The Sanctum Sanctorum was eccentric even amongst the quirky architecture of the Village. Sam rang the doorbell, because Bucky was in no shape to do more than stand upright just now. Every time he pulled that cord, Sam expected to hear a foghorn, for Lurch to answer the door. That was the overall vibe he got from the space-and-time address on Bleecker Street.
Never to be outdone by a guest’s imagination, the door creaked open on its own. Invitation rules worked differently at the double S. It was technically public space, but it was some of the most magically warded public space in existence. The rule of thumb was, if you could enter, you were welcome. If not, you wouldn’t be able to. Sam entered, pulling Bucky behind him.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the Sorcerer’s rich voice echoed through the entrance hall. And Sam couldn’t help but wonder if Strange was speaking on behalf of all the Masters, or just using the royal we. Given his sizable ego, the latter was more likely. “Come in.”
Sam tracked the voice to a drawing room on the left. “Won’t you sit down? I was just having tea.”
He stepped inside, immediately overcome by the decor, red velvet walls and ancient calligraphy paintings. Sam plowed on, dragging Bucky behind him like a lead balloon.
“Don’t mind if I do,” he said, plopping down in a semicircular chair in front of a porcelain cup of cow’s blood. He could use a pick-me-up after the night they’d had. Bucky hovered at his elbow, just sort of staring down at nothing. After a few moments, where Sam was seriously considering just tumbling Bucky into his lap, he chose a plush antique chair and sat down, cupping his mug of chai. “Wish I could say it was a pleasure,” Sam said, taking a swig of his blood. “But you know we only ever come here on business.”
Strange inclined his head gracefully. “I am here to give audience to your request.”
Sam had to try hard not to roll his eyes. “We need a passport for the bay area. Or a temporary visa. Strictly short-term. I don’t have to explain why. Not to the great Stephen Strange.”
The Sorcerer considered him, wide-set almond shaped eyes seeming to look through Sam. “No, of course.” He sipped his tea, put the lid back on the ornate teacup. “There will likely be a fee.”
“We can pay it,” Sam told him, reaching out for Bucky’s hand. He was relieved when Bucky squeezed his fingers.
“Have you leave from your alpha to make this request?”
“I do.” At least, if Riley had half a brain--and he had a whole one, in fact--he would by now.
“They will likely confirm with him.”
“That’s fine. He knows the special circumstances.” Or should, if Sam knew his husband.
“Very well.” Doctor Strange rose from his seat in the most regal manner possible for a man wearing a ridiculous crimson cape. “Please, be my guests while you wait. A day room has been prepared, but as always, you are free to explore.”
“Thanks a lot.” When he was gone, Sam looked over at Bucky. “We should probably catch some shut-eye while we can.” Bucky didn’t respond, but Sam could tell he wasn’t going for it. “You rather sit out here?” Although, in his current mental state, Sam didn’t trust Bucky near any uncovered windows once the sun came up.
He was relieved when Bucky shook his head no. “Come on.” Sam stood, still holding Bucky’s hand in a firm grip, and led the way down a flight of stairs off the main hall. The day room was like a study, with several chaise longues, a comfortable loveseat, and panoramic windows that looked out on an alien landscape lit by the wrong spectrum of light. It was day, but it did not burn. Bucky moved quickly to the windows, soaking up the view. Sam briefly considered asking him to come lie with him, or at least snuggle on the loveseat. But that would be a selfish move. Bucky needed his space. And Sam needed to get over his infatuation with his ex. He lay down on the loveseat and shut his eyes. Just for a minute. He felt that familiar drag of extra gravity that signalled the sun was rising. Bucky seemed unaffected. Sam fell asleep watching him gaze out the window.
They’d had to park the humvee on Sixth Avenue, and Clint complained bitterly all the way to Bleecker. “Call the wambulance,” Riley told him. “If you’re really this out of shape, maybe it’s a good thing Rumlow took your car.” Of course that set Clint off all over again.
“He always this much of a whiny bitch?” Tony asked.
“It’s one of my special skillsets,” Clint answered before Riley could. “Right after master archer.”
“I thought that kind of skill gave you hairy palms,” Tony observed. Riley cracked up. He realized sarcasm and reading were probably defense mechanisms for the kid, but at least he was still up to using them.
Clint wasn’t taking it personally. If he took it personally every time someone put him down, he would have spent all day every day brawling.
“So what's in the Village?” Tony asked, curiosity finally getting the best of him.
“The Masters of the Universe!” Clint proclaimed with a sarcastic arm wave.
Riley shook his head. “A kind of Safe House.”
Safe sounded pretty great to Tony right now. If it was for real. “Why, though?”
