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Sunrise in Exile

Chapter Text

Tony knew what he was going to do before they'd even finished catapulting the bad guy into space.

Not that it was a fully laid out plan, then; not at all.  More a glimmer of a plan his mind kept adding details to somewhere in the background.  The rest of him was occupied in playing his part and taunting the creepy alien into turning away from the wizard.  Tony had never been more grateful for the villainous tendency to monologue.  It was enough to make a guy wonder if evil oration was actually a universal constant; maybe it was like a rite of passage all bad guys had to pass to be let into the supervillain clubhouse. 

Then Tony blew up one side of the ship, and the guy with the unfortunate squid face lost all his evildoer privileges. 

There was a moment in the midst of the chaos, when Tony's nanotech anchored him to the ship's deck plating and Doctor Strangely-Irritating went hurtling through the air as it evacuated out the hull breach.  A moment where Tony could have saved him.  A quick application of bonding gel could've frozen Stephen to the deck plating, or one well aimed repulsor blast could've knocked him off trajectory, put him in the path of a wall or obstacle while Tony repaired the breach.  Probably would've smashed a few bones, but hell, from the look of the guy's hands it wouldn't be the first time he'd dealt with that.  What were a few more broken limbs? 

Ultimately, Tony could've powered after him and pulled him back from the brink of death without much fanfare, and really, that was the plan.  Peter was backup, because Tony never wanted the kid to be on the frontlines again, but Tony had first dibs on grabbing the guy as he flew past.

But he hesitated.  If the sorcerer went and froze in space vacuum, that meant the shiny green rock around his neck would be up for grabs and open to finding its way to the intergalactic equivalent of the garbage disposal.  To date, Stephen hadn't exactly been eager to part with his favorite piece of costume jewelry.  This could be their best shot to remove Thanos' crown jewel from the treasure vault before the alien conqueror even had a chance to lay eyes on it. 

What was more important: the life of one wizard, or the fate of the universe?

So it might have ended then, with Tony stuck firmly on the fence of 'should I? shouldn't I?', caught in the infinite quandary of trading one life for a hundred-trillion-million others. But then Peter, being the new kid on the block, decided he hadn't gone enough rounds yet to be that jaded, and he leant the flying sorcerer a web, and then a hand, and then a whole body.  So in the end Stephen Strange lived to fight and complicate Tony's life for another day.

Tony left striking the superhero victory pose to Peter.  The kid still had faith; he still had hope.  Let him thrive on that triumph while Tony looked to the more practical side of the equation and tried to figure out how to save the most amount of people by spending the least amount of lives.

Tony'd worked hard to erase his old moniker as the Merchant of Death, but apparently some identities never quite die.

"Why couldn't you have just run?" Tony asked, and when Stephen turned to him, the man didn't even have the decency to pretend he was sorry.

"I had to protect the stone."  Stephen looked remarkably unruffled for a man who'd been in agony at the hands of an enemy not minutes ago, and who'd then nearly been killed by maybe-allies.  Tony was almost impressed.  From one game-player to another, that type of mask took years to develop and a lifetime to perfect.

"There a reason you couldn't have done that from a beach in the Bahamas, far away from the streets of New York?"

"As long as they had a magic user there was nowhere on the planet they couldn't find me," Stephen said.  "Better to face him directly."

Tony grit his teeth on a howl of frustration.  "Yeah, I see how well that worked out for you.  And then, while you were busy proving you were the big man on campus, you ended up shanghaied and on your way to the actual Big Man on Campus."

"The stone has to stay with me."

"Sure, and it would have.  Right up to the moment Thanos stole it off your corpse."

"It's impossible to remove a dead man's spell," Stephen said, calm and smug, and Tony wanted to put the suit back on and punch him in his pompous face.  Except that he wore a familiar expression; Tony was sure he'd seen it looking back at him in the mirror a time or two.

Was this impotent rage what other people felt when Tony looked like that?  If so, he'd have to remember to use it more around assholes like Ross and less around Pepper, and also to commend people like Rhodey for not killing Tony sooner.  Patience of saints, those two.

God, Pepper and Rhodey -

"Pretty sure Thanos won't more than pause at your flimsy protection spell."  Tony felt as if he could only devote half his brain to the conversation; the other half was busy sounding a red alert.

"It's a kill-switch, you moron."

Well, that proved it.  Tony definitely should've let him die.  That would have solved all their problems in one go; no more irritating wizards, no more Time Stone's, no more universe-ending bad guy mojo.  And the only thing Tony would've had to do was shove Peter in a nearby storage locker and throw away the key for ten minutes.

Damn, hindsight really was twenty-twenty.

"Well, Squidward didn't look all that worried, so unless that switch can literally kill in some hitherto undreamt of fashion, I doubt Thanos is going to be intimidated." 

Stephen looked mulish.  "You underestimate the power of the mystic arts."  And Tony could swear his cape puffed up like a stage prop, flaring dramatically around him.  Seriously, it was like a loyal Saint Bernard got mixed up in the laundry and came out looking well ironed and embroidered.

"No, I don't," Tony said.  "I just watched your mystic art get its ass handed to it by a bad cartoon knockoff.  Not exactly inspiring confidence here."

"Whereas clearly you had it all under control.  They say nanotechnology could save the world, but so far it hasn't been much to look at."

"Well, nanobots are individually difficult to see, so that's actually true.  And it's not that nanotech could save the world; it will save the world."

Stephen sneered.  "I seriously don't know how you fit your head inside that helmet."

"Oh, sorry.  Pot, meet kettle."  Tony swiped a hand over his face, frustration burning like a brand beneath his skin.  "Admit it, Strange, you should've ducked out when I told you to."

"I don't work for you, Stark," Stephen said, or tried to; halfway through he took a step and stumbled sideways before his cape seemed to independently swing the other way to right him.  He tried to turn it into a swagger and might have managed it if he hadn't swivelled his head to the side with eyes that clearly weren't tracking in the right direction for a fraction of a second.

Tony almost paused to ask if the guy was alright, because torture was torture, whether it took minutes or hours or days.  And a lifetime ago Tony had been there and done all that in a cave in Afghanistan.  But then he remembered that time was short, and emotional disclosure gave Tony hives, and they had more important things to be worrying about anyway.

"I tried to bench you," Tony said.  "You refused and now we're stuck here alone."  He turned when Peter hopped forward like a puppy, all eagerness and solicitude.  "Don't speak," Tony said sharply, and realized he was more angry than he could ever remember being with the kid, even counting that stunt with the ferry and the time he'd hacked Tony's multi-million dollar suit.  "You're a stowaway and the adults are talking."

"But, Mr. Stark, I -"

"Wait, I'm confused."  Stephen affected an air of scorn.  "What exactly is the relationship here -"

Tony turned away, then, the sickness of doubt and agonized indecision churning his stomach.  If only Peter hadn't come, then Tony could have done what needed doing with a clear conscience.  God knew the wizard wouldn't weigh on Tony's moral compass; that was already too bogged down with past dilemmas.  No room for Stephen Strange and his oddly autonomous cape.  But Peter was all the best of Tony and none of the worst.  Loyal and eager and unbelievably smart.  Young enough to grow into wisdom; old enough to fear his lack of it.  Tony couldn't imagine a universe in which he had any part in cutting all that thriving potential short, a place or time in which Peter was lost on the cusp of adulthood. 

And yet.

"Why couldn't you have just run," Tony repeated softly to himself while the other two circled warily.

Tony thought about Pepper, because he couldn't not think about her.  About his clumsy attempts asking her to share a life with him, and his desperation to have that life before it all came to the end he'd known it inevitably would.  He hadn't known when he'd gone with Stephen that it was the beginning of that end.  He wondered if Pepper had, because she'd held on so tightly, been so reluctant to let him go, even when Bruce had begged and pleaded.  She'd looked at Tony with such fear, and he'd assured her, he'd sworn he wouldn't go back on his promise.  And then he'd done it anyway.

He'd known the Big Bad was coming for years now, but he'd been hoping he could at least enjoy a siesta of peace before it did.  He'd been hoping he might have time to walk Pepper down the aisle and leave her with a legacy and maybe even a family, and certainly with better memories than he'd ever given her before.  He'd wanted to taste a glimpse of happiness he didn't deserve and a future that probably belonged to someone else.

Well.  If wishes were horses, and all that.

 "Stark!"

Tony turned.  It was clearly not the first time his name had been called.  Stephen was using a tone; Tony was familiar with that tone from Pepper, or Rhodey, or even Cap back in the day.  But the wizard hadn't earned the right to use that tone, and it grated.

"Can you get us home?" Stephen asked, and Tony simultaneously shrugged and nodded thoughtfully and crossed him arms and frowned.  It was a complicated maneuver, but one he knew he looked good pulling off.

"I don't know," he said at last.

"You can't?"

"No, I don't know.  Hey, doc, what can that kryptonite around your neck actually do?  Can you roll us back to a time before Thanos showed up with his lackeys?"

"The Time Stone doesn't work that way."  That note of superiority hadn't quite disappeared from his voice, but in this Tony could hardly blame him.  Time travel and sorcery; pretty good excuses to feel a bit superior, really. 

"How does it work then?"

"You couldn't understand it," Stephen said, and lost all his brownie points, because there was being superior and then there was being a condescending asshole.

"Break it down for me."  Tony smiled with saccharine sweetness.  "Use little words."

"Using the stone to affect reality has risks."  Stephen was clearly dredging up civility from the very bottom of his reserves.  "The wider the area of effect, the more chance of rupturing time.  Something small might be possible; something large might be catastrophic.  If a rupture occurs, a paradox could be just the tip of the iceberg."

"When you use it, does that create branches of probability?  How far back can you go?  A day?  An hour?  A minute?"

"I'm not going back at all, and neither are you, so the answer to all of that is: No."

"What, not even for the end of the world?  That's pretty selfish, I don't mind telling you."

"I'm not going to stand here and try to explain temporal magic to you.  Let's just say it's something you need to be a sorcerer to understand."

"I was more interested in casualty and general relativity and whether you were operating from the multiverse theory or not," Tony said.  "But fine.  If you want to reduce quantum mechanics down to foolish wand waving and silly incantations, I can't stop you.  Bottom line: you can't break time without risking a closed spatial loop or a paradox, but if the risk were worth taking, the potential is there."

Unfortunately, that wasn't everything Tony had been hoping for.  That didn't preclude the possibility of Stephen using the stone to hit pause on time; it just meant it was risky.  And not so risky that he mightn't use it if he was given good enough cause. 

Tony imagined if he set off the bombs he'd planted all around the ship's interior, Stephen might consider that sufficient cause.  Tony'd taken his time setting the bombs up.  He'd placed them strategically and well.  And they were good; they were Stark-tech; they were designed to blow things up.  But they weren't so good as to do it instantaneously.  There was a decent chance if they were triggered that a ship with this much mass wouldn't actually explode so much as slowly deconstruct and fall apart around them. 

Plenty of time for an enterprising wizard to use his big green reset button. 

And, ultimately, Tony really, honestly didn't want to blow up this ship.  It had seemed a reasonable plan when he'd thought it was just him, the wizard, and the supervillain, but Peter was on this ship.  The kid had an airtight suit and could probably survive the initial explosion, but his oxygen reserve was finite, and Earth was a hell of a long ways away.  Peter wouldn't die the same death as the good doctor; he'd die slower, watching the end come in agonizing increments.

Tony really would prefer not to die or kill anyone by slow and painful inches if he could avoid it.

"This ship's course correcting itself.  It's on auto-pilot.  What if we bring the fight to them?" Tony asked, and a part of him was honestly considering it, but the larger part was busy buying time while he frantically thought up other solutions.

Stephen blinked in surprise.  "Under no circumstances can we bring the Time Stone to Thanos."  For the first time he looked worried, actually tuned-in to the gravity of the situation.  Probably he'd realized without Tony's cooperation there was literally no way to get home, no way to avoid arriving at whatever destination the ship was bound for.  He'd realized he needed Tony's help and that Tony might not be very inclined to give it.

"News flash, doc," Tony said.  "He knows you have it, he's coming for it, and he doesn't seem the sort to take no for an answer.  And on that note, how did he even know where to find it?  I assume you guys don't go shouting about it from the rooftops."

"As long as humanity's existed, the Time Stone has been protected by the Sorcerer Supreme on Earth."

"So, what, you're an inseparable pairing, like peanut butter and jelly?  Guns and Roses, lock and key, Earth's Supremely-Annoying-Sorcerer and Time Stone?  And this is a known, immutable fact just randomly understood by the universe at large?"

"Certain powers in the universe would be aware of it, yes."

"Great.  What're the odds Thanos sent Loki after us specifically because he knew there were two infinity stones on Earth?"

For once Stephen had nothing to say, standing in grim and forbidding silence.

"Seriously, why do these things keep coming to Earth's doorstep?" Tony wondered aloud.  "There's apparently a whole universe of people out there.  What makes our little blue marble so special?  Wait, don't tell me.  There's probably some mystical vortex of fate at the center of the planet."

Stephen turned partly away, sighing.  "Don't be ridiculous."

"Oh, I'm sorry, I guess that would be too much compared to six hunks of rock that can apparently be used to control the entire universe," Tony said.  "A fight like that is going to tear whole planets apart, and you want to bring that back to Earth?  You saw what they can do.  No, I say we take the fight to Thanos.  If we take it to his turf, maybe he won't be expecting it."

Stephen looked oddly hollow as he considered this, fatigue and weariness dragging him down.  Tony could relate.  He hadn't even been the one under threat of torture, and he felt totally exhausted.

"Alright, Stark," he said.  "But understand.  If it comes down to saving you, the kid, or the Time Stone - I won't hesitate.  I'll leave you to die if I have to." 

Tony believed him.  And okay, maybe a part of him even appreciated how up-front Stephen was about that.  It wasn't like Tony could claim the same; he was basically plotting how to knock the guy on his ass and steal his wallet and all his valuables before he could recover and fry Tony where he stood. 

"Right," he said, thinking.  "You sure I can't just convince you to shove that stone out the nearest airlock?  It's still the only way to be certain Thanos doesn't get his hands on all six."

"Not going to happen," Stephen said serenely, which basically clinched it.  Tony didn't have the time (ha) to try and convince the doctor of the error of his ways, and even with the nanotech the odds were against him beating the guy one-to-one.  If he was lucky he could maybe kill Stephen before he realized what was going on and put up a solid defense, but there was no guarantee on that.  Wizards had mysterious spells up their sleeves and Tony had to assume Stephen was packing some serious firepower to be as overconfident as he was.

Also, the sorcerer's self-governing cape would probably thwart the whole endeavor and strangle Tony to death before he could get off more than a couple shots.  Not to mention Peter might get all uppity and self-righteous about Tony trying to murder Stephen in cold blood, so there was that too.

Which left Plan B.

"Alright," Tony said, and sauntered over to what looked like the navigation console.  It had pretty star charts on its screens, anyway, with a giant flashing dot that either stood for their destination, or indicated something really terrible Tony couldn't even begin to decipher.  "Then we bring the fight to him."

Tony had lived and breathed technology for as long as he could remember.  His mother used to say he'd learned how to use a calculator before he'd learned how to walk.  It was one of the few things safe to joke about at home.  Howard even got in on it, saying the only thing that came faster than Tony computing was Tony talking, and after he'd started they'd never been able to shut him up.

All that to say that while Tony couldn't claim to be an expert on interstellar space travel, one thing he could comfortably guess at: any ship capable of travelling fast enough to get them from one star system to the next in a human's lifetime was using light speed or some kind of equivalent.  And while Tony was salivating at the idea of having a closer look at the engine, that would have to wait.  The most important part he already knew: any ship capable of that velocity was going to have a vanishingly small margin for error in its navigation and propulsion systems, making it vulnerable to even the smallest positioning corrections.

Tony pretended to study the layout while he carefully eased a few stray nanobots onto the interface to burrow and give FRIDAY access to the ship's mainframe.  The A.I wasn't as versatile when it was cut off from the larger interface on Earth, but Tony'd learned after Siberia it always paid to have a self-contained backup and a spare power source to hand.  Presuming they ever got back to Earth, this copy of FRIDAY would reintegrate with the S.I server and propagate any learning achieved while separated, but for now it was business as usual.

"Looks like we have about two days before we're due to arrive."  Two days was an exaggeration; as far as Tony could see from their trajectory, they'd been due to arrive tomorrow insofar as Earth counted time.  But the buffer was important; the longer Tony had before his deception was discovered, the better.  "Which is crazy considering the massive amounts of space I don't even know how we're crossing.  So we might as well sit back and catch our breath."

In the end, it really didn't take much to force them off course.  In fact, accounting for basic interstellar obstacles, Tony barely had to nudge them a tenth of a percent in the wrong direction before the ship autocorrected with a destination to an entirely different star system.  Then he just kept doing that until it seemed like they were maybe moving in the opposite direction squid-guy had set them on.

Tony was grateful the alien computer system was intuitive, because all the data was labelled in some bizarre language Tony couldn't have read if his life depended on it.  And it really would've burned to decide to save the universe and then not be able to follow-through because he'd forgotten his Alien-to-Human travelogue.

Somewhere in the far reaches of his thoughts, forgotten and spinning madly off course, Tony wondered why all the best and worst decisions he made in his life were all so stupidly, horrifyingly easy.

Tony stepped off toward Peter, scanning the familiar face turned trustingly toward him.  He ached to give the kid reassurance, send him parachuting home the way he'd originally wanted to, but they were beyond all that now.  There was nothing else Tony could offer, except silent regret for the shit he was about to lay at the kid's feet.

"Hey, kid," Tony said, and the rest of the words lodged hard in his throat.

"Mr. Stark?" And there went the knife driving in even further.

"Guess you're an Avenger now."  Tony wanted to put on a smile and knight him like he'd always planned to when he was ready.  Because Peter lived in a generation where history rarely entered his worldview, and poking him with it could be almost as entertaining as poking Cap with pop culture used to be.

But he couldn't do it.  He couldn't compartmentalize his own shame; it was too crippling for words.

Tony confined himself to one wooden pat on Peter's shoulder.  Then he went and sat in a corner far away from the two men he'd confined to exile and possible slow death, not that they knew that yet.  And he pictured the woman he'd left behind and wondered what she was going to think when she woke up tomorrow or next week or next month and Tony still wasn't back.  He'd made a solemn promise when he gave her that ring: no more leaving, no more heroics, no more Iron Man. 

Even if they ever made it back, Tony knew Pepper was never going to forgive him this.  Not again.  Not after all the selfishness that had come before, not after he'd left her pleading into dead air and hadn't even had the decency to look back before he'd run off to high-jack a space ship.  He'd chosen to leave, this time; no one had forced his hand, no terrorists had stolen him away to do their bidding.  This was all on Tony. 

Breaking his word to Pepper had come so easily, in the end.  Apparently his promises didn't amount to much these days.  Or at least, they amounted to much less than his need to be what he was: he was Iron Man.  And Iron Man didn't flinch at making the impossible calls.

Tony closed his eyes and resolutely pretended that didn't make him feel like a monster.

Chapter Text

Tony wouldn't say time crawled as they made their way in a stolen ship into the far reaches of space.  Time clearly went along exactly as it should have done, or Stephen probably would've kicked up a fuss and started moaning about his stupid stone breaking the space-time continuum or something.  But while common sense told Tony time was marching on just like normal, the passing minutes and hours felt like they were moving through molasses.

After doing all he could to reasonably reprogram their course and make some headway into taking over the ship's systems, Tony found himself at loose ends.  He slept for a time, easing a layer of nanobots beneath him for comfort as he stretched out on harsh metal grating.  Possibly there were living quarters on this thing; really, there'd have to be given the size and relative function of it.  The scientist in Tony wanted to tear down to wherever the engineering section of the ship was and take it all apart, satisfy his burning curiosity (were the interlocking rings of the ship moving to generate power?  kinetic energy?  was the spin generating enough centrifugal force to account for the artificial gravity or was it something else -), but all the other parts of Tony were too tired to be bothered.

Besides, his nanotech was already busy eating its way into the ship's mechanics and deconstructing them for study, so Tony could afford to take a nap in the meantime.

But sleep was elusive, and after a solid few hours of it, it disappeared to linger tantalizingly out of reach.  Not that Tony was surprised by that.

He wasn't the only one having trouble; Stephen had prowled around the ship like a restless cat for almost an hour before finally settling down.  Tony had no idea the extent of the man's power, but he'd waited on tenterhooks the whole time, sure at any moment some mystical alarm system was going to start clanging and blow this whole thing out of the water before they'd even vaguely set off in the right direction.  But no wrathful magician bore down on Tony with vengeance in his eyes, and the cape didn't try to suffocate him unexpectedly, so probably the secret was safe for now.

Eventually Stephen stooped to lean against a ramshackle assortment of metal parts and eased himself down with the heavy gait of one exhausted and in pain and probably a bit of shock.  Tony wondered if he should worry more about the transparent spikes the alien magician had been jabbing into Stephen's head; that couldn't possibly have been healthy.  But it wasn't like Tony had the first idea how to check Stephen over for damage, or what to do even if he found any.  The man was a doctor; he'd have to figure it out, and if he couldn't they were all probably screwed anyway.

So eventually Stephen slept, and then Tony slept. 

Then Tony woke up.  And Peter -

"Mr. Stark?"

"Yeah, kid?"

Peter had hung from the ceiling for a time, watching Tony work, living up to his arachnid namesake in a very disturbing way.  Tony wanted to ask how he did it, because being named for a spider did not change the fundamental physiology of the human body.  Peter ought to have been uncomfortable with blood rushing to his head for hours on end, but you wouldn't know it to look at him. 

The kid eventually noticed Tony was awake and eyeing him skeptically.  He made a halfway waving motion and flipped to land lightly on his feet.  When Peter retracted the suit helmet Tony could see he was wearing that hangdog expression Tony had grown familiar with.  The same one he'd had when Tony'd taken back the suit, and also the time he'd discovered the kid's first spider-onesie.  In spite of Peter's vehement denials, Tony was still nearly certain the kid had made that thing out of old sweaters from Goodwill and his aunt's nylon stockings.

"You're awake," Peter said unnecessarily.

Tony sighed heavily.  "I wouldn't say awake.  I haven't had enough coffee for that.  But my eyes are open, and I'm vaguely conscious and capable of using words up to two syllables.  Maybe three."

"Oh.  I guess that's - good?"

"It's tragic, actually.  Man was not meant to wake without coffee, kid."

"I've never really liked coffee."

"Philistine."

"Mr. Stark, are we going to be," Peter started, diving right in.  "I mean.  Do we have a plan?" He puffed up a bit, clearly trying for suave and confident and falling painfully short.

"We do not have a plan," Tony said.  "I have a plan."

For a moment, Peter looked profoundly and intensely relieved. "Oh, great!"  Relief was quickly disguised beneath studied indifference.  "What is it?"

"Details are need to know, kid," Tony said.  And while Peter needed to know, he couldn't trust him not to blow it all to hell by screeching about it where Stephen might hear.  And then there was the fact Tony wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to reveal everything to Peter, at which time his hangdog expression would probably legitimately change to one of betrayal.

"Oh, but, shouldn't we all know what to do when we arrive at, well," Peter fumbled.

"Don't worry kid, I don't know where we're going either."  And that was nothing but the truth.  "Guess if we wanted to know where we were headed we should've asked old squid-face before we keelhauled him."

"The computer doesn't say?"

"Sure, it's got lots to say," Tony said.  "It's just saying it in a language I don't understand."

Peter frowned.  "Oh."

The ship's computer was proving an interesting challenge.  Tony was used to most systems he hacked crumbling pathetically beneath the combined assault of his ingenuity and FRIDAY's brute force.  But the scribbly alien language was troublesome.  They'd managed to parse the simplistic subsystems, the logical give and take of the programs already engaged, and FRIDAY was even now constructing a workaround for more sophisticated manual input.  But actually comprehending the source code embedded at the core?  Not quite.  FRIDAY could've read any language originating from Earth, living or dead, but learning an alien one was a whole new task for her. Thankfully, even stripped to bare programming essentials, she was still a damn good learning system.

"Do we at least know what it'll be like when we get there?" Peter asked.

"Nope.  It'll be a surprise to all of us."

Peter looked away, and Tony waited impatiently for him to buck up the courage to say whatever was on his mind.  And there: it didn't take long for Peter's look of guilty anxiety to firm up into teenage bravado.  "Mr. Stark, you know why I had to come, right?  I just, I couldn't do nothing.  Not while the world was in danger."

"Still wish you hadn't done it.  You know that whatever happens to you is on me."  And of course, there was some really bad shit about to happen to them, courtesy of Tony.

"I knew what I was doing," Peter protested loudly, and they both froze as Stephen made a noise, rolling from his side onto his back.  Pain was carved deeply into his face even in the awful light, standing out in lines as obvious as the scars across the backs of his hands.  The-cape-of-uncertain-origins fluttered to mold around the man as he shifted, snugging in close and buoying him up.  Tony wondered what a guy had to do to get a cloak like that.  If the only requirement was being an arrogant ass, he should've been gifted one a few decades ago.

Tony was almost surprised Stephen had chosen to sleep anywhere near them; warm and cuddly the good doctor was not, and there was no love lost between that man and, well, anyone.  Tony supposed they'd all decided to stay together in the central room because there was strength in numbers.  And also because the rest of the ship was a terrifying amalgam of indecipherable machine parts and darkness.

Once or twice in the oppressive black, Tony could've sworn out of the corner of his eye he'd seen the hazy glitter of stars through the edges of a wormhole.  It wasn't real, of course.  He knew it was just his mind playing tricks on him, and he'd fought back mounting anxiety with the grim knowledge that having a panic attack now wasn't a treatable affliction.  Here, he had nowhere to run to find fresh air or snow to bury his face in.  They were completely alone in the vast expanse of space.

First order of business on tomorrow's checklist: find the damn lights.

"I knew what I was signing up for," Peter said again, more softly.

"I doubt that."  And he really, truly did.  "But I get it.  You're here for the same reason I'm here.  To save people, to stop the bad guys.  Pepper tried to talk me down, but it's the same for all of us who start fighting and never really stop.  Once an Avenger, always an Avenger."

"Well, I was never really an Avenger," Peter said sadly, and Tony was not going to take pity on him, he wasn't, he absolutely wasn't -

"Hey Peter.  Don't kid yourself.  You've always been an Avenger.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

"But, Mr. Stark, you said -"

"Don't tell the press, but I do actually fall into the same category as 'anyone'."

"Oh."  Peter fidgeted, a slow grin taking over his face.  He tried to hide it but it kept breaking through, eager and delighted.  Tony hoped it wasn't the last time he ever saw it.

"Just remember what I said before, kid."  And he knew Peter wouldn't understand even as he said it; he couldn't.  Not yet.  "There're no do-overs out here."

"Right," Peter said happily, still clearly lost in the joy of a job well done.  "Hey, so how long were you hanging onto this suit for me?"

The kid thrust out an arm experimentally, the smooth outer plating bending and flexing as he contorted the limb into awkward shapes.  Tony let him play for a moment, thinking back on the days refining it after the kid first turned it down.  It wasn't long after he'd finished the Spider-Man suit that Tony started designing the nanotech systems, and shortly afterward Stark Industries had skyrocketed into all sorts of new developmental fields.  Patents were pending in a dozen different areas, everything from environmental science, to transportation, to engine dynamics, and even medicine.  Unfortunately for S.I, Tony had most of the developmental crop of nanobots in his housing unit right now, like a million tiny soldiers built for his beck and call.  But Tony wasn't worried.  Presuming Earth survived the little problem of Thanos-the-Conqueror, Pepper would see to it the nanotech kept flourishing so it could eventually do its saving-the-world thing.

"Finished that one for you about a year ago," Tony said finally.  "New model.  You like?"

Peter practically glowed with excitement.  "It's amazing, Mr. Stark!  I don't know about the claw things that come out, they're a bit weird, but they saved us.  I mean, wow.  Oh, whoops."

Peter looked over at Stephen after instinctively hushing himself, but the sorcerer hadn't stirred.

"This suit will be amazing when we, well, when we get there," Peter whispered.  "What other stuff does it have?  Does it have wings; is that a thing?  Oh!  Does this one have reconnaissance mode like the last one?  It doesn't have taser webs, does it?  Or ricochet webs?  Man those things were, uh.  Well, they were great, but -"

"Those were supposed to be available after you passed training and could appreciate the genius of advanced combat mode."

"Yeah, sure.  But you left those out of this suit, right?"

"Can't leave out genius, kid," Tony said just to watch Peter's face fall with horror before he valiantly tried to hide it.

