tony's ex-lover by his side. At least Steve's current uniform was bespelled with as many protections and wards as Tony could weave into it, even if the vibranium shield slung over Steve's back remained stubbornly magic–free, no matter how often he asked permission to add at least a tracking spell to the thing.
On that note... Tony bit back a sigh and turned to face Strange. He was once again wearing the strangely flashy clothing he'd appeared at Tony's doorstep in, a combination of tight-fitting black trousers and a loose blue tunic, topped off with a dark cloak with golden trim. It suited the man, and Strange obviously knew it.
Tony found himself wondering what might be hidden in the seemingly simple clothes; Strange's knowledge of magic had expanded greatly during his time in the Dark Dimension, and Tony suspected he was more than a middling practitioner. Currently, the man stood to the side, watching them with a twisted smile, no doubt enjoying their discomfiture. Tony wondered if there would ever be a way for them to find peace with each other, then pushed the thought away. It was an old distraction, and one he didn't need right now.
"We're ready to leave," he said instead, keeping his voice calm.
Strange nodded. "If you've made the adjustments I gave you last night, the spell should take us directly into the – into Clea's castle." His lips twitched at Steve's sidelong look. "Don't worry, Captain. If it weren't for my presence, any transportation spell attempting to pierce the castle's defenses would be automatically shunted to the great wastes at the far boundaries of the Dark Dimension. My queen is not so trusting as you may be thinking."
Tony raised an eyebrow at Stephen's phrasing, but filed the thought away for later. "In that case, if everyone is ready..." He waited for them to shuffle forward, shoulder to shoulder within the glittering silver circle, then closed his eyes in order to call on the strength of the Eye of Agamotto. He concentrated, feeling the comforting weight of his own light armor and Cloak of Levitation around him, knowing that he could summon the heavier fighting armor in a split second. His own supplies were minimal, kept in a bag slung over his hip. If he needed anything more, Clea would surely have it; if not, he would do without. Hopefully this trip would be both shorter and more straightforward than he feared. He murmured the words of his common teleportation spell, all too aware of everything that was riding on this trip.
“Shades of the Seraphim - select from the day
power enough to wish me away!”
When Tony opened his eyes again, it was to find himself in a courtyard paved with silvery stones, the sky overhead a violent clashing of violets and oranges. He instinctively glanced around for his teammates, and let out a silent breath of relief to find them all beside him, looking exactly as they had in his Sanctum. While he had no reason to doubt Stephen Strange's magical directions, not with the desperation so obvious in his every word and movement, there was always a moment of doubt when teleporting to an unknown – or practically so – place.
"So this is the Dark Dimension, huh?" Hank muttered, tilting his head back to eye the turbulent skies. Beside him, Jan looked captivated as she watched the ever-shifting colors. On his other side, he could see Steve's fascination with the same sight grappling with his soldier's training, and repressed a smile. He should have thought to tell Steve to bring his sketchbook, but this wasn't exactly a vacation. He would just have to take lots of pictures and hope that they sufficed once they returned. Somehow, Tony knew that he would be seeing the Dark Dimension's unmistakable skies in Steve's artwork in the near future.
All meandering thoughts were extinguished by a challenging cry from the gateway in front of them.
"Strangers, halt! What business have you here?"
While the Avengers stood immobile, eyeing the guards in what seemed to be suits of armor from a Boris Vallejo painting, Stephen stepped forward, face calm and voice even as he replied, "It is I, Stephen Strange. I have returned from my mission for my queen, and she should be informed of our arrival immediately."
The guard in front – some sort of officer, judging from the bright symbols on his armor – stepped forward, his weapon lowering as he raised his helmet's faceplate. Upon meeting Strange's gaze, he twitched, then bowed his head. "Yes, my lord. I shall send a messenger right away." The officer turned, saying something in a low voice to another guard, and Tony caught Steve's sidelong glance, reading the question in his raised eyebrow. He shrugged silently, unsure himself of the reason for the guard's greeting. He could think of several reasons for it, but none of them made much sense, unless Strange had hidden much more of his story than Tony had thought. Steve's face tightened into a frown, and Tony felt his own mouth pull straight at the tension in Steve's body.
The increasingly tense silence in the courtyard was broken moments later by a slender woman with silvery white hair, wearing purple clothing and a golden cloak that swirled around her as she rushed through the gates. "Stephen! You have returned!"
The joy in her voice made Tony's eyebrows twitch upwards. Last time he had seen Clea, she had been much more reserved. When she threw her arms around Stephen, kissing him passionately, Tony twitched again, biting back a laugh. No wonder Stephen hadn't wanted to tell Tony much of his personal life, if this was the current situation. It was much more difficult to make someone feel guilty or indebted if they knew that their "abandoning" of someone else had led to them discovering the love of their life. And that, if Tony was any judge of that sort of thing, was exactly what had happened. It certainly explained why Stephen had been so insistent on returning to Clea as soon as possible, always referring to her by name in that oddly soft tone of voice.
As he watched, Clea and Strange broke apart, murmuring to each other too softly for the Avengers to hear their words. From the expressions on their faces, Tony suspected they weren't missing anything meant for them, anyway. After a few moments, Clea turned toward the rest of them, her hand still laced together with Stephen's, her expression more reserved and familiar to Tony.
"Thank you all for coming. I appreciate your assistance in this time of need." Clea's words rang out clearly, although she didn't raise her voice, and Tony smiled.
"I could never have refused," he said, stepping forward. "The Dark Dimension may not be a familiar place to me, but it does hold special meaning for me." He bowed to her, and was pleased to see, from the corner of his eye, the other Avengers following suit.
Clea's face darkened for a moment, possibly at the memories that Tony's words stirred up, and he regretted them. Then her face smoothed over into calmness again. "We will always be grateful to you, Tony Stark. Your last visit left us a most precious gift." She glanced at Stephen, her mouth curving just slightly, before continuing, her voice grave, "This time I hope that you will leave us with the gift of continued existence."
Tony nodded. "That is my hope as well. Both of our homes depend on the Great Barrier remaining intact. Please, show me what you have learned about the situation. I'm eager to get to work on it."
“Of course. Allow me to have the servants show you to your rooms, and once you are refreshed, they will be pleased to guide you to my own study.” A quick movement of her hand and two young men, dressed in loose garments in flowing oranges and reds, stepped forward and bowed to the Avengers.
Tony smiled at them, noting without surprise that they, like apparently all of the humanoid denizens of the Dark Dimension, were very attractive. One of them was slender, with blond hair and green eyes, while the other was dark–haired with warm brown eyes. The brunet caught his eye and flashed him a quick smile before looking back toward the ground, and Tony fought back the instinct to respond in kind to the flirtatious glance. Instead, he kept his face schooled to polite interest and bowed his head toward Clea before turning to follow their guides.
Clea didn’t notice his movement. His lips twisted when he saw her arm around Stephen’s waist, pulling him close to her own body so that they could speak together quietly. If the body language didn’t give them away, the soft smile on Stephen’s face which disappeared as he bent forward to kiss the silver-haired woman would have told Tony all he needed to know about their relationship. More than just a home, he thought, and if there was a hint of bitterness in his mind, he tried not to notice it.
The brunet's name was Tai. Apparently he had taken quite a liking to Tony, whether for his good looks or the simple fact that he was a stranger to the Dark Dimension, Tony couldn't tell, and didn't care. When the young man showed him to his room, then followed him inside, he held back a sigh. Some things seemed to be universal, regardless of what dimension they occurred in.
"Master Stark, I would be most eager to offer you anything that you might desire," Tai purred, one hand on his curving hip, the other brushing against his crotch. Tony appreciated the artfulness of the pose, but too many years of familiarity with it left him cold. A small voice in the back of his head reminded him that he also had too much familiarity with pretty men bearing that name, and that it never ended well. Besides, Steve was in the next room over, and if he'd seen the other man following Tony into his room...
Biting back a curse, Tony shook his head. "Your offer is most kind, but I must refuse." He kept his words kind and his voice firm, not wanting to insult the man, but he needed to make sure that there were no misunderstandings here.
As the young man's full mouth narrowed into a pout, Tony added, "At the moment, I just want to be escorted to Clea's chambers so that we can start work on the problem that she invited me here to deal with."
At the mention of the ruler of his realm, Tai's face tightened with momentary distress before relaxing once again into the polished poise of a palace servant. Tony was impressed. Apparently Clea was both well-liked and just a little feared. Not a bad combination for somewhere like the Dark Dimension, where all too often rulership and peace relied mostly on a person's innate power.
