“This is a bad idea,” Tex drawled for the sixth time that afternoon.
Stephen gestured broadly, struggling, laying seams of sparking text scalpel-deep into the marble floor “Your opinion...has been noted.”
Tex pointed with the damp end of the toothpick he’d been chewing, his other hand hanging idle at his belt, “Your conjugation of Ko’ok’baath is wrong. It’s an -itha, not an -utu.”
The Sorcerer Supreme sagged, dripping perspiration and crumbling dignity, wishing that the task at hand were only brain surgery, “You could help.”
“I am. I’m telling you where you’re wrong. That’s the best thing one friend can do for another.”
“Oh so we’re friends now.”
“Fuck no, but I’ll happily charge you extra for providing you such luxuriant VIP frills this visit.”
Stephen snorted, wiping out two lines of grueling work with a gesture, “I’ll pay you for an extra hour, anyway. I need a break.”
Tex swept a wayward black hair from his black eyes, securing it by repositioning his stetson, scowling, “No can do, Doc. I don’t have an extra hour to sell you. I gotta get back. You didn’t say it would take this long.”
The Sorcerer Supreme slumped into a chair, materializing a glass of water into his scarred hand, “I didn’t realize it would. I’m a quick study but I'm out of time. One extra hour, Arcana, I’m begging you. I’ll pay you double. I promise, what I’m doing here...I’ll be saving you months of work.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice. Tex was being a lot more neighborly that several of the old-guard sorcerers who made it clear, in small passive-aggressive ways, that they saw Stephen's ascension as a kind of presumptuous line-cutting, and his proximity to the Ancient One's death as convenient. And he did desperately need the help, and couldn't really risk the good will defending his petty pride, but he was tired and in a hurry and had never been great at letting his intelligence be questioned. Tex had a peculiar way of calling him "Doc" that sounded at once fondly familiar and like a shorthand for "you jumped-up little shit."
Tex paced, bootheels cracking smartly on the suite’s polished stone floor, “It’s an important day for the Zacatecas sanctum. Two hours of your time next week in exchange for one hour of mine today is just not…”
“I mean double for the whole contract. Just stay until I get this binding done,” He pounded the water down his throat, trying to center himself but feeling the white hairs at his temples conspiring to annex more of his scalp.
Tex narrowed his eyes, “Six days. Yer puttin' me on.”
Stephen leaned his elbows on his knees, refilling his glass with a thought, “I'd never lie to a fellow sorcerer. And breaking a contract with you would be…”
Tex smirked, his idle hand meandering to a shining six-shooter at his belt, “Fatally inadvisable?”
“I was going to say ‘tacky’. 'In very poor taste.'”
Tex sighed ruefully, sitting heavily in the opposite armchair, “Never stopped you people before. But all right,” his register dropped and his diction became mystically significant, “I round-out our time here today, finish out this idiot scheme of yours, you help complete the new sanctum all next week. Monday to Saturday.”
“Tuesday to Sunday. I’ll need four days to make sure my…” he eyed the woefully incomplete wards, “...guest is properly secure. And comfortable, of course. Wong would skin me if I left him to handle this without adequate assurances.”
Tex shook his head, intoning again, “He'd be right to do it. It’s a bad idea.”
Stephen sighed, “Really? Why didn’t you say so before?” he drained his glass again, “So do we have a deal, cowboy?”
Tex nodded, “I, Tlayolotl Arriola Anderson, whose Name is Tex Arcana, fourth in the Supremacy and warden of the sheltered languages, accept your promise to dedicate eight hours of every day from Tuesday Next until…” he droned on for a good paragraph, specifying times, strictures, and tasks in magical legalese.
“And I, Stephen Vincent Strange, whose Name is Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, warden of the Mystica Mundi and all the material worlds of our universe, give you my promise and accept your terms,” he sat back, dropping into less binding speech, “I don’t suppose you’d do the writing for me for a quart of my blood or something. You could get a lot of ritual use out of that.”
Tex shook his head, lapsing back to his namesake drawl, “I wouldn’t spit on this idea for your entire skinny carcass.”
Steven groaned, “He’s just a god. A minor god. An orphan god. From a pantheon so religiously defunct on this world they’re practically aliens.”
“Which makes going to all this trouble just to do a favor for another god from that same defunct pantheon especially stupid.”
“If that’s all I was doing it would be. But I’m also doing it for Tony Stark and the Avengers, which should mean a lot to my role in defending the world from mystical threats. I need more allies with goals similar to mine,” he gave Tex a pointed look, “I can’t always trust my fellow sorcerers to value the material world or the integrity of life on it above their own ambitions. I need allies with a strong inclination towards concrete altruism, and I mean to make some.”
Tex snorted, “The same altruists who completely lost their shit over government oversight after levelling half of Manhattan, instigated by the menace you’re inviting for tea, by the way. And who then levelled a huge chunk of a foreign power for good measure.”
