Chapter 9: Chapter 9
Summary: The rouge Avengers are pardoned under the influence of King T’Challa and it is up to Tony to ‘welcome’ them back. But as he and his new team are at the private airport, an unexpected fight breaks loose and the fate of the whole universe is changed when a wizard places himself as Tony Stark’s protector.
“The spells I’m putting up around you are going to completely isolate you from the rest of reality.” Tony listened carefully as Stephen explained to Vision that night. The sorcerer had arrived at ten o’clock sharp, exchanging pleasantries only long enough to introduce himself to Vision and assure Tony that he had everything ready. They’ve waited only five minutes for FRIDAY to establish a link with Vision that will let her monitor his vitals during the procedure and creating a channel that allowed that to happen had required adjustments to the existing isolating spells, which was why the procedure was pushed back almost a day after Vision had been informed and had agreed to the procedure. Now everything was ready and Strange was just walking them through what they should expect. “That doesn’t mean just us. It means you will be sitting in a temporary pocket dimension completely set apart from the rest of the multiverse. This is needed in order to prevent the Time Stone or changes happening to you from spilling out into our dimension or any other. It is the only way we can keep the balance of forwarding a single person or object in time by a little over two decades without creating a paradox or a tear in reality. I apologize in advance if this or the procedure itself brings you discomfort, but I can’t put any dampeners on the spell to lessen it if we don’t want to risk the isolation spells to have, as you would call them, glitches.”
“I understand, Dr Strange,” Vision replied calmly, gray eyes trained more on Tony than the sorcerer, as if assuring Tony that he will be fine. As though it was him and not Vision about to be exposed to a spell and power they knew almost nothing about. And they didn’t. They only knew that it was labeled magic, that some of it uses interdimensional energy and that the most powerful of the spells to be used today will involve the Time Stone. Maybe it did make sense that Tony needed reassurance. He didn’t fear much for himself but he always fretted about those he cared for. It was his weakness. He sent a grateful and concerned look back at Vision, silently hoping this will all turn out okay.
“The rating of success is well over 98% so you have little to worry about the spell although you might need some time to get used to the sensation of not being so intimately dependent on the Mind Stone or on JARVIS’ coding.” Stephen continued, pretending not to have seen the silent exchange and Tony was grateful for that, too. Strange must have seen it because he had the cheek to wink at him and the genius huffed.
“You believe there is a possibility that either JARVIS or the Mind Stone will wake up before I settle into the new protocols?” The Master of the Mystic Arts frowned at that before turning to look at Tony, Vision following his lead, both of them expecting an answer from the engineer. He thought about it for a minute before shrugging.
“I don’t know how the Mind Stone will react - it’s kind of unpredictable at the best of times - but JARVIS will probably come online in some way. You’ll register him as being there, at the very least. Can’t say for sure, as I’ve never worked with something like this. The program I’ve given you, though, will activate as soon as the right amount of time has passed. It will separate JARVIS from your main code matrix and we can extract him after you get back from the glass dimension.”
“Mirror.” Tony just rolled his eyes at the correction and huffed good naturally, trying to not think about the procedure they were about to start. He’d already lost one - two, if you count what it had done to the original Ultron and his programming - child to the Mind Stone and he couldn’t stand losing another. Hopefully, this will all work out and Tony will actually have some luck. He was well due for it by now. “Is everyone ready?”
“As ready as we’ll ever be.” Vision nods to his statement and Stephen nods in return, taking a deep breath before the cracking sound of breaking glass fills the room and Stephen and Vision disappear from his sight. He panics for a moment, his paranoid and anxious mind already whispering of betrayal and a plot to just get their hands on his tech and on the Mind Stone before a portal has him taking a few steps back as it opens in front of him. The golden sparks of energy calms him somewhat, as the portal is vastly different to the one that the Tesseract had created, and instead cautiously approaches it to watch through it like a window.