One last glance, his eyes lingering over Tony's body, and the young man turned, regret written into his posture as he opened the door. Once he stepped out into the hall, all traces of it disappeared and he straightened, waiting patiently for Tony to follow. Further down the hall, the next doorway opened and Steve stepped out, his gaze raking over both the servant and Tony with a hint of suspicion, as well as not a little possessiveness. Where once that would have taken Tony aback, he discovered that he rather liked seeing it on Steve. Maybe this trip would accomplish some good beyond the obvious, he thought, and felt something lift inside.
"Good timing," he said in greeting. "Tai was just getting ready to take me to Clea's chambers." Steve nodded, falling into step beside him as he walked. "I suspect she sent us to "get situated" mostly to get a few minutes alone with Stephen." Steve cast him a sidelong glance, something measuring in his eyes, and Tony frowned at him in question.
"I'm just... surprised, I guess. With all of the tension between you two over the last week, it's weird to hear you almost sound... fond of him." Steve tried to keep his voice neutral, but a hint of the earlier possessiveness crept through, and Tony's lips twitched, bitter amusement rising at not-quite-question in Steve's words.
"Things went badly between us for a lot of reasons, but I've never hated him. I've always wanted him to be happy, and if he is happy here..." His voice trailed off, not wanting to air too many details of the past he and Strange shared in such a public setting. Steve seemed to realize this and nodded, looking contemplative.
The walk through the palace took some time, as the visitors' quarters were in a different section of the compound than Clea's. As they walked, Tony tried to admire the shining silver stone that was the main component of the building, and the varied graceful sculptures and vibrant paintings adorning the walls and open spaces, but his thoughts were too full of worry to really appreciate them.
Sometimes he wished he'd had more luck in his attempts to build some sort of mathematical model of magical energies, something he was positive could be done. It would make things so much simpler to be able to run different approaches to a problem like the Great Barrier through a simulation before actually trying them out. Not to mention less hazardous, and he heard the Ancient One's voice in his head, chiding him for his impatience. While his patience could be practically endless when it came to one of his projects, whether it was magical or technological, he still tended to take the more direct approaches to problems he couldn't take his time to think through. Even the Ancient One hadn't been able to break him of that habit, although years of his mentoring had managed to blunt the tendency to leap before looking.
But sometimes, there were situations like this one, where he'd tried and tried to research, to think, to work out a solution in advance through elegant sigils and swirling energies... and had failed spectacularly. In his own mind, he was willing to admit that part of the reason he'd delayed so much over Strange's protests to hurry up and return to the Dark Dimension was purely to try to work the problem out, to show Strange that their time apart had done him good. Petty, and probably even worse than that, since the small voice in the dark corner of Tony's mind grinned with mirth at the thought of wounding Stephen Strange with the knowledge that not only was he not needed, but that Tony was better off without him.
And sometimes he wondered how in the hell someone like Steve Rogers could fall for someone like him. He flicked his eyes toward Steve, but the other man was too busy drinking in the sights of millennia's worth of otherworldly artwork to notice if Tony set himself on fire, let alone if he were casting him longing, sideways glances like something out of a bad romance novel.
Tony's lips twitched again at his own thoughts, and he resolved then and there that things would change between them. Once the Great Barrier was dealt with – one way or another – then they would figure out this thing between them. He'd let his own demons haunt him for too long, and there was too much at stake for him to let that situation continue.
As he shored up his determination, Tai stopped about ten feet in front of them, and Tony realized that they had entered Clea's portion of the palace. The carpet under their feet was soft and golden, with scarlet and azure designs worked into it. On the walls hung similarly-themed tapestries, the colorful borders edging scenes of vibrant life: merchants in town squares, soldiers on patrol, farmers tilling, magicians pulling colorful designs from thin air.... Tony realized that they were scenes of everyday life in the Dark Dimension.
It was a good sign, he thought, that Clea's decor didn't involve images of warriors slaughtering one another, or war at all; instead, an air of quiet contentment seemed to emanate from the intricate needlework. Tony was convinced, looking at those tapestries, that driving Dormammu away had done the Dark Dimension nothing but good. Not that he'd really doubted it, but seeing his half-conscious hope reinforced by such trivial things as tapestries – decorations that no one would normally look twice at, especially in an area of private rooms rather than court halls – made him sure of it.
With a gesture at the two of them to wait, Tai glided up to the door, his hips swaying in a way Tony was sure was purposeful, and touched a part of the wall beside the thick door that appeared no different from the stones surrounding it, but the heavy door opened silently, allowing the young man entry. The sound of murmured voices came from within, and then Tai stepped back out, bowing toward whoever was inside the room.
Turning back to face them, he said, "She is expecting you. You are welcome to enter."
Tony nodded at him in acknowledgement. He fought to prevent a smile when he saw Steve pointedly ignore Tai, his back stiff as he walked past the young servant, and then they entered the room.
It was clearly the inner room of a powerful person, and Tony could tell as soon as he crossed the threshold that it was also the sanctum of a powerful magician. The wards were impressive, and the trace of twisting energies he caught at the edge of his mind intrigued him. He resolved to try to take a look at their structure if he had a chance, but his immediate attention was taken up by the woman in the center of the room.
In her private chambers, Clea looked much the same as she had in public. Still wrapped in brightly-colored, clinging cloth, the only outward changes in her appearance were her silver hair flowing loosely around her face and the loss of her cloak. The relaxed aura and apparently unconscious half-smile on her face spoke of far more important differences, and Tony felt some of his own guard lessen as the door swung shut behind them and the wards flickered to life. It was almost like being wrapped in a warm security blanket.
"I thank you for coming, Tony," Clea said, voice quiet but clear, and Tony shook his head.
"No thanks needed, Clea. I owe you, but on top of that, the Great Barrier isn't something that can be ignored. I'll do whatever I can to help."
She waved him forward, to another area, off to the side from the main door, and he knew it was her main working area when he saw the inlaid circle, made of some sort of gleaming cerulean metal that he couldn't identify. In the center stood a golden pedestal with a large crystal sphere poised atop it. A smooth gesture, her fingertips trailing across the sphere’s surface, and it glimmered to life, a scene coming alive beneath its cool surface. Tony drew nearer, eyes captured by the distinctive roiling surface of the Great Barrier. He was distantly aware of the fact that the other Avengers had joined them, but when Clea began describing the most recent changes in the Great Barrier, all of his attention quickly became swept up in the intricacies of magical theory.
Standing near the door they'd entered through, Steve watched Tony. The other man was deep in conversation with Clea, both of them speaking in low tones, their words quick, their hands darting in sharp gestures between them. Occasionally he would spot a glimmer of color in the air. It was fascinating. He'd watched Tony work in his lab more times than he could count, but Tony usually locked everyone else out whenever he worked actual magic, and Steve never had the leisure to admire his skills during battle.
"See something you like, Cap?" Jan's voice made him startle, and he glanced down to see her grinning impishly up at him, her eyes knowing.
He didn't bother responding, too familiar with Jan's methods of worming things out of people that they'd rather not admit. Instead, he glanced from her to Hank, finding the scientist watching him with an inscrutable expression. That took him aback; if he was obvious enough for Hank to pick up on it, he really had to watch himself more.
"How are your rooms?" he asked instead, not even trying for subtlety in changing the topic of conversation. Jan's smirk mellowed into a full smile and she dimpled as she gushed about the luxurious room they'd been shown to. Hank seemed discomfited when she off-handedly mentioned their room, and Steve wondered why. All of the Avengers knew that they were a couple, and they should know him well enough by now to know that he couldn't care less what they did together as long as they were happy. Possibly it was the fact of where they were; Hank dealt with science, making his and Tony's interactions interesting at the best of times, and with them in an alternate dimension, and one that seemed to run on magic... well, one could forgive him for feeling out of place. Steve understood that particular feeling all too well, after all.
"My friends!" Thor exclaimed, striding up to stand beside them, clapping Steve firmly on the shoulder. Steve nodded at the thunder god, then turned back to Jan in time to see a calculating expression cross her face for a fleeting second before it cleared again. He almost dreaded her next words.
"So... what's up with Tony and Strange? I know they were an item at one point, but what's with all the snarling? Strange has always been a jerk, but I don't remember them being like this." Curiosity and confusion laced her voice as she pressed for answers. "C'mon, Cap, I know you know something. Spill!"
With a reluctant laugh, Steve said, "I don't know much, and Tony talked to me in confidence, Jan." The serious note in his voice seemed to make an impact as her expression settled into a thoughtful frown.
"You don't need to tell me the details." Steve could only imagine how much that pained her to say, knowing Jan's love of what he would call gossip and what she would call strategic information. "But at least paint us an overall picture. We didn't have time to get it out of Tony before we came here."