"Oh but, well, okay -"

"Relax." Tony grinned.  "That suit's old school, just a few flourishes.  Made to your exacting blue-collar standards."

Peter's look of relief could not have been more obvious and Tony felt so fond of the kid just then, so proud of his selfless accomplishments.  Peter had a lot to learn, not least of which discretion and self-preservation, but to jump aboard a spaceship for no other reason than he knew it was the right thing to do, risking life and limb -

Tony stopped smiling and the glee faded into dismal reality again.  Peter was still risking life and limb; he just didn't realize that the dice had already been cast, or that Tony had stacked the chips against them.

"You should get some sleep, kid.  You're going to need it."

"I can't," Peter said.  "I'm not good with, like, inactivity when there's a big fight waiting."

"Then go do your homework.  Young people these days; they'll do anything to get out of school.  And don't even think about using interstellar hitchhiking as an excuse, you have only yourself to blame for that."

"Technically, this ship was still on Earth when I hopped onboard," Peter muttered.

"Technically, I tried to kick you off it before it left Earth, but you dug in like the tick you are not named for and refused to go.  Thus, hitchhiking."

"I guess it kind of is.  Wow, Aunt May is going to kill me," Peter said mournfully.

"Is this the same Aunt May with the very attractive -"

"No!"

There was a sudden clang as something hit the ground heavily and Tony and Peter both looked over to see Stephen sitting up and glaring.  The sorcerer was clearly aiming for angry and intimidating, but he only managed the first and missed the second by a mile because he got tangled up with the cloak and nearly fell over sideways.

"If neither of you were planning to sleep," Stephen said loudly as his wardrobe hastily resettled itself around him, "you could've at least had the decency to let the rest of us do it."

"Last time I checked you were the only other person here, doc," Tony said.  "So unless that cloak of yours takes naps or you're using the royal 'we', you've got problems."

Stephen ignored him to lever carefully up to his feet.  He moved with the deliberate caution of someone who knew pain was waiting for them around most every corner.  Tony watched as he started contorting his arms and legs, slowly twisting and stretching side-to-side in the dim light.  His cloak hung next to him for a moment before getting with the program; it started copying Stephen's back and forth movements, left and right, left and right.  Eventually they both apparently worked out all the kinks, because Stephen stopped and the cloak immediately floated through the air to settle itself after ruffling idly around his shoulders.

"Actually," Tony mused, watching with involuntary interest.  That cape was something else.  "If you are using the royal 'we', I might have to challenge you to a duel, Sir Strange-a-lot.  There's really only room for one king of the mountain on this ship."

Stephen looked skeptical.  "Afraid I'm looking to dethrone you, Stark?  Don't be.  What's there to dethrone?  This isn't exactly Buckingham Palace.  And didn't you decommission your castle tower when your vengeful boy band broke up?"

"Excuse you, Black Widow is going to have words for you when she shows her face stateside again."

"I'm shaking in my boots."

"Well, I certainly would be," Tony said.  "Though to be fair I wouldn't be caught dead or even halfway alive in those boots of yours.  Where did you get that wardrobe?  Wizards-R-Us?  Sorcerers Incorporated?"

"Sears," Stephen said.

He waited for the punch line, but either that was it, or Stephen was sincere.  Tony began to despair for the fashion sense of the entire Earth.  "Seriously?"

"No.  Where are we right now?"

"Somewhere between Earth and our next destination," Tony said, entirely truthfully.  "And without speaking alien that's about all I know.  We're still a ways out.  If you need some more shuteye now's the time to take it."

"I was trying, but this annoying douchebag wouldn't shut up."

Peter looked stricken, full of honest apology.  "Sorry."

"Sounds awful," Tony said breezily.  "Have you thought about filing a noise complaint with the owner?  I hear he's dying to talk to you."

Stephen sighed tiredly.  "Do you really never stop talking?"

"Only when given unavoidable reason to.  Or when Pepper makes a face," Tony admitted.  "You feeling okay, doc?"

"What?" Stephen turned sharply to frown at him.  "I'm fine.  Why?"

"Because your body temperature's elevated two degrees above normal," Tony said as FRIDAY silently streamed him the readouts over his glasses.  "And your electrolytes are completely out of whack."

"How," Stephen started, then seemed to change his mind.  "It's nothing.  None of us have eaten or had anything to drink since - yesterday?  Has it been a day since we got on this ship?"

"Yesterday was when the formerly-alive alien beamed you up for probing, yes."

"Are there any consumables here?"

"What, am I supposed to know that just because I understand a bit of machine language?"

"Are you saying you don't know?"

"It wasn't exactly my top priority to run out and find some fast food," Tony said.  "But as it happens, it makes sense there'd be living quarters on this ship.  It's intended one way or the other to provide transport to people.  So far our oxygen supply seems infinite.  I'm also assuming an unlimited fuel supply or a self-perpetuating engine core, because we're somehow travelling faster than the speed of light and any variety of fossil fuel would've been exhausted long ago."

"I'm surprised you didn't take the time to gawk at the engine before you tried to blast me into space," Stephen said.

Tony shrugged philosophically.  "I thought about it, but in retrospect that seemed like kind of a dick move.  So I only ran a couple simulations.  No more than four or five.  Left me with plenty of time to try blasting you into space afterward."

"Actually, that was my plan," Peter said shamefacedly.  "I saw it in this old movie.  But we were never going to let you die in space!  Right, Mr. Stark?"

"Sure, right," Tony said dubiously.  "Strange, if you're hankering for a snack, why not just magic something up and have at it?"

Stephen brushed invisible lint off his sleeves importantly.  "We're not close enough to Earth for me to pull it from there, and producing food out of thin air would require tampering with universal law."

Tony laughed before he could stop himself.  "Oh, I'm sorry, are you saying magic has rules?  Do tell."

"Mostly they're the same rules scientists have already discovered," Stephen said.  "Except for all the ones they got wrong."

"If you don't know what they are, you could've just said that," Tony said, then threw a blueberry at him.

The cloak annoyingly caught it in midair and offered it to Stephen with the solemn contemplation of an object that did not understand what food was.

Stephen took the berry suspiciously.  "Where were you hiding that?"

"You don't want to know," Tony said, and threw two more at him before he mastered the petty urge to use food as ammunition and tossed him the entire bag.  

"Oh," Peter said, craning his neck to stare at Tony hopefully.  "Do you have any more?"

"Nope."  And gave him a packet of dried banana slices instead.

"Do you always carry food around in your pockets?" Stephen asked, taking a mouthful without a word of thanks, the ingrate. 

"You're welcome, and no.  Obviously I just figured you were the hangry type and planned accordingly."

He produced a package of mixed nuts next and tossed back a few before handing those to Peter too.  "Can't do anything about our water supplies, though, so eventually we'll have to go exploring."

"If your calculations are right we'll reach Thanos today or tomorrow," Stephen said.  "We'll survive."

Tony almost wanted to laugh.  Stephen was definitely going to be surprised when tomorrow showed up with no Thanos in sight.

"Still, it can't hurt," Tony said.  "By the way, you should probably sit down before you fall down.  Your blood pressure's tanking."

The worst part was that Stephen didn't even bother arguing with him about it and just sat down shakily where he stood.  Tony took back the bag of nuts from Peter and ambled over to shove it at the guy.  "Here.  My treat."

Stephen took the bag with hands that shook, looking straight ahead.  "Thank you," he said softly, like it hurt.

Tony shrugged, magnanimous with success.  "No sweat.  You know it's not just because you haven't eaten, right?  It's not every day a guy suspends you from the ceiling and skewers you with pain." Then he thought about that more closely.  "Or maybe that is your every day?  What do I know."

"Is this your version of therapy, Stark?"  Scars stood out clearly against Stephen's knuckles as he closed his hands into fists.  "Don't give up your day job."

"That's good advice.  I mean, I would actually make a really terrible therapist.  Doesn't mean you don't need one."

"Have some experience with that?"

"More than most," Tony admitted candidly.  "Afghanistan was the fulcrum my whole life changed on, but I was in therapy long before that.  You'd probably benefit, but fair warning: no amount of therapy can change how much of an asshole you are."

"I suppose you'd know," Stephen said.

"I certainly would."

"Mr. Stark?"

Tony looked over, grateful for the interruption of what was fast becoming a more personal conversation than he'd been banking on.  But his heart sank at the sight of Peter.  The kid had moved off while the adults were having a heart-to-heart, and he was standing in front of the navigation console with his hands on either side of the display and his brows beetled together in confusion.

"I think there's a problem," Peter said while Tony made his way over.

"What is it?"

"I know you said we were due in tomorrow, but I think this display's counting down weeks."

Tony technically could have told them it would take weeks to get to Thanos, and maybe he should have, but he hadn't thought Stephen would buy the idea of Squidward reeling them in that slowly.  Peter would've accepted it, because he accepted everything Tony had to say.  That was really going to hurt when it disappeared in about a minute.

"How can you tell?" he asked, casually.

Peter pointed.  "There's a timer."  And, of course; that was the same marker to first catch Tony's attention too.  The numbers weren't written in English, but it didn't take a genius to count out the timing of disappearing seconds and extrapolate from there. 

"Did we change something?" Peter asked worriedly.  "When we put a hole in the hull?"

"It momentarily destabilized the ship's forward momentum.  But that started up again after I repaired the breach and the air pressure equalized."

"Is there something wrong with the engine now?"

Tony could see out of the corner of his eye Stephen stand up slowly, likely only the man's physical discomfort keeping him from stomping over to inspect the console for himself.

Tony considered hedging, or even outright lying.  He'd had significant practice at both in his life, and being as he was the only engineer on the ship, he had a lot of scientific leeway to make shit up.  Peter had even given him an excellent head start with his innocent questions. 

But a story elaborate enough to be convincing for weeks sounded not only unappealing, but exhausting beyond words to keep up.  And maybe it was better to get it out in the open, anyway; Tony had never been good at hanging onto his guilt or shame.  That was why entire tabloids kept themselves employed on his numerous public scandals.

Tony blew out a breath and smiled grimly.  "Nothing's wrong with the engine, kid.  We're just not going where the ship thought we were going yesterday."

"What?" Peter asked, while Stephen straightened up in alarm.  "Why not?  Where are we going?"

"I told you, I don't know," Tony said.  "Wherever that blinking red dot is on the map."

"But what's there?" Peter asked, apparently too stuck on the logistics to realize the implications.  Stephen wasn't having that problem; a thunderous rage was quickly overtaking his expression. 

"Not sure."  Tony looked straight at the sorcerer challengingly.  "But definitely not Thanos.  And definitely not Earth."

Peter looked almost comically bewildered.  "What?  But -"

"What have you done?" Stephen interrupted, and stepped into the air with his hands outstretched and an expression of menace on his face.  Tony was reluctantly impressed; he didn't want to be, but the man was floating without the benefit of repulsor technology or a magical hammer.  Sorcery was kind of awesome; it made Tony itch to take it apart to its probably bizarre and unscientific constituent parts.

"I've done lots of things," Tony said.  "Most recently I was trying to cat nap, and a second ago I was snacking.  You should try it some time.  Take care of the hangry."

"What have you done?" Stephen repeated, with real power in his voice and magic glittering in his hands like ropes of fire.

"Saved the universe," Tony said, shrugging.  "Or at least delayed its hostile takeover."

"By taking us away from Earth?"

Tony hummed contemplatively.  "Technically the dead alien did that.  I just reprogrammed the autopilot to take us away from Thanos, too."

"But why?" Peter asked.  "I thought the whole point was we were going to surprise him!"

"Sure, we could do that, kid.  But then we'd die, and Thanos would still end up with the keys to the universe.  So I decided to go with another option."

"And which one's that?" Stephen asked contemptuously.

"Run like hell."

"What happened to taking the fight to them?" Stephen almost seemed to glow, the outline of his form blurring behind strands of glittering light.  FRIDAY streamed Tony a confused set of numbers as the energy built around the sorcerer in blistering waves.  "What happened to meeting them on their own turf?"

"I lied," Tony admitted.  "I'm good at that.  Also, in this case discretion really is the better part of valor.  And since you wouldn't give up the stone, or go into hiding, or get off the damn playing field, this is me sidelining you.  Unfortunately that means I have to come along too, for babysitting purposes." 

Tony turned to face Peter, taking in the shocked disbelief on his young, energetic face.  "And Peter gets to come too, because he bought a one-way ticket," he said softly.  "And I'm making a sacrifice play."

"But, Mr. Stark."  And there, Tony could see reality was setting in, the gaping hole where his trust in Tony used to reside being swiftly filled with horror.  "How am I - I mean, how are we going to get home?"

"We're not, kid," Tony said, and ruthlessly forced himself to watch the light of any lingering hope fade away.  "We're fugitives on the run.  This isn't a day trip.  This is exile, and it only ends when we're dead, or Thanos is, or that stone around Strange's neck is nothing but space dust."

"I don't know about Thanos," Stephen said with intent, "but if you're looking for death, Stark, I can certainly oblige you."

Tony laughed, softly, and knew he skirted real danger doing it.  "That's a zero sum game for you.  Whereas I would've benefitted hugely from killing you before this, and don't think I didn't consider it.  But whether I'm dead or alive, this ship is on an intercept course with the middle of nowhere, and good luck prying the navigational controls out of FRIDAY's nonexistent hands after I'm gone."

"Friday?" Peter asked dazedly.

"My A.I.  Like a suped-up version of your last suit lady.  By the way: Karen?  Really?"

"What's wrong with Karen?  I like the name Karen.  What kind of name is Friday?"

"The Stark kind."

"Turn us around," Stephen ordered.

"No can do," Tony said cheerfully.  "Destroy that stone, and then we can talk."

"Never going to happen."

"Then you might as well buckle in, because we're going to be here a while.  Guess it'll come down to which of us is more stubborn.  I'm betting me."

"You'd lose that bet." And the look on Stephen's face gave Tony pause, because there was something there that was confident when it shouldn't have been.  Tony had a reputation, after all.

"I guess we'll see," Tony said.  "But here's the kicker: if I lose, everyone else loses with me.  So I'm not going to lose, and you can be absolutely sure I'll cheat to make sure of that." He considered this thoughtfully.  "In fact, I suppose I already have."

"So your answer is to hide until this all blows over?  The great Tony Stark, running away from a fight.  I never took you for a coward."  Stephen was clearly aiming to wound, but he missed by a wide margin.  Tony'd been called worse, and by far better people.

"It's more like running at an oblique angle from the fight," Tony said.  "With the damsel in distress as a hostage slung over my shoulder and a sidekick accidentally tucked into my luggage."

"I really should've stayed on the bus," Peter said softly, and Tony couldn't look at him, not and keep it together, not and keep all his masks in place.

He smiled; all teeth, no mirth.  "Too late.  Welcome to your new field trip.  For what it's worth, I can pretty much guarantee it'll be more interesting than Coney Island."

"Stark," Stephen said, threateningly.

"Game over, doc," Tony said, and turned away to lean against the wall.  "Guess this one's a stalemate."

Chapter Text

When Tony opened his eyes, it took him a confused jumble of moments staring at the black metallic ceiling before he remembered where he was.  One quick glance around his drab, barren surroundings confirmed it.  These walls had started to become uncomfortably familiar.

"FRIDAY, what time is it?"

"4:36 a.m. Eastern standard time."

"What day are we on?  Five?"

"Day six, boss."

Tony's first thought was of Pepper, as it so often was.  After almost a week gone from Earth, Pepper's penchant for practicality would've kicked in by now.  She'd have moved past any lingering hope Tony was just making a pit stop on the alien ship and correctly assumed he was long gone.  Tony liked to think she'd know he was still fighting the good fight, or at least the fight that had the best odds of winning, and that she might even be cheering him on. 

Alternatively, she might think he was dead.  That was also a possibility. 

"Four-thirty," Tony sighed.  "How long have I been out?"

"Three and a half hours."

"Fantastic."

There'd be no getting back to sleep now; there never was.  Sleep had become an exercise in futility.  Listlessness and nerves and sheer loneliness threatened to turn the close walls and corridors of the ship into nightmares about a floating tomb drifting endlessly in space.  Tony blinked into the darkness around him, lit only by the nanotech housing unit.  Anxiety was a familiar flutter, kept only partly in check.  In spite of his every effort, Tony could feel a panic attack slipping closer every day. 

"FRI, can you raise the lights yet?  Fifty percent?"

The lights obediently brightened to half-capacity.

"Good girl.  When'd you pick up that system?"

"Three hours, two minutes ago."

Tony hummed in pleasant surprise.  "Do we have any other systems yet?  Aside from navigation and propulsion."

"I have also gained full access to security and life support systems, as well as partial control of tactical systems."

"Still working on communications?  Did you shut down the outgoing signals yet?  Last thing we need is our old pal Thanos tracking us from halfway across the galaxy."

"Yes, boss."

"What about the computer core?"

"Still in process."

"Not bad for a week's work," Tony mused.  And it had by no means been an easy week.  He'd spent most of it dodging adolescent pleas for clemency.  Speaking of -

"Is the kid still outside my door, FRI?"

"Mr. Parker left ninety-six minutes ago."

Small blessings.  Peter was more stubborn than Tony had given him credit for.  Tony hadn't wasted any time hightailing it off the bridge after the truth came out, ostensibly to search for the basic necessities they were sorely in need of it, but mostly to remove himself from the line of fire.  But it hadn't been half a day before Peter was after him, armed with big wounded eyes and stumbling entreaties.  His favorite question seemed to be 'why'.  The problem was that no matter how frequently or how creatively Tony explained it to him, the kid never seemed to get it.

On the other hand, Tony hadn't seen hide nor hair of Stephen Strange since the confrontation on the bridge, and frankly he rather preferred it that way.

"FRIDAY, mark the calendar," Tony said, lacing his hands under his head to stare at the ceiling.  "One week anniversary of my career change from mad scientist and international business mogul, to space pirate.  What should we do to celebrate?"

"Boss?"

"Now, I know what you're going to say.  Celebrating a one week anniversary is so middle school.  Any other time I'd agree with you, but we're officially pirates now.  Pirates are allowed to celebrate ridiculous anniversaries.  They operate outside the normal social order."  He paused, frowning.  "On the other hand, so do superheroes.  What actually constitutes normal in the social order?  It's possible I've never actually made the criteria." 

Tony considered this thoughtfully for a time.

"Maybe a celebration is premature.  I suppose the only thing we've really pirated so far is this gloomy, technologically advanced ship and all its nonexistent cargo.  Well, Strange was the cargo, so one could argue we pirated him too.  But that's barely a drop in the bucket.  Technically if we're pirates, we're poor, penniless ones.  Whoever heard of poor pirates?  I suppose those pirates probably ended up dead before they could sully the pirate name.  Pirate goal one, FRI: amass a fortune and do not end up dead."

"Boss?"

"It's asking a lot, I know.  But I want to set my goals high, start off on the right foot.  Dread Captain Stark, his eight-legged first mate, and their mutinous Strange prisoner.  Has a certain ring to it, don't you think?"

FRIDAY was silent, having probably exhausted her limited allotment of curiosity for the day.  That wasn't unusual.  In the past few days, Tony had gotten very familiar with FRIDAY's indifferent silence.  Backup mode stripped and stored her personality subroutines and extraneous programming to allow sufficient processing power and memory.  It was really the only way to carry a semi-functional A.I in a pocket sized format.  But it made for very one-sided conversations.

"FRIDAY, be a dear and start the coffee maker for me, would you?"

"There are no coffee makers aboard this ship."

Tony sighed mournfully.  "You could at least lie to me.  I keep asking, thinking one day you might surprise me."

But FRIDAY didn't.  She couldn't.  Tony had never realized how painfully dependent he'd become on having a perpetually loyal helper to talk to, one who talked back.  Next time, Tony'd have to seriously consider scrapping some of her processing power to make room for at least a humor algorithm or two.  FRIDAY wasn't half as much fun to have around when the closest she got to making a joke was reading out the dictionary definition.

"Do I get breakfast at least?" he asked plaintively.

One of the drawers built into the wall opened with a mechanical whir, an assortment of colorful sealed packages obediently on display.  Tony rose from his bed and took one, wrinkling his nose.

Tony cracked the seal dubiously.  "Our host wasn't much for creature comforts, was he?  Does this stuff remind you of fish food, FRI?  It reminds me of fish food.  Maybe it's just because our alien buddy was a squid."

"The nutrient base is comprised of -"

"Never mind, I retract the question."

It hadn't taken Tony long after staging a strategic retreat from the bridge to stumble across the ship's crew quarters, and from there the alien equivalent of the lavatory.  Finding the food stocks and a supply of drinkable water hadn't been far behind.

The water was the biggest relief; after one day stuck on the bridge, they'd already been feeling the effects of dehydration.  A lack of liquid intake could've quickly put them out of commission.  Thankfully the supply seemed vast; as far as Tony could tell the ship used an atmospheric water collector and a purifier to keep the stores up.  But whether that meant it was pulling frozen water vapor from space or whether that meant they had to drop the ship into the troposphere of a planet to fill up their reserves, Tony had no idea. 

The ship had whole storage compartments full of sealed and packaged food, or something that could loosely be termed food by Earth's definition.  It was mostly gelatinous, probably for quick storage, and packed with nutrients, vitamins and minerals.  Tony'd scanned them as thoroughly as he could before taking a leap of faith and eating one; the taste has been thankfully mild, almost like sampling artificially sweetened jello.  He hadn't died afterward, which left him cautiously optimistic at their ongoing chances for survival.  He'd had FRIDAY send word to the other two of the discovery.

Tony had no idea what their resident wizard made of the whole thing, but Peter hadn't been long hunting Tony down to share his thoughts, and after that he'd followed Tony through the ship like a wayward duckling, or a barnacle.  The only way Tony'd managed any privacy was by having FRIDAY slam a door in the kid's face and pretending he couldn't hear Peter shouting furiously from the other side.

Tony felt antsy to start working and hastily finished off his uncertain meal.  "Time to head to the workshop, FRI.  Fire up the forges.  No, strike that, don't respond.  Just power up the engineering consoles for me."

"Sure thing, boss."

Tony had deliberately claimed the set of living quarters most closely situated near engineering, so when he headed out he didn't anticipate a long walk.  And he didn't get one, but that was mostly because he discovered his passage had been rather thoroughly and spectacularly blocked.

"FRIDAY," Tony said, examining the floor to ceiling wall of webbing barring him from the engineering section.  "How many cubic feet of that stuff would you say he had to use to do that?"

"Unclear."

"What are the odds if I cut it down he'll just try this again tomorrow?"

"I wouldn't wait until tomorrow," Peter said, and Tony tried not to jump like a startled cat, but he wasn't used to being ambushed by people hanging upside down from the ceiling.  He looked up to find Peter in full costume, the white expanse of the suit's eyes watching Tony with chilling intensity.  Apparently he'd done a good job rendering the suit at least marginally intimidating.

"Besides, it's not that easy to cut through," Peter continued, the muffling effect of the mask flattening his voice into grim severity.  Or maybe that was just the anger talking.  "It tangles up most solid objects."

"Good luck tangling a laser," Tony said, demonstrating with three red, cutting beams as the suit formed around his wrist.

Peter flipped off the ceiling to land on his feet, watching avidly as the web started to slump and collapse.  "You have lasers?  I thought you just had repulsors.  That's so cool!  Hey, does my suit have lasers?"

"No, I did not give you lasers," Tony said.  "You can walk up walls, jump higher than a kangaroo, lift a small building when motivated, and are basically impervious to simple injury.  You do not need lasers.  You'll have to make do with ricochet webs."

Tony couldn't see Peter's face, but the way his shoulders slumped spoke of tried and true disappointment.

"Can I assume you have no intention of letting me get to work peacefully?" Tony asked. 

"I just want to talk.  Can we talk?"

"You say that every time, kid.  If this is going to be a re-run of the same old sob story you've been feeding me, you can save it."

"Mr. Stark," Peter said, and there was the same pleading note Tony'd gotten used to, the one that tried to dig in beneath his skin and burrow until it found his heart.  Peter should really read the tabloids; most of them were still convinced Tony didn't have a heart.

"Hell, kid, how many times do we have to go over this?  I'm not turning this ship around.  The only way that's going to happen is if Strange agrees to space his precious Time Stone or our favorite galactic despot gets unexpectedly dead.  So unless something's changed in the five hours since you last asked me, we're here to stay."

"But!" Peter cried, the helmet finally retracting to show his earnest, youthful face, looking about as woebegone as Tony remembered it from yesterday.  "Then why did you even bother saving him?  Why did you send me to help him if you were never planning for us to return home?"

Well, that was new.  Usually the kid just ended up on an endless repeat cycle of awkward appeals and pleading.  Apparently Peter had moved on to the bargaining stage of his grief.

"One, when I sent you after the wizard, I didn't know we'd end up on a spaceship.  Two, I tried to kick you off it, and you refused to go.  Three, saving Strange was your plan, Peter; not mine.  Four, technically Strange doesn't need to die for everything to still come up Milhouse, he just needs to be reasonable.  And five - no, okay, there's no five.  I was just on a roll, thought something else brilliant might crop up."

Peter looked like he couldn't quite decide on being scandalized or horrified so his face was settling somewhere in between.

Tony made a beckoning gesture.  "I'm happy to take questions from the audience now."

"What do you mean, saving him was my plan?" Peter asked dazedly.  "What were you going to -" He frowned, suddenly, and Tony braced himself for a flood of disgusted vitriol, accusations, cries of 'how could you!', but Peter surprised him.

"Is this about all the bombs?" he asked.

Tony blinked, calmly.  "What bombs?"

Peter rolled his eyes like now Tony was being unreasonable.  "The ones you had all over the ship.  I snuck onboard, remember?  I basically followed your footsteps.  They were everywhere."

"They were not everywhere," Tony said.  "They were placed in key locations.  Strategically."

"Were you really planning to blow up the ship?"

"Yes, blowing things up is usually the point of planting bombs."

"I thought they might be a backup plan.  Like if the alien guy had maybe decided to hold Doctor Strange hostage or something."

"Nope.  The bombs were technically Plan A if I couldn't get the irrational sorcerer to stop being irrational.  I only went with Plan B because you got in the way.  So take heart; if things had gone along as intended we could all have been dead by now."

"Oh," Peter said.  "Well, thanks.  I think."

"I never meant for you to be here, Peter," Tony reminded.  "I almost went with the suicide plan of facing Thanos directly rather than cart you off into exile with me."

"We can still do that!" Peter insisted, a phrase familiar from the first day or so he'd dogged Tony's steps.  Peter was convinced all it would take to beat an insane tyrant powered by infinity stones was the barebones of a plan and copious amounts of firepower.  Apparently he thought if he could just convince Tony of that, all would be well.  "We could still beat him if we work together."

Tony sighed.  "Kid, you've been watching way too many Saturday morning cartoons."  The words stung unexpectedly; he'd heard a similar lecture about teamwork before, but not from Peter.  From another guy in red (white) and blue.  "In real life, you don't take on the bad guy with a three to endless-army disadvantage and walk away with anything but a hell of a beat down.  And in this case, the grand prize trophy is universal domination."

"But we have that stone he wants.  Doctor Strange said -"

"Forget what Strange said.  I know I'm trying to," Tony muttered.  "Putting Strange and Thanos together on one planet is a disaster with only one outcome.  I know I have a reputation as a risk taker, but this one's too rich even for my pay grade.  I'm not willing to gamble the fate of the universe on our ability to take out someone strong enough to down Thor."

"Then - then maybe we could just turn around," Peter said; pleaded really.  Tony closed his eyes and hardened his heart.  "We could go back to Earth, we could -"

"Peter, you jumped onboard a spaceship.  You had to know it was dangerous, that you might never make it back.  You did it anyway.  You made a hard call, and so did I.  Now we both have to live with the consequences."

"But, Mr. Stark, if you just -"

"Peter." Tony watched the teenager hunch into anguished silence at the admonition, and parts of Tony ached in places he hadn't known existed before Peter came into his life.  "Please believe that I would like nothing better than to get you back home.  If you'll recall, I tried to do just that.  But I can't get you back to Earth now without bringing Strange back too.  And that just can't happen."

"No, but, I," Peter said despondently.

"Hell, kid, why aren't you bugging Strange about this?  If he'd get off his magical high-horse and weigh the cost of half of all universal life versus his baby green pride and joy, we could pulverize that stone and be home in time for supper.  Or at least before S.I has me declared dead."

"Doctor Strange says he can't destroy the stone.  And why would they declare you dead?"

"He says he can't, but all I hear is he won't.  And I've disappeared enough times now, Stark Industries wrote a policy on when and how they can release my shares into the care of my inheritor.  I mean, it's Pep, and she's already CEO, so I don't see what all the rush was about.  But that's business for you, kid."