Riley wasn't sure which question Tony was asking, so he picked an easy one. “This is where Sam and I agreed to rendezvous. Bucky's going to need a passport to come back to California, and these people serve as kind of...negotiators in the supernatural world.”
Tony sensed there was a lot to know here that he didn't. He didn't like it. “And I care if Bucky has a passport to a state in this country why?” Tony asked.
“Because Sam cares,” Riley explained, trying not analyze it too much. “You think you're the only one we came here to rescue?”
“I don't need to be rescued,” Tony grumped.
“Sure, kid,” Clint slapped him a little too hard on the back, sending Tony tripping forward.
“You mouth off to a werewolf, expect to be put in your place. Physically,” Riley told him. “It's how we deal with smartass pups like you.”
Tony wasn't sure what he believed anymore, but his natural skepticism was calling bullshit. “Sure thing, Red. You're werewolves and I'm Dr. Frankenstein. Let's go pick up Dracula and then we'll go see the Wizard.”
“You can ask him for a brain,” Clint said, sending Tony sprawling again.
Tony had had enough. After the day he’d had, all he wanted to do was hit something. So he came back swinging. But hitting Clint was like punching a brick wall, and within moments he had Tony in a brotherly headlock, giving his scalp rug burn with ruthless noogies. “I like him,” Clint said. “He's got spunk.”
“Alright, kids,” Riley snorted a laugh at the look of outrage on Tony's face. “That's enough roughhousing for today.” They’d arrived, and the doors were open. “Looks like he's expecting us.” Riley immediately felt better. That meant Sam had made it here safely.
Clint started to stroll right in, but a booming voice out of nowhere stopped him. “Wipe your feet! Please!” Tony was too tired to be scared anymore. Instead, he just laughed. Maybe it was the look on Clint’s face, or the way he twisted his boots on the doormat, like he was doing the Monster Mash. Riley was chuckling, too, but he tried to hide it.
“Lycanthropes and their appalling lack of manners,” a caped figure appeared in the door to tut disapprovingly.
Tony lost it. Of all the ridiculous, unbelievable things he'd seen and experienced in the last 24 hours, this took the cake. “How's it hanging, Dracula?” Tony asked, hi-fiving the man as he strolled through the door. Riley gave Strange a polite, apologetic nod, suddenly feeling in need of a hat to tip as he followed Tony in. Clint made a point of wiping his boots for another 13 seconds before he followed.
Tony stopped at the foot of a grand stair, taking in his surroundings. It was part Hearst Castle, part museum, part classic West meets Far East. Personally he would have fired the decorator, but it was obviously top notch work. What would a house like this go for in NoHo these days? 10 mill? 20? He turned as the sound of swift footsteps approached.
A handsome man swerved past him to collide with Riley, who caught him and held him like a precious thing. “Thank god you're okay,” he said.
“You were the one with the hard job,” the man told Riley, nuzzling his cheek like an affectionate cat. He glanced back at Tony. “Good going, by the way.”
Riley grinned. “A werewolf never fails.” Tony felt like he was intruding on their moment, but Riley beckoned him over. “Tony Stark, I’d like you to meet Sam Wilson.”
“How you doin?” the man asked, extending his hand. Tony wasn’t sure why, but he hadn’t expected Sam Wilson to be black. It was stupid, really. He shook the man’s hand.
“Fantastic,” Tony said. “Best day of my entire life.”
“But, hey, being out of FBI custody’s gotta be a plus, right?”
Tony shrugged. He wasn’t going to admit anything positive until he knew both Rhodey and Pepper were okay, and someone taught him how to kill vampires.
“He’s had a rough day,” Riley said. Tony wasn’t sure why he was so sympathetic to him, but it was nice to have someone who was. “Where’s Helen of Troy?” Riley asked.
Sam rolled his eyes. “Not sure; he couldn’t sleep. He must’ve slipped out while I was taking a nap.”
“You think he’s okay?” Riley asked.
The man in the cape cleared his throat. “Ask him.” Sam nodded his head toward Strange. “It’s his house.”
But it seemed the man hadn’t really been trying to get their attention, he’d been trying to get Tony’s. He stepped forward and offered Tony a bow with a flourish, just as you’d expect a stage magician to do. Tony wasn’t sure if he should applaud or get a rabbit for his hat trick. “Anthony Stark.” He had a surprisingly sonorous voice. “We have been looking forward to having you here. This is the Sanctum Sanctorum.” He gestured to everything around them as if he’d just produced it out of thin air. “You are quite welcome here.”
“ Quite welcome,” Sam murmured, raising his eyebrows. Riley elbowed him in the ribs.