“Which is why they need an alliance with me, as well. If I can earn their trust, I can improve their tactics, then I don’t have to work as hard mitigating their nonsense. And if I can get a better sense of the trickster menace in the process, so much the better” he smiled wryly, disappearing his water glass and cracking his stiff knuckles, “But I suppose it’s too late. A Texan is lecturing me about the moral authority of government oversight. Must be the end of the world.”
“I’m lecturing you about the importance of having the safety on when you’re dealing with weapons.”
“While you swan around my house carrying a pair of single-action six-shooters. I really wish you would leave those on the mantle in the hall.”
“They're magic, Doc, don’t be cute. Common sense is the only safety a sorcerer needs, and yet you’re walking around without it.”
“Then help me.”
“No, I mean...just write out the phrases I need. I’ll still inscribe them and do everything else you want, I just can’t do another dozen re-writes for this last ward.”
Tex shook his head, “Fuck no, Doc. The sheltered languages are what they are for a reason. You learn ‘em or you don’t use ‘em. Just writing your binds out for you would put my mark on this idiocy as sure as casting ‘em myself. No thank you.”
“Proactive risk is part of this job. You taught me that when we met.”
“And provoking a trickster is suicide, as you’re gonna learn right shortly. Why do you think the Asgardians can never hold him?”
The sorcerer supreme rolled his eyes, wiping his pale brow and pushing up from his chair, “Because they’re his family. Deep down they know they can’t cage him without diminishing themselves. Whether they know it or not, their pride wants him to escape, to be a suitable threat. I don’t. And besides, we’re sorcerers, Tex. We provoke the hell out of demons and named powers a hundred times more dangerous than the horned clown every day.”
“Yeah, because those powers got short memories and predictable intentions. They depend on the rules for their power, and the moment we’re out of their sight we’re beneath their notice. Tricksters...their shit gets out of hand faster than greased geese, they take everything personally, and they never forget. They’re so low in the celestial pecking-order they’re practically human, which makes them hard to predict and harder to ignore, and when they’ve got your attention, they’ve got you. You’d be better off poking a grizzly bear with a short stick than putting a trickster up for the night, let alone locking one up and pissing it off where you can hear it talk.”
“It’s only going to be for a month,” he gestured around the tastefully opulent suite, “and I’m hardly lashing him to a rock and dripping poison in his eyes.”
Tex gave him a baleful look, “No way, Doc. My granny didn’t name no fools. If you’re caging or conning a trickster, I don’t give a fuck which one or how small or how nice you mean to be about it. They’re the kind of thing you can’t safely turn your back on, but you also can’t safely look directly at,” he shook his head, weary of repeating himself, “I’ll keep you from killin’ yourself, and believe me I’m already tryin’, but I ain’t touching these wards. This is your bed yer makin'.”
Stephen Strange nodded wearily and raised his scarred, shaking hands for his fifteenth pass at the room’s thirteenth and final binding. By the time he finally finished and showed Tex to the trans-dimensional door, he was so magically exhausted he’d have been unable to summon his guest if it had required anything more mystical than a quick text to Tony.
It’s ready. Send him over.
What’s the password?
Thunderball will be there in five.
He deleted the texts and left his phone outside the room as he passed the doors, cursing how the typing had set his hands shaking again. For the hundredth time that day, he imagined he could feel each calloused spiral fracture in the long bones and the heft of each titanium pin against his stuttering nerves. He curled his fists together behind his back, dismissing them in favor of giving the room a final appraisal.
He’d tried to think of every comfort and dignity he could safely provide. The eastern guest suite was a cube, thirty feet long, wide, and high. The left wall was high windows and a narrow balcony overlooking the streets of Greenwich Village from four stories up. The corner furthest from the windows and door was screened to concealed a claw-footed tub and a well-provisioned toileting area. Close by stood a curtained mahogany bed, modest dressing table, and a long cedar chest with a variety of linens. In the far corner by the windows, a sturdy desk and cushioned chair complemented a bookshelf and lamp. A mini bar by the door was stocked with a variety of refreshments and paired with a low counter cabinet and cafe set. In the center of the room was a scrolled chaise lounge with a low end-table. Aside from the interlocking rings of esoterica binding the room against damage, curses, invasion, or escape, it was much like any other impromptu guest suite in a high-end townhouse.
Doubtless the accommodations would stale over the course of a month, and doubtless the Asgardian would seek slow, murderous vengeance on general principle no matter how richly or hospitably his captivity was framed, but the alternative would have been to lock him in a null zone for a month or neutralize him in a conundrum, and that seemed needlessly cruel. It was clear from their negotiations that Thor still cared for his brother, or at least for the dignity of Asgardians as a general rule, and it had seemed worthwhile to cater to that expectation. He’d been meaning to put some serious wards on the sanctum's guest suite for some time, after all, and it felt wise to spare revealing his more esoteric options in case he ever needed to contain the temperamental thunder-god or any of his multi-talented allies.