In fact, Tony could almost imagine Pepper standing before the board, fiercely declaring that as CEO and now-majority shareholder, she was revoking the declaration of Tony's death until proven otherwise.  If the company had had to deal with Tony's many disappearing acts, Pepper had had to deal with them on a far more personal level.  He always came back, she'd say, and he'll come back this time too. 

He wished he could tell her he was coming back, but that was as much a mystery to Tony as it was to everyone else.

"So, wait," Peter said.  "How long do you have before they -" he made a quick, cutting motion at the neck, complete with sound effects.  "You know?"

Tony tilted his head thoughtfully.  "Legally?  Probably years before I'm officially buried.  But since I'm a bit prone to peril, and I'm the majority shareholder, they wanted some earlier assurances.  I could've chosen not to sign off on it, but honestly they kind of had a point.  I get two months before they release my shares to Pepper."

"Oh, so that's still plenty of time." Peter looked relieved, and Tony supposed that to a teenager two months would probably seem like a lifetime.

Maybe it would make more sense to the kid once they'd actually been on the ship for two months.  Or longer.

"It'll go by faster than you think," Tony said.  "Speaking of time slipping away, where is Strange at these days?  I thought he might come stab me in my sleep, but so far he's been quiet as a mouse.  Should I be worried?"

"He's on the bridge," Peter said.  "He's always on the bridge."

"Why?  What the hell does he do there?  Watch the stars?  If he's looking for familiar constellations, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he won't find any."

"He meditates?  Maybe.  Well, he tries to, but he gets really tired if he does it for long, so after a while he stopped."

"He meditates." Tony sighed, turning a beseeching look up at the ceiling.  "Of course he does.  How stereotypical of him.  Anything else?  Does he hold séances?  Chant at the moon or, well, not the moon, one of the passing planetary bodies?  Has he tried to use you for potions ingredients yet?"

"What?"

"I'll take that as a no.  I don't suppose he's told you how he flies around, has he?  If it turns out he really does have a magical hammer hidden in his pocket, I'll be relieving him of it.  For science."

"For science?"

"Magic is only magic until it's science, kid, and don't you forget it.  Do me a favor?  Go hunt Strange down and make him give you all his wizardly secrets."

"I don't think he's going to tell me anything," Peter said dubiously.

"Won't know till you try.  Now skedaddle.  I need to get to work deciphering this lovely alien alphabet so FRIDAY can take over the ship's core.  Go keep Strange occupied for a while.  Yell for help if the guy gives you trouble so I can watch from afar."

Peter rolled his eyes.  "Thanks."

"You're welcome.  Now get going.  You can come back tomorrow for another episode of Days of Our Exile."

"No, but -"

"No, but, seriously.  That was your thirty minute opportunity to state your case.  Your case has been stated.  I have work to do."

Peter reluctantly started to trudge away, and Tony tried to close the sliding door on the engineering section so he wouldn't have to watch, but -

"Dammit, Peter, how much webbing did you use on this?"

"Oh, sorry," Peter said sheepishly.  "You wouldn't open your door, and I didn't want you to sneak away before I could talk to you."

"I didn't open the door because I was sleeping.  Do you know what sleeping is?  It is a thing people do when they're tired.  Why the hell weren't you sleeping?  It's ass o'clock in the morning."

"It is?" Peter was surprised, and Tony was surprised by his surprise.  And then he realized that on this ship one of the only ways to keep track of Earth-standard time was with FRIDAY's help.  Tony hadn't exactly been eager to make the A.I available to the other two onboard.  Clearly that would have to change, at least the basic functionality.

"Yeah, kid, it is.  Go get some shuteye, or contemplate the meaning of life, or whatever it is you've been doing to keep busy this week.  Actually.  What have you been doing to keep busy this week?  Aside from stalking me."

"I've been exploring, a bit," Peter said.  Which was worrying on several hundred levels.  "Did you know the ship has a dining area?  And two cargo bays?"

Tony considered this.  "I didn't.  Interesting.  Find anything else in your journey?"

"No?" The cornered look on Peter's face was not at all promising.

"If you blow up this ship, I will ground you for life."

"I thought you wanted to blow it up," Peter muttered petulantly.

"Do not make me send you to bed without supper, young man.  Now get out of here before I make you clean up the mess you made."

"Oh, I could -"

Tony glared at him until the teenager slunk away, temporarily thwarted.  Tony had no doubt he'd be back again, and probably before too much time had passed.  Persistence, thy name is Parker.

"Boss," FRIDAY said.

"Yes, dear?"

"Someone's trying to access the navigation systems from one of the bridge terminals."

Tony snapped to attention.  "Strange?"

"It would appear to be Doctor Strange, yes."

"Does no one sleep on this ship?  What the hell's he doing?  He can't hope to put this ship off course.  One, I've already done that, and unless he's got some way to read Alien, he can't have any better idea of our destination than I do.  Two, if he thinks he's going to out-science me, he has another thing coming.  Give me the console layout, FRI."  An overlay appeared on one of the nearby screens.  Tony watched for a time as alien characters appeared in clusters, separated into very specific sets of patterns.  "What's he up to?"

"I believe he's attempting to backtrack your course corrections to return the ship to its original trajectory."

"Okay, I stand corrected.  That could almost work.  Clever bastard," Tony muttered.  "I suppose he'd rather face Thanos than face exile.  Better the devil we know?"

"Boss?"

"Forget it.  Is he entering all of those manually?"

"Looks that way."

"From memory?  I can't do that from memory.  Why can he do that from memory?  Has he actually figured out the numeric system, or is that just straight memorization?"

"Unknown."

"I suppose he was hailed a genius before he hared off into parts unknown to study eastern philosophy.  But unless he's a closet pilot, I can't see him recognizing the coordinate patterns.  Please tell me he's a closet pilot.  If he's not a closet pilot and it turns out he has a photographic memory on top of everything else, I'm filing a complaint with life."

The numbers paused momentarily halfway through the sequence.

"He trying to initiate the partial course change, FRI?"

"Yes, boss."

"Think he's noticed yet that I locked out the bridge controls and routed navigational command functions through engineering?"

"Based on his use of profanity, I estimate a high probability he has become aware."

"Poor guy," Tony said.  "Foiled at the starting line before the race even began.  Better luck next time, Strange."

For a moment, Tony entertained himself imagining the sorcerer cursing futilely and shaking a fist at the heavens upon discovering Tony's workaround.  Tony watched as more alien characters started to appear on the overlay.

"He's trying again?  Should I rig the console to give him an error buzzer every time he tries to register the course change, or would that be too much?"

"Boss?"

"Analyze, FRI.  Would pranking the wizard now get me killed, you think?  Or just severely maimed?"

"Why would you wish to trick Doctor Strange?"

"Because it's funny," Tony sighed.  "Though, really it isn't.  Good point, FRI.  If there's one thing I can count on you for right now, it's reminding me how un-funny all this is.  But don't worry, I won't hold that against you.  It's not your fault you left your sense of humor behind."

Tony did not add an error buzzer to the navigation console.  There was really no use in kicking a man when he was down, and in this case, discretion was once again the better part of valor.

Chapter Text

Tony didn't make much progress deconstructing the inner mysteries of the ship that day, or the day after.  The wizard kept him remarkably busy in a two-man war of covert piloting.

"FRIDAY," Tony said.  "Does Strange hold a triple doctorate?  A masters degree in aeronautics?  Certification in network engineering?  Computer science?  Anything?"

"Not according to my information, boss."

"Then please explain to me how he's re-writing the navigational course of this ship faster than I can."

"Unknown."

"Yeah, I don't know either, but I'm going to guess the answer rhymes with magic."

Tony had three sets of overlay simulations running, with FRIDAY dissolving one string of coordinates while Tony re-routed through the second and third.  Stephen was fast, unnaturally so, and it wasn't impossible to stay ahead of him, but it was annoyingly difficult.

"Why do I get the feeling he's just getting started?" Tony asked, watching string after string of alien text scrolling over his screen.  "Where is he, FRI?"

"Doctor Strange has re-located to one of the secondary control consoles in the aft section."

"How many redundant command consoles does this ship have?  And how did our master of the occult know about them while apparently we did not?"

"I'm detecting command functionality from eight consoles in addition to bridge terminals."

"Can we shut them all down?"

"Not all.  I only have partial control of power systems.  Doctor Strange is in a section of the ship I have yet to access."

Tony cursed.  "This is getting irritating and suspicious.  FRIDAY, back-hack his current console and isolate it into a virtual environment.  That should keep him busy for a while."

"On it, boss."

Stephen stopped for a breather not long after that, and Tony took the break for the blessing it was and paused for a quick bite to eat.

"FRIDAY, do we have bots in that section of the ship?"

"Yes."

"Get me eyes on," Tony said.  "I want to see how he's doing this."

"I can have visual surveillance ready in an hour."

"That'll have to do."

It wasn't quite forty minutes later that Peter came swinging by, probably looking for his daily dose of answers.  Tony locked off the engineering section before the kid could gain access.

"Sorry, Peter, no time to play twenty questions today," he muttered.  "FRIDAY, keep an eye on that door."

"Sure thing, boss."

With all still quiet on the wizard front, Tony took the opportunity to call up the information FRIDAY had assembled from the engineering sections.  Only about half of it made sense.  They'd made some inroads into interpreting the alien gibberish, mostly by comparing navigational variables they already knew to the associated characters and lettering in the ship's systems, but needless to say it was slow going.   

"How far along are we in translating this mess?" Tony asked.

"Nineteen percent deciphered with questionable accuracy."

"Alright, keep it up.  Do we have control of the ship's sensor net yet?"

"External sensors only, boss."

"Might not need those for a while, but the internal ones could come in handy.  Bump that up the priority list, FRI.  Let's have a look at the engine core in the meantime.  Give me a -"

There was a loud, jarring clang from above.  Tony looked up, blinking.

"The hell was that?"

A second booming clang sounded.

"Mr. Parker is attempting to breach the room's perimeter."

"I can hear that, thanks," Tony said.  "I thought I told you to watch the door."

"I have been, boss.  Mr. Parker is attempting ingress through the ceiling ducts."

Tony exchanged glaring at the ceiling for glaring at the nearest active console.  "Are we sure you left your personality behind?  That sounded almost snarky."

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"Uh huh," Tony said. There was a higher, more ominous sounding clang followed by the unmistakable sounds of scurrying footsteps.  "What is he doing up there?  Dancing?"

"Unknown."

"Oh, forget it.  Open the door, FRI."

The lock disengaged and metal paneling slid aside.  Tony waited for the kid to come slinking in, but instead there followed another series of crashing sounds from above.  Tony rolled his eyes.

"Tell him to use the front door like a civilized arachnid," Tony said.

"Yes, boss."

Moments later Peter was swinging into the room, a rope of webbing stretching out behind him.  He'd put the helmet back on.

"Hey, kid," Tony said.  "Even heard of knocking before attempting a break and enter?"

"That was me knocking," Peter said flatly.  "I've tried knocking on your door before.  You never open it."

"There's a good reason for that."

"What, that you don't want to talk to me?"

"Mostly that I don't want to repeat myself endlessly.  First sign of insanity, right there."

"Maybe if you'd just listen," Peter muttered crossly, almost too low for the suit's speakers to project.

Tony smiled grimly.  "Maybe if you'd just give me a different sales pitch.  Business consulting hours are every other Thursday, eight to five, and I have a general policy barring solicitors, reporters, SHIELD agents, junior superheroes, and evangelists.  Guess you missed the sign."

"You must've left it back on Earth."

"Along with many other things," Tony agreed.  "So what brings you to my humble abode?"

"Doctor Strange needs you."

Tony rolled his eyes.  "Right, like he needs a hole in the head.  Try again, kid."

"No, see, he was trying to turn the ship around -"

"Yeah, I saw that.  You two should really leave piloting this thing to the professionals."

"We tried that, but the professionals aren't interested in getting us home," Peter insisted more heatedly.

"Sounds like the professionals have some legitimate concerns about a return trip.  I can't imagine why."

"That's why we've had to try doing it ourselves."

"Have you been helping Strange break into my systems, Peter?" Tony scolded.  "What is it with you and hacking into my things?"

"The suit wasn't actually me," Peter protested half-heartedly.  "That was my friend."

"I know.  Ned Leeds, right?  Kid has guts, I'll give him that, and he's handy with computer systems.  I already had the S.I recruitment team reach out to him."

Peter startled, blinking. "You did?"

"Any teenager who can remote hack one of my suits, even if it was just to unlock existing functionality, definitely deserves a closer look or three.  He'll have an internship waiting for him after graduation if he wants it."

"He'll want it," Peter said brightly.  "He was so excited when he thought I had one and then he found out I -" And then he stopped, white mechanical eyes turning downward.  "Well, that I was Spider-Man."  His voice had flattened out again.

"Well," Tony said.  "I don't know that working for Stark Industries is comparable to being Spider-Man, but the hiring department'll do their best to spruce up the offer accordingly -"

"Are you really never going to even apologize?" Peter burst out unexpectedly.  The helmet retracted, and Tony could suddenly see that what he'd taken for grim anger was in fact hurt, a deep injury of wounded fear and anguish.

Tony wanted to retort.  He did.  He even had a witty response lined up for just this question; he'd crafted it within five minutes of making the hard call to strand them in space.  Something about the fairness of life if sorry's were dollars and Tony already being a billionaire, but the metaphor got lost somewhere in the middle, and all of it went flying out of Tony's head anyway when Peter looked up at him with beseeching eyes.

"I wasn't going to," Tony said slowly.  "Because nothing I can say will fix this, and I won't undo it, and I don't deserve your forgiveness."

Peter barked a laugh that sounded like it hurt.  "Obviously.  But you could still just say it."

Tony didn't particularly want to, because it felt on the very edge of dishonest, and of all the things he regretted doing, stranding them in space wasn't actually one of them.  But it occurred to Tony he might be letting his pride get in the way.  And probably an apology was the very least he could offer.

"I don't regret doing it, Peter," Tony said gently.  "But I do regret you got caught up in it.  Yeah.  I'm really fucking sorry about that."

"Good," Peter said.  "That's a start."  Then he looked down, fidgeting with the mechanism of his web spinners, lips pressed tightly together.  "Are we really never going home?"

Tony held out a hand, tilting it thoughtfully side to side.  "Never say never.  But probably not for a long time."

"But my English Lit paper is due on Thursday," Peter protested quietly, bizarrely.  "And I have a chemistry test next Tuesday."

Well, Tony had asked for a different sales pitch.  Apparently this was it.  "I'll write you a note.  Complete with the whole saving-the-world clause.  If that doesn't work, I'll just buy your school board."

"It's my birthday in three weeks," Peter said, soft and low, and there it was; that was the thing that had hold of his gut and wasn't letting go.  It was a good one, too.  Now that the kid had said it out loud, it also had a good hold of Tony's gut. 

"May had dinner planned.  Italian."  Peter looked wobbly and far off; he wasn't actually talking to Tony, he was just saying it out loud like he was realizing it for the first time.  "She's not so good at cooking, so she made reservations at the new place downtown.  She doesn't think I know, but I overheard her on the phone."

And now the thing that had hold of Tony had developed teeth and was consuming him slowly from within.  Guilt was the best and worst type of weapon; it was the sort that wounded deeply and never healed on its own.

Fortunately, Tony was used to being wounded, sometimes fatally.  And at heart he'd always been a survivor.

"I know," he said.  "She called me."

"She what?" Peter blurted.  "She did?"

"Yeah.  I think she's slowly warming up to me again.  After, you know, she found out I'd corrupted you into crime fighting.  Which I did not actually do, by the way.  You were fighting crime long before I arrived, I just gave you better equipment for it."  Of course, any progress with May would shortly implode when it became clear Tony had absconded into space and taken Peter with him, however inadvertently.

Peter smiled guiltily.  "I know.  I tried to tell her."

"Guess this means I have to come up with a different birthday gift," Tony mused.  Suddenly that full ride to any school of Peter's choosing didn't seem like such an inspired present.  Distance education had certainly evolved in the last couple decades, but interstellar options were probably still a work in progress.

"You got me a - really?" Peter asked shyly, and he was trying not to be pleased, but it was breaking through anyway, his shocked misery slowly giving way to a more natural exuberance.  "What is - what was it?"

"It'll still be there when we get back," Tony said, hedging.

Peter brightened up unexpectedly, looking suddenly cheered.  "When we get back."

"Well, like I said.  Never say never."

Peter smiled at him, genuinely happy, and Tony had never been so grateful to have a smile aimed at him.  Tony had ruined a lot of lives in his day.  Some deliberately, but most accidentally.  The closest he'd ever come to ruining someone who owned a part of his heart was with Pepper, but Pepper was resilient; she was one of a kind, she was strong.  Peter was just a kid, and the first one Tony'd ever been remotely invested in.  Hurting Peter felt like hurting himself, like he was shaving off pieces of his soul every time he did it.  That smile told Tony that maybe they could find a way through this.

Tony really hoped they could find a way through this, because they could be stuck on this ship together with the wandering wizard for a very, very long time.  And he'd rather not do this alone.

"Good heart-to-heart, kid," Tony said finally, feeling remarkably lighter.  The resilience of youth was something to behold.  "But let's not do this again anytime soon.  I was joking about this being a daytime soap opera.  Days of Our Exile sounds catchy, I know, but I just can't see my publicist going for it."

"I saw this movie once, it totally reminds me -"

"No, Peter," Tony said firmly.  "No more pop-culture references."

"But you use them all the time!"

"Only as witty rejoinders."

"I can use them like that too!"

"I think we need to discuss the difference between absurd and witty."

"Doctor Strange doesn't mind them," Peter muttered rebelliously, then his head shot up in wide-eyed shock.  Tony stared back, equally surprised. 

"Oh!" Peter exclaimed.  "Doctor Strange needs you."

"I feel like we've already had this discussion -"

"No, he really does need you.  He collapsed in front of the viewport on the bridge."

"What?"

"Yeah, one minute he was walking, and then he wasn't.  He told me he'd be fine and just needed to rest, but I think he was lying.  He didn't look so good.  I don't think he'd want me coming to you, but there isn't anyone else."

"Shit," Tony said, and led the way back to the ship's bridge.  When they arrived, it wasn't readily apparent Stephen was actually still in the room.  The alien lighting gave the room an almost verdant glow, and the white and blue expanse of space streaking by them was a silent, eerie backdrop.

"See?" Peter pointed, and Tony followed his gesture to a red bundle of fabric wrapped tight around a huddled form in the corner, presumably their absent wizard.

Tony started to approach and faltered.  If that cloak took its cue from its master, there'd be trouble ahead.  Tony doubted Stephen was at all interested in Tony getting any closer to him than was absolutely necessary.

"Hey, Strange," Tony called loudly.  "I hear you swooned like some kind of romance heroine earlier.  You know I wasn't serious about the damsel in distress thing, right?"

No answer. 

Not good.  Tony crouched down and tried to tap into FRIDAY's sensor net, but he wasn't close enough to see any part of Stephen, and interestingly enough that cloak of his made for good camouflage.  FRIDAY couldn't scan through it.

"Kid, need you to go play Nurse Nightingale."  Tony pointed at a nearby wall.  "Scuttle over there and have a look at Strange and tell me what you see."

Peter snuck over on silent feet, hopping up on a console, then to a nearby rail, then casually scaling up a ninety-degree angle like it was just a stepping stone.  While Tony watched, he inched nearer the wizard until he could look at him upside down.  The cloak untucked itself from around one foot to flutter warningly at him.  Peter hesitated with one hand stretched for the next hold and looked back helplessly at Tony.  Tony shrugged and mimed putting a hand on his chest with exaggerated inhalations.  Peter twitched a toe closer, wavering doubtfully.

"He's breathing," Peter said in a loud whisper.  "I think.  It's hard to tell, actually."  And Tony wasn't worried, exactly.  He'd been thinking about offing Stephen himself, so having the guy up and expire before they could even get to wherever-they-were-going wouldn't exactly break his heart, but it was definitely a waste, and -

"Anything else?"  And okay, maybe he was a tiny bit worried.  It wasn't like Tony was eager to see the guy dead, it was just that might be an unfortunate by-product of saving the universe.  Besides, that pretty green rock around Stephen's chest had a kill-switch on it, and that could mean anything from an anticlimactic fizzle as it disintegrated, to a giant inescapable boom.

Peter hopped further down the wall with nimble, inhuman reflexes, looking for a better angle.  "I don't know.  His cape is rolled up tight around him.  I can't see anything from up here."

"Well, get down there and check if he has a pulse."

Peter stepped off the wall and the cloak tensed into a hunting stillness.  Peter froze accordingly.

"Uh, maybe you should check," he said, unmoving.

"What?  You afraid the wizard's security blanket'll try to smother you if you get too close?" Tony asked, only halfway joking.  The possibility was more than real; they actually had no idea what else that cloak could do.  It could fire laser beams for all Tony knew.  It certainly seemed to have some kind of personality.  How Stephen had gained its loyalty was a total mystery.  Maybe it imprinted on the first thing it came into contact with, like a misguided duckling.

Either way, odds were Tony was going to have to get over there and chance immolation if he wanted to assure himself Stephen hadn't kicked the bucket.  And FRIDAY was going to need some line of sight to get a reading anyway.  Tony sighed and levered up to his feet, feeling old bones creek distressingly at the abuse.  Being near Peter always reminded Tony to keep in mind superhero-ing was a young person's game, and Iron Man didn't exactly fit that bill anymore.   

He approached Stephen neither too slowly nor too fast, hands held steady at his sides.  The cloak raised one corner of itself warily, weaving back and forth like a two-dimensional snake.  Tony flicked his fingers at it and kept walking even when it slithered out a bit further to flap at him angrily.  He was feeling lucky; the thing hadn't actually attacked him so far, which was better than he'd been expecting.

When he was close enough to get a proper look, Tony stopped and crouched down again.  He could feel Peter hovering in the background like the avenging arachnid he was.  At this angle Tony could see Stephen was definitely breathing, but erratically, the shallow rise and fall of his chest muffled under layers of concealing fabric.  Tony frowned and reached for him, not surprised when the cloak slapped his hand away.

"Don't get your brocade in a knot," Tony told it.  "Unless you have first aid certification written on your dry cleaning tag, you better let the humans have a look."

The cloak warily fluttered back, settling securely around the sorcerer again.  This time it didn't interfere when Tony reached to test the man's pulse; he would've sworn Stephen was the sort to wake abruptly at any uninvited touch, but he didn't.  The sorcerer's face was clammy with sweat and his eyes beneath pale lids were flickering rapidly.

Tony exhaled softly.  "FRIDAY, give me a level three scan.  What am I looking at?"

"I read an arrhythmic heart rate, boss," FRIDAY reported.  "His cellular patterns are fluctuating wildly."

"Well, the guy's a wizard.  Maybe that's how he always looks.  Is there any way to tell if this is naturally occurring or not?"

"Unclear, though I'm detecting the presence of foreign matter."

Tony was at a loss.  "What kind of foreign matter?"

"Nonbiological," FRIDAY said, and sent him a reading that was unexpectedly familiar.

"Is that what I think it is?"

"Boss?"

"Oh, that can't be good.  I'm guessing Squidward's friendly little interrogation had something to do with this," Tony mused.  "FRIDAY, play me back the HUD footage of Strange just before we breached the hull."

Tony re-watched as it play out, the alien magician and his aesthetically interesting tools of torture, the hull breach and evacuation of the air, Stephen flying without the aid of his magic cloak, Peter catching him.

"Wind it back, FRI.  Now run it through at half-speed.  Stop.  Give me a close up of one of those transparent spikes, lower left quadrant.  Magnify and enhance."

 When the image resolved after rendering, Tony hummed long and low.  "Those things didn't actually penetrate his skin, they're phasing through his skin.  FRIDAY, what was their material makeup?"

"Unknown, boss.  Not enough data available to extrapolate component properties."

"Damn.  They're clearly embedded past the subcutaneous level, but what are they?  What the hell were they designed for?"

"Microsurgery," Stephen said, and Peter promptly fell off the wall behind him with a crash.  Tony frowned in the kid's direction.

"What kind of microsurgery?" Tony asked.

"Our alien friend wasn't kind enough to explain that before stabbing me in the face with them," Stephen said calmly, so calmly Tony was reminded that this was the first time they'd come face to face since Tony's deception had become common knowledge.  Suddenly, crouching over the man with two fingers pressed to his neck seemed like a very precarious position to be in.

Tony inched back, out of the man's personal bubble.  "Well, one thing we can probably say for sure.  The original intention of those things probably wasn't to be jabbed into someone and then dragged out by the vacuum of space after an explosion."

"You're a master of insight, Stark."  Stephen sat up, panting, the cloak sliding away to allow his limbs some freedom.  He put a hand to his chest with a grimace, pressing as if to still the organ inside it.

Tony settled thoughtfully back on his heels.  "FRIDAY says you're riddled with contaminants.  Looks like our daring rescue might've broke off a few pieces of medical science inside you, doc.  I've only seen interphasic molecular structure on one other person.  And for all Vision let me take a million scans of him, I don't have the technology on hand to replicate it.  Those things went in hard and they won't come out easy."

"My body must be rejecting the material the same way it would any foreign matter left behind," Stephen said musingly.  "If they're left unaltered an infection is sure to follow."

"Well, it's possible.  But that's not the part I'd be worried about."

Stephen frowned, and Peter leaned in close, tension pulling all of them taut.  "What then?"

"Interphasic matter isn't like normal matter," Tony explained.  "You're not dead yet, so we know it's not phasing anything out of alignment that would kill you quickly.  But your cells are in rapid flux."  He paused expectantly.  "I'm guessing that's not normal for you."

Stephen made an impatient noise.  "No more so than for you."

"Assumptions like that are what get people dead, Strange.  For all I know, cellular flux is just another by-product of you making magical fireworks."

"It's not."

"Then taking that at face value, you have a serious problem.  And I'm not a doctor, but if we can't stabilize your cells soon, I'll go out on a limb and guess that's going to mean a hell of a lot of trouble."

"That's an understatement," Stephen said distantly. "Catastrophic cell failure would mean my death.  So you might get your wish after all, Stark.  If I go, that solves your worry about the Time Stone."

"The Time Stone going would be a definite bonus," Tony admitted.  "But I'm okay with you not dying to make that happen.  One is not necessarily a requirement of the other."

"Generous of you."

"We have to assume removing the foreign matter can only help your case.  Odds are it certainly can't hurt.  The problem is I have no idea how to go about doing that."

"I suppose microsurgery does seem more my field than yours."

Tony hummed with interest.  "Physician, heal thyself?"

Stephen ran one hand over his face, pinching the bridge of his nose.  "I don't know if I can.  I've been using magic the last two days to get ahead of you -"

"I knew it!"

"But I had to stop.  My body couldn't process the energy requirements."  He gestured sardonically as if to encompass his whole person.  "As you can see."

"How long ago did you notice it?  Just today?"

"Since the beginning," Stephen said.

"See, that's what I get for making assumptions," Tony said knowingly.  "I labelled that a run of the mill psychological crisis, not biological.  Has it worsened over the week or stayed the same?"

"Worsened."

"Is this the first time you've collapsed?" Tony asked shrewdly.

Stephen curled his lip in a grim smile and didn't answer.

"Does knowing what's causing the difficulty make a difference?  Can you magic this away?"

Stephen blew out a breath thoughtfully.  "It's possible.  I could try and channel energy directly into my nervous system.  See if I can burn the contamination out."

"Sure, that sounds simple, like a walk in the park," Tony said.  "I'm sure anyone could do it.  Well, there's no time like the present, Strange.  Go ahead.  FRIDAY'll keep an eye on your vitals." 

The sorcerer looked down at his hands, flexing them in the dim light so the scars stood out.

"Magic is meant to be used for something greater than ourselves," Stephen said softly, clearly lost in a far away memory.  For the first time Tony felt like they were maybe speaking the same language, talking along the same wavelength instead of working from two opposing positions.

"Power's always meant to be used for something greater than ourselves," Tony said, and Stephen looked back at him with cool, assessing eyes.  "But in this case if you don't use it selfishly, pretty soon you won't be using it at all."

Stephen sat back, shutting his thoughts away as he let out a long breath in something not quite a sigh.

"Try not to move," Stephen advised, and raised shaking fingers to draw orange light down the length of his body, building fantastic geometric patterns in moments to warp and spread around him.  Tony had to sit on the almost overwhelming impulse to touch, interrupt that spread of light and examine it beneath the microscope of his intellect.  Seeing Stephen perform this trick back on Earth had been fleeting, a minor footnote when other things like the end of the world had Tony's full attention.  Now that urgent distraction was missing, and Tony wanted to reach out and play this new energy between his fingers like the strings of an instrument until he learned how to make it sing.