“Well thanks, I guess.” Tony glanced around the room. “Who’s we? You got a magician’s assistant lurking around here somewhere?” There were some poorly-stifled chuckles from the werewolves and Sam.
“I am the Sorcerer Supreme,” the man said, making another bow. “But you can call me...Doctor Strange.”
Tony glanced over at Riley and Sam. “Is this guy for real?”
Sam was muffling more laughter in Riley’s shoulder, but Riley was shaking his head, silently indicating for Tony to watch his words.
“I assure you, Mr. Stark, everything you will find here is quite real...in some dimension.”
Tony sighed, thrusting his hands into his pockets. “Okay, well. Thanks, Burrito Supreme or whatever. It’s been real, but I’ve gotta get back to avenging my friend and taking out the bloodsucker who’s been terrorizing me, so. I’ll be seeing you--”
“Wait!” Strange’s voice echoed around the great hall. Tony glanced around. There must be quite an audio set-up in here.
“To accomplish that goal, first, you require knowledge.”
Tony gave him the look of a bored teenager. “Let me guess. I can find it here in your Cave of Wonders.”
“Yes.” Strange gestured dramatically, draping the cape over one arm. He must be a Bela Lugosi fan was all Tony could think. “Here, everything you need may be found IF you know how to look for it.”
“Okay, well. Thanks. Good talk, Master Yoda.” Tony wandered down the nearest hall, wondering if he should be wary of zombie Dobermans leaping through the windows at him.
“Kids these days,” Sam said. Clint was still trying to hold in his laughter and failing.
“Sorry about that,” Riley said, feeling like he needed to redeem them from the ‘lycanthropes with no manners’ comment. “He’s...in a bad place.”
“Negotiations are progressing slowly,” Strange told them, looking not a little miffed at Tony’s lack of being impressed by him. “Given the time of day, this is not surprising. I recommend you all take your rest while you can. Mr. Barton.” Clint froze, halfway through a door down the hall. “I must ask that you not explore the Sanctum unsupervised again. There are only so many Urns of Whispering Warriors that one can break here.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Clint grumbled. Strange was never gonna let him live that down. Riley boggled at him. “It was an accident, okay?” Clint stormed off toward the archery range.
“You wanna catch some shut-eye, pretty boy?” Sam asked Riley.
“Nudge nudge, wink wink,” Riley said, actually winking at Sam.
Stephen Strange left to supervise the explorations of Tony Stark, far too important to bear witness to the mating rituals of lesser beings such as these.
It was said that in the Sanctum you didn’t find a room, but a room found you.
Bucky had been exploring the halls, idly looking for an unshuttered window to this world when the ringing of prayer bowls attracted him to a worn wooden door, simply carved. It opened when he pushed on it, and led him to a roofed-in garden, complete with a raised koi pond and taihu stone. A mournful pipa played somewhere in the near distance, and Bucky took his time, exploring the circular path tiled in mosaics, portraying myths he didn’t know.
He was drawn to an octagonal room by the strong smell of incense wafting out its moon windows. Within, each wall contained a memorial altar, with offerings of incense and food for the great Masters who had gone before. Among the artistic renderings of deceased sorcerers, Bucky was shocked to his core to find one altar displaying a photograph of one Pepper Potts. She had been given offerings of flowers, ornate combs, and delicate jewelry, as well as tea sweets and pastries. He was shaken, faced again with the evil he had brought about. Bucky sank to the floor, paying respect to the deceased in his own fashion. With blank eyes, he stared into the void of his soul and silently prayed for death.
Tony explored room after room of ancient armor and weaponry, talismans, and texts in no discernable language. On any other day, he might have found it all fascinating. But today, he was on a mission: kill the vampire. Surely something here would be able to help him do that. But he wasn’t into guessing games. In the absence of a mystical weapon, he could do just fine on his own if only he could find a workshop. There had to be one here, right?
Tony was sure he’d passed through at least 50 rooms so far, and there seemed no end in sight. His engineer’s mind had spotted the problem as soon as he’d entered the house: it was bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. And although that bothered him--like really bothered his rational brain--his whole brain just wanted to get to work so that he could take care of business.
He was on the verge of giving up and turning back for help when he caught the sound of whirring, felt a gentle vibration on the lacquer floor under his feet. It felt and sounded mechanical, a relief after all of these dusty artifacts. From around the corner of a glass display case came the smallest robot, no bigger than his hand. It rolled its way toward him on caterpillar treads, speeding up when it seemed to catch sight of him. Tony looked carefully at its mechanical arm. The three-pronged hand that was a face and its tiny camera eyehole. “Dum-E?” he whispered.
