The man perched on the edge of my human’s chaise-longue bounced very slightly in his seat. “The guy’s brilliant, Natasha,” he whispered to the female beside him. “Graduated top of his class at medical school. Youngest head of neurosurgery in NYH history. He has papers published in areas even I can’t pronounce. The guy’s...”
“Brilliant. Yeah. You mentioned that, Tony.” The woman smiled wryly, lips twisting in a way that wasn’t devoid of humour, but that suggested smiling was not a thing she did very often. She shook her head slightly, red hair flowing like silk fibre. “You know, if I didn’t know better, I would say you had a crush on our ‘Sorcerer Supreme’ there.”
The man - I suppose I should call him Tony as that was apparently his name - stole a glance over his shoulder to where my human was scouring the study’s shelves for an obscure tome. I wasn’t entirely fond of the glint in his eye, nor the way his eyebrow arched at the suggestion. “Well, he’s attractive, sure,” this ‘Tony’ person commented, keeping his voice low so that only the three of us could hear. “He’s got the intellect, the wit; charm; presence. The awesome facial hair.” He shrugged. “Going with him would be virtually onanistic.”
“Well that settles it. You definitely have a thing for Stephen Strange,” the woman replied, her hand pressed to her mouth in way that suggested she was trying to stop herself laughing.
I was a little put out by this talk of this Tony and my human Stephen being similar. There was, admittedly, a passing physical resemblance. They were of comparable height and build and did, in all honesty, seem to favour the same kind of keratinous facial ornamentation. But even a cursory glance at their auras showed them to be nothing alike. My Stephen’s aura was the first thing that drew me to him. It was like a sunburst rainbow, bright enough to dazzle, streaming almost a meter from his body. But as uncommon as that was, it was as he fought, that I realised he was special. The rainbow focussed, as though a prism at his forehead drew all of those colours together and rendered them into white light. Beautiful, and brilliant and pure. As dangerous as the snow covered crevasse. One doesn't see something like that very often. Not even as a millennia-old soul-bound cloak that endows the gift of levitation. In contrast, Tony’s aura was somewhat mundane. Pedestrian. Its colours mixed but in a way that made them seem muddy rather than unified. The only colour that held against that wash was red, which sheathed him in a thin, unbroken shell. It was enough to tell me that what drove him was competition. That, and - despite the discomfort it gave me to consider it - passion.
The Natasha woman was still mocking the man beside her. “That’s why I'm here, isn’t it?” she hissed. “To act as your chaperone and make sure you don’t do anything to embarrass yourself.”
“Embarrass myself?” Tony’s voice was quietly indignant. “When have I ever embarrassed myself?”
Natasha rolled her green eyes. Her aura was a strange thing. Almost invisible most of the time, except for when it flared yellow; almost golden. She lifted up her hand and counted off on her fingers.
“The Ukrainian Embassy, the USAF charity ball, Steve’s last birthday, your last birthday.” She tipped her thumb up. “That time you made a pass at Maria Hill in front of her wife?”
“...other than those occasions?” Tony said.
Natasha lifted up her other hand.
“Okay, I get the picture,” he mumbled grouchily.
Just then, my Stephen... No. As an entity often mistaken as an object, I should be more careful with my possessives. Just then, Stephen snatched a book from one of the dusty shelves. “Ah ha!” he announced. “Dimensional energy transitions.” He began to advance back towards his desk and the chair I was draped over.
At the same time, Natasha got to her feet. “That’s great, doctor,” she said calmly, “but I’ve just remembered I have an appointment somewhere.”
Stephen nodded. “I understand,” he replied. “May I show you out?”
That smirk returned to Natasha’s face. “No, that’s fine. You stay here and work your magic on Tony.”
“Science,” Tony corrected.
“It is actually magic,” Stephen said, correcting his correction.
The smirk on the woman’s face widened into a full grin. “It sure is.” She slipped out of the room without another sound.
Stephen cast a small frown in the direction of the door, before turning his attention back to our sole remaining guest. Without hesitation, he changed his trajectory from me to the seat beside the human. It was a logical thing to do, making the book in his hands far easier for them both to read.
“As you can see,” Stephen remarked, setting the volume between them and pointing to a faintly glowing glyph, “the arc reactor technology you ‘invented’ is actually a type of multi-dimensional portal. The fact that it appears to operate at one hundred percent efficiency is because it is drawing power from nine other dimensions. It is, in fact, remarkably wasteful.”
Tony blinked slowly at Stephen. At last he said, “Wow. You’re not one for foreplay, are you?”
I fluttered slightly at this. It seemed a wholly inappropriate thing to say. Thankfully, Stephen appeared to agree. “I beg your pardon?” he said.
Tony tipped his head slightly. “Telling someone that his greatest achievement is ‘remarkably wasteful’ is a pretty direct tact.”