Inside a mirror image of his lab, except the light seems kind of muted and it looks like you’re watching everything through broken glass that isn’t in the immediate reach of your hands, he saw Strange standing in front of a ‘sleeping’ Vision. The sorcerer was waving his arms around, creating complicated hand gestures that somehow looked both elegant and rough. Tony remembered the scars on the man’s hands and the accident he read about, a hand instinctively going for his chest to tap the Arc Reactor. In a way, it was as humbling as Yinsen’s belief in him had been, watching this man boldly challenging the world with his scars and defying the laws of common sense with who he had been and who he had become. Tony could see a fighter in him, a survivor similar to Tony himself. Hadn’t he burned down all his weapons factories - only figuratively, mind you; they were simply re-purposed - and built an empire that helps people on its ashes? Hadn’t Iron Man been reborn in the ashes of the Merchant of Death? A broken neurosurgeon had done the same, becoming the Sorcerer Supreme. That had to mean something other than an ego-boosting title.
He watched in curious fascination he had never before had for magic as he has it now, seeing the complicated, intricate symbols and circles appearing in the air where Strange had waved his hands. They looked geometric and Tony busied his worried mind by calculating all of their angles and the trigonometry and every other mathematical calculation he could think of before he went right to physics and chemistry, naming all elements that resembled the images he was seeing. It was therapeutic to do something - in this case, continue his search of how magic could be madea science and not just the vague magic - as he watched and did basically nothing. It was all out of his hands now and soon, he won’t be even able to see Vision. It was for the best, this way, as there was no possible way for anyone to interrupt the process, harm Vision or steal the Infinity Stone on his forehead. Definitely the best option.
That didn’t make Tony feel any better about magic either way.
True enough, it was over in another few minutes and the whole thing had looked effortless, but it was now obvious to Tony that it had taken quite a bit out of the sorcerer as he was standing upright only thanks to his cape when he stepped out of the Mirror Dimension and closed it. He looked a bit haggard, but that was to be expected. Strange had said it wasn’t the easiest of spells but that it was quite unbreakable unless the caster himself deactivates it. The safety measures assured Tony and he knew that nothing would happen to Vision, but he still fretted.
“FRI, how we doin’, baby girl?”
There was a pause before the AI answered. “The channel seems to be working, Boss. I have clear readings on Vision. His processor is already a couple of months older. His vitals are steady. Everything is fine, Boss.” Tony relaxed at the calm lilt of FRIDAY’s Irish accent and looked over gratefully and concernedly at Strange, who really looked like he could use some sleep.
“I’m fine,” insisted the neurosurgeon, but Tony didn’t need a diploma in medicine to see through his bullshit. Mostly because he knew from experience how someone who desperately needed sleep looked like.
“Uh huh. Why don’t you just lie down and get some rest. You look like you need it.”
“I could say the same for you,” the good Doctor threw back immediately and Tony would have smirked at finding someone with the wit and sass besides his AIs to match him, only he really was worried about Strange. The man looked worse than him right now and that was saying something, since Tony was on night five of no sleep. Hell, his sleeping cycle had been shot long ago and only got worse the more PTSD he piled up on top of it. Putting the Arc Reactor back in had the unfortunate return of nightmares about an Afghani cave and a too soon lost friend, but it was a comfort in all other cases. Having it back meant he wasn’t in Siberia and that meant more than he was willing to admit.
“Doc, I’ve been awake for well over ninety six hours and I know I won’t be able to sleep until the extraction process is complete tomorrow. Competing with that isn’t exactly healthy.”
Strange’s head snapped up, his eyes sharpening and Tony recognized someone entering doctor mode instantly, fighting against a grimace. He’d seen it on Bruce and he’d seen it in Dr Cho’s and Dr Wu’s faces when they realized he was doing something stupid for his health again. He was sure that if JARVIS had a face, it would be stuck in doctor mode. It’s like laser beam eyes zeroing in on the patient and silently berating him into compliance. That’s what Strange’s face looked like right now and, Tony realized, the man was just as stubborn as him, if his read on the man was good after their conversations. He was stubborn enough to actually make Tony sit through the usual bullshit. Fuck.