Its arm waved wildly, prongs spinning and spinning. Tony didn’t know how it was possible, but there must have been a leak in the roof of this musty old building, because he wasn’t crying. He ran to meet the tiny creature, stooped to gently pick it up. “Is that really you, buddy?” It whirred happily, rolling forward on his palm to gingerly pinch his nose. “You little doofus,” Tony cried. “I thought I was gonna have to start from scratch again.” It waved its arm from side to side, joyfully. “Now all you need is the world’s tiniest dunce cap.” It froze. Then bopped him on the forehead. “What, you don’t like that idea?”
“I see you’ve found my gift,” the Burrito Supreme, Doctor Teeth or whatever he was called interrupted Tony’s happy reunion.
“Gift?” Tony turned around to face him. “I didn’t ask for any gifts.” They usually came with higher price tags than things you bought with your own hard cash.
“Consider it a lesson, then,” the sorcerer told him. “What we create can never truly be destroyed. It lives within us until such time as we can make it anew.”
“That’s really great, David Blaine,” Tony told him. “But where’d you find my designs for this guy? The library at MIT?” They had made him submit his written thesis, but Tony had been careful not to include a full blueprint.
“You have a very scientific mind,” Strange told him. “It may surprise you to learn that sorcery is not the antithesis of science, but a partner in the never-ending quest for knowledge.”
“So, is that what you do?” Tony asked. “Quest for knowledge? Sounds like a game show.”
“I help maintain the order between the worlds.” He did that echoing thing again with his voice. Tony wondered if it was just an acting technique he could learn.
“Sounds like that keeps you pretty busy,” Tony said, starting to turn away.
“You will find the knowledge you seek--”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony cut him off. “I just have to know how to look.”
“--in the library,” Strange finished, his formidable eyebrows evidencing his displeasure at being interrupted. “But I recommend rest, for now. You have a long journey ahead.”
“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” Tony told him easily. “Which way to the library?” He glanced back over his shoulder. The hall branched off into two corridors, one with steps leading down, the other turned off to the right. When he looked back, Strange was gone. “Okay, well. Thanks,” Tony said, sarcastically. “Good talk.”
“Which one do you think we should choose, little buddy?” he asked the mini-dunce resting on his palm. It gestured straight ahead. “Down the stairs it is, then,” Tony said. It waved its arm in objection while Tony tucked it gently into his shirt pocket. “Stay.” He patted it, letting its prongs pinch the tip of his finger as he moved carefully down the stairs.
After 20 minutes, it was clear Tony had made the wrong choice. The walls on either side were made of stone. He felt like he was nearing a catacombs, the air chill and damp, and definitely not the right temperature setting to store books. Most of the doors he tried were locked, and Tony was almost grateful for that. It was starting to feel more like a dungeon, and he was getting flashbacks to Amnesia . “Seems like I owe you an apology, Dum-E,” he said. The tiny robot spun its pronged face admonishingly. “What do you say we--” Tony broke off, hearing something in the distance. He followed the sound until it was recognizable as music. Behind this wooden door, he could hear the sound of falling water, and a string instrument. He turned the doorknob and went in.
It was a sort of indoor garden, with exotic potted plants and carved pictures on the walls. Somehow, there was sunlight filtering in from above, but Tony couldn’t see how. The main feature at the center of the room was a raised pond with blooming lotuses rising up from the water. A shallow waterfall circulated the oxygen for a handful of prize ornamental carp that swam in lazy S-shapes around the pool. A familiar figure sat on the edge, facing away from him.
“Where have you been?” Tony asked, feeling like he was continuing a conversation they’d had in a dream.
“I got drunk,” Barnes told him, his voice sounding distant, numb. Tony walked around the fountain to perch next to him. “I fucked up.” He sounded wrecked. Tony wanted to tell him that wasn’t allowed. He was the only one allowed to feel the way Barnes sounded.
Instead, strangely, as you do in dreams, Tony found himself reaching out for the man’s hand, sliding his fingers over his knuckles to wrap around his fingers. “Where were you?” Tony asked him again. “You said you would protect me.” Had he ever actually said that? Tony tried to remember. If not, it had been a feeling he’d projected so strongly, to Tony it was the same as if he’d said it out loud.
“I fucked up,” he said again, dropping his head so that his long hair hid his face. “This is all my fault.”
“Well, I feel like Steve should get at least SOME of the blame,” Tony told him, pulling Bucky’s hand into his lap where he held it with both of his own.
“All my fault,” Bucky repeated. “If I hadn’t checked out, Pepper might still be--” He didn’t stop talking because what he was about to say was too terrible. He’d stopped talking because he was overcome with emotion.