As if summoned by thought, the handsome hammer-spinning man-slab landed on the outer balcony with an impressive thud, a lanky flop of green suiting thrown across his shoulders like a stole. Stephen admitted them with silent permissions, and the massive Asgardian lay his brother on the chaise before crossing to exchanging pleasantries, clasping Stephen by the wrist and giving him a hearty slap on the shoulder. He leaned in, saying quietly “He’s just drunk. Should sleep ‘till the morrow and wake hungry. He likes four or five meals a day. It’s not possible for us to die of hunger, though he'll moan as if it's likely. He prefers his wine red and his meat cooked, but he’s not as picky as all that,” he clapped the sorcerer’s shoulder again, having not yet released his wrist, giving both an affirming shake, “I thank you for doing this.”
Stephen masked his bemusement at the warrior’s sappy earnestness, nodding like a sitter reassuring a young parent, “Glad I can help.”
Thor beamed, carelessly radiating the heady warmth, charm, and general handsomeness common to minor warrior-gods, “He’s been much better lately, but Tony and Vision don’t trust him to be running around free for what’s coming next, and frankly I agree with them. He can’t always help himself,” he glanced at his brother with a rippling mix of youthful fondness and old sorrow.
Stephen peered doubtfully past the massive armored shoulders to the lithe figure at rest, noting how the small crimp of the lips seemed to indicate, even in unconsciousness, that Loki was always capable of helping himself. He nodded a bedside reassurance, “Better go. The less he knows about how he got here the better.”
Thor relaxed visibly, “Thank you, my friend,” and departed matter-of-factly in the same extraordinary way he’d arrived.
Doctor Strange snorted, smiling lightly. Friend. He decided to make a cursory intake inspection of his guest, to establish a baseline in case anything went wrong. Thor’s own charismatic aura reminded him to brace up for the aesthetic undertow involved in dealing with theo-sapiens. There was no ward for it, it wasn’t even magical, just an innate radiant quality of their enhanced Asgardian physiology, as far as he could tell. As a sorcerer he was marginally more aware of it, and possibly more susceptible, but it wasn’t a crippling liability. It undeniably held his interest but it couldn’t override his rational best-interests.
Loki’s aura wasn’t nearly as radiantly overt as his brother’s. His was more like the smell of snow and hearthfire on the air, the page of a book visible over someone else’s shoulder, passively insisting itself, remotely conspiratorial. It wasn’t until he saw his own trembling hand reaching out to turn a lankness of dark hair away from the sleeping face that Stephen realized he was sitting at the figure’s hip.
He re-directed his reach clinically to the carotid artery, curious about whether he would find anything as clunky as a pulse in the slender porcelain neck. It was there, warm blood leaping under a linen lamina of skin. Of their own accord his fingers slid past his pulse, mapping the defined barrow of the sternocleidomastoid muscle, the subtle jewel-like swelling of the jugulodigastric lymph node, summiting the bony mastoid process behind the ear’s elegantly folded cartilage funnel, all of it textbook human, mundane and marvelous.
His hand lingered behind the dish of the ear as his imagination fixed on the dark drain at its center, visualizing its path down into the elegant spiral tourbillons of the inner ear, the fine hairsprings of the cochlea translating membranous vibrations into chemical scatterplots that the convolutions of the temporal lobe would transmute into meaning, understanding, molding images from the buzzing motion of lips long before the involutions of consciousness could interfere. Somewhere in his mind a song echoed, “Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own, to a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone…” and he realized he was humming softly.
The neck turned, bringing the lips under Stephen’s hovering index finger. The mouth parted, breath warm, peaked tongue darting with an unvoiced interdental fricative, “Brother…”
Stephen withdrew his hand but did not rise, self conscious but strangely un-self-aware, like an actor observing, speaking a role. He put his steady hand onto the fingers at his side, his voice strangely resonant in the caverns of his own spiralling ears, “I’m here.”
That same vulnerable, dreamy whisper, “Where are we?”
He swallowed, whispering in kind, unsure why, “Someplace safe.”
The lips twitched with a serene mischief, the warm fingers tightening, "Oh...good...”
Loki’s long, flawless hand carelessly pulled Stephen’s rebuilt one to his chest before rolling over, tugging. An impulse to move with him, to curl against his back length-to-length, washed over him fleetingly, even suggesting that he ought to undress first. It would be easiest, waking in the dark later, to simply...mistake one another, hard and needful, awakening and awakening over and over in one another’s whispered assurances, nine hundred years old and with no better friend in all the realms…
Stephen shook his head sharply, feeling like a med student after a forty-eight hour shift, his mind having spun off into dizzy hallucinations, campaigning for sleep. He stood, flicking his hand with conviction to conjure a thick comforter with fur trim from the empty air, laying it over the sleeping guest, certain that it suited his dreams. The vengeful god snuggled down like a cat and began to breathe evenly as his host summoned a tall glass of water and a couple of aspirin in a small dish, laying them on the table beside the chaise, along with a fine silver bell that he would hear from anywhere inside the sanctum.
Uncertainty settled on his shoulders as he left, stirring like a cloak as his guest breathed dreamily after him again, “Brother…”