Stephen seemed to consider this for a moment. “Well, I mean it’s still quite impressive for what it is...”
“Wasteful...” Tony prompted.
“Yes, but... remarkably so.”
Perhaps equally remarkably, this seemed to appease Tony somewhat. He relaxed slightly on the couch and, I was almost certain, shifted his weight a fraction closer to Stephen.
“What I mean,” Stephen began again, his voice modulated to a slightly gentler tone, “is that for someone with no grasp of transplanar magic, you have managed to create a very powerful device. One that, with my help, could become even better.”
With two (barely shaking) fingers, Stephen circumscribed a glowing circular glyph in the air before them. It pulsed with excited, orange energy. He then drew in the lines of power, equally spaced spindles that extended from the centre to the rim. Over them, he inscribed two further, concentric circles. He then pushed the glyph away with his palm, the centre lighting up. “This is the seal of Armaan,” he said. “It acts as... a kind of lock between the dimensions. When the lines - which represent the boundaries of the nine dimensions - align like this, the lock is set.” With a single digit, Stephen turned the outer wheel so that it was offset to the inner ones. “When they are like this, the barriers are broken, and energy flows to the centre.”
As the two of them watched, the colour of the glyph began to change; the glowing growing brighter and turning from orange to a blue-white.
“As you can see,” Stephen continued, “unless it is tapped, the power is cumulative. Until eventually...”
He threw up a shield at the last possible moment. A white flash filled the room, but disappeared almost instantaneously.
“Annihilation,” the sorcerer concluded.
It was Tony’s turn to a thoughtful frown. “I have to admit, at the end there that did look quite a lot like the reactor.”
“Show me,” said Stephen.
Tony’s frown deepened. For a moment, I thought he was actually going to attempt to draw it in the air. Then he sighed, and asked, “Do you have any paper?”
Stephen brought a pad and pen from his desk, handing it to Tony who squinted slightly at the scribbling on the front leaf. “Foley theorem?” he asked, impressed.
“Shopping list,” Stephen replied, with a shrug.
Tony blinked a little, didn’t comment, and folded the used page back over the spine of the pad. He began to draw. First concentric circles, their alignment almost perfect despite being scribed freehand. From there, he created a network of straight lines and coils representing wires. There was no artistic ornamentation to what he created, but it was precise, complex work. He was a different man like this: fully absorbed in the task at hand. Grudgingly, I examined his aura once again. It was... different. Clearer. As though the muddy veil was a literal smoke screen that lifted when he worked. The red was still there, stronger if anything. But white light flowed between his mind and his hands much in the way it does with Stephen. With only a small measure of resentment, I was forced to concede that perhaps they were more alike than I first granted.
Stephen was nodding lightly to himself as he followed the process. I thought I caught a glimpse of him examining Tony’s aura as well. Maybe even a little flash of admiration crossed his face. But both were subtle and gone too fast for me to be sure of.
When the drawing was complete, Tony lifted his eyes. They met Stephen’s, and - for a moment - nothing was concealed. Then the veil was back, and Tony became the man he’d been when he first walked in. I wondered how someone not trained in the mystical arts had become so accomplished at manipulating his aura, but I doubted it was a question I would get an answer for any time soon.
Transferring his attention to the pad on Tony’s knee, Stephen attempted to decipher its construction. In addition to his power and focus, Stephen’s intellect was something I quickly came to place absolute faith in. Kept as sharp as a weapon, but used as a precise tool. A remarkable man, indeed.
“I understand,” he said, after only a few seconds. “You have constructed an artificial seal of Armaan. The magic flows through these conduits and...”
Stephen stopped, much as I did, at a rather unconvinced - and quite frankly rude - clearing of Tony’s throat.
“Is there something wrong?” asked Stephen politely.
“There’s... no magic,” Tony said after a small hesitation. “It’s electrical induction, triggered at the quasi-quantum level.”
Stephen sighed. “Would this go more smoothly if I used terms you’re more able to comprehend?”
“You mean science rather than all this mystic mumbo-jumbo?”
I noticed the slight tightening of Stephen’s lips, the way they grew thinner. “Yes,” he said.
“Then yes,” Tony replied.
“Very well. I’m not used to having to ‘dumb it down’, but I suppose if it helps...” Before Tony could protest, and he looked very much like he wanted to protest, Stephen continued his dissection of the diagram. These circles enclose the system, keeping the energy localised. Each one of these... induction coils creates a small pocket universe linked to one of each of the nine dimensions beyond our own.”
“As proposed in super-string theory,” Tony interjected.
“As proven by Master Tran more than two thousand years ago...” Stephen countered.
That shut Tony up.
Pointing at the spokes coming out from the centre, Stephen continued his simplified explanation. “The electromagnetic fields generated by each of these circles...”