"Don't," Stephen murmured, eyes still closed.

"Wasn't going to," Tony said.

"Not you." And Tony turned slightly to see Peter guiltily snatching his hand away and rocking back on his feet.

"Sorry," Peter whispered, shamefaced, and Tony stifled the urge to laugh.

"Boss," FRIDAY said urgently, just as Stephen made an odd choking noise and slumped heavily into the wall behind him.

"Shit."  Tony reached out with both hands only to find himself blocked by a well-meaning cloak.  "Out of the way, friend," he told it.  "If you try to hamstring me again, I'll clip your collar.  Understand?" 

It ignored him, tightening around Stephen defensively even as the man started to struggle against it.  The sorcerer started to cough violently.  Tony reached again, and again the cloak knocked him away.  Tony sat back on his heels, ignoring the rising urgency of Stephen's wheezing exhalations.

"If he dies because of you," Tony said calmly.  "You'll have only yourself to blame."

The cloak froze, and if Tony hadn't been aware of its sentience before that moment, he was certainly convinced afterward.  Anything that lacked a face but could still manage to look horrified clearly had enough consciousness to be counted as alive and aware.

This time it didn't try to stop Tony as he freed Stephen from the unintentional restraint and pulled him forward.

"Head down," Tony said serenely, arranging the man on his back, face-up, carefully supporting his shoulders and neck.  "Feet up.  Peter, help him out."

Peter did, and Tony could see the kid was practically shaking, all his normal confidence wiped away by a danger none of them could fight off.  This wasn't like taking down bad guys; this was someone's body betraying them in a time of need.  It was hard to beat that into submission with their fists.  But it was something Tony had some unwilling experience with.

Tony took pity on the poor cloak hovering uncertainly at his shoulder, reminding Tony of nothing so much as a kicked puppy.

"Cover him," Tony told it.  "Keep him warm, but don't smother him."  It glided silently to do as bid, settling tentatively atop Stephen to lie flat rather than tucked around him.

"Breathe," Tony reminded Stephen, when it seemed like he might be forgetting.

"Shut up," Stephen hissed, then heaved with three more full body coughs.  "Not in shock.  Heart's beating too fast.  Vagal manoeuvres."

Tony blinked.  "How we do control it?  They use drugs for that, don't they?  I don't suppose you brought a pharmacy with you.  I left mine in my other jacket."

"What kind of - billionaire are you?" Stephen gasped, sweat sliding into the crow's feet at the corner of his eyes, dampening the edge of his hair.  "Stranded with no resources.  Headlines of your genius - clearly exaggerated."

"News stories are always exaggerated," Tony said.  "That's why it's called news and not facts.  Got to sell articles somehow.  You'd know something about that.  You made a few."

"Not half so - many."

"You're too humble.  I had FRIDAY download the coverage of your accident.  I'm sure I saw the words 'miracle survivor' stamped over more than one press release."

"Miraculous according - to whom?" Stephen tried to sneer, but the chalk white of his face made it less than intimidating.

"Statistics," Tony said.  "Also, your emergency room physician.  I saw the pictures of your car.  Well, the thing you owned that used to be known as a car.  Good choice on the Huracán, by the way, very flashy.  I prefer the Audi line, myself."

"Prosaic."

"Hey, don't knock it until you've luxuriated in it.  How's the heart?"

"Still tachy.  Hopefully slow on - its own.  Otherwise with electrical shock."

"You want me to shock your heart?  That sounds like a fantastically bad idea."

"If necessary."

Tony laughed grimly.  "Let's hope it's not.  I can produce a shock, sure, but I can't control the voltage the way they would in hospital.  Odds are I'd make things worse rather than better."

"Risk worth taking."

"Listen," Tony said brightly.  "You know, I think you and I got off on the wrong foot.  I don't actually want to kill you.  If I did, I would've done it by now."

"Like to see you try," Stephen gasped.  He dragged in enough air to cough a few more times and then abruptly went limp.  "Finally."  They all sat in a frozen tableau for a time, each of them waiting tentatively for something to send the whole thing spinning on its axel back into crisis, but Stephen didn't start convulsing or dying.  After a while he even started to breathe normally again.

Tony gave it another minute before he interrupted the peace.  "I take it that did not work as intended?"

"What gave it away?" Stephen asked, glaring up at the ceiling sourly.  "The fact I couldn't breathe?  Or that I nearly went into cardiac arrest?"

"Both," Tony and Peter said simultaneously.  Stephen rolled his eyes expressively.

"So you can't fix it either?" Tony asked while Peter scuttled gratefully away, looking thoroughly spooked.

Stephen shook his head distractedly.  "No.  The contaminants are insoluble.  My cells are whole, but they're not transmitting the right signals to each other at the right times.  For once, it's not my body that's the problem."

"How long until this does permanent damage?"

"It likely already has," Stephen said.  "It won't kill me quickly, but it won't be long before the short-term side effects start edging into long-term side effects."

Peter made an urgent, tentative sound.  "Mr. Stark, maybe we should turn around.  If we could get him home -"

"Then he'd probably just die on the operating table there while they try to dig out foreign contaminants they can't actually see," Tony said calmly.  Stephen, tellingly, said nothing.  "The only reason I know they're there is I know how to look for phased matter, and if we head back to Earth I can guarantee you I'll be occupied with too many other things to help him."

"Plenty of free time now," Stephen said darkly.  "Any ideas?"

"I'll think of something."

"Before or after I'm dead?" Stephen tried to lever himself up into a sitting position and failed.  Tony wedged his hands underneath the man and they got him halfway reclined before he slumped and Tony had to subtly prop him up.

"Hopefully before.  But no promises."

"I'll be filing a complaint with your Board," Stephen muttered.

"You do that.  Pepper'll tell you to -" But Tony couldn't finish that sentence.  "I'll have FRIDAY log your feedback," he said finally.  "Though you should know S.I still has a lot of work to do when it comes to intragalactic communication.  You might be waiting a few centuries for a response."

"If you turned us around, she could probably give it to me in person," Stephen said, moving to sit backwards against the wall again.  "But don't worry, I'm sure she'll still be there after we get back from our tour of the universe.  No guarantees on the wedding bells, though."  Even ground out with exhausted vindictiveness, Tony felt those words hit their mark. 

"Thankfully, not a sentiment I had to worry about when kidnapping you," Tony returned shortly, deliberately cruel.  "As far as I could see, not many people to miss the great Doctor Stephen Strange.  Except maybe Wong, and I'm going to assume he'll put on his big boy panties and somehow find a way to trudge on without you."

Stephen was silent long enough Tony managed to get stiffly to his feet, the resentment somewhere between righteous and shameful.  Stephen had a right to be angry; Tony had only abducted him, after all.

"Stark." Tony looked over to see Stephen staring up at him, blank and remote.  "It's not too late to turn this ship around.   You could still marry her."

"That door closed, doc, the second I put this suit back on and took off after you."  The only thing Pepper'd asked of him when he gave her the ring was honesty and stability and no more superhero drama.  Tony was fairly certain this had thoroughly proven those were among the few things he simply couldn't give her.

Stephen closed his eyes.  "You don't know that.  You could try.  We could still go home."

"This is home now, doc.  From now until you decide to torpedo that stone.  Might as well get used to it."

"Even if I were willing, it isn't that simple.  You don't know what destroying the stone would take."

"Odds are, neither do you, since in the history of the entire universe apparently no one's ever done it before," Tony said.  "And it's less that I don't know, Strange, and more that I don't care."

"I care," a tentative voice said from somewhere to the side and they both looked to see Peter, hanging from the ceiling on an improbable string of webbing.  The three of them hesitated in a triangle of wary regret, three reluctant combatants stymied in a ceasefire.

"I mean," Peter said finally, quietly.  "Just.  If anyone was wondering."

Stephen sighed resignedly, tipping his head back to address his words to the ceiling.  "You could always just let me die."

"Don't tempt me," Tony said darkly, and stalked out to start some research.

Chapter Text

Tony spent a busy few hours designing a trace through the ship's databanks, looking for any signs of an infirmary or medical bay.  It stood to reason a ship with living quarters might have one, and any medical equipment to examine, if not use, could be of value.  While the search program integrated, Tony returned to take more readings from Stephen, and also to set Peter up with babysitting duties. 

"Remember to take him for frequent walks," Tony instructed.  "And water him occasionally.  I can find a crate for you to lock him in if he gets rowdy.  But keep in mind you can always just throw him outside if he really starts misbehaving."

"Isn't that more for dogs?" Peter looked like he couldn't decide if it was permitted to laugh or not.

"Dogs, kids; aren't they basically the same thing?  In both cases you have to clean up after them and most of their care consists of patting them on the head and bribing them into doing tricks."

Peter grinned in a way that made it clear Tony was missing a few essential care planning tips.

"Maybe best not to use the crate,” Tony admitted.

"I've always wanted a dog," Peter said.

"Then it's win-win.  But be careful with this one, I get the sense he's only partially housebroken.  Don't be surprised if he starts chewing on the furniture.  If he does, just smack him on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.”

"We don't have any newspaper."

"If you're willing to smack him with it," Tony said seriously, "I will find a way to make some."

Stephen was staring at them narrowly, propped comfortably against a wall and too far away to hear, but rightly suspicious they were conspiring about him.

"Come get me if you need help holding him down at feeding time," Tony finished.  "So I can point and laugh."

Peter cleared his throat tentatively.  "Speaking of feeding time.  Um.  Have you found anything else to eat.  I mean, something not -"

"No complaints, Parker.  I slave away all day and night to put food on the table, and if you can't appreciate artificially flavored gelatin designed to meet all your nutrition needs, you can go to bed hungry."

Tony took pity on the kid when his whole face fell into silent despair.  He handed him a sealed bag.

"Some kind of dried nut or legume," Tony said.  Peter opened up the bag eagerly, peering inside.  "Found a box of them in one of the storage rooms.  They're safe enough; taste a bit like cashews.  Don't give them all to Strange.  Make sure he eats his jello like a good boy."

"Thanks!" Peter said, shoving a handful in his mouth.

"Might be a while, Peter.  Don't hesitate to let FRIDAY know if you need me, and don't let the doc fool you.  He's not doing so hot."

"Yeah, I sort of figured that out when he started collapsing everywhere."

"Always knew you were a smart kid.  Do your homework if you start going stir crazy.  That chemistry test was coming up fast.  You ready?"

"It's not like I actually have to take it now."

Tony snorted, grinning.  "That's what you think.  I'll let you pass on the English paper, but chemistry I know a thing or two about.  Hop to it, kid.  I'll be generous and give you to the end of the week."

"How do you even know what we were studying?" Peter asked skeptically.

"I had FRIDAY download your school schedule and curriculum when May called," he told him, luxuriating in Peter's speechless horror.  Tony didn't have to heart to tell the kid he'd needed a peek when he'd been looking at Peter's most likely candidates for post-secondary education.  "Also your grades.  Not bad, kid.  A little light on the extracurricular's, and you could stand to do better on your geography and economics, but I'll let it pass considering your part-time job.  Your science marks were impressive, which is what really counts."  Tony leaned in conspiratorially.  "Also, I don't know if you know this, but I happen to be a genius, and genius-ing takes a lot of science.  Once I finish fixing up Strange we can set up a study block.  We might be lost in space, but that doesn't mean your education has to suffer."

"Oh, well, I guess," Peter said glumly.

"Just making sure you have something to look forward to.  Try and keep Strange at least mostly alive while I'm gone.  And don't let him scare you; the guy's a big softie at heart."

Unfortunately, fixing Stephen wasn't going to be as easy as Tony made it out to be.  Repairing advanced alien technology without an instruction manual would've been bad enough, but this was tech buried inside a person, and it was in about a dozen fragmented pieces.  Without any outside guidance they were basically on their own.  Which wasn't awful in and of itself; Tony was an inventor before all else, and given enough time he could MacGyver his way out of most anything.  But he strongly suspected they didn't have weeks or even days before Stephen would be in serious trouble.

"FRI, any luck on that trace?"

"No signs of an infirmary anywhere in the ship's schematics, boss."

Which was unfortunate, and probably meant their alien host kept microsurgical tools on hand not for the application of medicine, but on the off chance he might need them to one day torture priceless artifacts out of unsuspecting wizards.  Sadist.

"There's one brief entry in the ship's inventory that may be of interest," FRIDAY continued.  "But without access to the core, most of the historical information remains inaccessible."

"Show me."

The image that came up was vaguely reminiscent of the tools Stephen'd had the unfortunate luck to be stabbed with.  Promising.  The attached caption was less so.

"I should've majored in linguistics," Tony said, squinting.  If he looked at the alien language sideways, some of the lettering almost appeared pictographic.  "Forget mechanical and electrical engineering.  Who needs them?"

"Boss?"

"I withdraw my inappropriately timed humor, don't worry your pretty head about it."

"I don't have -"

"Don't worry about that either."

Tony stared for a while, considering the elegant simplicity of the design.  He tapped his fingers against his chest, brushing against the housing unit contemplatively.

"FRIDAY, is the foreign material in Strange solidly phased?"

"Partially."

"Can we interact with it?  Run a simulation using Vision as a template.  Would it be possible to fix the contaminates to a solid state and then remove them ourselves using the nanotech?"

Machines were Tony's instrument, the medium he used to make art, and by that he mostly meant awesome science.  They were also the most advanced technology he had full control over that was readily available.  It wasn't even that great a leap to think of adapting them for medical use; S.I had been working on nano-medical technologies for years now.  The problem was, these bots hadn't been programmed with medicine in mind.  Chances of making a mistake were high, and incredibly dangerous.

"It might be possible to stabilize the phased material, boss, but I'd recommend against fixing it to a solid state."

Tony frowned.  "Is it lodged somewhere critical?"  That could be a disaster on a dozen different levels.

In answer, FRIDAY brought up a projection of Stephen's scans, the outline of a skeletal body overlaid by transparent musculature, veins and tendons, various organs in their customary spots.  The image pulsed with an ominous red light at danger zones and areas of contamination.

There was rather a lot of red.

"Shit," Tony said, staring.  "That's too diffuse.  If those were fixed deposits they should've been confined to target areas.  They're not.  They're spreading."

"Yes.  There's a measurable increased dispersion of almost one percent as compared with my first scan eight hours ago."

"If they're dispersing, they're no longer discrete units.  How the hell are we supposed to remove broken interphased material that's still fragmenting?  Has it invaded any organs yet, FRI?"

"Not yet."  The visual narrowed, the red color fading into a dozen different pinpoint areas, mostly in the extremities, one or two in the torso or facial areas.

"Those entry sites are mostly benign." Tony glowered at the projection grimly.  "Strange got lucky.  Looks like our undersea visitor was more interested in causing pain than causing damage.  At the current rate of expansion how long until the interphased material reaches a vital area?"

"I'm already detecting trace amounts in close proximity."

"Either this shit moves fast, or something Strange was doing accelerated the process." Tony scrubbed a hand over his face with a scowl.  "It's basically Swiss cheese in there."

"I detect no -"

"We might as well say Strange got shot a dozen times and every one of the bullets shattered inside him."

"Bullet fragments would be easier to remove, boss," FRIDAY corrected.  "Metallic components could be isolated and surgically eliminated."

Tony blinked, the beginnings of a very interesting idea coming to mind.

"FRI, what are the odds of Strange surviving if we try removing the foreign material ourselves?"

"Without access to a medical facility, the procedure would be almost certainly fatal."

Which was only what Tony had been expecting.  "If we can't remove it, can we contain it?"

FRIDAY paused as if to consider this question from all angles.  "Clarify the parameters."

"Could we suspend the spread by stabilizing the phased matter into an inert state?  Using Vision's molecular structure as a basis for comparison."

"Containment would be possible.  However, extraction of the phased material would still be required to preserve life."

"In the long term.  In the short term, inert phased material in a stable, dormant state shouldn't pose any immediate threat."

"Doctor Strange would be required to remain in a confined area with access to emitters until such time as the material could be removed."

"I have a better idea," Tony said.

When Tony walked onto the bridge two days later, it was to find Stephen and Peter involved in what was quickly obvious was a game of checkers.  Tony entertained himself for a quick second imagining Peter badgering the wizard into playing.  Apparently, Tony wasn't the only one Peter liked to practice persistence with. 

"I'm back, folks," he announced loudly, for the pleasure of watching them both jump.  "And I come bearing gifts.  Have you two been playing nice while I was away?"

"Mr. Stark!" Peter said, hopping nimbly to his feet.  Stephen made no move to rise, but Tony didn't take it personally.  The pallor of the man's face told a rather uncomfortable story.

Peter stepped forward eagerly. "Did you figure it out?"

"Yes and no.  I have good news and bad news.  Which do you want first?"

"The good," Peter said, at the same time Stephen said: "The bad."

"There's a joke somewhere in there about optimism versus pessimism.  Strange, I have a possible solution for you, but the odds are good you're not going to like it."

"That seems to be my reaction to most of your solutions," Stephen said.  Tony grinned reluctantly.

"Touché.  I'd say you'll thank me for all this later, but you probably won't."  Tony sat down across from him, gesturing Peter into a nearby crouch. 

"What did you find out?" Peter asked.  "Can you fix it?"

"The short answer is no," Tony admitted, watching both of them tense.  "The fragments have broken up into thousands of pieces inside you, too small and complex to easily remove, and they're still spreading."

Stephen looked away, troubled.  "How long?"

"If left unattended, and provided you do nothing to hasten the process, they'll cause irreparable harm in a little under a week."

"If your solution is 'do nothing', then I can confirm I definitely don't care for it," Stephen said.

"O ye of little faith.  There's a way to put that timeline on indefinite pause, and I don't mean with your shiny green rock.  In an inert state, phased matter shouldn't interact with physical matter in a perceptible way.  It would also stabilize the cellular flux.  I have enough information on hand to induce an inert state on a permanent basis, if needed, but it requires a small, constant power draw."

"I thought you didn't have the technology on hand to replicate this?"

"I can't recreate it," Tony said.  "So I have no way of removing what's already inside you, not without cutting you open stem to stern."

"I vote we don't take that option," Peter said quickly, anxiously.

Tony made a noise of agreement.  "Not my first choice.  FRIDAY estimates a nearly one-hundred percent chance of fatality if we did try to remove it."

"How far has it spread?" Stephen asked, not exactly doubtfully.  Tony shrugged, understanding from a scientific perspective the need to be assured of all the facts.

"Too far.  But don't take my word for it.  I hear you used to be some kind of surgeon, Strange.  Care to consult on a case?"

Stephen smirked faintly.  "I don't think I can afford my consultation fees.  I charge by the hour, and I spent my last dollar in Nepal."

"I'll spot you this one," Tony said.  "I have modestly deep pockets, and I'm guessing you're the 'see it to believe it' type."

"Sometimes not even then," Strange said, with genuine amusement.  "Some things I've seen defy all belief."

Well, Tony certainly understood a thing or two about that.  "Can't say I blame you.  You'll probably need these, then."  Tony took off his glasses and turned them in his hands.  He offered them solemnly to Stephen, who looked at them with one raised eyebrow.

"Put them on."

The sorcerer accepted them with the air of a man who'd been handed a bomb.  Tony noted that even that small movement made some of his debility clear; his hands weren't just trembling, they were visibly shaking.  The nerve damage must be immense, enough so that he was probably lucky to still have all his fingers.  Likely made precision activities like knitting and basket weaving difficult.  And surgery.

Stephen slipped on the glasses, looking surprisingly good in the large square frames, and then his eyes went wide with surprise.

"Neat, huh?" Tony asked cheerfully.

"What -"

"FRIDAY consolidates ambient data from my nanotech and other accessible systems, sorts and compiles it, and streams it to me through the lenses."

"Implying you have electronic spies everywhere around you," Stephen said absently, still clearly analysing the data projection.  There was a lot of it.

"Yep.  Millions in this housing unit alone.  They're designed to shut down if they get far enough away from FRIDAY or one of her backups.  Sadly we're still working on breaking down the machine code this ship uses for higher functionality, or I'd have more information sources to pull from."

"Impressive," Stephen said reluctantly, adjusting the lenses on his face.  "But why show it to me?"

"Because," Tony said, skimming them off the sorcerers face with deft fingers, noting the warmth of Stephen's skin as he did so.  Higher than average; feverish.  "I wanted to give you an example of the level of data FRIDAY'll be running to give you this."  At 'this', Tony dramatically waved a hand at the air in front of them and a wavering hologram in blue appeared, a digital representation of the three of them sitting on an unseen surface.  The ghostly images of their bodies were featureless but moving in real time to their reactions; one of the ghosts, for example, shot up when Peter did, first backing away and then moving closer in fascination.

"Whoa," Peter said.  "That is so cool."  He reached out to touch, much as he had with Stephen's magic show the other day, and then almost fell over when the hologram expanded at his point of contact.  He backed away urgently.  "What happened?  Did I break it?"

"Nothing happened.  It's designed to do that.  It's interactive."  Tony pressed his two index fingers together, compressing the image back to its original shape, then dragged it closer with a beckoning gesture and spun it so Stephen's holographic representation was near enough to tap.  The image of three ghostly figures became one figure, at two times the previous size. 

Stephen had moved past looking impressed, Tony noted smugly, and was now openly eyeing the projection with the genuine hunger and insatiable curiosity of a fellow scientist.

"How interactive is it?"  Stephen asked.  He started to stand, stumbled halfway up, and righted himself.  His cloak fluttered around him soothingly, but it didn't have the stranglehold on him Tony had witnessed the last time.  Apparently the thing had learned its lesson.

"Very.  FRIDAY can give you the rundown as you go along.  Try it," Tony encouraged, unfolding himself to sit with one leg tucked underneath him, one knee up to prop his hands on.  This could take a while.

It did.  Stephen was a thorough bastard, Tony had to give him that.

"Mr. Stark," Peter whispered urgently while they both watched Stephen tinker with the program.

"Yeah, kid?"

Peter looked almost wistful.  "Could I maybe use the hologram sometime?"

"What for?"

"Well, for," Peter stumbled.  "Because it's awesome?"

Tony basked in this well-deserved praise for a time.  "That the only reason?"

"It could be good for studying?"

"The holo-projection is powered by the nanotech," Tony said.  "You'd have to use it in close proximity to where the bots are clustered."

"Oh, so that's here?  And?"

"Here and engineering."  And in the quarters Tony'd claimed for his use.  And various sections of the ship Tony wanted a set of eyes and ears stationed in, just in case.

"Oh," Peter said dubiously.  He looked around like he was maybe scoping out how best to set up shop in this room and never leave it.  It occurred to Tony to wonder where Peter and Stephen had been sleeping all this time.

"You did stake out a guest room in our lovely flying hotel, didn't you?  Please tell me you've been availing yourself of the opportunity for proper hygiene.  Do I have to tell you to wash behind your ears?"

"No!" Peter said, and they both looked over at Stephen, but the doctor was far too occupied to be disturbed by their conversation.  "No, I have a room.  But you told me to look after the wizard, and he's mostly been staying here.  So we've been playing a lot of checkers."

"What, for two days?"

"Longer," Peter said morosely.  "Like a week."

"How has your brain not rotted?  You could have at least been playing chess, or poker, or something marginally challenging.  Lawn bowling would've done in a pinch."

"We tried to make a chess set, but the pieces were harder to reproduce.  And I forgot my deck of cards in our solar system."

"Finally, something I can help you with," Tony said, and snapped another hologram into being.  "FRIDAY, give me a standard fifty-two card deck, randomized generation."  The image shrank into a small rectangle, and Tony swiped his fingers over the top five times, demonstrating a hand of five cards to Peter.  "Please tell me you know how to play five card draw or hold 'em."

"A little?" Peter said, swiping with fascination at the holographic deck until he had more than a dozen cards in his hands.  He caught Tony looking at him and flushed, putting them down like a guilty third grader.

"What do you mean, a little?  What's a little?  You know poker or you don't."

Peter rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.  "I mostly played chess at school.  Poker's the game where you want all the same kind of cards to win, right?"

"Dear God, why," Tony said.  "Okay kid, time for a crash course in awesome.  Poker is a game of strategy and bullshit.  Which is why it was always hilarious to play with Cap, because he excels at both, but he has absolutely no poker face to speak of.  Word of advice: never attempt cards with Widow or Hawkeye.  Not if you want to live."

Peter looked startled.  "You played poker with Captain America?"

Tony eyed him speculatively.  "Sort of.  I could never get the guy to bet, must've been a holdover of that wholesome Depression-era upbringing.  But he had a weakness for M&M's I was happy to take advantage of."

"But I thought you were," Peter started, and trailed off.  "Well."

Tony pretended to examine the cards in his hand before tossing them over his shoulder unceremoniously.  "FRIDAY, reshuffle the deck and reset."  The ones in front of Peter vanished as well.  Tony dealt out two new cards each and started to flip up three.  "Kid, just because Cap and I aren't on speaking terms now doesn't mean it was always like that.  We worked together a while before it fell apart in the end.  Not surprised.  Rogers always did walk to the beat of his own drum."

"A bit like you?" Peter said boldly.  "No wonder you guys fought."

"Don't get smart with me, kid," Tony said cheerfully.  "I am the king of getting smart with people.  I've perfected it into a science."

"Right."

"You want to learn poker or not?"

Peter coughed insincerely.  "Sorry, sorry."

"Please tell me you at least understand how the hands work?"

"Yes?"  The question mark was very obvious.  Tony rolled his eyes. 

"Okay, we have our work cut out for us.  FRIDAY, bring up a chart of poker hand rankings.  Peter, I'm going to guess you have about as much talent at bluffing as Vision does at telling jokes, so we'll take that off the table for now.  Let's start from the bottom up.  Aces are the highest card in poker, with twos being the lowest.  If all you have is a high card, you're mostly shit out of luck in this game, kid.  After high card, a pair is the weakest hand you can have - "

Tony knew he wasn't always the most patient of teachers, but Peter was a good kid, and a great student.  The few times he ended up distracted it was due to some rather impressive holographic tricks, which Tony could hardly hold against him.

Enough time passed for them to run through some practice hands which Tony won handily, and one round in earnest which he lost spectacularly to Peter's innocently displayed straight flush.

"Did I get it right?" Peter asked.  Tony eyed him suspiciously.  Maybe the kid was a closet card shark; weirder things had happened.  If he wanted to, Peter could probably excel at cards, actually; with that honest face of his, no one would suspect him.

"Sort of," Tony said.  "The chances of you having that hand were pretty infinitesimal."

"That's good, right?"

"That's suspicious, is what it is.  Did you have the nine hidden up your sleeve?  FRIDAY, did he have the nine hidden up his sleeve?"

"Boss, it's impossible to -"

"Don't be getting any ideas, Parker," Tony said sternly.  "I have my eye on you."

"So this means I win, right?"  And the gleam in the kid's eye could have been cunning or sincerity.  It was disturbingly hard to tell.

"We'll call that one beginner's luck," Tony muttered.  "Why do I feel like I'm about to be fleeced?  Alright, go again FRIDAY, reset.  Best two out of three."

"Deal me in?" Stephen asked, and they both glanced up to squint at the sorcerer.  Stephen looked exhausted and grim, but he also had the satisfied air of a man having met and conquered an interesting new piece of technology.  Tony could tell; it was a look he himself wore often.

"Finished already?"

Stephen nodded.  "For now.  The holo-interface is remarkably accurate."

"The margin for error in the imaging should be less than point-zero-two percent," Tony agreed.  "So what d'you think, doc?  Should we book an operating theater, stat?"

Stephen shook his head in frustration.  "If we actually had an operating theater, and if we ignored the fact that my hands shake holding a pencil, let alone a scalpel, it could possibly be done.  But we're literally light years away from anyone I'd trust to act in my stead.  So I concur.  It's impossible."

"If it were less complex, the nanotech could've handled the load.  The bots have the ability to perform basic bio-repairs.  In the hands of a skilled surgeon they can literally act as someone's hands, eyes, and ears."

"You have nanotechnology available for surgical intervention?" Stephen asked, frowning. 

"Technically, I don't.  S.I is still working on prototyping, but I had a hand in the original research and development.  Unfortunately, these bots are only encoded with basic medical algorithms.  But even if they were fully prepped, we'd still need access to the proper facilities, and by that I mean a hospital."

"I haven't heard anything about Stark Industries releasing medical nanotechnology."  Stephen slowly lowered himself to the floor again, legs crossed lotus style, and for once the look on his face was contemplative rather than challenging.  "And something like this definitely would've made the news circuit.  It hasn't been mentioned in any recent publications, either."