But for Tony, it was too terrible. He gripped Barnes by the collar and shook him. “What about Pepper?” he shouted. But Barnes just shook his head, pointing toward an open room in another part of the garden. Knowing he shouldn’t--that way you do in dreams--Tony rose and walked in the direction Barnes had pointed. Mini Dum-E whirred a warning, plucking at Tony’s shirt, but he ignored it.
It was some kind of funerary temple. Tony staggered back from the shrine that contained a picture of his parents, his father’s watch, his mother’s favorite earrings, a bowl of gardenias set out as an offering. This had to be a dream. Tony backed into the alter just across. When he turned, he saw a familiar face represented within. “Nooooo!” he howled.
“What did you do to Pepper?” he shouted, running from the room. “What did you do to her?!” He leapt on Barnes, running full-tilt, knocking him back into the pond, squeezing his throat with both hands and holding him under the water. “What did you do!? What did you do?!” He jerked Barnes out of the water to punch him in the face, then thrust him back under, shaking him. Strangely, Barnes did not fight back. It was like waging war against a rag doll. His sad eyes just gazed up at the ceiling, seemingly unaffected. Tony hauled him back out and struck him again. “Why her? Why Pepper?” He shook Barnes until his teeth rattled. “Why not me instead? Why didn’t you take me?”
Tony collapsed against Barnes, unable to catch his breath. He was so angry. He was so hurt. He was so terrified. He thought he might be dying. “Why?” he gasped out, his lips feeling cold and numb. “Why?”
Soaked through, Barnes--or was it Bucky?--peeled off his shirt before putting his arms around Tony. Hating himself for it, Tony clung to him, gasping for breath, unable to hear anything but the hammering of his heart in his chest, and a loud rushing in his ears. He closed his eyes and counted to 20. Barnes didn’t have a heartbeat. Listening to something steady and soothing might have helped, but it was like being held by a corpse. A damp, lifeless body whose arms around him felt like coming home, like somehow, someday, everything would be right again.
He felt a trickle of warmth down his ribs and looked down to see a stream of red. As their bodies pressed together, Dum-E had pinched a hole into Bucky’s flesh, his prongs beginning to spin like a tiny saw, drilling a hole into pale, dead flesh. “Holy cr--no!” Tony pulled it away, grabbed it out of his pocket, scolding it. “Bad, Dum-E! No! We do not drill holes in people!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Bucky said, turning away, sounding like Eeyore but looking more like Christ after having been stabbed by the Spear of Destiny.
“What--of course it matters!” Tony told him, setting Dum-E on the floor where the only thing he could reach was their boots.
“Whatever happens to me,” Bucky said, “I deserve it.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter!” Tony told him through clenched teeth. “People care about you, so it has to matter. It has to!”
Bucky shook his head. “Aren’t you gonna drown me again?”
“No thanks, I met my quota for today.” Bucky exhaled, his shoulders going up and down. “Was that a laugh?” Tony asked, hopeful.
“I doubt it,” Eeyore said.
“C’mere.” Tony tugged him back to face him. “Let’s bandage up that hole in your chest.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Bucky told him. “It’ll close back up as soon as I--” he faltered, looking awkward about finishing his sentence in front of Tony.
“As soon as you...what? Drink more blood?” Bucky shrugged and tried to turn away, but Tony jerked him back around again. “It’s my fault,” Tony said, watching Dum-E race around and around the pond, maybe looking for a way back up. “You should drink mine.” He held out his wrist.
But Bucky’s face contorted in disgust, and he turned his face away. “I’m not taking your blood, Tony.”
“Why not?” Tony demanded. “I figure it’s as good as anybody else’s.”
“I won’t.” His fingers clenched in the stone of the pond, crumbling it in his grip.
“Now you’re just hurting my feelings.”
“This isn’t a game!” Bucky snapped, and when he looked back at Tony, he could see fangs and the red of his eyes. “Your life is worth something. Don’t throw it away.”
“Are you saying you would kill me?” Tony asked, pulling his arm back protectively. He’d only meant for Bucky to take a little. Maybe that wasn’t how it worked.
“I’m saying your blood--your life is precious. Don’t throw it away on someone like me.”
Tony reached out and took Bucky’s face in his hands. Maybe he should have been afraid, but he wasn’t. “Now who has no sense of self-worth?” he asked softly.
“You should go,” Bucky told him, pulling away.
“Yeah,” Tony said, taking his hand again. “Probably.”
They sat together on the edge of the pond, staring at a wall carving of an ancient palace in the mountains, listening to the melancholy song. Tony felt oddly comforted by it.