The truth of her words made an impact and he nodded slowly. "Okay. They... were an item, like you said, and it had to do with some car accident." Jan nodded, face sober, and Steve remembered that she had known both men before the life-changing car wreck. "I guess... they were together a long time, but it wasn't what you'd call a great relationship, and it... didn't end well." Jan's raised eyebrow told Steve that his awkward attempt at avoiding personal details wasn't going to fly, but before he could continue, a new voice cut in.
"Considering that I betrayed Tony to Dormammu in exchange for a healing spell that ended up being a death curse, and nearly caused his death, I'd say that was a bit of an understatement, Captain." Stephen Strange's voice was cool, betraying no emotion, but Steve thought he caught a flicker of... something, deep in his eyes. Jan didn't bother to look.
"You tried to kill him?" she demanded, stepping right up to him, heedless of their height difference, and jabbed him in the chest with a forefinger. "What the hell, Stephen? I never thought you two were in a healthy relationship, but you can't tell me he did anything to deserve that!"
Stephen flinched, the movement barely noticeable, but Steve's trained eye caught it. "No, he didn't." His voice grew softer, but he made no move to back away from the slight woman threatening him. "I was... foolish, and too willing to believe the pretty lies that I was fed. I did end up saving his life, you know." His words were stronger, louder, at the end, and Jan stared up at him in astonishment for a long moment.
"You saved the life of the man whose life you put in danger?" Thor questioned, his fingers drumming restlessly against the head of Mjolnir, slung at his belt. The god's eyes were dark as he gazed at Strange, who seemed speechless for once.
"Look, whatever happened, it's long past," Steve interrupted. He was no more eager than his teammates to forgive and forget what Strange had done, but this wasn't a good time or place for a confrontation, especially one that arguably didn't concern any of them in the slightest. Jan slowly nodded, stepping back against Hank, who wrapped an arm around her shoulders, but her frown didn't lighten. Neither did Thor's stormy expression, but he didn't pursue the discussion.
"So what is it that you guys hope Tony can do that your... queen... Clea, can't?" Hank asked, doubt evident in his voice as he glanced toward the pair of magicians, still gesticulating within the blue-metal circle. Sigils of various colors hung in the air all around them now, and Steve could see Tony sketching some sort of diagram to the side as Clea watched, lips pursed in thoughtfulness. "It seems like she'd be able to handle her own kingdom."
"Clea is the ruler of the Dark Dimension, and its Sorceress Supreme," Strange all but snarled, his mood shifting from repressed bitterness to outright anger at Hank's words, and Thor held up a hand.
"We mean no disrespect, Stephen Strange. We are unfamiliar with this Dark Dimension and its queen, and seek only to understand how it is that we might assist the both of them." The god's calm voice eased the tension in the air, and Steve remembered abruptly that Thor was the Crown Prince of Asgard, millennia old, and well-versed in diplomatic relations. No matter how impetuous or straightforward he seemed at times, he was raised in the same court that had produced Loki's labyrinthine mind, and some of that had to be due to training, not just personality.
"Clea is the Sorceress Supreme," Strange repeated. He cast a look toward the woman, something softening in his face as he did so, and Steve realized that Strange loved her. He didn't know why it hadn't dawned on him sooner, especially after the kiss the two of them had shared upon their arrival, but it was unmistakable now. Then Strange looked back at Thor and his face hardened again. "But she is not a full-blooded Faltine, and she does not possess the same innate power that her uncle does. Even with the Flames of Regency, the artifact belonging to the rulers of the Dark Dimension, she hasn't been able to fix the damage done to the Great Barrier. Only a full-blooded Faltine can do so."
"Then how does she expect Tony to help? He's just a human being," Jan protested.
"Our hope is that the two of them together will be able to mend the Barrier, if they use all their powers in harmony. Individually, they have each overcome a Faltine, but neither of them have done so by overpowering them with magic. If they combine their strengths... there is a chance it will work."
Hank shook his head in disbelief. "So, basically you're saying that you think that maybe, if they work together, they might possibly have a slight chance of fixing this thing?"
To Steve's eyes, Strange didn't look any happier about the possibility than any of the Avengers did. The man nodded slowly. "Yes. And that is the plan with the highest probability of success out of any that we've come up with."
No one had anything to say in response to that. Steve found his eyes straying back to the two magicians, knowing that the rest of their small group was doing the same thing. He focused on Tony, all the little things that made up the man: the small quirk of his lips that always appeared when something roused his curiosity; the intense concentration in his eyes that was familiar from long nights of watching him work; the hands, fingers scarred from his tools and his magic, but so quick and clever, so skilled as they moved in intricate patterns that left behind glowing symbols in the air.
How long he stood there watching them, Steve wasn't sure. Only Jan's hand covering his where it rested against his thigh, fingers clenched into a fist, snapped him out of his near-trance. He looked down at her, prepared for her normal laughter at his absorption in the other man, but instead, she gave him a soft smile.
"I know what it's like, Steve." She didn't say anything else. She didn't need to.
"I don't like this, Tony," Steve snapped, all semblance of the normal calm, collected leader of the Avengers gone. Anger sparked in his blue eyes, and Tony bit back the sharp words that rose to his mind. He knew better than to play those games, especially with Steve, especially at a time like this.
"If it makes you feel any better, I'm not actually too fond of it myself," he said, trying to keep his voice level. He mostly succeeded.
"Going in to scout it out is the best thing, Steve. I can go in, take a quick look, see if I can figure out what that weird energy source is that Clea mentioned, and get back. If you guys go along with, I'm going to be distracted."
"We're not helpless!"
"No, but you're not exactly equipped to deal with demons, either!" Tony leaned forward over the table, bracing his weight on his palms, glaring straight into Steve's narrowed eyes.
Around them, the other Avengers sat watching them argue. What had started as a quiet group breakfast had gone to hell in seconds once Tony told them his plan. Savory breads and sweet juices lay forgotten on the table, even in front of Thor, and the god could usually be counted on to be the first to start eating and the last to finish. Now, the thunder god watched them silently, his face not revealing his thoughts. Jan sat on the edge of her elegant wooden chair, her eyes flickering back and forth between them, obviously ready to jump in and try to calm them down if things got out of hand. Beside her, Hank's frown deepened as the angry words flew, his rising tension obvious in the stiff set of his shoulders. In the back of his mind, Tony wondered if Hank found himself regretting his decision to follow Jan into a place that was so far out of his comfort zone.
"That only proves my point, Tony. What happens if you go by yourself and these demons attack you? Without backup, if you're distracted–"
"Steve. I'm the Sorcerer Supreme. I don't know if that hasn't actually gotten through your thick skull or something, but that means that I'm not exactly helpless. Far from it. Even without the armor – which, by the way, I plan on wearing – I have all kinds of wards and other protection spells. But you don't. If you go out there and something happens, either I won't be able to do what I need to do, or I won't be able to stop what I'm doing in time to help you, and in the Dark Dimension, that could be the difference between you living and dying."
Tony stopped the flow of words with an effort, aware of the harshness of his tone. He realized that he was almost panting, and took in a slow breath, trying to regain his calmness. He regretted his outburst already; while he did fear for his whole team, all of them were probably well aware of the fact that he'd been talking about Steve specifically. Dammit. This place was absolute hell on him, and on his relationships. Nothing ever seemed to come out well for him from trips to the Dark Dimension.
There was a long silence around the table. Finally, Tony pushed himself upright and turned away, beginning to gather the few artifacts he'd brought with him.
"What are you doing?" The words sounded clipped, like Steve didn't want to say them but couldn't help himself.
Without turning around, Tony answered, "I'm leaving. I'm going to go and scout the Great Barrier, figure out what I can, and then come back. After that, we can figure out the rest of the plan."
"Dammit, Tony, you can't just–"
"I can, Steve, and I am. I'll see you in a little while." If he didn't turn around, he wouldn't see the angry fear in Steve's eyes. He wouldn't see the worry and the concern. Anything else was purely a product of his own imagination, and it wasn't anything he could deal with right now anyway. Tony told himself all of that, and still cursed himself for a fool as he made the gesture that triggered the teleportation spell he'd left hanging, ready to use, earlier that morning.
When he reappeared at his destination, endless rocky wastes covered in dull brown dust beneath his feet, Tony realized he hadn't expected the sight before him. He was taken aback by the sheer size of the Great Barrier. It stretched before him until it met the sky and out to either side until it disappeared beyond the limits of his vision. While he'd studied the barrier, he'd never before seen it so closely. It was a work of art, he thought, tracing its swirling patterns of color with his eyes, all whorls of blues and oranges and greens. He felt as though he could stand there and watch it forever.