"I'm surprised you get medical journals in your mystical home away from home.  But in any case, it's not publically available yet," Tony admitted.  "It's still in the developmental stages."

"You're not talking about nanotech drug delivery, are you?  You're talking about microsurgical repair of high risk sites."  The scientist in Stephen was peeking through again, luminous curiosity wrapped around a scholars heart.  "How long has Stark Industries been working on this?"

"Two years, give or take."

"Have you made any progress repairing nerve damage?" Stephen asked intently. 

Tony hesitated, because he'd seen the man's hands, and giving false hope had never been his thing.  Tony was too much a realist for that.  "Some.  Not enough.  Cellular regeneration is tricky and long-term results haven't been that promising yet.  Medicine was never my Forté though.  I have Helen Cho on staff; she'd be a better one to talk to, or if Bruce is back to stay he'll probably be all over that."  Assuming they survived to do more research, and that Earth was still in one piece.

"That's incredible," Stephen said, looking like the words had been pulled involuntarily from him.

"I know," Tony said.  "Point is, nanotech or no nanotech, the spread of contaminants is too extensive to try removing them while on this ship.  But we can't allow it to go on, either.  That leaves containment."

"I take it you have a plan?"

Tony whistled obnoxiously.  "I thought you'd never ask.  FRIDAY, show him."

The holographic card game vanished, replaced instead with the image of an object, circular in shape, a triangle of brilliant light shining at its core.

"Wow," Peter said, his nose practically glued to the projection.  "What is it?"

"An arc reactor, and mostly I used it for illustrative purposes."  Tony condensed the image until it had shrunk to almost the size of a quarter, until it was shining like a star between his two fingers. "It wouldn't actually be a whole reactor.  Just a miniaturized version of an already miniaturized version.  We're not powering an electromagnet this time, just a low yield emitter to keep the phased matter inert.  Small bananas in comparison."

"And what do you intend to do with that?" Stephen asked, but the look on his face said he already knew.

"Well, place it inside you, of course," Tony said cheerfully.  "What else?  Do you think I design these things for fun?  Don't answer that.  By the way, I particularly recommend putting the device in the chest cavity.  Speaking from experience, that worked out beautifully for me."

Chapter Text

On the day of Stephen's psuedo-surgery, Tony woke two hours earlier than he'd intended.  Partly because he was a poor sleeper and he always woke at odd hours.  But mostly because he couldn't breathe.

"Boss," FRIDAY said calmly, placidly, when Tony opened his eyes.  Her melodic voice cut eerily through the darkness.  "Your heart rate is dangerously high.  Are you well?"

"God," Tony choked, and twisted out of the bed, falling to his knees.  The panic was as real as the floor that rose up to greet him, more so because the floor was just a blip of pain, but the anxiety closing his throat was excruciating.  The dream lingered like smoke in the air.  He could still see the familiar shape of Yinsen, hands curled in unnatural claws to hold ropes of shining wires like puppet strings snaking inside his chest.  Tony was no longer holding the car battery, but the ghost of it was like an anvil, pressing all the air from his lungs.  Fear clawed at him to leave terrible, rending wounds behind.  "FRIDAY, lights.  Get the lights."

The darkness lifted, enough so Tony could make out the details in the floor pressed so near him.  Enough so he could be reminded of the confined space of the ship they were trapped on. 

"FRIDAY.  FRI.  Say something."

"What, boss?"

Tremors shook through him like electric shocks.  "Something.  Anything."  He turned, pressing his cheek to the cool metal floor, the ship seeming to heave with the frantic beat of his heart.  "Just talk."

"I believe you are on the verge of an anxiety attack.  I recommend you take deep, even breaths."

Tony gasped out a laugh.

"If you would like me to assist you in a meditative breathing exercise, I have access to twenty-six highly recommended guided imagery sessions."

"Yes, fine, that," Tony said, cold sweat prickling all over.  "That, go."

"Begin by finding a comfortable position to remain in," FRIDAY instructed, intoning in an artificially even voice that was simultaneously soothing and grating as hell.  "You may close your eyes or keep them open, but you must focus on one spot in the room.  Focus on your breath -"

Tony lost track of FRIDAY somewhere in the middle of her recitation, but that was fine; it wasn't about the content of her words, it was the rhythm of speech itself.  It reminded Tony he wasn't alone.  He was no longer a prisoner in a dark cave, alive only at the whims of his tormenters.  He'd won; he'd escaped them, long ago.

"- this will serve to calm your mind and relax your body -"

His heart pounded, but it didn't set the port in his chest to throbbing; that no longer existed.  The cold was just cold.  It wasn't the icy burn of water soaking into his face and shirt.  He could take deep breaths; his air wasn't rationed.  There was no pain.

It took Tony a long time to come out of it, to steady himself to a space where FRIDAY's voice began to filter in as more than just a consistent drone of noise fluttering past his ears.

"- the floor beneath you.  Wiggle your fingers and toes.  Focus on the temperature, the texture of it.  Flex your ankles.  Feel the -"

"Thanks, FRI," Tony interrupted, muttering.  "That's good."

"Are you recovered?" FRIDAY asked.  If Tony hadn't known better he would've said she was worried about him.

"No.  Nope," Tony said into the ground.  "Definitely not.  About as close as I'm likely to get, though.  I'm okay.  I'm great."  He sighed.  "So many words to describe great things.  Awesome.  Excellent.  Incredible.  Breathtaking.  Incredibly breathtaking.  You know, breathing is actually much harder than people make it look.  They should give Olympic medals for it."  He laughed, shortly.  "I would lose."

"Boss?"

"This is so stupid," Tony said, pressing both hands to his face.  "I fucking hate this.  But I should've expected it.  Unpredictably predictable, that's my brain."  He let his hands thud back to the floor and propped shakily up on his elbows.  "FRI, please tell me we've found some awesome sedating drugs in the ship's manifest.  Something that might knock me out for a week but not kill me.  Strange can have a small dose too, I guess.  Since he's up for surgery and all."

"Sorry, boss," FRIDAY said, and impressively did manage to sound apologetic.  Curious.  "I've found nothing that would result in those symptoms which would not also cause significant permanent damage."

"Figures."

Forcing himself up on unsteady feet, Tony hopped into the nearest alien equivalent of the shower, surprisingly similar to what they had on Earth.  Tony really did hope this ship had some deep water reserves, or that he could figure out how to replenish them before they ran out.  Maybe he could invest some time looking at that once Doctor Strangely-Accident-Prone was back on his own two feet.  Of course, then the man would probably dedicate every waking hour to sabotaging Tony's plans. 

Tony really needed to do something about that soon.

When he felt halfway to being human again, Tony shrugged on clothes and headed out into the corridor.  He tried not to feel hunted.  He walked for a while; long enough to lose track of time, to start counting the rhythm of his feet like the ticking of a grandfather clock.  Tony hadn't meant to head anywhere in particular, but he found himself approaching the bridge, though normally he'd go out of his way to avoid the place.  It was beyond early, and he didn't expect to find anyone there.  But the first thing he saw when the door slid open was Peter, sleeping on a web hammock stretched out high in the air between two walls.  Tony stopped at the threshold to eye him, frowning. 

It occurred to him to wonder if the kid had an infinite supply of web fluid.   Probably not.

"If you keep staring at him like that, you'll wake him," Stephen said quietly, and Tony tried not to jump out of his skin, but, well.  Apparently surprising the shit out of Tony was a game everyone excelled at on this ship. 

"He has some sort of prescient instinct," Stephen continued.  Tony turned to squint at him in the poor light.  "Too much attention, even devoid of specific intent, and you'll set it off."  The sorcerer was sitting in an alcove just barely removed from the corridor, basically just another shadow in a corridor full of them.

"Prescient instinct," Tony repeated skeptically.  He stepped back to let the bridge doors close.  "Like clairvoyance?  And how long have you been sitting there like a magical ninja?  And why?"

"More like a predatory intuition.  And a while.  Likely for the same reason you're skulking around at this hour."

Tony snorted in amusement.  "Predatory prescient instincts.  Say that five times fast."  He blew out a sigh.  "Well, that's great.  Unenhanced human flying in a ship with a Hogwarts reject and a kid with extrasensory perception.  One of these things is not like the others."

"Ilvermorny.  And I wasn't rejected."

"What?"

"I trained in the United States.  The equivalent school would've been Ilvermorny, not Hogwarts," Stephen said, with a completely straight face.

Tony paused.  He could feel a reluctant grin start to stretch the corners of his mouth.

"Seriously?"

"If you're going to try insulting someone, you could at least be accurate about it."

"You actually read them?  Isn't all that a little beneath you?  I mean, I fight aliens in a suit of armor; doesn't mean I spend my Monday nights playing Halo."  Tony squinted thoughtfully.  "Except when Rhodey has the time.  Or when Grif and Sarge set my heart aflutter.  RvB gets me every time."

"I have no idea what that means," Stephen admitted.  "Another Stark product still in the developmental phase?"

Tony waved a hand magnanimously.  "No.  Sometimes awesome things are allowed to exist outside the Stark name.  Not that I wouldn't be happy to put my stamp on that series, but celebrity endorsement is a symptom of the modestly rich and somewhat famous.  Whereas I'm disgustingly rich and infamous."

"And modest," Stephen said archly. 

"I'm not sure you have a leg to stand on, there."  Tony looked around for a place to sit.  Stephen's recessed perch was probably originally intended as a maintenance bench.  Lacking other options, Tony plunked himself down beside him.  "Didn't I see your name down in print at a few conferences?  Or was it conventions.  You wear costumes at both, right?"  He gestured widely with one hand.  "Scalpels, wands; are they really so different?"

"Thank you for illustrating why I read the books.  After you've heard one pop culture reference, you've heard them all.  Sometimes it's just better to know."

Tony huffed a laugh. "Don't think that'll stop me making them."

"I would never expect that level of maturity from you."  Stephen twitched, a very peculiar look on his face.  "I sound like Christine."

"Who?"

"Never mind."

"Speaking of maturity," Tony said, gesturing back at the room with the sleeping teenager.  "How many times did you wake him up staring before you figured it out?"

"Once," Stephen said.  He shrugged, shifting further into the light.  He was sitting cross-legged; the pose made Tony's knees ache in sympathy.  "I asked.  He was bored."

"Can't really blame the kid," Tony mused.  "Smart adolescents with too much frivolous time on their hands are a recipe for disaster.  I should know."

"I never had the time to be frivolous," Stephen said.  "Some of us weren't born to our wealth."  He sounded surprisingly mellow about it, almost amused. 

"At least some of us still have our wealth.  You burned through your accounts like money was going out of style.  I'm guessing sorcery doesn't pay well, because FRIDAY found twenty-six cents in your savings account.  And if FRIDAY can't find it, it can't be found."

Stephen grimaced, though a shadow of a grin tipped up one corner of his mouth.  His facial hair, like Tony's, was starting to look more than a little unkempt.  "It's good to know our confidential information is safe from prying eyes." 

The lighthearted banter was new, and so was the smile.  Or at least foreign to Tony's eyes and ears.  He blinked warily.  "It's probably safe from the average hacker, but my girl FRIDAY eats lowball software encryption for breakfast."  He tapped the housing unit fondly.  "Speaking of breakfast, did you eat your Wheaties this morning, doc?  Wouldn't want you passing out again anytime soon."

"If only we had Wheaties," Stephen sighed.  "I'd even settle for Wong's tuna melt."  He made a thoughtful noise.  "It's interesting the food on this ship is compatible with human physiology."

"Isn't it?" Tony shrugged.  "Why that is, I have no idea.  On that note, does it seem odd that so far a lot of our extraterrestrial encounters have had a surprisingly Earth-centric theme to them?"

"You mean because our host spoke English?" Stephen tilted his head side to side doubtfully.  "Considering the level of technology, should we assume some level of universal translation?  Or perhaps a spell.  I know a few."

"For everyone?  Thor and Loki spoke English right out the gate too.  How much you want to bet any aliens we encounter will also speak English?"  Tony threw up both hands flippantly.  "Hell, for all we know, English could be the dominant language of the galaxy."

"Yes, and I'm sure Earth is at the center of the universe, too," Stephen said dryly.  "Geo-centrism has certainly come a long way since it was disproven.  Or maybe it's just egocentrism."

Tony smirked.  "Easy there, doc.  That was almost funny.  If you aren't careful, I might mistake you for someone who has a sense of humor."

"Must be something I ate," Stephen said.  His stomach grumbled quietly, as if on cue.  "Or didn't."

"We should really put in a complaint with the management," Tony sighed.  "What I wouldn't give for a good cup of coffee right now.  Even just a couple fresh coffee beans.  I could probably figure out how to science the shit out of them, Mark Watney style."

Stephen rolled his eyes.  "Somehow I doubt you have a green thumb."

"Yeah, full points to you," Tony said.  "Thankfully, no one's ever trusted me with a pet.  Pep got me a cactus once.  But I had to replace it three times because it kept dying."  Thoughts of Pepper were still guaranteed to send desperate tension sinking right into Tony's boots, but he shoved that aside.  "After six months I finally just had DUM-E set it on fire.  Bye-bye cactus."

"You set it on fire?" Stephen asked dubiously.  "You could've just lied and given it away."

"To who, Widow?  Bruce, maybe.  A green buddy for his green buddy.  But no, lying to Pepper is ridiculously hard.  She cheats.  It was easier to just set it on fire.  DUM-E got all excited to legitimately use the extinguisher for once.  Win-win."

And Tony'd never considered himself terribly sentimental, but now he thought about it, for all DUM-E's uselessness, he would've been a good one to bring on this little road trip.  The bot could've kept Peter occupied for hours, if only to save the machine after it inevitably got stuck or did something ridiculous.  Or maybe they could've used DUM-E as a nursemaid during the upcoming surgery.  The bot had done well enough handing Tony the requisite tools when he was down one arc reactor and crawling slowly away from death across the workshop floor.

"You ready for this?" Tony asked abruptly, pushing thoughts of Earth and Obadiah away.

"Would it matter if I weren't?"

"It might," Tony said.  "Honestly, I was surprised you agreed to it so easily in the first place.  I thought for sure I'd have to twist your arm.  Or your leg.  Or both."

Stephen tilted his head back to regard the bland ceiling above them.  "The decision to say yes to surgery is almost always an easy one when the alternative is death by week's end." 

"Don't be so pessimistic," Tony said.  "I said irreparable harm by week's end.  I would've estimated death at a month."

"Not at the rate I was using the stone," Stephen said.

Tony pursued his lips in a silent whistle.  "That's it, then.  I figured you were doing something to accelerate the process."  He leaned forward, a thousand questions already scrolling through his head.  "Have you been opening rifts in space-time, Strange?  I thought you assured me you had no intention of doing that."

"I was looking ahead," Stephen said.  He closed his eyes as if to recapture whatever grand sights he'd seen.  "Viewing alternate futures, possible outcomes of the path you've set us on.  The act of looking in and of itself has no impact on temporal continuity."

"I guess your stone doesn't take the observer effect into account then," Tony said mildly.  "So, how do we do?  Do we win?"  He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he felt compelled to ask anyway, if only to see if he could trust Stephen to answer.

Stephen was silent for some time, long enough for a prickle of foreboding to crawl up Tony's spine. 

"Ask me tomorrow," Stephen said finally.

Tony smiled bemusedly.  "Why?  Does something monumental happen between today and tomorrow?  If you're worried about the insertion, don't be.  As far as surgeries go, this one's as simple as they come."  He beckoned impatiently for more.  "Do we crash into an asteroid?  Get caught in the gravity well of a black hole?"  He snapped his fingers delightedly.  "No, I know.  We probably run into real space pirates."

"I can't tell you.  Ask me tomorrow."

Tony wiped the grin off his face.  "Why not?  If you've looked ahead, you should already know how this whole thing ends."  Honestly, the idea of it made Tony's skin crawl.  He was an inventor, always concerned with creating new things, better things.  The idea of skipping all the middle points of discovery and starting off with the best just because he could cheat.  Well.  Might as well play Monopoly without ever passing Go.

"Nothing is certain," Stephen said, distantly.  He looked far too solemn for a man who could apparently glance in his crystal ball and tell all of them their fortunes.  "Sometimes the future is just an array of possibilities."

Tony felt his curiosity spark in spite of himself.  "How many did you look at?"

"Millions."

"And you remember all of them?" Tony asked, incredulously.  "How far did you look ahead, like a minute?  I'm not saying you're full of shit, Strange, but you're basically full of shit.  If you've looked at a million futures and you can remember everything in them, your brain has to be literally the most magical thing about you.  And I say this knowing you have a cape that can think for itself and a stone that can break the space-time continuum."

Stephen shrugged lightly, seemingly unbothered by this skeptical reception.  "It doesn't work quite like that.  You might compare it to having a million different dreams.  The details slip away when I open my eyes unless I put incredible effort into retaining them."  He laughed, not nicely.  "Which is unfortunate, because the details are almost always important to you.  You seem to change the future at the whim of apparently random thought.  And being as we're now in this together, that never bodes well for me."

Tony crossed his arms smugly.  "Don't resent me just because I have profound, timeline altering thoughts every other minute."

"I don't resent you just for that," Stephen said.  "I have dozens of other reasons."  The sorcerer squinted.  "Everything would be so much easier if you were more prone to soliloquy."

"People have actually accused me of that before.  Does it count as talking to yourself if you're talking to machines?  Sounds like a philosophical question until you take my A.I into account."  Tony shook his head, smirking.  "If you're looking for Shakespeare in the Park, I'm not your man.  I definitely know a guy, though."  Then he hesitated, humor quickly draining away.  "Well.  I knew a guy."  The idea of Thor being gone still didn't feel quite real.  Not that Tony had seen his fellow Avenger in ages, but Thor had a presence that was larger than life, and the idea of the universe being less one Asgardian prince seemed very wrong.

"Who?" Stephen asked curiously.

"No one you'd know," Tony muttered.  "So, you can't entirely predict the future even with the Time Stone?"

"Predict, yes.  But there are no guarantees."

Tony narrowed his eyes.  "You must at least know which ones we fail terribly in."

"If you want to know," Stephen said calmly, "ask me again once we're finished surgery."

Tony glared, thwarted.  "Fine, be like that," he grumbled. 

"Are you sure I can't just wear the emitter?" Stephen asked, clearly keen to change the subject.

"Like that pretty stone of yours?" Tony shrugged, holding out a hand to tilt side to side contemplatively.  "It's not impossible, but it'll be more vulnerable than you think.  Even having the reactor embedded in my chest was no guarantee against interference.  If it helps, think of this like having a pacemaker inserted.  You wouldn't ask one of your patients to wear their pacemaker hanging around their neck for anyone to take away."

"I didn't insert pacemakers."

"Left that to the average shmuck doing general surgery, did you?  Makes sense.  Not much fame in run of the mill cardiac care."

"And I suppose you used to do oil changes just because you’re a mechanical engineer," Stephen said dryly.  "Out of the goodness of your heart.  I don't remember reading that in the Tony Stark biography."

"Fair enough," Tony admitted, amused.  "You read that, too?  God, Strange, is there anything you won't read?  It doesn't do me justice, by the way.  Best seller on the New York Times for ten weeks running, but I swear seventy percent of it was embellished."

Stephen snorted.  "Well, I was skeptical about the tales of your personal self-sacrifice and altruism in chapters six and nine."

"Maybe it was only sixty percent embellished," Tony mused.  He winked obnoxiously.  "Presuming we ever make it back, I should have my publicist commission an updated version.  I'm flattered, by the way, that a man of your considerable former means could be tempted into reading what amounts to cosmopolitan drivel about me.  Something you want to tell me?"

"Yes," Stephen said seriously.  He leaned forward conspiratorially.  "The picture they used of you on the cover?  Not one of your better angles."

His manner was almost jarringly playful.  Tony felt honestly a bit thrown by it.  Part of him was instantly suspicious of some kind of deception, but if anything Stephen seemed to be making an effort to be deliberately, painfully transparent.

He wondered what Stephen could possibly have seen in those futures to create such a paradigm shift.

"I know," Tony said finally, recalled to the discussion.  "They pulled the image from one of the few public interest publications S.I released on me.  Said it made me look more human."

"They lied.  I notice the only pictures of you with the arc reactor were when you had the Iron Man suit on."  Stephen gestured at Tony's chest, eyes dropping to stare at the housing unit stationed there appraisingly.  His gaze held an unexpected weight.  "And mentions of it in your press coverage were surprisingly sparse.  How superficially was it embedded?"

"Not at all," Tony said, keeping his hands carefully still, his breathing light and deliberate.  The sense-memory of the arc reactor and a car battery returned briefly to haunt him before fading back into Tony's dreams.  "Directly into the chest cavity, dead center.  There was a hole in my sternum the size of a fist.  Missed my heart by half an inch, and I lost twenty percent lung capacity.  I get bronchitis like once a year when the weather turns, predictable as clockwork.  Makes jogging through central park an adventure and a half some days."

Stephen looked truly disturbed.  "That level of invasive surgery would kill some people even in the best of medical environments." 

Tony laughed unpleasantly.  He held out a hand and a handful of nanobots flowed into his grip.  He snapped a holographic display into sight and nudged it in front of Stephen. 

"FRI, load up the scans from just before I had everything removed."  The blue-gray light shimmered into a skeletal image, recognizably Tony.  The top layer of muscle and bone was cross-sectioned to show the intersection of the reactor, cradled deeply in his chest cavity.  Stephen studied the image critically, looking at the intimidating anatomy of the power source Tony had previously carried.

"Had a plate installed after I took out the implant," Tony said, examining the hologram himself.  It really was an alarming picture.  Stephen tapped on the chest area, which magnified at two-hundred percent for his convenience.  The reactor seemed to crawl with brilliant light. "Had to reconfigure it to fuse the portion of my ribs I lost when Yinsen originally cracked my sternum."

"How did you survive?" Stephen asked solemnly.

"Your guess is as good as mine, Strange.  I must have nine lives.  Probably down to my last few, at this point."  He shrugged, the nightmare trying to crawl back in front of his eyes so it could hijack his higher brain functions.  Tony shoved it back down where it belonged; it went, but slowly.  "The Ten Rings were pretty determined to keep me alive so they could torture me into building them weapons of mass destruction.  I didn't have the best of medical care, but I did have access to every drug, medicinal or otherwise, known to man.  I was a walking pharmacy of antibiotics for a while there."

"Antibiotics we don't have access to now."  Stephen didn't look worried at this thought, exactly, but he did look wary.

"Won't need them," Tony said.  "Don't worry, doc.  I have no intention of cutting holes in any of your bones, or water-boarding you after we're done.  The emitter's small.  It's a relatively easy insertion; barely qualifies as surgery, really."

Stephen flicked his eyes ironically at the picture of Tony's former arc reactor.  "It wouldn't take much to be easier than that."  He reached out and traced a hovering finger above the seal where the reactor had met flesh.  "The port is remarkably smooth.  Considering the circumstances, it looks well-positioned."

"Yeah, I guess in retrospect I should be grateful for the aesthetic symmetry."  An off-center arc reactor probably would have looked more hilarious than intimidating.

"I hope you don't intend to install anything like it in me," Stephen commented.  "Where did you even find the components necessary to make an emitter on this ship?"

"I repurposed a tenth of the nanotech for the power source."  Tony waved his fingers and the hologram flickered accordingly, the nanobots glittering like gold dust in his palm.  "The rest I cobbled from stray machinery.  There is a surprising amount of unused surgical grade metal on this ship."

"What about your suit?" Stephen asked, seeming genuinely concerned.  A glimmer of suspicion prickled at Tony.

"I have enough left to create and power the suit, and the nanotech is self-perpetuating.  Or it can be."  Tony waved his fingers again and the image of the reactor vanished, the bots retreating into the housing unit without fanfare.  "At some point I'll need to find a stash of raw materials to fabricate more, but we're flying through light years of open space.  I'm sure I'll find something I can adapt along the way."

"I don't doubt it," Stephen said, too neutrally.  Tony's distrustful mind immediately started whispering doubts in his ear.  In a million different futures, he wondered in how many of them he may or may not have fabricated more nanotech.  And what he might have used it for.

"Time's a wasting," he said, easing to his feet before his paranoia could get the better of him.  "Shall we?"

Stephen frowned.  "And you're sure your A.I can do this?  I'm not used to assisting others with surgery.  Quite the opposite."

"Sorry Strange, but for this to work you'll have to put yourself in FRIDAY's hands.  Yours won't do the trick.  I've seen them shake; they're enough to put a caffeine addict in withdrawal to shame."

"Upstaged by a computer program," Stephen muttered darkly. 

"By a Stark computer program," Tony corrected.  "How do you think you'll manage with the initial insertion?  We obviously don't have any anesthetic available."

"As long as your nanotech can contain the point of entry, the pain should be manageable.  And I have a fairly high tolerance anyway."

"Did you pick out a likely theater for our little operation?"

"The bridge," Stephen said. 

Tony raised both eyebrows in question.  "Why?  It doesn't exactly scream comfort.  Or accessible medical surfaces."

"I assume your nanotech won't suffer from a lack of proper facilities." Stephen looked immovable, almost militant, the more familiar stubbornness finally peeking out.  "The bridge."

Tony shrugged.  Made no sense to him not to do it in a room with a more comfortable mattress, but whatever; not Tony's call.  He swept out a hand gallantly, and Stephen took it after a small hesitation.  The sorcerer was slow and unsteady getting to his feet but stood on his own easily enough once he was upright.  Tony didn't bother lingering to ask him how he was, just led the march onto the bridge.  The doors slid aside to reveal the majestic view of stars scattering like clouds past the viewport.  Tony blinked away the film of anxiety that immediately tried to swamp him.  His eyes caught on Peter, still sleeping peacefully.  Tony stared at him narrowly, then glared as hard as he could, wondering -

Peter yelped, shooting up from his hammock with a bleat of alarm and rolling off to hit the floor with a decisive clang.

"Ow," Peter said faintly.

Stephen breathed a laugh before he could hide it, and Tony turned to wink at him subtlety.

"Oops," Tony said, and then more loudly: "Parker!  What are you still doing in bed at this hour?  Get up this instant, young man."

"Mr. Stark?" Peter asked, staggering back to his feet, his hair a disaster of epic proportions.  Tony subtly signalled FRIDAY for photographic evidence.  "What -"

"Vamoose, kid.  Unless you want to play Nurse Nightingale again, for real this time."

Peter spotted Stephen over Tony's shoulder and the confusion cleared abruptly from his face to make room for concern.  "Oh!  Oh, right.  Okay."  The kid skirted around the both of them at a wide angle, scuttling for the door. 

"Stay," Stephen called, and Tony and Peter both turned to blink at him.

"What, really?" Peter asked, his face pale with anxiety.  "I mean, I will if you guys want, sure.  I just don't know what I can do to help?"

"That makes two of us," Tony said.  "Mind filling in the rest of the class, Strange?  Our friendly neighbourhood spiderling is bursting with talents, but as far as I know nursing is not one of them.  He finished Biology with a B average.  Doesn't exactly inspire confidence."

"Hey!"  Peter looked outraged.  "I would've done better but I missed two of the labs that year!"

"I'll guess one of them was the animal dissection.  I know they have one at the senior level."

"I was sick that day," Peter muttered, looking resolutely away.  "With, like, the flu.  Or something."

"I'll buy that it was 'or something'.  Strange, this honestly isn't going to be half as complicated as you're making it out to be.  We'll manage just fine."

"We might need him."  And once again, the wizard had that stubborn, implacable look on his face.  Tony tried not to be suspicious and failed.  "I'd like him to stay."

Tony looked between the other two slowly, mystified.  "Alright," he said finally.  "It's your show, doc.  Kid, go use the facilities and then hightail it back here."

"Should I, do I need?" Peter gestured widely to encompass the clothes he was wearing, the clothes they were all wearing, actually, not exactly surgical scrubs by any stretch of the imagination.  They'd been hand-washing everything, since Tony had yet to find the alien equivalent of the washing machine over the last few weeks.  He'd have to make that a priority soon, somewhere down the list after saving the wizard, breaking into the computer core, learning to read Alien, and locating some reasonable toothpaste.

"No help for that, kid.  Go scrub the hell out of your hands, just in case."

Peter bobbed his head in a nod and loped out of the room to vanish down the corridor.

Tony turned away, pacing to a narrow stretch of elevated walkway, probably the largest undisturbed surface in the room.  "Want to tell me why we need him?"

"Ask me tomorrow." 

Tony forced himself to take a deep breath and close his eyes before his temper could put words in his mouth he might regret.  He opened them and gestured to the floor in front of him.

"Here?" he asked, willing to let the subject lie for now.