“I can’t,” he interrupted him quickly. “I can’t sleep. Pour a box of pills down my throat but I won’t be able to sleep. There’s not a sleeping pill I haven’t tried. I’m immune to half of them by now. This isn’t a short term problem, Strange. And until I have JARVIS back, it’s likely I won’t even pass out. I’m too worked up right now to sleep. But you look dead on your feet. You should rest.”
"Tony,” the man said with exasperation and said man tilted his head a bit when he heard barely restrained hints of fondness in the sorcerer’s tone. That’s odd. He usually gets horror or something. “A power nap won’t hurt. At least sit still for a while and just close your eyes. They look bloodshot enough that someone might think you’re an addict on withdrawal.” Now he sounded concerned. Tony wondered what was up with this man. Was it just his doctor side acting up or was he actually worried about what was essentially a stranger? Then again, these freaky wizards have been watching him for a few years, right? Maybe it comes from that. “Just ... try to relax for a while, okay?”
“Are you going to sleep?”
“Someone has to keep watch over this pocket dimension.” Strange countered. “But don’t worry, my body will get all the sleep that it needs.”
“You lost me.” Tony admitted with a bewildered blink or two. In response, Stephen just chuckled and sprawled out on the couch in Tony’s lab, the one Pepper had insisted he put in since he refused to leave the lab for days at a time, usually due to anxiety attacks. He felt a pang at the thought of the redhead and what they could have had, but he knew not to push it. Pepper deserved better and it would seem that they were better off as friends,anyway. She was thriving and Tony had been conquering one scientific field after the other. He had two ready PhDs waiting to join the other ones,he had two more on standby and he was still writing three more papers, one of which was for the field of prosthetics. He was still researching that. He had to upgrade Rhodey’s again some time soon. Maybe Strange can help with that? He was the best neurosurgeon there is. Just because he doesn’t practice anymore doesn’t mean he can’t consult on such matters. “Are you going to explain?”
He nearly got a heart attack when Strange’s body went completely limp on his couch, running over to check on the man even as he ordered for FRIDAY to do various medical scans. But all that came back was signs that the taller man was sleeping. “Although I’m detecting a strange energy signature above you, Boss. I can’t identify it but it’s there and it’s moving. It’s now at-” He gave a yelp of surprise when the cracking of glass to his left sent him sprawling in the opposite direction, suit reacting to his distress and a gauntlet forming on his arm-
A transparent, blue-glowing image of Stephen Strange, surrounded by fucking cracked glass in the middle of empty air, raised his hands in a surrendering/placating manner, seemingly more interested than distressed at being on the receiving end of an Iron Man gauntlet. “Relax, it’s just me. Well, my astral form, to be precise, but still me.” Tony gaped at him and he chuckled awkwardly. “Right. I guess I should have given you a warning.”
“You asshole!” Tony thundered at that, startling both Strange and his helper bots, Dum-E, U and Butterfingers looking up at their creator curiously, beeping in question. “Don’t do that! I have a heart condition.” The ex neurosurgeon looked apologetic immediately, but Tony walked over whatever apology was trying to leave his mouth. “I thought that spell did you in! Give me a heads up next time, or I swear to whoever is listening that I will ... ” He trailed off, fighting back the memories of the last surgeon who had been so still in front of him. God, he needed to stop making parallels between Strange and Yinsen. Especially as Strange was more like himself in some important aspects than he was like Yinsen.
“I’m sorry.” Stephen said soothingly, coming to hover right in front of him with a worried look on his face. “I didn’t mean to scare you. But I’m fine. This is just me exiting my body so it can rest and I can still be aware of the world. It’s how I improved so rapidly and went through all the books in Kamar-Taj so quickly. I wish I had it while studying in medical school.”
“Can you affect the physical world like this?” Tony asked curiously, wanting to reach out and refraining from touching the astral projection, just in case he somehow messed up the magic. He wasn’t even sure if he could but he didn’t exactly have the best of luck most of the time so he didn’t exactly want to risk it.