That thought snapped him out of the daze the Barrier had begun to pull him into and he shook his head, clearing it, before pressing a finger to an indentation in one of his golden bracers. The ward that sprang up around him was invisible, but he immediately felt a lessening of the insidious pull from the Barrier.
"Clever," he muttered, activating the other ward and sentinel spells programmed into the Armor. Now he was even gladder he'd worn it; even in its standard, lighter mode, it should be proof enough against any other entrapments the Barrier might possess. He wondered if the hypnotic effect was a protection built into the Great Barrier, or if it was just an accidental by-product. He shrugged the question aside; without questioning Dormammu, there was no way to know.
Instead, he activated the Cloak of Levitation and settled into a cross-legged sitting posture a few feet above the ground. Closing his eyes, Tony allowed himself to sink into the comforting familiarity of a light meditation, then opened his Sight and looked at the Great Barrier again.
Now that he could see the magical forces at play in the Barrier, he understood what Clea meant by "cracks" in it. The Barrier seemed to well up directly from the ground, drawing from the very matter of the Dark Dimension for its strength. That explained how it could last so long and so well without weakening against the never-ending force of the Mindless Ones throwing themselves against it. It didn't explain the jagged patches that seemed to be spreading through the magical wall. They looked like some sort of rip or tear, acting to force themselves into the middle of the barrier... trying to isolate it from the ground it drew its power from.
Tony frowned. Those had to be deliberate. No standard spell, even if weakening or breaking, would seek to self-destruct in such an insidious way. He drew closer to the barrier, tracing the rips, attempting to find some sort of pattern that would point to their origins.
No pattern was forthcoming. The rips seemed to be random, strewn across the entire barrier in clumps in some places, while single ones tore through the barrier in others. In fact, the rips were so random as to be pure chaos, which wasn't something typically found in this sort of magic.
Tony's frown deepened as those words struck a chord within him. Then his eyes widened, and instead of looking for a pattern, he looked deeper, peering beneath the rips to the energy powering them. A familiar spike of color jumped out at him, and he swore. He should have known, he told himself savagely. Who else could it be?
As he pulled himself back into his body, he opened his eyes, muttering angrily. He needed to get back to the palace, to the Avengers, right away. They needed to know–
A sharp pain jabbed through his temples and his hand flew up in an unconscious motion to press against the side of his head. Before he could turn to look, to see what was happening, another pain lanced through his skull, and consciousness vanished.
"You're going to put a hole in the floor if you don't stop pacing, Steve." Jan's voice was exasperated, and Steve paused, turning to look at her. She sat in one of the comfortable chairs in Clea's workroom, watching him with affection beneath the annoyance. He blew out a breath and shrugged in silent apology.
"I just... He's been gone too long." Steve forced the words out slowly, reluctant to speak.
In the chair beside Jan, Hank's brows drew together as he looked down at his watch. "I think Steve's right. He's been gone for hours, and he told us that he was just going to take a look, scout things out."
"How long does that take to do with magic?" Jan asked. All of them turned to look at Thor, who stood leaning against the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined one wall of the room, his eyes distant as he watched the roiling colors of the Dark Dimension's sky.
Feeling their gazes on him, Thor turned toward them, his face somber. "I am no expert," he said quietly. "Loki was always talented in magic, more quick-witted and clever than I. I can only tell you that for all of the years I watched him work his wonders, I do not recall such a simple errand taking him so long."
Steve forced himself to remain in place rather than start pacing again. It was a nervous habit he couldn't seem to break, but Jan was right. It wouldn't accomplish anything. "Has anyone seen Clea? She could take a look, in that crystal of hers."
"Then why couldn't Tony use it to do this, instead of having to go there himself?" Jan's question mirrored the one he'd been turning over all morning, ever since the tense parting words he'd exchanged with his friend.
"Because the crystal is a tool for seeing far distances, but cannot be used to closely examine the makeup of spells." Stephen Strange's voice interjected, his tone cool as always. Steve's fingers itched; the man sounded like he couldn't care less, when they were talking about Tony risking himself for Strange's benefit. And the benefit of the entire Dark Dimension, Steve reminded himself, but it didn't lessen the flare of dislike.
Crossing the room, Strange stopped in front of Steve, his eyes too distant for Steve to read anything in. "How long has Tony has been gone?"
"Four hours," Hank answered. Strange glanced at him and frowned.
"That is longer than I would have expected it to take, especially for him," Strange murmured.
Steve felt an eyebrow raise at the unexpected note of concern in his voice. Was Strange actually worried about Tony? He'd acted like he couldn't stand him up until now. Maybe it was just an act, he thought, and realized that that didn't make him feel any better at all about Strange's presence in their lives right now. What if he still felt something for Tony? Tony had all but admitted that he still loved Stephen, after all. He'd also admitted that they were terrible for each other, Steve thought sharply, but couldn't help the pang at the thought.
Pursing his lips, Strange finally huffed out a breath, shaking his head. "I'll have to get Clea. She has much finer control over the crystal than I do, and she'll want to know if something's wrong."
Nothing's wrong, Steve's mind protested, but he bit back the words. "Where is she?" he asked instead, striving for a neutral tone.
"In conference with the High Council. Normally I wouldn't think of interrupting them, but in this instance..." Strange's mouth twisted into an odd smile. "Tony's too damned good at getting himself into trouble." He left before anyone had a response to that, and the Avengers were left staring at each other in worried bemusement.
Minutes later, Clea hurried into the room with Strange behind her. Her face lined with uneasiness, she headed straight for the crystal on its golden stand and made a small gesture over it. Peering into it, she seemed to be deep in concentration, but Steve couldn't see whatever it was that she saw. To her side, Strange also watched the vision in the crystal sphere, his earlier frown making a reappearance.
Steve could see Jan almost bouncing in her worry and her eagerness to know what was going on, but a comforting hand from Hank, rubbing her shoulder, seemed to calm her again. Thor pushed himself away from the windows and strode over to stand beside Steve.
His low voice rumbled in Steve's ear. "Do not worry. I am sure that our friend will be found safe, laughing at us for our worry."
Steve's mouth curved up at the image Thor's words conjured up and he looked up at the god. "I hope so."
After a few long moments, Clea made a soft noise, then stepped back from the crystal and closed her eyes. Strange had an arm around her waist, supporting her, before she finished moving, and she gave him a quick smile. Then she raised her head and looked at the Avengers, her eyes serious.
"I cannot find him."
For an instant, Steve didn't understand what she'd said. Tony wouldn't be hiding from them, not here; even he knew better than to play practical jokes on his teammates – on his friends – when he knew they would worry about him.
"What do you mean? He is no longer at your Great Barrier?" Thor asked, one hand slipping down to curl into Mjolnir's strap.
Clea's mouth tightened and she shook his head. "No. He is not. Nor can I find him anywhere else. As far as I can tell, he is nowhere within the Dark Dimension."
There was a long, tense moment. Then Jan stood up. "You need to send us there." Hank murmured something to her, too low for Steve to hear, and she glared at him. "We need to find Tony, and in order to do that, we need to start at the last place we knew he was. That's the Great Barrier, so we need to go there." Hank didn't stand a chance against Jan's intensity, not with her eyes flashing and her entire body speaking of worry for her friend. He nodded, mutely, and without looking to the side, Steve knew Thor was also nodding in agreement.
He stepped forward, catching Clea's gaze, and met it unflinchingly, letting her read whatever she might in his own face. "Please. We have to do something."
Clea hesitated, and Strange leaned forward, whispering into her ear. One silvery eyebrow lifted at whatever he said, but she inclined her head without further comment. "Very well, Captain. If you would step closer together, please?"
Steve was beginning to get used to the rippling feel of teleportation. Clea's spell felt different, somehow, than Tony's, but still had that sense of waveriness that made Steve feel off balance for a few seconds whenever they teleported somewhere. Glancing around at the others, he wasn't the only one who'd felt it this time. Jan looked queasy, but Hank was grey-faced. Only Thor seemed unaffected. Hank waved Steve off when he offered a supporting hand, drawing in deep breaths, and Steve felt better once he saw color returning to his face.
He turned to look at Thor, who had walked forward several paces, Mjolnir in hand, and found himself captured by one of the most amazing things he'd ever seen. The Great Barrier. It had to be. For all that their trip here – even in the depths of his own mind, Steve absolutely refused to call it a quest – was all about the thing, he'd never once given a thought to what it might look like. Seeing it now made him glad for that, because nothing his mind could have conjured up would have come close. All swirling shades of azure and burnt umber and emerald, with so many layers and such depth and...
Walking into Thor's outstretched hand snapped him out of his daze. Steve blinked, then swung around and barked at Hank and Jan, "Stay right there! Don't look at it for too long. It seems to have some sort of compelling effect on people." He tilted his head to meet Thor's eyes, and found the steady blue gaze of the thunder god as calm as always.