“Excuse me. Circles?” Tony said. “They’re straight lines. In fact, if the isolators were more than a few microns off being absolutely straight, the whole unit would fail.”
“All straight lines are circles in the end,” Stephen replied. Tony’s mouth flapped for a second and then he clamped his lips together, moving - far less subtly this time - closer to Stephen.
I watched them intently as Stephen continued his explanation, as best as he could with the crude limitations placed on him by his audience. Even so, Tony seemed rapt; and I have to confess I understood the feeling. On numerous occasions when we’ve been alone, Stephen has used me as a sounding board to talk through his ideas. And, just like Tony, I couldn’t help but be drawn in to his words. The difference is that, with me, Stephen never struggled to keep his accent neutral, slipping easily in to his natural dialect. That gesture of trust showed a level of confidence he clearly didn’t feel for this Tony. Not that Tony seemed to let that dampen his spirit; manufacturing ‘accidental’ touches. A nuzzle of knees, a shuffle of shoulders. It astounded me that Stephen was oblivious to the unsophisticated attempts to instigate intimacy. But maybe he wasn’t; perhaps he was just being polite.
“So, you think you’ve generated the power at the quasi-quantum level, but actually you’ve only extracted it from there,” Stephen concluded. Several further seconds passed, before Tony broke his awed silence.
“I have never been so turned on in my life,” he said, with a flash of a swaggering smile and a faint blush in his cheek that belied it.
Stephen tipped his head a little to one side. “I want to say thank you...”
“Seriously,” Tony replied. “Is that what it’s like when people listen to me? Because Pepper claims it’s frustrating as hell when I try to explain things. But that was just... Wow. Yeah. I take back everything I said about foreplay.”
There was a definite flush now on Stephen’s face. He cleared his throat. “I have to say I’ve never felt quite that way listening to you talk. I’ve always found you a compelling orator.”
Tony blinked, his surprise apparently genuine. “You’ve heard me speak?”
“Well,” Stephen qualified with a small shrug, “I’ve caught a few of your keynotes on YouTube. Your work on robotic-CNS integration held some interesting possibilities in the field of myoelectric prosthesis.”
“Aww, you watched me on YouTube,” Tony cooed, and it was hard to gauge if he was mocking or legitimately impressed.
Again, Stephen cleared his throat. But this time he moved his hand so that it rested bare millimetres away from Tony’s, on the pad. It was a deliberate and unnecessary gesture and I realised with a ripple of consternation that Stephen was no longer ignoring Tony’s advances, he was reciprocating.
Tony glanced down at the page, at Stephen’s scarred digits, and then back up into his eyes. As a cloak of many worlds, I’ve seen that look before. I knew exactly where it was heading. And I could only chalk it up to a momentary madness on Stephen’s behalf that he would fall for such a crass move, especially with me in the room.
I took flight before things could get out of hand, placing myself between Tony and my Stephen. I used my buckles to press against each of their chests in a way that left very little to misunderstanding.
“What the..?” Tony gasped.
“Get off,” Stephen added, wriggling with well-justified embarrassment at his behaviour. “I’m sorry,” he continued, still batting at my folds. I decided to accept his apology and release the pair of them, although I stayed floating between them just in case.
“The funny thing is,” Tony drawled, “this isn’t even the first time I’ve been cock-blocked by a cape.”
“It’s a cloak,” Stephen corrected. “And I think... I think it was trying to protect me.”
“Protect you?” Tony said, a giggle not far from his tone. “From kissing me? Is it particularly religious or something?”
Stephen sighed. “Well, I just got out of a relationship. And things are... complicated right now,” he said, gesturing at me.
“When aren’t they, sweetheart?” Tony joked.
I sensed victory as a little scowl folded Stephen’s brow. “That’s ‘doctor’,” he said.
Tony gave him a smirk and eyes that twinkled naughtily. “Whatever you say, Doctor Sweetheart.”
Much to my disappointment, Stephen’s frown melted into a self-conscious smile. Tony returned it and for a moment I thought I was going to have to intercede again. However, before I was forced into action, Tony clapped his hands to his thighs and got to his feet.
“Well, thanks to your chastity cape, I guess I should be going,” he said. This time, Stephen didn’t even correct the misnomer. “Perhaps we could continue this fascinating discussion at the Tower sometime?”
“I’d... like that,” Stephen replied.
“Good,” replied Tony smugly. “But just so you know, we operate a strict dress code in Chez Stark. Cloaks are for formal and world-saving events only.”
“Understood,” Stephen said.
The smile on Tony’s face teetered towards a leer as he showed himself out of the room. A few seconds passed as Stephen and I listened to him descend the stairs, open the front door and close it behind himself. Then Stephen turned to me.
“You and I need to talk,” he said.