“Only to a certain point. I can touch things but I don’t think I can touch people. I’m not sure how it works, because I once trashed an operating room even though I could pass through solid objects.” Stephen furrowed his brows at the same time Tony did, both of them trying to solve the puzzle. Tony was a little surprised the Sorcerer Supreme wouldn’t know something like that but he figured Strange was as human as the rest of them. Not even he was all knowing. Not all answers could be found in books.
“Well, FRIDAY says you are registering to her like a mass of energy so I would take a leap and make a guess that it’s actually leaked, residual energy that wrecked the room when you passed through the objects, not, well,” he indicated at the bodiless apparition. “You. Some of it was released when you hit or passed through an object and it did what all energy does when its put in such a situation. It turned to kinetic energy and moved the object. The more energy you used, the further the object would be moved.” Seeing the way Strange was staring at him, Tony crossed his arms over his chest defensively and frowned at the sorcerer. “What? It was only a hypothesis! I may not know magic, but that right there is basic physics. Laws of action and reaction-”
Stephen shaking his head had him stopping mid rant, brow furrowing again when the man chuckled. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to appear judging. It’s just that ... Well,” he smiled sheepishly at the shorter man. “I guess I’m trying to say that I never would have thought to explain it with such common knowledge. I would have searched for answers in the Mystic Arts, not physics most people learn in the eight grade. It never would have occurred to me to explain it with Newton.”
“That’s ’cause your mind’s used to thinking in terms of magic. I like science.” Stark shrugged casually. “And science can explain everything.”
“How about a dimension completely out of time that touches no other dimension yet houses an entity that could consume the universe if it were to leave said dimension where it is confined?” The former doctor challenged and Tony shot him an unimpressed look.
“Are you trying to trip me up with the multiverse? Because that’s not going to work. I’ve supported and studied that theory a long time ago, buddy. I still do, so you’re not getting me with it.”
“That doesn’t explain the dimension I’ve asked you to explain.” Stephen pointed out with a challenging look in his eyes, which Tony met equally and unflinchingly.
“Give me the parameters of it and I’ll do it.” He said confidently, knowing he can do it, given some time and the most basic of information. “In fact, give me any data regarding that which you call magic and I will crack it like a code and explain it to you in terms even someone as helpless as Rodgers can understand or in terms that would confuse the shit out of Einstein himself.” Again with the strange look on Stephen’s face (pun not intended). Tony shifted under that scrutinizing gaze, looking around the lab before meeting the astral projection’s eyes again. ”What?” He growled. Or at least he hoped he did. It was rare he was on the receiving end of such a gaze. Or maybe not, now that he thought about it. Other scientists and random people have leveled that look at him whenever he said something unexpected yet completely amazing. Not all that rare, considering who he is. But Strange wasn’t the usual kind of person he dealt with. He was even stranger than Thor and Vision and that was saying something. He shouldn’t have been able to affect him so easily.
“Hm? Oh, nothing. You just reminded me of something my master once told me.” Tony did his best inquisitive look and it worked. “She once told me to think of magic like coding for reality. With a little tweak, a good sorcerer can manipulate reality as easily as a hacker or programmer can a computer program.” He hummed in thought, studying Stark for a moment. “I think you would have made an excellent sorcerer.”
“Me? Don’t kid yourself. I’d probably break reality. I tend to be very creative with my coding.” Tony said with a snort. Ultron was more than enough proof for his words, even though the hostile, killer vibes Ultron ended up possessing had never been part of Tony’s design. Still, he should have built in some defenses, made Ultron better. And yet he knew he had done the best that he could. How was he supposed to know that some cosmically powerful rock was going to screw him over?
“No, I think you’d make it better. It’s just that no one would appreciate your efforts.” He nearly flinched at how close to home that hit but he was saved from replying when FRIDAY pipped in.
“Boss, um, you have a ... guest in the common room on your floor. He says it’s urgent you meet him immediately, Boss, and he’s not taking no for an answer.” A pause. “Not even for the danger of leaving a particle accelerator activated in your absence.” There was an angry, condescending air to her tone that seemed to impress Strange, judging from the arched astral eyebrow he sent Tony’s way.