"Do not worry, Captain. The Great Barrier has no effect on me." Thor paused, his face slightly pained, before continuing, "I suspect that it affects any creatures of lesser will – lesser than the Faltine, at least – but my long experience with my brother's tricks seem to have aided me in this instance. I can feel the pull, but only as a slight curiosity."
Steve felt himself relax a little at that.
"I think we'll all be okay, now that we know about it." Hank sounded put out, as if the magical effect was some sort of personal insult, and Steve's lips twitched up into a brief smile. "I suspect the effect is meant to be an unconscious thing; it probably doesn't work once someone's aware of it."
"Yeah. I think the Barrier's pretty and all, but right now, I'd really just like to find Tony," Jan interjected. "Any signs of him?"
Steve looked at the ground, searching for some sign that Tony had been there, a footprint or a dropped charm or... He sighed. Tony was the Sorcerer Supreme. Looking for some sort of physical sign was pretty much like hoping for a trail of breadcrumbs. Thor clapped a hand on his shoulder, startling him into looking up at him again.
"Do not lose faith, Steven. We shall find him." Thor's absolute confidence made all of them stand up straighter. Then the god's eyes widened, as he stared up at something in the Great Barrier, and his hand fell away from Steve's shoulder as he strode forward, until he stood almost close enough to touch the wall of energy.
"Thor?" Jan shrank, flying up to hover beside the thunder god. "Do you see something?"
Thor's mouth compressed to a thin line. "Aye. I see randomness... chaos."
It took Steve a long moment to process the implications of that statement. Then his own eyes widened. "You mean... Loki?"
"I cannot say for sure. But I suspect so." Thor lifted Mjolnir from his belt, his fingers wrapped firmly around its thong as he began to whirl it. As the hammer swung faster, a golden glow appeared, then spread from the air, down Thor's arm, to the ground, and outward. Standing back as he was, Steve watched as it spread into an upright shape, rectangular and tall.
"Is that a... door?" asked Hank, incredulous. Steve could only shrug, unable to tear his eyes away from the glowing god.
Once the shape firmed, Thor let Mjolnir slow again, then stop, but slid his grip up to the haft of the hammer rather than slinging it once again onto his belt. Raising his other hand, he pressed, palm outward, against the glowing rectangle. When nothing happened, his face tightened, and he murmured something beneath his breath. His hand didn't move for several seconds. Then, with an almost sub vocal groan, something shifted in the glowing shape, leaving an opening that glimmered with unnamable colors.
Thor lowered his hand, stepped through the portal, and vanished.
Hank cast a startled look at him, but he ignored it. "Damn it. All right, wherever that thing leads, we can't let him go in by himself." He unslung his shield from his back, settling it onto his arm and taking comfort from the familiar weight, then walked forward. He paused in front of the glowing hole in the air to glance at Hank and Jan.
"We're with you, Cap," Hank said, voice firm. Jan nodded, eyes flashing. Steve nodded once in acknowledgement, then stepped through the portal.
He felt as though his body, his very self, was being wrenched apart, twisted from the inside out, and hoped desperately that it was only a side effect of the portal. If it was a portal, and not some elaborate trap. Shoving those thoughts aside, along with the nausea stirring his stomach, he moved forward, and nearly staggered when his foot landed on solid ground again.
Not the same ground he'd just been standing on, however. His eyebrows shot up as he looked around. Gleaming marble lay beneath his feet and towered at his sides in the form of lines of pillars marching down an immense hall. No, not a hall; as he took in more of the space, he realized it was some sort of gargantuan room. It reminded him of the laboratories that Tony had at home, but with an overlaid opulence that seemed nearly obscene. The trim gleamed with the distinctive sheen of pure gold, and silvery glitters at the corners and in precise spacing across the floor told him that wherever they were, the place belonged to a magic user of some power. He recognized some of the inlaid symbols in the floor from Tony's Sanctum.
Wheeling around to check on the others, he stopped dead as he finally saw the other end of the room. Some part of his mind catalogued the huge golden throne on the dais at the far side, dripping with emeralds, with a large scrying crystal, similar to Clea’s, on a similarly gem–studded pedestal in front of it.
The rest of him was too busy taking in the sight of Tony, hanging limply against a wall, his wrists and ankles circled with glowing bands of green, his body motionless. Panic burst through his chest before he forced himself to concentrate, and saw Tony take in a breath. He was still alive. The panic subsided, leaving relief behind, but only for an instant.
Then he realized what the sight meant: Tony was a prisoner, without access to the armor or any of his magical artifacts.
Returning to consciousness was like swimming through a sea of molasses: Slow, dully painful, and utterly frustrating. Tony groaned once his eyes opened, closing them again almost instantly as bright light assaulted them. His head pounded, and he suspected he had a concussion. When he tried again, he forced his eyes open just a slit, trying to give himself some time to adjust the light that felt like knives stabbing through his skull.
Someone laughed. It was familiar, a haughty laugh that found amusement in the suffering of others. He could almost place it... but it was off, somehow... wrong. It reminded him of...
His eyes snapped open and he blinked away the instant tears, narrowing his focus until he could make out the shape seated on the throne in front of him. It was, part of his mind noted acidly, a ridiculous thing; the throne was enormous, almost big enough to be a joke, and no one would ever really make something like that out of pure gold. It was too soft to hold its shape if someone sat in it for any length of time, for one thing, and it would be ridiculously uncomfortable, for another. The emeralds that covered every available surface only added to the sense of wrongness; rather than looking opulent, it looked distorted. The person on the throne matched it, somehow – attempting to look serious and deadly, and succeeding, but only with an effort that left them also seeming sick and insane.
The horned helmet was still the same.
"Loki." The name hurt to say, Tony's throat dry and parched as though he'd been wandering a desert for days on end, rather than visiting royalty only a few hours ago.
A few hours ago. Shit. That did more to bring Tony back to himself than the knowledge that his earlier suspicion had been correct. If he'd been gone for hours, Steve and the others would be going frantic with worry by now. They'd probably do something stupid, like rush into the middle of things and get themselves trapped. Just like he had, he thought bitterly. And on that note, he'd dearly to love to know how the hell Loki had managed to sneak up on him with all of his ward and sentinel spells active.
Loki laughed again. It still sounded wrong, too shrill, too manic. Last time they had met, Loki had been a manipulative, untrustworthy son of a bitch, but he hadn't been insane. That looked to have changed, judging from the glaze in his green eyes as he approached Tony, glowing staff in one hand, a twisted smile on his face that left Tony cold.
"You remember me. How nice," Loki sneered, stopping some feet in front of him and looking up at him. Tony wondered why the taller man – the taller insane god, part of his mind corrected – would be looking up at him. Then he realized that his hands hurt, and he looked up as well. He was hanging from the wall, wrists bound by some sort of binding spell – green, of course – and when he looked down, the same bonds wrapped around his ankles.
The armor was gone. As were the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, and his entire bag of supplies. He bit back a curse, but Loki apparently read it in his eyes. The twisted smile grew into a crooked grin.
"Never fear, mighty Sorcerer Supreme." Loki managed to make the title sound like the universe's worst insult. For an instant, Tony envied him that skill – it was something he could use at Board meetings. Then the trickster god gestured with the staff and a gleam of poison green across the room – the hall? throne room? Tony had no idea what to call the crazily large room, so he gave up trying to label it – drew his attention.
There on the far wall was his armor. Beside it hung the Cloak and the Eye, and his bag. Tony would have been able to call all of them to him with a snap of his fingers, even with his hands bound as they were... if all of the items hadn't been behind a very solid–looking, if translucent, green magical ward. Goddammit.
"What do you want with me, Loki?" If Tony was going to be held in this near-parody of an evil villain's secret lair, he might as well play his part, no matter how ridiculous he felt.
The sudden pain flashing through his face as his head snapped to the side, wrenching his neck and sending the throbbing pain in his skull to near-blinding depths, left him with more tears in his eyes, a bright red hand print on one cheek, and the chilling realization that he'd better take this damned seriously. Loki wasn't playing around.
"You will address me with respect, mortal," Loki said coolly, the smile dropping from his face. Tony almost wished for it back; without it, the crazed, broken expression in Loki's eyes was all too obvious. What the hell had happened to the God of Lies?
"My apologies," Tony muttered, feeling his lip start to swell on the side Loki had backhanded him. It was barely audible, but Loki seemed placated by it. The god stepped back toward the throne, raising his hands in an all–encompassing gesture.
"What I want, Anthony Stark, is to rule."