"As good as anywhere," Stephen said.  He took off his cloak and tossed it into the air.  It soared forward, coming to a stop directly in front of Tony.  He looked at it askance, then at the ground.

"I guess this thing's the closest equivalent to a stretcher we have," Tony remarked.  "Just in case.  You mind bloodstains on it?"

"They won't stick anyway," Stephen replied, muffled as he drew his layered shirts over his head.  Tony snuck in a couple quick glances while Stephen had his back turned.  Not bad; he had a great physique, long and lean where Tony was compact.  Tony didn’t always turn his head for men, but whatever else could be said about him, Stephen Strange was certainly attractive.  He had a wide array of scars covering various parts of his upper body, but scars were nothing new to Tony.  He saw some of his own in the mirror every day.  Tony caught the cloak watching him intently, which was an impressive feat for a thing that had no eyes.

"Shut up," Tony told it.  "I'm engaged, not dead."  Then he looked away, shame and melancholy blazing a path right through him.  "And not even that anymore," he muttered.

"What was that?" Stephen asked, turning.

"Nothing.  FRIDAY, raise the lights."  Tony pointed at the ground.  "Down boy, c'mon."

Stephen glared at him.

"I was talking to your loyal security blanket," Tony said innocently.  "Does it have a name?"

"The Cloak of Levitation."

Tony blinked incredulously.  "Well, that's fitting.  Obvious names are obvious, I guess.  Hey, you," he said, pointing at it, "stop living up to your name and lie down.  There."  After a hesitation that seemed designed to inform Tony it was doing this not because he was asking, but because it wanted to, the cloak lay down as instructed.  Stephen came over a second later and stretched out on top of it, face up, feet crossed at the ankles and fingers laced over his abdomen.

Tony twitched, suppressing a grin.  The urge to make an extremely inappropriate joke was strong.  He wondered how gauche it would be to sexually harass a man he was about to let his nanotech become intimately acquainted with.

"Have you picked a likely target location?" Tony said, valiantly maintaining his dignity.  He was a professional, after all.

"I believe so.  Show me the emitter?  I need to confirm size and scale."

"Well, size isn't everything," Tony said brightly before he could stop himself.  He removed the emitter from a secured inside pocket and held it out to Stephen.  "But in this case, I understand your concern.  I've never said this before, but don't worry: it's small."

Stephen ignored him, taking the small, flat disc with curious fingers.  It had a matte black surface, as unassuming as Tony could manage, no flashing lights, no buttons.  "You've completely encased the power source?  How long is it designed to last for?  If it needs to be replaced, how -"

"Don't worry so much on those parts, doc.  The design isn't perfect, but it's the best I could do given the circumstances, and we don't really have any other options right now.  Hopefully it's hardy enough to last your lifetime if needed, but if we have to replace it, we can do that too.  Provided I can replenish the nanotech."

Stephen flipped it around several times, examining it from all angles.  Tony left him to it, silently sitting down next to him.

"Insertion should be relatively simple," Stephen said finally, handing it back reluctantly. 

Tony smirked.  "That's what I've been saying."

"Enough to require stitches, though, which unfortunately we don't have to hand."

"I told you, the bots have a basic bio-repair function.  FRIDAY can close the wound as easily as she creates it."

Stephen looked simultaneously impressed and disturbed.

"I used to like background music when I performed surgery.  I don't suppose you brought any?"

"Nothing but heavy metal rock and roll," Tony said.  "Awesome, but not exactly restful."

"I might have guessed," Stephen sighed.  "Some people have no taste."

"Hey, I have taste.  Well.  I have people who buy me tasteful things."

"I rest my case."

"I'm going to put the nanobots in formation," Tony said, linking with FRIDAY to mobilize them.  "FRIDAY will need enough on hand to create the necessary tools.  I'll situate them on your shoulder and you can guide them from there.  They won't start moving until you give them direction."

"That's not as reassuring as you think," Stephen muttered.

"Sure it is.  You just haven't considered how creepy it'd be if they started moving without your say-so.  I pranked the hell out of Rhodey with it a good five times before he threatened to blow up my workshop."

"Five times?  He must also have a high tolerance for pain," Stephen said. 

"Well, he's friends with me.  One learns to build up an immunity."

"Like any other infectious disease."

"See, now you're starting to get me.  And on the topic of medicine, you should know: I've never performed live surgery on anyone but myself before.  You'll have to be gentle with me.  This is my first time." 

"Something I don't think anyone in the history of the world ever thought they'd hear from Tony Stark -"

"Okay, I'm back!" Peter announced.  Tony wiped away his grin while Stephen went back to staring serenely at the ceiling.  "Not that I know why I'm here or anything.  I mean, speaking of, are you really sure you want me here?  What if I knock something over?  I knock, like, a lot of things over."

"Relax, Peter," Tony said, gesturing.  The kid edged closer and sat down, completing their triangle.  "Won't need you to do any heavy lifting, just remain on hand.  You can provide the smelling salts if the wizard faints.  Or hold his hand if he needs comforting.  Do you need comforting, Strange?"

"I need ear plugs," Stephen said.

Peter dithered for a moment before his attention was caught by the swarm of microscopic bots easing out of the housing unit and forming a trail down Tony's arm to pool around his fingers.

"That is so cool," Peter said, staring, and Tony preened.

"Incoming bots," he announced for Stephen's benefit.  "Don't freak out."  Tony put his knuckles down on the sorcerer's shoulder, the tech migrating at the point of contact.  Stephen shuddered, and after the bots had finished relocating Tony rotated his wrist to pat his chest solemnly.  His skin was very warm, and very smooth.

"Relax," Tony said brightly.  "Genius at work."

"There isn't room on this entire ship for your ego.  Load the hologram?"

FRIDAY didn't wait for Tony's order, a three dimensional representation of Stephen appearing instantly in front of them, a smattering of ominous red light shining throughout the image.  Stephen looked at it critically while Tony noted the phased matter had migrated a fair bit since he'd last seen the scans. 

"I need a way to provide precise direction to her without moving," Stephen mused.  "Suggestions?"

"FRIDAY, overlay the hologram with a simple coordinate plane, X and Y axis."  She did as bid, lines crossing to intersect with the image.  "How's that?"

"Workable."  Stephen studied the image for a few seconds more.  "Narrow it to a single quadrant and break it into a ten-by-ten grid, letters on X, numbers on Y.  Magnify the upper torso an additional fifty percent."

FRIDAY followed direction without prompting, the blue light sharpening crisply.

"Looks reasonable.  Ready, Strange?" Tony asked.

"You may as well call me Stephen," the sorcerer sighed, shivering as the bots on his shoulder glittered in the low light, shifting to remain in position.  "I try to be on a first name basis with most everyone I perform surgery with."

"If you insist," Tony said.  "But 'Strange' just has so much potential."

Stephen ignored him, examining the image closely.  "We'll need a two-inch incision to start.  Start at B1 and progress toward C3."

They all froze as the bots began to move.  Stephen's breath left him in a startled whoosh as FRIDAY set everything into motion.  The color drained alarmingly fast from his face.  Tony reached to put a hand on his shoulder again, in part to reassure, but also in reminder to stay still.  Stephen was so tense he resembled a statue.

"Relax," Tony said softly, and they got to work.

It wasn't quite as quick or painless as any of them had probably hoped, but it also wasn't beyond bearing.  Stephen had chosen a shallow section just beneath the collar bone, and Tony had designed the emitter to be as unobtrusive as possible.  The tissue damage left behind was fairly minimal, though that didn't stop Peter from hunching over halfway through, looking green around the gills. 

"Alright, Peter?" Tony asked, ready to give him a graceful way out if needed. 

"I'm fine," the kid said, stubbornly.  Tony smiled, a flicker of pride burning brightly.  Stephen had his eyes closed, sweat beading across his forehead and a deep shadow of pain on his face.  His heart rate had been mostly steady throughout the procedure, but his blood pressure was starting to flirt with some dangerously low numbers.

"Stay awake, Stephen," Tony said, gently rolling the name around in his mouth.  Not as interesting as Strange, but Tony could probably get used to using it.  "Don't pull a damsel in distress on us again."

"Didn't in the first place," Stephen said, faintly.  Tony could see, from the corner of his eye, Peter's hand wander tentatively to brush Stephen's elbow.  His grip settled securely when the man didn't brush him off.  It wasn't clear if the hold was meant to comfort the wizard, or the teenager.  Possibly both.

Thankfully it wasn't long after that before FRIDAY was sealing off the final layer of the exit incision.  Tony breathed a sigh of relief.  The procedure itself might barely count as surgery, but with the conditions they were doing it in, nothing was completely without risk.

Tony watched the readings start to stream in on his glasses as FRIDAY scanned for any anomalies.

"FRI, how's it looking?"

"All systems are go, boss."  

Stephen tensed even further, which was impressive given how edgy he'd already been.  His closed eyes pinched into a narrow frown.  Tony patted him absently on the shoulder again.

"Let's light it up," he said.

There was little enough involved, really, just FRIDAY powering on the device, so Tony wasn't expecting much.  It would all have seemed very anticlimactic, except that Stephen was chilled in cold sweat, and his biochemical levels were spiking hard.  His adrenaline was through the roof.  Which Tony considered more than a little odd given the actual surgical process was complete.

"FRIDAY, any problems?"

"None, boss.  The emitter is operating as expected.  The phased matter is already stabilizing into an inert form."

Still, Stephen didn't relax.  Tony frowned.  "What's wrong, doc?" he asked, quietly.

Stephen opened his eyes, and they were very, very blue.

"Let me know when three minutes has passed," he said.  Tony could feel his own adrenaline peaking sharply. 

"You heard him, FRI," he said after a moment.

"What's going on?" Peter asked, a healthy pink slowly starting to come back into his face.  His look of expectant relief was quickly morphing into confusion.

"Nothing to be concerned about," Tony said easily.  "Just giving things a chance to shake out.  T-minus three minutes and counting."

They all waited in silence, the seconds dripping away like rain.  The tension was thick enough to swim through when FRIDAY announced at length that one-hundred and eighty seconds had elapsed since activating the emitter.  Stephen finally relaxed, the strain easing from his body like air slowly being let out of a balloon.

"Something you want to tell me?"  Tony kept the question light, almost cheerful.

"It's never killed me past three minutes," Stephen said, exhaling slowly.  "Not that I remember."

Tony remained still, unmoving.  "There's no reason it should've killed you at all."

"When it has, I've never been conscious long enough to ask you what went wrong." Stephen smiled, faintly, and on his other side Tony could see Peter looking absolutely horrified.  He couldn't really blame the kid.  Seemed a reasonable reaction.

"You knew you could die and did it anyway?" Peter blurted out.

"I knew refusing it would kill me just as surely," Stephen said.  "But more slowly.  I took a risk.  It seems to have paid off."

Tony stared at the faint outline of the emitter beneath Stephen's skin.  "Peter," he said abruptly, and the kid startled, eyes wide.  "Go grab us some food and water, would you?  Have a look through the secondary cargo bay.  I found more of those legumes in a couple boxes there."

"What, now?" Peter asked, confused.  "Are you sure?  Don't you -"

"I'm sure.  Begone, Spiderling.  Don't dally, the wizard's blood sugar's tanking, he needs a boost."

"Oh."  Peter nodded, eager to help.  He hopped up to his feet and webbed a handhold on the wall, ricocheting off it to swing to a nearby console, and then out through the automatic door.

"Makes me tired just watching him," Tony commented, watching him leave through narrowed eyes.

"Try dealing with him for days on end," Stephen muttered.  "You're not allowed to disappear into the ship on your own again.  He's your brain child.  I didn't sign on for babysitting."  

Tony turned to regard him, frowning thoughtfully.  "Neither did I, but here I am."

"I'm sorry kidnapping me's been such an inconvenience for you."  The wizard's spirit seemed to be returning, his natural prickliness finally making an appearance now the apparent danger had passed.  Tony was almost relieved.

"Apology accepted," Tony said.  "Now, you want to tell me what ridiculous leap of logic stopped you from mentioning you might actually die today?  In what way does concealing that make any sense?  What if it was something I could've prevented?"

"I've told you before," Stephen said, shrugging, which was confusing as hell until Tony translated that into time-travel speak.  "Sometimes it helped and something it didn't.  I did say you should ask me about the future after the surgery."

"Fine," Tony said, impatiently.  "It's after surgery.  Start talking."

"Post-op still counts as surgery," Stephen said, turning to look at the streaking blue stars filling the forward bridge with their mellow glow. 

Tony stared at him, incensed.  "Are you fucking kidding me right now?"  He decided that, no, he was not relieved to see the sorcerer's spirit making a comeback.  He could live with less spirit if it resulted in more answers.

"There'll be time to talk about the future later," Stephen sighed, face still turned away.  "Do you realize this is the only place on the ship with a standard viewport?"

Tony blinked.  "I hadn't really thought about it."  Which was a boldfaced lie.  Of course he'd thought about it.  He'd been grateful for it.  Viewing the stars on a dark expanse of space was literally the stuff of Tony's nightmares.  There was a reason he avoided the bridge whenever he reasonably could.

"We might never know we were in space if not for this bridge."  Stephen sounded almost wistful, and definitely melancholy.

And suddenly Tony got it.

"That's why you set up shop here, on the bridge.  The stars."  He frowned suddenly.  "Do dark spaces bother you, doc?  Please tell me you don't have some type of phobia."

"Why?  Would it change anything?"

"No, but I'd feel bad."

"Really?"

Tony held his thumb and forefinger a half-inch apart, shrugging.

"No," Stephen sighed.  "I'm not claustrophobic."

"So you just like the stars?  That's why you wanted to do the surgery here," Tony realized.  "In case things - didn't go to plan."

Stephen huffed a quiet laugh, resting shaking hands on his chest, still searching the stars as if for answers. 

"Yes," he said.  "If anything happened, here seemed as good a place as any.  Better than most.  My mentor died watching lightning fork on a backdrop of snow.  It was one of the first times in my life I'd ever actually stopped to consider how beautiful it was.  I remembered thinking there were worse things to see at the end."

"She died?" Tony asked.  "You didn't have access to that stone of yours, then?"

"No, she did.  Sometimes, even knowing the future can't prevent us from making mistakes.  She was proof of that."

"Sounds like your mentor's last sight was something worth seeing," Tony said quietly.  "Mine wasn't so lucky.  He died in the dark, in a cave in Afghanistan, when I failed to save his life.  He told me everything was fine.  In fact, as far as he was concerned, it was all going to plan."  Tony blew out a breath, troubled.  He shook his head.  "He couldn't wait to see his family on the other side."

Stephen turned to look at him, then, the piercing intensity of his eyes like a blade as they slid beneath Tony's skin.

"That's never going to be me," Tony said, calmly.  "Lying down peacefully at the end, longing for a reunion in the aftermath.  Accepting the inevitable.  I'm not made for that.  I’ve lived the last ten years fighting.  I'll die the same way."

"Then why didn't you take us to Thanos?" Stephen asked, bleeding and wounded but unbowed.  Stephen Strange had heart to him, an unbroken determination to be better, to succeed.  Tony could understand that.  He could even admire that.

"Because that's how I'm going to die," Tony said.  "But that's not how everyone else in the universe needs to do it."

"Maybe that's not for you to decide."

"It's definitely not for me to decide.  But I'm doing it anyway."

"Is that using your power for something greater," Stephen asked.  "Or just for yourself?"

Tony turned to face the stars, breathing through the predictable panic that tried to squeeze the air from his lungs.  He sighed and propped his feet on a convenient piece of decking to link both hands over a knee.

"I can't say for sure," he said, and forced himself to look at the shimmer of the universe streaking past them.  "But I hope in this case the answer is: both."

Chapter Text

"Peter," Tony said seriously.  "Make him stop."

"What?" Peter protested, flailing wildly.  "How am I supposed to stop him?  Why me?"

They both winced as a booming clang sounded in the next room over.  Stephen was in rare form today. 

"Because he ignores me.  Maybe he'll listen to you."

Peter snorted and scrambled up the ceiling, clearly intending to hide far from the mayhem.  "I don't think that's how it works."

Tony glared after him.  "Traitor."  Another clang sounded and Tony threw up his hands, exasperated.  "FRIDAY, make him stop."

The A.I was unfairly tranquil as she considered this.  "I'm not sure how, boss."

"Knock him out.  Drug him or something."

"I could seal off the forward section of the ship and evacuate the air," FRIDAY suggested.  A warning beep issued from one of the consoles.

"No!" Tony backpedalled hastily.  "No, cancel that.  FRIDAY, we really need to talk about your sense of humor."  He held up his fingers an inch apart.  "Too far."

"Sorry, boss," FRIDAY said.  She even sounded genuinely apologetic.  "Still reintegrating personality algorithms.  I did mean to suggest recirculating the air once Doctor Strange lost consciousness." 

Tony suspected intense pride at that statement was probably the wrong response.  But it was a halfway decent idea unless you took into account how mercenary it sounded.  "Don't let anyone else hear you say that.  They'll think I raised you wrong."

"I wasn't raised," FRIDAY said.  "I was programmed."

"And programmed to learn, at that.  But do as I say, FRI, not as I do."  He paused, considering that more closely.  "No, don't do as I say.  Or as I do, actually.  Wow, that doesn't leave many options."  He frowned.  "Parenting's difficult.  I can't believe I want to be one.  I think this experience might be curing me of that."

Somewhere out of sight Tony heard one of the ceiling ducts grinding loudly as it was opened.  "Just remember they're like dogs," Peter shouted down.  "Use simple commands and water occasionally.  Something about newspaper."

"We don't have any newspaper," Tony shouted back.

"You said you were going to make some.  I'll go find it!" Peter said brightly, and vanished with another metallic screech.

"Smart kid," Tony sighed.  He considered joining Peter but suspected it would come back to bite him later on.  Instead he walked toward the cargo bay, three more progressively louder crashes greeting his footsteps.

The doors slid aside, and Tony had just enough time to move out of the way of a storage container as it sailed past him and out into the corridor.  "What the hell?"

The container reversed course to go flying past him again, tugged by a rope of trailing fire.  A resounding impact followed moments later.

"Stephen, what did that box ever do to you?" Tony called to announce himself, and slipped past the open doorway.

Stephen didn't seem to hear him, although thankfully no more storage containers came flying at Tony's head.  He took a moment to watch the sorcerer at work.

Stephen hadn't exactly taken to his convalescence gracefully.  They'd all enjoyed barely a week of peace before the man started stirring up chaos.  Thankfully that was long enough for Tony to successfully make his way through some of the more important items on his to-do list.  First and foremost had been a concentrated effort to crack the source code in the computer core.  It took Tony and FRIDAY nearly three full all-nighters to accomplish it, and even so it was a patch job.  They still didn't have a full translation on the alien language, but enough to work through the functional commands.  Tony now had access to almost every major system onboard. 

The best part of all that was FRIDAY.  The A.I now had full access to her backup systems and thankfully knew her way around a joke again, albeit with a horrid sense of humor Tony suspected came directly from his hindbrain.  Peter had been delighted to encounter another A.I capable of holding a conversation with him. 

FRIDAY also served to distract the group from the big picture realities of Tony continuing to strand them further and further from Earth.  They'd been weeks on the ship, almost a month; long enough to put many light years between them and their lovely blue planet. 

They were now officially and undeniably quite lost in the far reaches of space.

Another storage container went zooming through the air, thankfully angled away from Tony this time.  He watched as orange sparks braided into power and took aim.  This time, instead of coiling around the container to draw it back, magic snapped out like a whip and crashed into the side, sending the whole thing careening across the floor.  Tony wondered if anger gave magic a boost, because the entire display seemed very angry to him.

Beautiful, too; magic was certainly visually impressive.  Almost as good as the luminous white glow of an arc reactor.

"FRIDAY," Tony said quietly, tipping up his glasses.  "Are you getting this?  I want level four scans all across the board."

"Yes, boss."

Stephen huffed with effort, and the magic flared again, snaking around a different container to send it flying.

Tony decided that was enough watching and summoned a left hand gauntlet, feeling it crawl over his fingers to form a repulsor.  He activated it to deflect the box before it could quite land, watching it soar away to crash heavily into one of the bulkheads on the opposite side of the room.

Tony waited until the rattle of colliding metal had died down before he let the nanotech retreat again.  "That dent is totally your fault.  Don't make me do that again to get your attention."

Stephen turned to glower at him, a sheen of sweat filming his forehead.  He was breathing hard and leaning against a nearby shelving unit.  "Stark.  You could’ve just said something."

"I did say something.  I do that a lot, you know.  I'm good at saying things."

Tony studied him for a moment, gauging his health while FRIDAY streamed him information.  The readings weren't bad, but they weren't good either.  "What's with the magic show, doc?"

"Practice," Stephen said succinctly.

"Yeah, I could tell that much for myself."

Stephen took two sideways steps, gliding gracefully into the air and over to an unblemished stack of containers.  He sat down.  "I shouldn't still be feeling this weak."  He examined one shaking hand.  Tony could see the nerves were misfiring more rapidly than normal.  "I need to keep training."

"What's your rush?  In a hurry to go busk some street corners?  There aren't any out here."

Stephen shot him a look of disdain.  "If you ever see a street magician performing magic like this, my advice: Run."

"Probably good advice," Tony said.  He drifted over to examine what seemed to be scorch marks on one of the walls.  "Listen, I know next to nothing about magic, except that it defies most of the known laws of physics.  But it doesn't seem like the sort of thing that responds well to intense physical stress, which is what you're subjecting your body to right now.  I never thought I'd be on this side of the lecture, but: don't you think you might be pushing yourself a little hard?"

"You're right," Stephen said shortly.  "You know nothing about magic."

Tony raised both eyebrows mockingly.  "Is there some sort of catastrophic reason why you can't slow the hell down?  Is the universe about to end?"  He hesitated.  "That's only a rhetorical question if the answer's no, by the way."

"I'll slow down when I start getting better," Stephen snapped.  Then he blew out a breath and pinched the bridge of his nose, looking irked.  "Déjà vu."

Tony watched him solemnly.  "Is that a mundane déjà vu or a magical one?  Did you see a black cat?  I swear I fixed that glitch in the matrix."

Stephen looked up with a hint of amusement on his face.  "Do I look like someone who watches lowbrow science fiction?"

"Magic is really just superpowered science, fictional or otherwise, and you got the reference.  So, yes.  No to the cat, then?"

"No cats were involved in the making of this farce," Stephen sighed.  He dabbed at his forehead with a sleeve.

Tony moved closer, sensing some of the danger had passed.  "You know, I doubt your balloon animal skills are going to atrophy if you take a week to let yourself heal."

"I did take a week."  Stephen held out one hand and sketched a crackling shield which wavered and dissolved into embers almost immediately.  "Things haven't improved."

"This time last week you were predicting you'd be dead by now," Tony noted.  "You're still breathing.  Most people would consider that a win."

Stephen grimaced, frustration transforming his whole face.  "If I settled for breathing, I never would've learned magic in the first place."  He gestured with an open hand at Tony.  "You don't exactly have room to criticize."

"Hey," Tony protested.  “I’ll have you know that after Afghanistan I took a good long break before getting back to work."

Stephen gave him a flat look.  "How long?"

"You know, each traumatic injury has its own timeline and can't really be quantified like that."

Stephen just stared. 

Tony scowled.  "Two days."

"I heard you got off the plane from your stint in captivity and went directly to a press conference."

"Okay, maybe it was more like two hours," Tony said.  "My point is, your cells still haven't fully recovered.  You keep going on like this, you'll end up back on your last legs."

"That doesn't happen," Stephen said simply.

Tony grit his teeth, irritation flaring.  It wasn't the first time Stephen had made off-hand comparisons with events in other timelines.  The man might not remember all the details, but he remembered enough to be infuriating.  They'd never managed a follow-up to their original discussion about the future.  Tony'd eventually settled on trusting that Stephen would alert him if the universe was about to come crashing down on their heads.  He hadn't really had much choice, since the sorcerer made it plain he had no intention of sharing anything more than crumbs.

"Just because you haven't seen it happen yet doesn't mean it can't," Tony said finally.  "You looked at some futures.  Not all."

Stephen waved that away dismissively.  "It means the odds are poor."

"Poor odds are just another way of saying it happened to one person instead of a million.  And a million to one odds in an infinite multiverse aren’t as poor as you might think.  The opposite, really.  I hope you're not still using that pretty necklace of yours, by the way.  I have no idea what that would do in conjunction with the emitter."

"I'll work up to it slowly," Stephen said. 

"Right, see, that's not the same as not using it.  Which I am strongly recommending."

"I might need it later."

Annoyance overrode Tony's common sense. "Doc, I'm beginning to think you have a problem.  Do we need to start you a support group?  Hi, your name is Stephen and -"

"Are you really about to lecture me on the allure of power?" Stephen asked flatly.  "Iron Man?"

Tony twitched, the words striking an unexpectedly deep cord as Pepper's admonishments in the park leapt to the forefront of his mind. Anger was an old, familiar friend and rose quickly.

"No, wait," Stephen said, dropping his head.  He dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.  "That was uncalled for.  I apologize."

Tony stared at him for several long seconds with his mouth hanging open.  He shut it.  "You apologize.  Now you're making apologies?  Are you trying to play me, Strange?"

Stephen dropped his hands back down.  "You consider an apology a play?"

"Always.  Hence why I never make them.  That, and I'm really bad at them."  Tony consciously tamped down on his frustration, shoving it back in a box where it wouldn't get him into hot water with a man who could probably kill him in his sleep.  "Don't apologize to me, Stephen.  Apologies are just words, and words are cheap."

"Why does it not surprise me to hear you say that?"  Stephen looked at the ceiling and Tony thought he might be seeking divine intervention until he continued speaking.  "Are you saying you never apologized to him?"  He nodded at one of the nearby ceiling ducts, making it clear who 'him' was.

Tony shrugged.  The question was asked mildly enough; Stephen seemed genuinely curious.  "Sure I did.  And it was just as strategic and mostly meaningless as your apology.  I'm sorry Peter got caught up in this, and I'm sorry he's missing out on some of the major milestones of his life, and I'm sorry he's got people back home missing him.  But I'm not sorry I did it, and I wouldn't change it even if I could.  Q.E.D."

Stephen made a considering noise.  "Should I expect an equally meaningless apology at some point in the future?"

"Nope," Tony said brightly.  "I wasn't planning to apologize to you at all.  But I can put something together if it makes you feel better."

Stephen snorted, amusement briefly coloring his face.  "I'm going to guess the Avengers never relied on you for negotiating purposes."

"Not unless they were looking for a fight," Tony agreed.

"You should've sent Peter to do the dirty work.  I'm surprised you didn't."

Tony made the executive decision not to mention he'd tried to do just that.

"Look," he said instead, getting the conversation back on track.  "Yammering at you like an infomercial isn't my idea of a good time.  I've done my civic duty by informing you you're in danger of relapse."  He pointed at the wall over his shoulder with a thumb.  "I'd also like to inform you that if you put a hole in this ship and somehow end up outside it, I won't be turning it around to come fetch you afterwards.  So please stop redecorating the walls.  You're scaring the children."

"I thought it was pretty cool, actually," Peter said, and they both looked up to see him hanging out of the ceiling duct Stephen had gestured to not a moment ago.  "Can you make that one you were using yesterday?  The one shaped like a disc?"

Tony watched in silence while Stephen did so, molding an expanse of bright orange energy until a flat circle sat atop his palm.

"That would make an insane Frisbee," Peter said leadingly.

Stephen blinked, gently lobbing the disc in the air until it hung suspended on a fingertip.  "Interesting.  I've never used it for that purpose before."

Peter dropped down, a full twenty-five feet, and landed lightly on his toes.  Tony's joints gibbered enviously.  "Can we?"

"If you were eavesdropping, then you must've heard the part where I said 'slow down, Stephen'," Tony remarked.  "I realize that's easily confused with 'show us more magic', but if you want I could point out the subtle differences for you."

"Well, I mean," Peter said cheerfully.  "Frisbee would be taking it slow.  In comparison."

Which was true enough, really.  Tony considered this, turning to Stephen.  In response, the sorcerer plucked the disc up with one hand and tossed it easily at Peter.

Who went flying with concussive force at the point of impact.

Thankfully, Peter was a born acrobat.  He spun in an aerial dive and caught up against the side of a nearby storage container.  His feet skidded along it until he managed a full stop, one hand down for balance and the other braced on a hinge.  The disc had vanished.

"Wow," Peter said, breathlessly, while the two adults stared.  He straightened up and took three steps forward, confusing Tony's eyes by walking perpendicular to the floor.  "That was awesome!  Was it supposed to do that?"