Tony frowned. That either meant he was dealing with someone willful enough to ignore the dangers of an intense, powerful laser being left unattended or it was someone ignorant enough to ignore the same dangers. Especially as the particle accelerator for the Arc Reactor is stronger than the others. Starkenium, discovered by Howard Stark and rediscovered, created and improved by Tony Stark, was made of far sturdier stuff than anything else on Earth. Or maybe even beyond, seeing as it had absorbed the lighting generated or at least conducted by the god-like metal that was Uru. The particle accelerator Tony used was not a toy to be left unattended and while FRIDAY can turn it off in his absence or Dum-E could do it manually if there was code transferring problems, it was still dangerous to leave it fully powered and ready to go. Out of all the people that Tony knows who would personally come to him for something at the moment and who would ignore this rather dangerous scenario for the sake of dragging him off to some stupid ass conversation, he knows only two who would insist. And only one of them can call a bluff like this one.
“Go.” He jumped when he heard Strange speak up behind him. “I can keep things in order down here just fine. If there’s anyone coming down here, I’d sense them long before they get near the lab, especially like this. I can wake up in a second and be ready. I will keep Vision safe.”
That wasn’t what Tony was worrying about initially but it still calmed a part of him and he nodded. “Thanks.” He said sincerely.
“Think nothing of it.” The sorcerer waved him off with a small quirk of his lips. “Now off you go before whoever it is decides to try and break in and gets an eyeful of unconscious wizard.”
“So you do admit to being a wizard!”
“Shut up, Tony.” But he was smiling and Tony was grinning and he felt great. Never mind how tired he was. God, how long has it been since he had smiled so sincerely? So genuinely? Feels like a lifetime ago. Since before Ultron, that’s for sure. Before ... Just before. He liked it. He hoped he’ll smile more, especially if their plan works. Even though they will have lots of more planning to do. Preferably after he catches some well deserved Zs. So he just waved at the hovering astral form of Strange and exited the lab, only to yelp when something soft and warm settled over his shoulders. Looking down, he found it to be the good doctor’s red cape, snuggling around him for a second before settling to resemble itself, flaring dramatically around him without the need of wind. He looked back to arch an eyebrow at Stephen, but most if not all of the humor from before was gone from the man’s face. “The Cloak of Levitation should go with you, for protection’s sake.”
“Shouldn’t it stay with you then?” But Strange only shook his head.
“I’ve put up enough magic wards around this place should the effects of the Time Stone leak through that this room is officially the most magically and technologically safe place on Earth. Except maybe the Sanctums and Kamar-Taj, but they have a completely different purpose and an entirely different form of protection to go with it. I’ll be perfectly safe.”
Tony still made a face at the thought of his science-heaven being invaded by magic but he wouldn’t be opposed to it remaining, if Strange forgets to lift it. There are other magic users out there that might try to break in for ... whatever reason they might have. It could come in handy and Tony’s never one to turn away useful things. “If you’re sure.”
“I can disguise it into a coat or jacket if you wish? You and I will know what it is but no one else will see it like that unless they know what it is.” Tony thought about it but shook his head no. Strange just shrugged. It was no skin off of his teeth. The cape- Cloak seemed pleased by his answer, judging by how it caressed his cheek. He short Strange a look but the man just shrugged. Figures.
“I’ll see you later, then.”
“Try to get some sleep!” The ex neurosurgeon shouted after him and Tony rolled his eyes. Still, the warmth of the Cloak and the pleasant smell - tea, old books, incense and something else he can’t quite determine - that clung to it was actually tempting him to cuddle it like a teddy bear, bury his face in it and sleep for the next three days. Maybe he’ll do that to the lullaby of JARVIS eventually exchanging snarky comments with FRIDAY and maybe Vision while his other bots are beeping in the background tomorrow. But it would seem he still had work to do today. A smile tugged at his lips at the thought of at even as he ascended in the elevator to the penthouse.
It fell right off his face when he saw who his visitor was.