When Tony stared at him blankly, Loki sneered, then dropped into the throne again to sprawl back against it, one leg propped over the arm. "I will rule this Dark Dimension. And once that is accomplished, I will turn to your Earth, and then to the rest of the realms. All that is will bow to me before I am done."
In the silence that followed, Tony tried desperately to think of something, some way of signaling the Avengers, or Clea, or even of just getting the hell out of his bonds. When he tried pushing at them, however, his magic fizzled out as soon it reached the green glow, and Loki smirked again, obviously aware of his attempt.
"Your efforts are in vain, Stark. You are well and truly trapped this time, until I decide what I want to do with you." Loki looked him up and down, eyes trailing over his body in a way that made Tony feel unclean. "I cannot decide if I wish to break your mind or your body first; both will be such a delight," Loki mused, tapping his chin with one finger. Tony swallowed back the bile that rose at the images the god's words provoked, and remained silent.
Loki's smirk widened and Tony suspected he was about to find out what Loki had decided. He felt cold at the thought.
Then a shockwave rippled through the room, strong enough to knock Tony off his feet had he not been bound already. Loki, already sitting in his throne, clutched at the arms and pulled himself upright, eyes narrowing to a deadly glare as a square of rippling light tore into existence at the far end of the room.
The sight of Mjolnir spinning through the air made Tony laugh in giddy relief. Loki shrieked, a wordless scream of fury and outrage, and flickered on his throne, then disappeared. Thor's hammer impacted on the golden throne with a sharp impact, splitting it in half, emeralds flying in all directions, before returning to the god's hand.
"Thor!" Tony shouted, stretching against the immovable bonds. "A little help here, buddy?"
The thunder god tore his gaze from the throne with an obvious effort, then turned and strode toward Tony, Mjolnir held at the ready. "I cannot undo my brother's magic," the god informed him, after casting a quick look at the glowing green bonds, and Tony bit back the swearing that rose in his mind. Thor's lips quirked, just a little, and he added, "But I can break it. Close your eyes."
Tony squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that whatever Thor was doing had a small impact radius. A brilliant flash of light seared across his closed eyelids, a deafening crack of thunder hard on its heels, and Tony slumped to the ground, his arms in agony now that they weren't held in place any longer. He forced his eyes open and looked up into Thor's worried face with something that was almost a smile.
"I'm fine, Thor. Really. Just sore. And pissed." Bracing one hand against the wall, Tony scrambled to his feet, looking around the hall for Loki. The clang of metal on vibranium from the other end of the room, near the glowing portal, told him exactly where the mad god was, and Thor took a step in that direction before stopping, looking back at Tony. "No, go on. Just..." Tony searched for a way to tell Thor about Loki's state of mind without just blurting it out, but the pain throbbing through his head seemed to take any tact he might have had with it. "Loki's nuts." Thor's face shuttered, and Tony added hastily, "No, I mean – literally. Something's wrong with him, and whatever it is, it's driven him insane."
Understanding swept across Thor's face, followed by pain, and then his mouth firmed into a determined line. "No matter what the cause is, my brother will be stopped. If he is truly mad, our healers may be able to help him."
Before Tony could find a reply, Thor was gone, his roar lost in the clamor of reverberating echoes and shouts. Great. Tony looked across the hall, to where his armor and artifacts were still trapped beneath the green ward. Now, if he could just drag himself over there, he could suit up and lend a hand. Unfortunately, even the thought of moving right that second was enough to launch his stomach into his throat, between the definitely-a-concussion and the agony of returning circulation in his limbs.
A shout and a shudder through the room brought his attention back to the fight, in time to see Hank, crouched over in order to fit into the room as Giant Man, reach in to the toppled remains of a marble pillar and pull Loki out in his hand. Flashes around the god's head told Tony that Jan was busy, too, firmly in her element in the middle of the fight. He didn't see Cap, though, and he frowned. He'd seen the shield only a moment ago, right as all hell had broken loose in the hall, so he had to be here. Somewhere.
If Tony could get to his armor, he could find Steve. Keeping that thought in mind, he tried to take a step forward and staggered, catching himself at the last minute by slumping back against the wall again. Right. Walking unsupported across the room wasn't happening, and he couldn't possibly focus enough magical energy to flick a fly away through the efforts of the maddened drummer practicing in his head, let alone enough to deal with an insane god. Maybe if he didn't try walking, but sort of slump-slid his way around the edge of the hall?
Tony peered across the room again and bit back a groan. It would take forever in the state he was in, but it was the only real choice. Hopefully he could pull himself together on the way and make the trip unnecessary.
Twelve feet later, he stood against the cold marble wall, panting, his eyes closed. The only saving grace in this situation was that no one could easily see him, so he wasn't quite a sitting duck. Steve would probably kill him personally if he saw Tony making such a prime target out of himself. He almost laughed at that thought, but stopped in time to keep his head from feeling like it would explode. Sucking in a deep breath, Tony forced himself to focus, to turn inward, to draw together what little magical energy he had at the moment, and turned it to healing the concussion. It would take some time, but at this point, anything would help, and the concussion was the single biggest deterrent to him doing anything useful.
Across the hall, lightning crashed, only to be reflected back by an orange globe of energy surrounding Loki, who had somehow gotten free from Hank. Farther to the side, he saw Hank lying in the rubble, eyes open but breathless, and bit back a curse. Jan was nowhere to be seen, but that didn't mean much for the Wasp. If Hank was hurt, she was probably waiting for a chance to sting Loki into unconsciousness by using her bio-blasts at close range. To the god's balls, knowing her. This time he couldn't stop the hoarse laugh, but it didn't hurt as much as he'd feared. Possibly his spell was already working.
Tony took a careful step, then another. He made it another ten feet before he had to stop for breath again, and then there was a hand on his shoulder and he tensed, arms flying up in the defensive posture that Steve had spent so much time drilling into him. Then his mind belatedly registered who was standing in front of him, worry all over his face, and he relaxed again.
"Steve. Nice to see you," he said, the hoarseness of his voice ruining the intended humor. Steve shook his head, fondness in his eyes, then wrapped an arm around him.
"Come on. I'll get you to the armor."
"Can get there myself," Tony protested, not entirely sure why he was protesting. Maybe that concussion wasn't getting better as much as he'd hoped.
"I'm sure you can," Steve agreed calmly, covering their heads with the shield as a stray bolt of magic ricocheted off the remnants of the throne towards them. "But you don't have to do it by yourself."
Tony pondered that as they worked their way across the room, his arm around Steve's waist, the super soldier supporting a good portion of his weight as they moved. "Okay. But you have to let me go once I get the armor." For some reason, that made Steve laugh.
What seemed like hours later and was probably less than a minute, they stood in front of the wards, staring silently at the green glow. Steve looked sideways at him. "Can't you just... magic them open?"
Frowning, Tony reached out, not quite touching the glow, and traced the flow of energy in it using his Sight. His frown deepened. "There's something weird about this."
"You mean besides the fact that it's a magical barrier put up by an insane god from another planet to hold your magic weapons so that we can't save this alternate dimension that we've teleported to?" Steve's was dry, and Tony blinked at him for a minute before Steve's facade cracked and his lips curved. Tony laughed, clutching at Steve's side.
"You have the worst possible timing to let your sense of humor show, you know that?" he asked fondly. "And no, that's not what I meant."
Biting his lip in concentration, Tony probed at the glowing ward, one eyebrow shooting up as a sudden orange streak flared across the spell's surface. "Huh." Ignoring Steve's curious look, he followed the streak back to its source, pushing at it and... "Hah!"
With a slow, crackling noise of protest, the spell collapsed in a shower of green and orange sparks. Tony wasted no time in getting into his armor, the Cloak flaring out around him as he fastened the Eye at his throat. After that, it the work of seconds to clear his head, and he cursed himself for taking so much time with banter when their teammates were in the middle of fighting for their lives.
One look at Steve, and they threw themselves into the center of the struggle.
The next several minutes were a blur of motion, of thunder and crackling booms as Mjolnir slammed into Loki's shields, and shouts from Hank and Steve as they tried to corner the mad god between them. Jan's bio-blasts flashed in Tony's vision whenever he wasn't concentrating on summoning up bolts of power or enchantments to trap Loki in his slow advance across the floor.
The room shook again and again, dust and chunks of rock falling from the ceiling, and more of the gleaming marble pillars collapsed as their fight ranged up the length of the hall. The large scrying crystal in front of the throne lay in glittering shards, surrounded by gold dust and broken bits of green, all that remained of the throne.
All of them were throwing everything they had at Loki.
And they were losing.