Stephen was halfway to standing, one knee on top of his perch and one foot hovering in midair.  "No."  He sank down again, frowning, and amended: "Well, yes.  It's originally designed as an offensive spell.  A chakram."

"A what?" Peter asked eagerly, hopping back down to the ground and bounding over.  "A chakra?  I've heard of those."

Stephen looked like he deeply regretted everything about this conversation.  He sighed.  "A chakram was a circular weapon, originally used in India and parts of Asia.  A spell was first modelled after it in 251 A.D.  I suppose weapons shouldn't be used as toys."  He gestured at Peter.  "Clearly we'll have to come up with some other form of entertainment."

"Actually, this might be exactly what you need," Tony said, silently analyzing the energy pattern that had turned Peter into a flying arachnid.  “Presumably the trick is to focus on finesse, not brute force.  Not a bad thing to rehearse while you're still in recovery."  Stephen turned toward him skeptically.  Tony shrugged.  "My repulsors can kill with a high enough power draw, but I usually only run them at minimal capacity."

Skepticism gave way to curiosity.  "Interesting.  Theoretically, the spell has a low power threshold, but it's traditionally cast using more rather than less."

"Casting spells," Tony bemoaned.  "My God, it hurts my brain.  Please can we not call it that."

Stephen had a very odd smile on his face, almost nostalgic, certainly mischievous. 

"What?" Tony asked warily.

"Nothing," Stephen said, and tossed a new disc at him.

Tony would never admit it out loud, but he had more fun that day than he'd had in a very long time.  Certainly longer than their voyage into space.  He could trace things back almost as far as Sokovia, actually, after which some very dark days had loomed.  He'd been part of a team, before that; a team relatively undivided.  He'd worked toward common goals and had equals, even (possibly) superiors, both intellectual and physical.  The Avengers had at one time been more than a set of individuals drawn together, extraordinary though each of them may have been alone.  They'd been friends.

He hadn't realized quite how much he'd missed that. 

Tony took two days of solitude afterward, long enough to let old wounds scar back over again.  He'd been without the original Avengers for a long time, now.  He was familiar with going it alone, and he needed to remember why he couldn't get used to it being otherwise.

And he had other things to keep him occupied, anyway. 

"FRIDAY, tell me I'm reading that wrong."

"I don't think so, boss."

Tony stared at the life support readouts.  A few of them were hovering alarmingly close to some pretty unmistakable red lines.  "How are three people consuming that much of the ship's raw materials?  Technology at this level should be basically self-sustaining."

"The ship recycles and purifies most of the oxygen, nitrogen, and water content onboard.  However, there was a large drop in supply upon our arrival, and I'm reading significant damage to the main systems."

Tony nudged the readouts aside.  "What are you saying, FRI?  That blowing holes in ships isn't good for their interior function and decor?" He sighed.  "No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.  Looks like we'll have to make a milk run if we want to keep up that pesky human habit of breathing."

"The ship will also need a maintenance cycle in order to maintain ideal living conditions.  I anticipate requiring a full forty-eight hours.  Life support will need to be disengaged throughout."

Tony pulled up a navigation screen.  "I think we passed the last gas station somewhere between Luhman and Alpha Centauri.  Have you been keeping an eye out for corner stores, FRI?"

"Unfortunately not, boss."

Tony picked up a spanner to toss from hand to hand.  "Search our current coordinates against the ship's star charts.  Any likely planetary candidates nearby we could pay a visit to?"

"None immediately local," FRIDAY said.  "However, there is a K-type star in a neighbouring system, and an M-type star three days away."  She loaded the corresponding maps, superimposing two divergent course markers in green.  The stars blinked like beacons.  "Both are noted as having planets in the habitable zone with oxygen-based atmospheres."

"Are any of the planets inhabited?" Tony asked.

"The K-type star has two planets with signs of life." 

"Humanoid or animal?"

"One of them is noted as humanoid, developmental stage unknown.  The other has no records." 

Tony flipped the wrench over to scratch idly at the back of his neck.  He weighed the odds of them making it out of an inhabited star system if that system should, for example, take offense to their dropping by.  There was also the very real possibility that at this point in the game Thanos would be watching for them closely.  It was more than likely he'd have stationed hostile eyes and ears in any inhabited system he knew about, and at this point they had to assume he knew them all.

Decisions, decisions.

"FRIDAY," Tony said eventually, "what do the life signs look like in the M-type system?"

"No habitation on record."

"Send us there, then."  An idea occurred to Tony, suddenly, and he held up a hand.  "No, wait.  Ask the doc to come see me before we course correct."

FRIDAY paused.  "Boss?"

"If we're going to do a drive-by, the least the time-travelling wizard can do is tell us is what star systems to avoid." 

"If you say so, boss.  I will request Doctor's Strange's presence."

"Keep those scans running, FRI."

Tony occupied himself waiting by repairing one of the atmospheric intake manifolds.  From the state of engineering, it was clear maintenance workers were few and far between in Thanos' army.  It made Tony's soul hurt to see the unhealthy particulate buildup on the vents.

Tony was up to his neck in electronics when the door eventually slid open.

"Hey, doc," he called, wincing at the resonant echo that followed.  He popped his head out from under the guts of a console.  "Welcome to my humble abode."

Stephen looked around, curiously taking in the layout of engineering.  It occurred to Tony the man hadn't been down here before. 

"What's wrong, Stephen?" he asked, wiping his hands on a nearby rag.  "You been shut up in your monastery so long you forgot what technology looked like?"

"It isn't as far off the grid as you'd imagine," Stephen said absently, still taking everything in.  "Even had WIFI.  Spotty reception in Kathmandu though."

"That's what happens when you courier it in by donkey."

Stephen huffed, trailing one hand along an instrument panel.  "Have you finished translating the alien language yet?"

"Nah," Tony said.  "That's still as spotty as your WIFI reception.  Don't suppose you could help with that?"

Stephen shook his head.  "Memorization is just replication.  That's not enough for true understanding."

Tony scowled.  "That didn't seem to stop you trying to rewrite the course of this ship."

"I needed a way to capture your attention," Stephen admitted candidly.  "Preferably a way that didn't involve a direct confrontation between us.  You were unexpectedly further ahead of me than I was prepared for, especially given I could see the future and you couldn't."

That sounded suspiciously like a backwards compliment and set all Tony's red flags to waving.

"Speaking of the future," he said, standing up and brushing himself off.  "Need your opinion on something.  Well, need might be a strong word."

Stephen raised both eyebrows.  "Yes?"

"We need to find a likely star system with a planet that has an oxygen-rich atmosphere.  We would've had to do this in basically every timeline, unless something happened to us or to the ship before we could accomplish it.  Where do we normally stop off that doesn't see us captured?"

Stephen hesitated, just slightly, and Tony watched him through narrow eyes.  But the man was perfectly sincere when he said: "I don't know."

Tony grinned skeptically.  "You don't know?  What, did I lock you up in the broom closet before?  Only let you out for bathroom breaks and weekend visitation?"

"Remember that for a number of those futures I was dead," Stephen said dryly.  "I have a limited understanding of astrological features.  I wouldn't know how to begin directing you."

Tony felt his paranoia take a brief sabbatical.  "Alright, then describe it for me, down to the atmospheric components and any sentient or non-sentient life forms we encountered.  Geological features might also be helpful.  If there's a rock wall we had to climb over, I want to know about it."

Stephen shook his head.  "I can't describe any people.  We never encountered any on the first planet."

"The second?"

"Sometimes on the second."

"Fair enough.  The atmosphere?"

Stephen blinked, considering.  "There was always a hell of a lot of rain."

"Perfect.  FRIDAY, input the course for the M-type."

"Yes, boss."

Tony handed Stephen one of the spanners and slid in behind the main console.  The sorcerer looked at it in question while Tony ducked down to start ripping out the alien equivalent of fiber optic cables.  "Hang onto that for me, would you?"

"What exactly are you doing?" Stephen asked, stepping closer.  Tony realized the man's imposing height with some surprise.  He had several inches on Tony, easily, and was probably a smidge taller than Pepper in her heels.  Tony had always appreciated tall people.

"Science," Tony replied, skirting to the side.  "This ship is woefully in need of some tender loving care.  Thankfully we have nothing but time right now."  He tossed a handful of scrap over his shoulder.  "FRIDAY told me you and the kid were practicing Frisbee again earlier.  How'd that go?"

"Well enough," Stephen said, taking a step back.  "My fine control is improving.  Peter makes an ideal candidate to practice with.  He has a strong intuitive grasp of the basic containment and transfer of energy involved."  Stephen had a speculative look on his face.  He quirked a smile when Tony turned to look at him.  "It's possible he might even have an aptitude for magic himself."

"What?" Tony took the spanner from Stephen just so he could shake it at him.  "Don't tell him that.  The kid has enough enhancements.  He's a walking, talking younger version of Cap.  Even has the bright-eyed optimism and desire to help old ladies cross the street.  He doesn't need lasers and he certainly doesn't need magic.  Keep your mystic mumbo-jumbo to yourself."  He smirked.  "Unless it's to give me stock market tips."

"I'd be willing to provide those if you turn the ship around."

Tony snorted scornfully.  "It’s like you’re not even trying anymore.  Has that ever actually worked?"

"No," Stephen admitted, looking gallingly amused.  "But if you’re curious, there are futures where you turn us around."

Tony couldn't see any sign of a lie.  He laughed, even though it wasn't funny.  "I doubt that highly."

"They exist.  I could never figure out what changed your mind, so at first I just waited.  I thought you might do it the first week.  And then I thought, the second; then the third.  But you didn't."

"Yeah, pretty sure the turnoff for Earth was a couple light years back."

"You're that determined to keep the stone away from him."

"I hope you are too, Stephen," Tony said, low and harsh.  "I didn't throw away all our lives just for you to waltz up and hand it to him when he does catch up with us.  You better be prepared to run for your life or die trying."

"So you do think he'll catch us," Stephen said, soundly oddly satisfied.

Tony crossed his arms in a way that was obviously not defensive.  "Of course he'll catch us.  The guy's been slaughtering civilizations probably as long as we've been alive.  Maybe longer.  If he's making this move now, it's because he's confident he can't lose."

"Then why run at all?"

"The longer we run, the better the odds of someone throwing a wrench in his plans.  It might even be us."  Tony mimed throwing the spanner to demonstrate.  "Are you saying we need to turn around to win?"

Tony waited, every instinct on high alert.  Stephen looked at him inscrutably for what seemed like a long time.

"No," he said eventually.  "That's not what I'm saying."

"Good.  Besides, no need to make any hasty decisions."  Tony shrugged and pointed at the pendant the other man wore.  "I'm still prepared to kill you to destroy that stone if I have to."

Stephen shook his head.  "If I die, the kill-switch on the Eye will explode with enough force to destroy any living being within the vicinity.  But the stone will survive.  It's not possible to destroy it.  It can't be done."

"You don't know -"

"I do know," Stephen interrupted.  "You were wrong.  It's been tried."

Tony twitched in surprise.  "What?  Really?"  He scowled.  "And you're just telling me this now?  Why didn't you say anything about that before?  What if you'd died during the surgery?"

"I didn't know if I could trust you before," Stephen said simply.  "I deactivated it before we put in the emitter.  Just in case."

Which was, Tony reflected, almost depressingly practical of the man.

"There's a historical anecdote," Stephen continued.  "In the book of Cagliostro; an account of Agamotto's discovery and use of the Time Stone.  He was the first Sorcerer Supreme.  For many years he used the stone to perform extraordinary feats of magic and temporal manipulation."  His lips twisted into a bitter smile.  "One time it went wrong.  A great cataclysm approached two civilizations, but only one of them was in danger of extinction.  In trying to save the other, he set in motion a sequence of events that swept away both.  Agamotto declared that control over time was too powerful for any one person to have.  He tried many times to destroy the stone, and only constructed the Eye when it became clear it couldn't be done."

"What did he try?" Tony asked suspiciously.

"The book doesn't detail his attempts, but it does describe the only way to destroy an infinity stone," Stephen said.  "A stone can be shattered if it's overwhelmed with another power of similar affinity.  The Power Stone might be destroyed using enough raw power, for example."  He paused, expectantly.  Tony stared at him.

"What source of temporal power do you imagine could overwhelm the Time Stone?" Stephen asked, almost politely. 

Tony snarled.

"I don't know the answer either," Stephen admitted.  "I'm not sure if you ever found one, even when I gave it to you to examine."

"You gave it to me," Tony repeated incredulously.  "Just like that."

"Just like that."

"Why?"

Stephen almost smiled, just a small twitch in the corner of his mouth.  "Is it really so hard to imagine there might come a time where I trust you to hold it in keeping?"

"Frankly?  Yes."

Stephen looked away.  "Then perhaps this won't be a universe where we develop that dynamic."  He had an odd, almost whimsical look on his face that did something very uncomfortable to Tony's gut.  "But I hope it is."

"You don't even know me," Tony said scornfully.  He clenched the fingers of one hand together tightly enough to feel the grind of the bones.  "You don't want to know me."

"Would you like to know me?" Stephen asked, distant and enigmatic. 

Tony was reminded how strikingly blue his eyes were.  "I haven't decided yet."

"Do let me know when you have," Stephen requested casually.  "Also, you realize telling me you might still kill me puts you at a disadvantage?"

"Is this the part where we have a pissing contest to see who can get it further?" Tony asked, more at ease with this familiar, barbed interaction.  "Because I've seen yours, and I'll assume by now you've probably seen mine."

Stephen smirked.  "You haven't seen all of mine."

"You saying you have the fastest gun in the west?" Tony asked, raising a hand in mock preparation for a repulsor.  “Do we finally get to have that duel?”

In answer, Stephen threw a power disc at him.  Tony hadn't even seen him conjure it.  He barely managed to dodge.  As it was, the disc brushed with a static crackle across his wrist before it dissipated against the console.  The sting of heat it left behind felt like a tongue of fire.

Tony had meant the repulsor as an empty threat, but he raised it fully-formed to face Stephen.

"Hey," he said grimly, the whine of the power draw undercutting his words.  "Watch it." 

"I always draw faster," the sorcerer commented matter-of-factly. 

Tony bared his teeth in something like a smile.  "Thanks for the warning."

Stephen shrugged.  "It never seems to matter.  Draw fast, draw slow; I can't disable you as quickly with my magic as you can kill me with your suit."  Tony wondered if the sorcerer had some kind of death wish, because he looked almost entertained by that notion.  "Believe me, we've tried it before."  Stephen sketched a new disc in the air and set it to spinning on a vertical axis, showering the room with light.

Tony let the repulsor deconstruct, retreating back into the housing unit.  "Then why bother telling me?"

"Because you should know," Stephen said, like that made any sense.  He seemed completely untroubled, and also completely sincere.  It made the hairs on the back of Tony's neck stand up.  "Any other questions for me?"

"Many," Tony said instantly.

"Any of them unrelated to the future," Stephen clarified.

"Spoilsport.  No, that should cover it for now.  Thanks for the magic demonstration and story time.  And the unasked for adrenaline rush.  Fly and be free, Gandalf."

Stephen sighed.  "I was waiting for that one."

"The way your beard is growing out, you almost have the right look for him."  Tony ran a hand over his own face, grimacing.  "Though, I'm one to talk.  I really need to figure out some kind of razor."

Stephen looked pained.  "Please do."

"I'll add it to the list.  Somewhere after 'replenish our vital stores, keep Peter from blowing up the ship', and 'make newspaper'."

Stephen blinked, puzzled.  "Why would you want to make newspaper?"

Tony smirked at him.  "No reason."

Stephen had the look of someone who couldn't decide whether they ought to ask or be grateful for ignorance.  He silently backed out of the engineering doors to vanish back down the corridor.  Tony watched him go.

"FRIDAY," Tony said, finally, when he was sure he was alone.  "You got that, right?"

"Yes, boss.  Full spectrum analysis, as requested.  I will require several more scans to create a full compositional model of the energy matrix.  Would you like to see the preliminary results?"

"Show me," Tony said, and holograms shimmered into blazing life around him.

Chapter Text

The pretty yellow and red planet first appeared on the screen as a small marble, glowing like a jewel against an inky canopy.  The marble grew as they approached, thick cloud cover and other details becoming visible.  When FRIDAY finally manoeuvred them into a high orbit, the whole viewport looked like it'd been filled with a sunset.

"Is that it?" Peter asked, his face bare inches away from the glass.  He walked five feet straight up the wall for a better angle. "That's where -"

"Yep, that's it," Tony said.  "Planet XL3S97M.  Or as close in English as I can figure.  Ready to explore a brand new world, kid?"  He watched Peter hop with barely contained energy from the viewport to the navigation console, peering upside-down at the alien writing.  Tony held out one hand dramatically.  "One small step for Spider-Man.  One giant leap for Spider-kind."

"Do you think anyone's ever been here before?" Peter asked, clearly too distracted to appreciate Tony's awesome wit.  "I mean, not humans, obviously, but anyone?"

"There are zettabytes of historical archives on this ship and records of thousands of humanoid species."  Tony shrugged philosophically.  "I doubt we're the first to stumble on this place.  But maybe the first in a very long time."

"Cool," Peter breathed, leaping back on the wall with wonder painted across the width of his youthful face.

"One planet, made to order," Tony said brightly.  "Brought to you solely for your enjoyment.  And our survival.  Happy birthday, Peter."

Tony kept his somewhat less cheerful thoughts to himself.  Dropping out of light speed to be greeted by a mostly empty expanse of space had hit him like a sucker punch.  The edges of the viewport kept flickering into the ghostly blue ripple of the portal, closing around him like a noose.

"The intermix ratio in the air isn't perfect," Tony noted, making a few basic course corrections as they slowed.  "But it's breathable; about seventeen percent oxygen.  The gravity's heavier than Earth, so for those of us who don't have arachnid reflexes and young bones, we'll definitely feel it."

"And there's no life signs?"  Peter sounded tragically disappointed by that.  Tony wanted to laugh.  The kid had been attacked by aliens already; you'd think he'd have more survival instincts about meeting the local wildlife, but that was teenagers for you.

"The planet has some subterranean life, but nothing that walks on land.  We should have the place basically to ourselves.  FRI, start our descent through the exosphere.  Keep it nice and easy."

"Sure thing, boss," FRIDAY said.  The ship shuddered as it entered the atmosphere.

"What kind of conditions can we expect?" Stephen asked, approaching the viewport with somewhat more dignity than their stowaway.

Tony held out a hand to tilt side to side.  "Depends where on the planet we land.  One side's in an ice age.  The other's a dessert."

Stephen frowned.  "It must have a massive temperature range."

"Oh, it does," Tony said brightly.  "Enough to cook us to death and then deepfreeze us later.  It's not exactly a balmy beach on the Hawaiian Islands down there."

"Remind me why you choose this place?"

Tony snapped an image into the air, a three-dimensional representation of the globe.  A green light surrounded it in a narrow band, like a stripe of paint.  "There's a small habitable area between the two sides with a more temperate biome.  And a chain of rocky outcroppings in the northern hemisphere, basically a continental shelf exposed by water evaporation.  That’ll provide us good shelter."

"Shelter from what?  The heat?”

"No, from the hurricane."

"The hurricane," Stephen repeated.

"Of course.  It's the only thing providing this world any kind of atmosphere.  What kind of planet would this be without it?  No kind, that's what."

Stephen looked gamely skeptical.  "If this is another attempt to kill me, Stark, I feel compelled to point out there are much easier ways."

"Calm down, Charlie Brown."  Tony studied the patchwork translation of scans on the console.  "We're heading for the deepest natural canyon this ship can reasonably fit into.  We'll be well out of range of the storm."

"And this is habitable?" Stephen asked.  "One wonders what would make a planet uninhabitable."

"Life finds a way.  Besides, FRIDAY'll have eyes-on in case anything starts to go unexpectedly pear-shaped.  Isn't that right, FRI?"

"Dropping into the troposphere," FRIDAY announced in answer, this time over the ship's audio system.  Peter and Stephen both looked up automatically, as so many before them had when JARVIS spoke from external speakers.  It never failed to amuse Tony.

"How long until we reach breathable atmosphere?"

"Two minutes, twenty seconds, boss."

Tony shoved back from the console, feeling unexpectedly antsy to set foot on terrestrial land again.  He was used to spending days at a time cooped up in his labs, but a spaceship was a different sort of confinement.  Humans weren't made to be locked up; they needed sunlight and growing things and dirt to sink their feet into every once in a while. 

"Alright folks, this is your captain speaking.  Time to fasten your seatbelts and return your tray tables to their upright and locked positions."  Peter turned swiftly, expectantly, and Tony fully believed if there'd been a tray table it would've found itself speedily set to rights.  Stephen just sighed.  "Everyone has their gear, food and water supplies?  Beach towels optional; sunscreen not."

Peter obligingly held up a sack of supplies.

"Don't forget your tents.  The planet has no day or night cycle, so expect perpetual twilight and comparably less light intensity than we're used to."

"How will we track the time?" Stephen asked.  "Obviously my sundial won't work in these conditions."

Now it was Tony's turn to roll his eyes.  "I'll give you one guess, and she's named after a day of the week."

Peter looked ready to jump out the airlock and take his chances if it meant he could get exploring faster.  "How will we get in touch?  Do we have communicators?"

"FRIDAY's integrated into your suit, kid."

Peter looked overjoyed at the prospect.  "Awesome!" 

"And me?"

Tony scrutinized Stephen.  He was dressed in his usual wizard attire, with the infinity stone set in its place of honor around his neck and the cloak-of-dubious-sentience wrapped around his shoulders.  He didn't look exactly prepared for a few days on an alien beach, but then, none of them did.

"I could probably repurpose your cell phone to act as a radio," Tony mused.  "We could use the ship's communication system as a network hub to route you in."

Stephen and Peter exchanged a look.

Tony sighed.  "Or we could not do that, since I'm guessing you left yours a few light years back?"

"I do so rarely take mine into battle with me," Stephen said dryly.

"Savages," Tony announced.  "The lot of you.  Fine, I have a better plan anyway."  He held out a hand, and an assortment of bots collected in his palm, slowly integrating to form a red and gold pendant the size of a large, flat coin.  "Here."

Stephen took it slowly, warily.

"Relax, doc.  It's not going to bite you unless you ask nicely.  Put it on your wrist."

"Am I going to regret this?" Stephen wanted to know, but he didn't hesitate to center it in the same way he would a watch, just below the notch of his left ulna bone.  He jerked as the nanotech immediately reformed into a thin band, some of the bulk of the disc slimming to accommodate the lost mass.  Aside from having no timepiece, it really did resemble a watch.

"FRI, you got that?" Tony asked.

"Got it, boss," FRIDAY said, issuing tinny and metallic from Stephen's new piece of jewelry.  Tony nodded, satisfied.

"Interesting," Stephen said flatly.  He clasped one hand over the accessory like he wasn't sure he meant to keep it. 

Tony eyed him.  "It's not a shackle.  If you want to toss it and strand yourself on the planet with no way to get in touch, that's up to you.  The tech will make it back to the ship either way.  Just be back here in two days."

Stephen nodded slowly.

"The ship will stay low enough in the troposphere to maintain network connectivity with each of us.  Don't wander beyond the limits of the canyon and there won't be any issues.  We don't have any landing gear, so we're getting off about a half-mile above the ground.  Fortunately, in this case man doesn't need wings to fly."  Tony rubbed his hands together briskly.  "Peter, I'll take you.  Stephen, if that cloak of yours drops you halfway down just scream or something.  Any questions?"

Peter impatiently shook his head.  The sorcerer had turned his attention back to watching the approaching ground.

"Good, great.  Thank you for flying Stark intrastellar.  We hope to see you onboard again soon."

Peter whooped with delight the whole way down, stretching out to touch the air as if it was something solid and tangible.  At one point he turned around to hang by one foot from Tony, as ridiculously comfortable upside down here as he'd been on the ship.  He seemed entranced by the freedom of all the open space around him.

"Not afraid of heights?"  Tony asked through the internal communicators to avoid shouting.  He kept an eye on Stephen through the HUD, just in case his cloak really did drop him in the high, sharp atmospheric currents.

"Not anymore."

Tony watched Peter attach the sack of supplies to his back so he could have both his hands free.  Tony considered the structure of the sticky webbing curiously.  "I guess your aerial adventures are really only limited by the height of whatever structure you jump off.  Have you ever tried making a parachute out of that stuff?"

"No, oh wow, I totally should," Peter said.  "Can I, hang on, I'd need to tie some together -"

"Wait until we're on the ground, kid.  Then you can play to your heart's content."

About twenty feet from the bottom, Tony picked Peter off him like a bug and tossed him into a tree, or what seemed to be this planet's equivalent of a tree.  It had some kind of branches and then maybe fronds or something on the end.  Close enough.

Peter yelled exultantly as he went tumbling and Tony had to smile behind the privacy of the Iron Man mask.  The kid was just so easy to please.

"His is a happy nature," Stephen said placidly, floating down more sedately to join Tony in watching the arachnid.  Peter flung himself joyfully from branch to branch, leaving trails of webbing behind him like party streamers. 

"His greatest weakness is his curiosity," Tony agreed.  "And a crippling sense of justice.  It could definitely be worse.  Thank God he's nothing like I was at his age."

"I shudder to think," Stephen muttered, and Tony flipped him the bird and flew off for an aerial recognizance.

The planet's surface was beautiful and decidedly eerie.  The trees had mostly developed with dark coloration, black with the occasional blue or purple sheen.  The water was transparent when close up, but appeared red from a distance.   The canyon was thankfully protected from the heavier rain over the ocean, but a fine mist kept everything dewy and almost glittering in the low light.  It was humid to the point of discomfort.

Tony felt vaguely like he was walking through someone's stunning and rather artistic interpretation of hell. 

He soared in circles for an hour, with the occasional twirl or figure-eight, just enjoying the chance to fly again.  He hadn't just given up superhero drama when he'd cut off most of his ties to the Avengers, semi-retired his suit, and removed the arc reactor.  He'd given up the less flamboyant aspects of superhero-ing too.  Flying had always been its own particular brand of joy.

Tony made his way out to the very limit of FRIDAY's communication net, a crest just overlooking the steep mountain range of their canyon.  As he came over the top, the force of the wind immediately blew him off course.  He had to increase thrust capacity almost ten percent to compensate.

"Boss?" FRIDAY asked, her signal thin and reedy over the line.  "I recommend returning to safer elevation."

"All in good time, FRI."  Tony settled on the edge of the cliff, sitting to allow the nanotech to anchor him to the rock.  He looked around him and beheld the landscape of a truly alien world. 

Beyond the shelter of their small spit of land, Tony could see an almost rigid delineation of light and darkness dividing the planet.  On one side was a long stretch of vast, bloody ocean churning in violent wind.  On the other, crags of stone and ice at much higher elevation sat in majestic judgement over the planet as if on a throne. 

Tony took a deep breath and then flipped up his faceplate, squinting into the stinging force of the wind.  His eyes immediately started to tear up, but the brief view he got of the incredible divide between two planetary cataclysms was quite literally breathtaking.  Tony felt like he was sitting on the fault line of an entire world.

"Boss," FRIDAY said, managing to sound truly alarmed.  "Oxygen levels are dropping dangerously.  I suggest re-pressurizing the suit."

Tony didn't bother to answer, but he did flip the faceplate back up, if only to placate FRIDAY's overprotective prodding.  He stayed there for a long time, peering past the edge of the map and into the borders beyond. 

"Here be dragons," he quoted softly.

Eventually he dropped back down into the canyon to continue a more mundane exploration.  He took some time to catalogue the limited variety of plant life on the planet's surface and snagged some samples while he was at it.  Might come in handy some day; who knew.

"FRIDAY, any useful mineral deposits we should be excavating while we're here?"

"Nothing accessible.  There are several large deposits of nickel and silicon, but all well below sea level."

Tony hummed with disappointment.  "Keep an eye out for more nanotech materials.  At the rate I'm shedding it, we'll have to start replenishing soon."

Tony tracked Peter down around midday and found him sprawled out on a hammock strung between two trees, swaying gently in the light breeze.  He'd taken off his helmet and was staring up at the sky. 

"Hey kid.  How's it hanging?"  Tony swooped closer to examine the hammock critically.  "And I mean that literally.  What's the tensile strength on that stuff?  How much weight can it carry?"

"I don't know, I've never tested the limit per cubic inch," Peter said, sitting up immediately.  "Mr. Stark, this place is insane.  Can we stay for a while?"

"Just for a couple days," Tony said, continuing when Peter's face fell.  "This planet's not really habitable in the long run.  We'll look for a system with a G-type star next time, or maybe a K."

"A what?"

"A sun like ours."