Tony fell to one knee, gasping for breath as Thor hammered at that damned orange shield of Loki's with Mjolnir, roaring in fury. Beside him, Steve snatched his shield out of midair as it rebounded back to him and bent down to offer him a hand up. He grasped it gratefully, then froze as Clea's face formed in front of him, the translucency of the image letting him know that she was using her crystal to speak to him. Orange flickered in the background, a sign of her Faltine blood. Her face was pale, her eyes wide and dark, but her voice remained even as she spoke.
"Tony, the Great Barrier is collapsing."
Steve stilled beside him, staring at the image, and Tony could only blink at her.
"Whatever you are fighting, whoever it may be, the powers being used are too much. With the Barrier already weak, your battle has proven the final straw. I can see the hordes of Mindless Ones clawing at it now, as gaps appear. Please... if there is anything you can do, anything... it is almost too late."
The orange flickers in her image caught Tony's attention.
Orange. Faltine. Like the streaks in the Great Barrier.
He shot to his feet, staring at the shield surrounding Loki. The shield that none of them could damage. The orange shield.
Not green, the color of Loki's magic. Orange... the color of the Faltine.
Tony's eyes widened, and then he sprang forward, shouting at Hank and Jan to stop Thor, to get him away from Loki. They stared at him, but only for a split second as the expression on his face convinced them that he meant it.
Loki turned a baleful glare on Tony as he approached the orange shield. "What, have you tired of your games? Or are you just retreating to hide behind your suit of iron? You know that you cannot possibly stop me!"
From the corner of his eye, Tony saw Thor tense, but the thunder god didn't pull away from Hank and Jan. Instead, he looked between Loki and Tony, almost expectantly. Whatever Thor thought Tony had planned, Tony could only hope that he wouldn't disappoint.
Stopping a few feet in front of the glowing barrier, Tony wondered how he'd managed to miss so many clues. Looking back, it was all so obvious. That was always the way though, wasn't it? Shaking his head at his own wandering thoughts, he spread his feet and raised his hands, palm upwards rather than out.
"Loki, you have to stop."
"Why? Because you wish it so?" Loki sneered.
Tony barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes. "No, because the Great Barrier is crumbling. All of this fighting, all this power you've been throwing around, it's interfering with the Barrier, and if it collapses completely, the Mindless Ones will be free to overrun the Dark Dimension."
With an effort, he kept his tone level, calm, rather than frantic. Clea's communication had ended as soon as he'd moved, but Tony didn't know if that was because she'd chosen to end it or because something disastrous had happened. With the Great Barrier involved, anything was possible.
A brief, confused frown crossed Loki's face, but the god quickly recovered. "You seek to trick the God of Mischief? You just don't wish to admit that you cannot win this battle, mortal."
"I'm not trying to trick you, Loki!" Tony bit back sharp words. "All you have to do is look. The Great Barrier is falling, and we have to stop it. You have to stop it." He saw the startled glances exchanged by his teammates and wished he'd had a chance to explain to them, but there was no time.
"Why should I? If the Mindless Ones are set loose here, they will leave the Dark Dimension weak and easy for me to rule. Then I can turn them loose on Earth, and upon each realm in turn, until all is within my grasp." Loki's eyes flickered, the briefest flash of bright orange crossing them, and Tony did swear.
"Dammit, Loki, listen to yourself! This isn't like you. What's the point in ruling if there's nothing left to rule? And that's all the Mindless Ones will leave – nothing. Nothing but death and ruin. All you have to do is look." He saw Loki's eyebrows furrow, saw the moment of confusion wiped away by another sneer, and took his chance, triggering the teleportation spell built into the armor.
This time, no one seemed to suffer any aftereffects except for the shock of finding themselves somewhere else than they had been a split second before, but Tony only noticed his teammates' reactions with a bare fraction of his attention. The rest of him was focused on Loki. And behind him, the Great Barrier.
The Great Barrier was falling. Tony could see it, even without using his Sight. The tears he'd seen earlier that day had become enormous rents, gashes in the magic that kept growing, letting all of them see clearly the ravening hordes of Mindless Ones trapped beyond it. Hordes that wouldn't be trapped for much longer, not given the speed at which those rents were expanding.
Tony pointed at it. "Look, Loki. See for yourself. See that I'm not lying."
He could see Loki's lip curl at the thought of a mere mortal ordering him around, but the god half-turned anyway. Tony was close enough to see Loki's eyes widen at the sight. Hope flamed into existence in his chest when the orange shield surrounding the god of lies flickered before fading away, leaving him standing defenseless in front of the Great Barrier, his back to the Avengers as he stared at the crumbling spell.
"You have to fix this, Loki. You're the only one who can," he said urgently. "Even Dormammu knew that he didn't want to rule a world demolished by the Mindless Ones – that's why he sealed them away in the first place." He swallowed, and added in a softer tone, "Please. Loki. Only you can do this."
He watched as the god stared at the rents, seemingly frozen in place, and tried to keep his hope alive. Around him, the Avengers gathered close. Steve wrapped an arm around his shoulders and Tony couldn't find it in him to protest, but neither could he tear his eyes away from Loki. A few feet away, Jan stood within Hank's embrace. Beyond them, Thor stood, staring at his brother. Then he moved forward. Tony opened his mouth to say something, to stop him, and then shut it again.
Thor stopped at Loki's side, his gaze never wavering from Loki's face. Then he reached out, his fingers settling gently on Loki's shoulder, and leaned in close, his lips beside Loki's ear. Tony couldn't hear what Thor said, but the words had an immediate impact. Loki's head jerked around to the side, looking Thor in the eyes, his own eyes wide. And, Tony noted, green. Thor smiled, his thumb rubbing Loki's neck, and something in the god of mischief seemed to just... give way.
Taking a step forward, out of Thor's reach, Loki raised his staff. The ground rumbled beneath them, and overhead, the ever-changing palette of colors that was the Dark Dimension's sky rumbled back. Tony could see energy forming around Loki, swirling around his still figure until he held so much of it that it nearly hurt to look at even with simple human eyes. It surrounded him in a deep green aura, the clear color shot through with streaks of orange that seemed to claw their way toward him.
Loki bowed his head, apparently speaking to himself, then looked up again as he brought his staff down, its end hitting the ground with an impact that sent everyone sprawling. The combined emerald and topaz aura expanded, brightening beyond all endurance, and then exploded in a sound that went beyond the limits of hearing.
Some time later, Tony raised his head warily from where he lay sprawled on the ground, half-across Steve. It couldn't have been more than a minute, but it felt like years. Possibly, he thought grumpily, because his headache had returned with a vengeance. The magics Loki had released must have backlashed against every magic-user in the Dark Dimension. Tony was probably lucky to be conscious; he'd be willing to bet there were hundreds of people in the realm who'd just fainted for no apparent reason.
In front of them, the Great Barrier stood, brilliant and intact. And, Tony was happy to see, without the green swirls of Loki's chaos magic. Looking to the side, he saw Jan, still cradled protectively in Hank's arms, unconscious but apparently otherwise fine. And beyond them... Tony blinked, trying to clear his eyes. Then he blinked again. Then he gave up.
He really was watching Thor kiss Loki.
Somewhere, part of his mind tried to scream about how very wrong a picture that was. The rest of his mind stomped it down firmly beneath thoughts of "I don't care," "They're gods, it probably doesn't apply," and "Didn't they say they weren't actually related anyway?"
Beneath him, Steve stirred and raised his head. Then there was a long moment of silence.
"Are they really–"
"...Oh. Okay then."
Tony grinned. And then he laughed. And then he threw his head back and laughed and laughed until tears ran down his face, and Steve was staring at him in confusion, and he laughed some more.
Later, after they had all separated to their rooms to clean up and recover, as best they could, from the fight and its aftermath, and then even later, after the feasting in celebration of still being alive had finally ended, Tony found himself standing beside a tall window in an otherwise empty room near the dining hall. He leaned against it, mindful of his bruises, and gazed out across the Dark Dimension. He couldn't see the Great Barrier from here, but he didn't need to. He'd seen enough of it in the last day to last the rest of his life.
Behind him, footsteps echoed on the stone floor. He didn't move. He'd been expecting something like this, and he'd rather get it over with now, while he was still mellow from exhaustion and good food and relief over surviving a near-apocalyptic event.
The uncertainty in the normally collected voice got to him, and he relented enough to shift his weight, turning without moving his back away from the wall, until he faced Stephen Strange.
"Stephen." He kept his own voice low, something inside him not wanting to break the fragile peace of this quiet moment.
Stephen took a step closer to him, then stopped again. He looked to the side, to stare out the window, his eyes distant.
After several moment, Stephen spoke. "I wanted... I wanted to thank you." He turned then, to face Tony, his expression more open than Tony had seen it in years. He read the unspoken question in Tony's eyes and shrugged, attempting to appear casual. "For listening to me. For... helping me. When you didn't have to." When you had no reason to, went unsaid but Tony heard it anyway.
Tony considered his response, discarding most of the possibilities. He knew there was a chance here, a chance to make things... not right, that would never really be possible, but... better. If he handled this correctly. Finally, he tilted his head, his lips curling just a little at the memories that flooded in of other times they had stood like this, in other places.
"I did have to." Stephen, as Tony thought he would, misunderstood his meaning and his face darkened. Hastily, before Stephen could say something they would both regret, Tony added, "Not because of the threat of the Mindless Ones. I had to, because you were the one asking."
Dark eyes widened as they met his, and Tony's smile grew. This wasn't a pleasant conversation, not really, but it was one that was too long overdue and now that they were having it, Tony realized he felt like a huge weight had been lifted from his back.
"Stephen, I loved you." He'd never told Stephen that, and the shock on the other man's face now made him regret that. "As much as I hated you, I always loved you. Even after Dormammu. You could have come to me asking for the world on a platter, and I would have tried to find a way to do it. Because you asked."
The silence spun out between them, thin and fragile, and Tony's heart was beating so fast it felt like a hummingbird had lodged in his chest, but he couldn't look away. Stephen opened his mouth, then shut it again, and then shook his head with a soft laugh.
"You've always been too soft-hearted for your own good." The fondness in Stephen's voice belied the words, and Tony snorted.
"It's a good thing that not many people know me well enough to know that, then."
"Indeed." Stephen licked his lips and Tony couldn't help but dart a glance down, too familiar with the man to mistake it as anything but a nervous gesture, but still unable to stop himself from looking. Stephen's lips quirked. "You haven't changed as much as I thought, then."
Tony's raised eyebrow was lost as Stephen bent forward, pressing his lips to Tony's. The kiss was soft, and chaste, and brief; a final farewell to the past.
When they separated, Tony let out a sigh, then smiled sadly. "We were never good for each other, but I still miss you."
"And I've missed you," Stephen admitted, voice nearly a whisper. He drew in an unsteady breath, then said, "Tony... I loved you, too."
Tony reached out and took Stephen's hand, clasping it in his, and together, they watched the darkening sky.
It was almost a day later when Tony finally emerged from his Sanctum. The trip home had been quick and uneventful, but all of them had been too exhausted to do anything but fall into bed.
Whatever Thor and Loki did, none of them asked. Tony suspected they'd be seeing a lot more of the God of Mischief, but they would have to take that as it came. For now, he would accept the comfort of a hot cup of coffee as his teammates – unsurprisingly, minus one god of thunder – settled in to eat dinner. It only took five minutes for the questions to start. Tony was mildly impressed; Hank had restrained himself better than Tony would have been able to, were their roles reversed.
"What the hell happened?"
Tony took another sip of his coffee and looked at Hank over the rim of the mug, face set in a pleasant expression. "We prevented the Great Barrier from collapsing and letting the Mindless Ones free to destroy a world." Beneath the table, a high heel impacted with his shin in a sharp jab. He jumped, and glared at Jan. "What? That's the truth. You could always ask Loki if I'm lying." He grinned. "I'm sure he's still around here somewhere."
Beside him, Steve stifled a laugh, and Hank did his best to ignore the comment altogether. "What happened with Loki, Tony? One minute he was trying to kill all of us, and the next he's saving the world? That seems pretty out of character, you have to admit."
Hank did have a point. Tony finished his coffee, set the mug down, and leaned back, lacing his hands together behind his head. "He was completely out of character. That was the first clue."
"First clue for what?" Jan asked. She looked fascinated, and wasn't even pretending to eat any longer.
"For what was really going on." Looking around, Tony could tell that no one had even an inkling of what he was implying, and smiled. "I'm sure Thor already knows, since Loki's probably told him by now," if they've taken enough time to actually talk, he thought, and smirked more. "But to keep it brief: You remember what I told all of you when we first got together, why I was in the middle of making a new suit of armor?"
"Because you lost the other one to Dormammu," Steve answered. Tony glanced at him; he was sure Steve had already worked part of it out, but the twinkle in his eyes told Tony that Captain America had no problem with him showing off, for once.
"Yes. But how I lost the armor to Dormammu is the important part." Not why, although that no longer hurt quite as much to think about. It didn't mean he planned on getting into the details, however. "Essentially, I tricked him. Trying to defeat a Faltine lord in straight up magical combat is a losing proposition, even for a Sorcerer Supreme, and I was already at a disadvantage, since he'd surprised me. I got him into astral combat with me, which left our bodies behind, defenseless. Except that I had the armor, which runs off technology and magic, and I could still control it. So I had the armor grab Dormammu's body and run."
Skepticism was written all over Hank's face. "Okay, I can buy the astral part, but how did grabbing his body accomplish anything? Wouldn't he just chase it down again?"
Tony pointed a finger at him. "Exactly! The real danger of astral magic is that if your body dies while you're separated, you'll either die with it or be trapped in a sort of spiritual limbo, forever unable to touch the real world again. And, if you're away from your body for too long... it dies."
"So Dormammu didn't have a choice but to chase after the armor," Jan said thoughtfully. "That's clever, Tony. But why wouldn't he have just caught up to it?"
"Because the actual clever part of it is that I set the armor to phase randomly through dimensions. Dormammu could follow it – if he kept right on top of it. If he let it get away from him even once, he'd have lost his body with no way to trace it."
"So Dormammu's still out there somewhere, going through random dimensions while he chases your armor?" Steve asked, leaning forward.
"Okay, so you beat some sort of unbeatable magic demon through your sheer brilliance. What does that have to do with Loki?" Hank interrupted.
Tony leaned back, growing serious again. "I can't be sure until I talk to Loki, of course, but I believe that at some point, Dormammu ran into Loki. Literally. I have no idea what could happen if a Faltine lord merged with an Asgardian god, but I think we just saw one of the possibilities."
"Because Loki affected the Great Barrier." Tony didn't bother waiting for Hank to finish asking. "One of the things that non-magic users don't generally know is that every magic user has their own... flavor of magic. Their own unique signature, if you will. One aspect of that is color."
"Like how Loki's magic is usually green," Steve interjected, and Tony nodded.
"The color of Faltine magic is orange."
Jan sucked in a breath. "So that's why Loki's shield was orange, not green!"
"Among other things, yes. I suspect that carrying around a large chunk of Dormammu's power also drove Loki insane. He definitely wasn't acting like himself, and he would never have been able to affect the Great Barrier with just his own power. It really does take a Faltine to do so, which is why Clea would have had to work with me for us to try to fix it, since she's only part Faltine." Tony half–expected further questions, but when none were forthcoming, he added, "Using Dormammu's power to fix the Great Barrier drained it all out of Loki, along with the madness."
"You're sure about that?" Steve asked.
Tony grinned again. "That was the first thing I did after we got back to Clea's palace. Loki is definitely free of any Faltine taint, so whatever his motivations are right now, they're all his own."
Hank rolled his eyes, Jan laughed, and even Steve smiled. Tony smiled back at him, feeling more content than he could remember being in years.
After dinner, Tony didn't retire to his Sanctum as he usually did. Instead, he waited, passing a few hours trying to read in the library, until the others had gone their separate ways, then headed upstairs. He paused outside the door to Steve's room, but reminded himself of his earlier resolution, and knocked. After a moment, the door opened and Steve stood in the doorway, eying him with curiosity.
"Can I come in?"
Steve's eyebrows raised, but he nodded and opened the door wider, stepping aside to let Tony pass and closing the door behind him.
"Is something wrong?" Steve frowned, giving Tony a worried glance, and Tony laughed, feeling the last of his nervousness slide away.
"No, nothing's wrong. I just... I needed to talk to you, to tell you something." He paused, trying to remember the speech he'd planned out during those hours in the library, before giving up. "You were right." When Steve only looked confused, Tony pushed onward. "About Stephen and his hold on me. About how it wasn't fair to me, or to you. And I just... I wanted to let you know that he doesn't have that hold on me anymore."
Tony watched as Steve took in his words, watched as their meaning sank in and Steve's eyes lit up. He took a step toward Steve, closing the distance between them. "If you're still interested... if you haven't given up on me... I'm willing to try, now."
Strong hands came up cradle Tony's face as Steve looked at him, eyes bright with emotion. "I'm glad." Then Steve leaned in, meeting Tony's lips with his, and Tony pressed forward eagerly, pouring all of his heart into the kiss, telling Steve how much he loved him without saying the words, and he could feel Steve telling him the same thing.
When they broke apart, Steve's forehead resting against Tony's, arms wrapped around each other, Tony sighed in contentment.
Steve smiled at him. "I'll never give up on you."