Peter frowned dejectedly.  "Oh."  He brightened back up a moment later.  "So that means we're looking for other planets, right?  Will we be looking for, like, other aliens and stuff?"

Tony hovered skeptically.  "What, you didn't get enough of them before?  The last two we ran into tried to kill us, remember?"

"But that can't be everyone out there," Peter protested.  "Those were just some really bad guys.  There could be tons of aliens out there who could help us!  How will we know if we don't ask?"

"Look Peter, in this case admitting we have a problem is not the first step to recovery.  Admitting the kind of problem we have might get us killed and mounted on some megalomaniac's wall."

Peter looked like someone had just kicked his nonexistent puppy, and Tony’s ever-present guilt reared its ugly head and hissed at him. 

"I'm not saying never," he amended hurriedly.  "I'm just saying we need to be discreet, keep an eye out for hostiles, that sort of thing.  Contacting the locals can be step two of our epic quest."

"Yes!" Peter cheered, almost overbalancing in his hammock to go spinning to the ground below.  "Whoa."

Tony snorted in amusement.  "Careful, kid.  Try not to take a nosedive on a planet with higher gravity."

Peter grinned sheepishly.  "Right, right.  Hey, Mr. Stark?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you think they miss us?" Peter asked quietly, so faintly the words hardly made it into the air.  "Back home, I mean."

"Of course they do," Tony said, lowering himself to a nearby tree branch with a short burst of the repulsors.  He leaned against the trunk, an elbow on one of the fronds; it was surprisingly sturdy.  "Peter, you know if I could've sent a message back, I would've.  Not to mention sending you back."

"No, I know," Peter said hurriedly.  "I get that, really.  And, actually, being here isn't as strange as you might think."

Tony retracted the entire suit helmet to stare at him.

Peter hastily corrected himself.  "Being away from home, I mean.  I wasn't planning to disappear into space.  Or end up on an alien planet halfway around the galaxy."

"So astronaut wasn't anywhere on your list of possible career paths then."

"But I was planning to attend university," Peter continued.  "Or, well, college, if I could afford it.  May knew.  So this, for me anyway, this isn't so different from what I was already planning."  Peter tucked his knees close to cross his arms over them loosely.  "It's just, it's funny.  I used to complain to Ned all the time that I wanted you to stop treating me like a kid.  And then you did.  Guess I can't complain about it afterward."

Tony sighed softly.  "You are a kid."

"I'm not," Peter said, and it was more than just reflexive protest.  There was an element of stubborn pride and bravado in his tone, of course, but there was the barest echo of truth, too.

"There's nothing wrong with being a kid, Peter.  There's no benefit in growing up too fast."

"Sometimes life doesn't really give you a choice."  Peter sounded matter-of-fact, as at peace with it as any healthy teenager could hope to be.  But Tony could still hear the shadow of dead parents and loneliness in his voice.  "I thought about just getting a job after school, instead of going to college, but it'd have to be something that paid well.  May's great, but I can't expect her to support me forever after I graduate."

"Stark Industries is always on the lookout for bright, motivated young eggheads," Tony said, gently.  "There's a job waiting for you anytime if you want it."

"No!  I mean, thanks.  But if I get a job like that I want it to be because I earned it, not because I'm, well.  Not because I'm Spider-Man."

Tony snorted.  "You might notice I'm offering a job to Peter Parker, not to Spider-Man.  Believe me, kid, you'd pass muster with bells on.  The fact you can't put down your superhero work experience is what holds you back.  Secret identities are tricky that way."

Peter gestured with an open hand at Tony.  "Is that why you decided to be open about it?  Because it's easier?"

"I wouldn't call it easier when any crackpot looking to take out Iron Man could try gunning down Tony Stark in broad daylight.  But being out of the closet does have its advantages."

Peter bobbed his head in a nod, then paused.  "Wait.  Is that like the superhero-closet?  Or is that like the -"  he trailed off.

Tony stared at him with big, blank eyes.  "Yes?  Is that like what?"

"The, um," Peter started, weakly.  "The closet-closet?"

"The closet-closet," Tony repeated, straight-faced.

Peter ducked down.  "Never mind."

"You clearly don't read any of my press.  I can't decide whether I'm impressed or insulted by that."

"No, I do!" Peter protested.  "I have a Google alert set up!"  Then he lapsed into mortified silence.

Tony barked a laugh before he could stop himself.  "A Google alert.  That's precious.  You probably missed some of my early scandals, then.  In fairness, they were before your time.  Before Pepper's time, really, which is the more important distinction."  Tony mimed a two-handed swing.  "I'm what you'd call an equal-opportunity player, Peter.  I bat from every conceivable angle.  True for most areas of my life, actually."

"Oh," Peter said.  He looked intensely curious.  "Isn't that hard?  Living in the public eye like that, I mean.  The whole world knowing everything about you?"

Tony shrugged.  "You may have heard: I'm a bit of an attention seeker.  At this point I'm not sure what I'd do without it.  And while we're on the topic, you realize a secret identity can make things like romance a little tricky?  Keep that in mind when you start prowling around for a girlfriend."

Peter frowned.  "I don't want a girlfriend."

"Boyfriend, then," Tony said.

"I don't want a boyfriend either."

"Why not?" Tony asked suspiciously.  "What's wrong with you?  You're a healthy teenage boy, reasonably good looking, in the prime of your life.  Wait."  He stopped, gesturing at Peter only partly in jest.  "You still have all your - parts, right?  Your Spiderling powers didn't have any unfortunate side effects?  I know some excellent doctors, if so."

Peter flailed at him and almost took that nosedive after all.  "Of course I have all my parts!"  he said shrilly, loud enough to echo through the trees.

"So what's the problem?" Tony asked.  "Shy?"

"No!  I'm just."  He looked around desperately.  "I'm busy!"

"Peter, you can't ever be too busy to have a little fun," Tony said.  "This life - it can't be everything you have, because one day you won't.  And then you'll have nothing.  So there has to be more."

"Did you?  Have more?" Tony could hear the kid meant to be defiant, maybe even angry, but he mostly came across as pleading.

"I tried," Tony said simply.  "For the most part, I failed.  But I told you, don't be like me.  Be better."

"There isn't any better," Peter protested earnestly, and it was clear he hadn't meant to blurt that out when his whole face turned puce.  Tony smiled, reluctantly charmed.

"I mean," Peter fumbled, clearly looking for a way to backtrack, as if Tony didn't already know about his poorly hidden hero-worship.  Tony’d been so sure after stranding them in space that he'd seen the last of it; he was almost painfully grateful at this small evidence of its return.

"Relax, kid," Tony said, as kindly as he knew how.  "I already know I'm awesome."

"No, um, what I meant was -"

Tony yawned dramatically, buffing armor-covered fingers against the suit.  "I get it.  Don't worry.  You didn't perjure yourself; you spoke nothing but the truth."

"Oh, man."  Peter put both hands over his face.

"So if the girlfriend, boyfriend thing is just a matter of free time," Tony said, taking pity on him.  Well, a bit of pity.  "You better be sure to make some.  High school first kisses and college dates are the highlight of any young superhero's formative years."

"Oh, man," Peter complained, muffled.  

"Just remember to be safe.  Condoms are a must.  You have any on you?  Not that it's likely to be a problem in the immediate future, but I always carry a stash on me.  You just say the word and they're yours."

"No, I, but," Peter said faintly.

"Wait, they still teach Sex Ed in high school, right?  Do they still do the condom on the banana?  Because that's actually a surprisingly inaccurate representation for this day and age, you'd think they'd come up with something better -"

"Arg!" Peter threw himself out of the hammock and was momentarily airborne.  Seconds later he was swinging away, thwack after thwack of webbing sending him through the trees until he was just a distant shadow.

"But we were having such a nice talk!" Tony called after him.  "Was it something I said?"

"If I ever get bored of looking at the stars," Stephen said philosophically, "at least I know I can rely on the two of you to provide me with entertainment."

Tony turned to see the sorcerer floating in plain view beside the hammock, legs folded lotus style beneath him.  The cloak fluttered in the breeze.

"Hey, doc," Tony said.  "Come here often?"

"First time.  You?"

"Same.  As far as vacation spots go, we couldn't have found a better.  Plenty of shade, predator-free, good odds for privacy.  Not a soul in sight for light years."

"It's a wonder it wasn't snapped up before our arrival."

"Well, I suppose the planet-wide hurricane might seem a little threatening to the less discerning eye."

"I'm not sure I'd consider you discerning," Stephen said, turning to glance at the dim horizon beyond the canyon.  "Eccentric, maybe."

"Is there a billionaire, past or present, who doesn't fit that bill?  Yourself, for instance.  Though eccentric seems too mild a word.  How long were you eavesdropping, by the way?"

Stephen smirked.  "I've been close nearly the entire time.  You just weren't paying attention."  The smirk transformed into a more genuine smile.  "All his parts, Tony?  Really?"

Tony hissed a laugh.  "Oh, come on.  I'm hilarious and you know it.  At least the kid seems to be enjoying our little spot of paradise.  How about you?"

Stephen waved a negligent hand.  "It's pleasant enough.  I feel like I'm drowning on dry land, though.  This is why I avoid Florida."

Tony nodded.  "Man after my own heart.  Great beaches and beautiful sunshine, but I might as well be showering with my clothes on.  I much prefer California."

"Did you ever rebuild?" Stephen asked, curiously.  "After the house in Malibu was destroyed.  Hard to miss that in the news; it played on every channel for a week."

"The mansion's been rebuilt, but I haven't set foot in it.  Had bigger fish to fry."

Stephen breathed a laugh.  "The mansion."

"Go big or go home, that's what I always say."

Stephen looked pointedly at the housing unit in Tony's chest, and pressed two fingers against where the outline of the emitter was detectable beneath his skin.

"That's what I always say unless smaller is better," Tony amended. 

"I suppose household construction doesn't fall into that category.  I'm surprised you didn't just go ahead and upgrade it to a castle."

"I tried, but Pepper veto'd me after I proposed a moat.  Besides, S.I started construction on the Avengers estate not long after that.  Fifteen acres, and built to house a small army."  Old wounds, still tender, made a brief reappearance.  "Not that it's seen more than a handful of people of late."

Stephen drifted closer, watching him.  "The news could never pinpoint exactly what happened amongst the Avengers."

Tony sneered, a familiar rage bubbling in his chest.  "You mean, aside from the obvious boy band breakup over the Accords?  I'm still tattling to Widow about that, by the way."

"Yes, aside from that," Stephen said placidly.

"I told Bruce the truth."  Tony rolled his head back to stare at the sky, shining a stunning ruby red above them.  "Steve and I fell out hard.  We stood on two sides of an equation with no good answer between us.  That's the long and the short of it."

"Why?"

Tony glared, the rising tide of temper and the ache of old grief threatening to swamp him.  "None of your fucking business, Strange."

The eyed each other in wary silence for a minute.

"I think I've asked you that before," Stephen said eventually, sounding almost lost.  "But I'm not sure if you've ever answered.  Those details never remain."  He looked troubled.  "It's odd, not being able to remember."

"The timelines?  We talked about that.  Magician, yes; impossibly magical brain, no."

Stephen shook his head.  "I have a photographic memory.  Forgetting anything is very odd to me."

Tony paused, his grief and fury momentarily derailed.  "You have a - you know what.  No."  Tony jabbed a finger at him.  "FRIDAY, make a note.  I know I'm in no position to complain, but I am.  I'm complaining.  I'm officially filing a complaint with life.  This is ridiculous.  Stephen, you're ridiculous."

Stephen floated high enough to settle on one of the branches across from Tony, a painfully bright spot of color against the dark-hued foliage.  "You wouldn't be the first to say so."

Tony sighed.  "Well, that explains one or two things.  Vision would love meeting you.  He's got an artificially perfect memory which unfortunately doesn't prevent him having absolutely zero perception sometimes.  Keep that in mind as a cautionary tale, Doctor Strangely-Ridiculous.  Knowledge does not equal understanding."

Stephen frowned into the distance, lost to something only he could see.  "Vision."

"One of the Avengers," Tony supplied.  "Relatively new addition, been all over the news coverage in recent years.  He was the inspiration for that little emitter of yours."

"How new an addition?"

"Sokovia new.  You saw the news about my house blowing up but you somehow missed Vision?  Hopefully he and Bruce are busy gallivanting around Earth as we speak, joining forces with a few fugitives-who-shall-not-be-named."

Stephen jerked, suddenly, like he'd been jabbed with an electric prod.

"Doc?"

"Vision," Stephen repeated.

"What about him?"

"He's -" Stephen stopped.  "He's a friend of yours?"

"Friend, colleague, former A.I; some combination of all of the above."  Tony could feel the uncertainty in the air, like the pressure of the hurricane bearing down on them.  "Why?"

"He's the one with the Mind Stone." Stephen clasped shaking hands together in his lap.  "That's what Doctor Banner said.  I assumed by 'with' he meant Vision had it in his possession.  But that's not true.  It's not with him.  It's part of him."

"How do you know that?" Tony asked sharply.

"I know because it's a fixed constant, the lynchpin of Thanos' drive when he finds us."  Stephen hesitated.  "Tony, I'm sorry.  The Mind Stone was destroyed."

For long, endless moments, those words made absolutely no sense.  "What?"

"I don't know how it was done, or when, except that it's already occurred.  It's part of the past."

Tony blinked slowly, stunned.  He searched Stephen for signs of a lie, but he was perfectly and unfortunately sincere.  "How can you be sure?"

Stephen shook his head, grimacing.  "Thanos makes it very clear, every time he catches us.  Without the Mind Stone he can't complete the gauntlet.  At this point in the timeline, the infinity matrix is reduced to five."

Tony pictured Vision, the full, brilliant aspect of him gilded in gunmetal gray and red, the cape billowing out behind.  The Mind Stone in its cradle, the center of all that had drawn the constituent parts of him together.  Vividly, intensely alive, and in love.  Tony had never been more proud or more appalled the first time he'd tracked him down on one of those visits to Wanda.  Vision had learned to turn off his transponder after that.  He was always learning new things.  

Had been.

"If the Mind Stone was destroyed," Tony said finally, quietly.  "Then Vision's probably dead."

Stephen bowed his head.  "I'm sorry."

Tony waved him off.  "Nothing to apologize for, doc.  Not your fault."  He felt like his mind was moving through molasses, limping along numbly under the weight of this new loss.  "Though this might work in your favor, actually."

"Meaning what?"

"With the Mind Stone destroyed, there's no reason for us to hightail it to the ass-end of nowhere anymore.  The infinity stones can make Thanos powerful, but not universally powerful."  He trailed off, feeling impossibly tired.  "We could go home."

"Certainly not," Stephen said, forcefully.  Tony blinked.  "Now more than ever, we can't allow Thanos to get his hands on the Time Stone.  This stone is his last remaining option to reunite all six."

"You just said -"

Stephen shook his head roughly.  "That first day on the ship."  He took a deep, slow breath.  "You asked me how far back we could go."

Tony felt a new, ominous prickle creep into his bones and twist.  "You said it wasn't possible."

Stephen shook his head grimly.  "I said the answer was no."

Dread solidified into certain doom.  "Then it can be done."

"It's dangerous, probably the most dangerous thing about the stone.  But yes.  It's possible to unmake the past with it, even the distant past."

Tony closed his eyes.  "For fuck's sake."

"Quite," Stephen said.  "Reconstituting an infinity stone should be impossible.  For anyone else, it would be.  But if Thanos has the remaining four stones and gains this one, that's the end.  The universe reduced to half, or further."

Tony tried to run his fingers through his hair, remembered the armor, and let the entire thing dissolve back into the housing unit.  "I asked you this before and you refused to answer.  Now I need to know.  In the futures you looked at, how many did we win?"

Stephen pushed off his branch to hover in a way that made him seem otherworldly and far away.  He folded down to sit beside Tony.

"I could have looked at more," Stephen said, lowly.  Confidingly.  "I could have looked at billions, but I stopped after a few million."

Tony waited for him to go on, gesturing impatiently when he didn't.  "Why?"  An awful thought occurred to him.  "Did we lose them all?"

"Surprisingly few, and those usually very early on.  But in most of them, I couldn't actually tell you if we won or lost.  They all led to a point in time I couldn't see past; the same place, and no further."

Tony hunched forward, frowning.  "Meaning what?"

Stephen shook his head.  "Meaning there comes a point where I can't see the future anymore."

"What could cause that?”  He frowned skeptically.  “Can the stone malfunction?"

"No," Stephen said.  "There was a point the Ancient One couldn't see beyond, either, a point at which every future eventually converged on a single moment in time.  Where all she could see was lightning and snow."

Tony looked at him; at the profile of his face silhouetted in the red pall of alien twilight.  "When she died."

Stephen nodded.  They sat in troubled silence for a time, shoulder to shoulder.  The cloak flapped between them, pinned, and eventually wiggled far enough out to lay prone halfway over one of Tony's knees.

"Is there another possibility?" Tony asked finally. 

"If there is," Stephen said, heavily, "I don't know it."

Tony tapped restless fingers against the housing unit.  He thought of the three of them playing Frisbee with magic, sharp wit and laughter flowing openly from one to the other.  He thought about that never happening again.

"Not yet, you don't," Tony said, and snapped a hologram into place.  Apparently they had work to do.  "But don't count your chickens early, Stephen.  You will."

Chapter Text

They ended up staying on the planet for almost a week.  Tony blamed Peter.  And when that stopped being convenient, he blamed Stephen.

"I don't know what I'm doing here," Tony complained, staring up at the canopy of dark fronds above them.  "I don't even like camping."  He rolled his eyes.  "What am I saying?  I actively hate camping, and I actively hate humidity.  Someone please explain how I got roped into this."

Stephen smirked.  "Peter begged on bended knee, and when that didn't work he made a pathetic attempt to appeal to your sense of scientific discovery.  You folded like a cheap suit."

"What scientific discovery?" Tony muttered.  "There's nothing to science, here.  Or discover."

Stephen sounded annoyingly smug as he replied.  "Exactly."

"So how'd he corral you into it, then?  By waxing poetic about the medicinal properties of the plants?  All lies.  Please do not consume or otherwise use the flora on this planet for any kind of medicine."

Stephen leaned back against a tree.  "Maybe I just like camping."

"What, a native New Yorker like you?  Please."  He frowned.  "Though you did live in Kathmandu for awhile, with dubious access to civilization.  I’m sure that has a way of corrupting a person."

"Civilization is relative," Stephen commented.  "They had tea."

Tony scoffed.  "Tea isn't even a poor man's coffee.  It's no one's coffee."

"How unsurprisingly purist of you.  I doubt you'd be so quick to judge if we actually found tea on one of these planets."

"No, I'd still be quick to judge," Tony said.  "It just wouldn't stop me drinking it."

Stephen didn't answer, and Tony looked over to see he'd closed his eyes in seemingly peaceful meditation.  He huffed and flopped back to stare at the trees again.  That was all this planet had, really.  Rocks, water, trees; more rocks, more water, more trees.  All very lovely; peacefully serene and quiet. 

It was enough to make him strongly reconsider that remote tropical island he owned somewhere in the Bahamas.  Peace and quiet had its place; just so long as that place was far away from Tony.  Also, if that island was even halfway as uncomfortably damp and sticky as this planet, he might just have to sink the whole thing into the ocean.

Tony began idly designing a system capable of controlling water vapor and saturation levels.  He didn't currently have the materials to manufacture it, but it could be an interesting future project for Stark Industries.  Weather modification was still in its infancy back on Earth, and there was a lot of good that might come of the ability to redistribute moisture and possibly even storm systems.

A half-hour later he was halfway through an initial schematic when a familiar red and blue form came swinging through the air and landed in the middle of their shady little grove.

"I finished!" Peter announced.

Tony waved a hand indulgently, his eyes trained on an invisible landscape of technology.  "Finished what?"

"Gathering it.  It was insane," he continued, "I almost got crushed twice.  There must've been a landslide at some point, the ground's all unstable along the east side.  I was like that guy with the hat and the whip in those movies.  Whoosh!"

"Hat, whip, movies," Tony deadpanned.  "I hope you're talking about Indiana Jones."

"Yeah, him!"  Peter sent a hand swooping through the air in demonstration. 

Tony frowned.  "What the hell were you gathering that you risked being crushed?  Twice, apparently."

"Well, maybe I wouldn't have been crushed," Peter admitted.  "But one time my foot almost got caught underneath a collapsing rock.  That would've been embarrassing, if I'd had to call for help -"

"What did you find?" Stephen interrupted, surfacing from his meditation long enough to share a look of painful commiseration with Tony.

In answer, Peter thumped down a webbed sack at their feet, the contents of which clanked as it settled.  Tony eyed it.

"A present?" he asked.  "For me?  Kid, you shouldn't have."

"FRIDAY said you needed it," Peter explained eagerly.

Tony's attention sharpened on him.  "Needed what exactly?"  

Peter unlooped a length of webbing and tore open his makeshift bag, tilting it to show them the inside.

"Is that -" Tony squinted, disbelieving.  "Iron?"

"Nope," Peter said proudly.  "It's titanium.  Not pure, I mean, obviously, but a high concentration.  I got everything I could find at surface level."

Tony scowled at nothing in particular.  "FRIDAY, have you been telling tales?  You said there weren't any deposits worth digging up."

"There are no appreciably large deposits accessible on the planet's surface," FRIDAY said promptly.

"Which is not the same as no deposits at all."

"Scanning in closer proximity revealed small layers of composite metals, including titanium, copper and zinc.  The titanium was the only material accessible without excavation.  Mr. Parker agreed to collect it."

"Took me days to find it all," Peter supplied cheerfully.

"Sounds tedious and exhausting," Tony muttered, and then had the somewhat suspicious thought that FRIDAY's silence was almost smug.

"I also got the firewood," Peter said, and dropped a second bundle into their midst.  He pulled several dry, splintering sticks out.

"First titanium, now this?  Did someone forget to tell me we scheduled improbable show and tell for today?"  Tony frowned in disbelief.  "Where did you even find dry wood on this planet?  I feel like a drowned rat and I've only been here a week."

Peter paused, turning to glance with wide eyes between Tony and Stephen.  "But with Doctor Strange's spell?  I mean, the first two days was bad, but after that it's been great."  Peter looked tragically sympathetic.  "Did it not work for you?  Man, that's rough."

"Doctor Strange's spell," Tony repeated flatly.

Peter slowly held up one of the branches of wood like a peace offering.  "Yes?"

Tony turned ominously to face Stephen.  The wizard blinked at him.

"Stephen, what's this I hear about you casting spells on people?  Did I miss a memo?"

"Well, the humidity was getting rather uncomfortable," Stephen explained placidly.

"Was it?" Tony asked.  He bared his teeth.  "I hardly noticed."

Stephen crossed his legs nonchalantly at the ankle.  "I devised an incantation to lower the temperature and water saturation in the air.  Then I worked out a method of attaching it to an individual's aura."  He affected an air of thoughtful modesty.  "It wasn't difficult.  A minor modification of the spell to cool tea."

"You don't say.  A minor modification."

"Simple, really."

"A simple spell you failed to share with the rest of the class."

"Well," Stephen said, nodding at Peter.  "Not the entire class."

Tony took the branch from the kid and brandished it threateningly.  "Don't think I won't hit you with this stick, Stephen.  I absolutely will."  He groaned in sudden understanding.  "That's why you didn't mind camping.  You’re dodging the weather.  You cheating little shit."

"Little?" Stephen asked pointedly, and then Tony really did hit him with the stick.

"Size isn't everything.  Didn’t we have this conversation?"  Tony scraped his fingers over the branch.  It was, as promised, remarkably dry.  "Firewood?"

Stephen shrugged.  "At Peter's request, I removed the moisture from a section of deadwood this morning."

"Did you, now.  And how does one gain access to the great Doctor Stephen Strange's lexicon of dehumidifying spells?"

"One normally asks."

Tony glared. 

"Of course, I'd never expect that level of courtesy from you," Stephen continued, smirking.  "Keep this example in mind, Tony.  What science can't answer, magic usually can.  Next time, ask."

Which only made Tony even more determined to finish preliminary designs on a weather modification system.  "And you say there's no room on the ship for my ego."

Stephen sat forward, beckoning.  "Come here."

"Why?"

Stephen tilted his head expectantly.  Tony warily shuffled nearer, angling sharply away when Stephen reached for him.

"What are you doing?"

"I need a piece of your hair," Stephen said, hand still outstretched.  "I assumed you wouldn't give it to me voluntarily."

"Take your own advice.  Next time, ask."

Stephen raised both eyebrows. "Do you want access to this spell or not?"

Tony silently handed him a strand of hair.  He watched as the wizard carefully drew light from either end and stretched ropes of fire between his fingers until a symbol with three spirals formed, rotating in a slow circle.  Stephen offered the spell to him, laid flat on one palm.

Tony eyed it with one part fascination and two parts reluctance.  "I don't like being handed things."

"Then I suppose you also don't like being dry."

"I take your point."  He accepted it with both hands; energy crackled merrily between his fingertips.  FRIDAY was streaming calculations faster than Tony’s eyes could follow. "What do I do with it?"

"Put it on your head."

"Seriously?" 

Stephen waved a negligent hand.  Tony warily pinched either side of the glowing figure, turning it in a half circle.  It was entirely weightless, and although his eyes told him it had mass and breadth to it, it seemed to be molecule thin when he tilted it in the right direction.  "You want me to put it on like a hat?"

"Yes," Stephen said. 

Tony had already started to raise it above his head when a stifled snicker from Peter alerted him to the fact something was amiss.  He lowered it again and glared.

Stephen coughed into his fist, but Tony could still see him fighting off a smile.  "Just press it between both hands."

Tony laid it flat on one palm again and then clasped both hands together as if in prayer.  The spell broke up, the matrix splintering and pinpricks of light sinking beneath his skin.  He stiffened at the wash of cold that immediately suffused his whole body and it took him an uncomfortable three seconds of belated panic to realize the constant nag of perspiration and heat had dissipated from his skin.  It was like walking into an air conditioned room after having been in a sauna.

"Wow," Tony said.  He took a deep breath, and the air that passed his lips was warm, but it settled into his lungs cool.  "I’ll own it; that’s impressive.  I'm impressed.  How long does it last?"

"It'll need renewal after twenty-four hours."

"You should find a way to bottle that.  You could be a millionaire.  Again, I mean."

"Magic shouldn't be used for monetary gains," Stephen said importantly.

"If you subscribe to the socialist agenda, neither should medicine.  That never stopped you before."

Stephen narrowed his eyes.  "I’d be happy to charge you for that spell if it helps shut you up."

"I'm tapped out; you'll have to take it on credit."

"Hey," Peter interrupted, and they glanced over to see him standing proudly next to a small pyramid of sticks and carefully placed rocks.  "Either of you have a light?"

Tony bowed grandly in Stephen's direction.  "Let it never be said I stood in the way of progress.  Fire away, oh wonderful wizard."

"Oddly enough, fire is one of the few spells I have a limited grasp of."

"You can change water saturation levels and roll back time, but you can't make fire?  I think you're evolving backwards, Stephen.  Stone age man would be appalled at you."  Tony amicably allowed the nanotech to flow into a wrist-mounted laser and sparked a flame in Peter's small mountain of tinder.  It didn't take long for the whole thing to catch, blazing up cheerfully.

Peter looked glum as he sat down.  "If only we had some marshmallows."

Tony sighed.  "If only we had anything except jello." He leaned over to feel the clean, dry heat of the flames, quite different from the stifling damp of the past week.

"Maybe better luck on the next planet," Peter said brightly, leadingly.

Tony declined to comment on that and silently held out his hand to summon a holographic deck of cards.  "Anyone for a game of five card draw?"

"Only if we use a different deck this time," Stephen said.  He skimmed one off the top suspiciously.

Tony waved that away.  "I don't know what you're talking about."  The last set had been a collection of occult cards, mostly featuring pompous looking wizards and witches who occasionally cackled loudly.

"Oh, cool!" Peter said, having skimmed off a few examples of his own.  This set was a collection of arachnids, and three of them were busy migrating around Peter's cards to create a transparent holographic web between them.  Peter took several more cards and set them on the ground to watch avidly.

"Or we could just admire my ingenious tech," Tony said.  "That works too."

"Put your genius where your mouth is," Stephen muttered.  "I bet one spell of dehumidification." 

"How the hell am I supposed to counter that?"  Tony drew a hand, ignoring Pete's little holographic circus.  "I see your bet and raise you ten nanobots."

"What would I do with your nanobots?"

"Aside from using them to keep you alive and in communication with the rest of us?" Tony asked.  "I have no idea.  You calling or not?"

"I call, and take one."

Tony mutely discarded and picked up three.

"I bet two spells of dehumidification," Stephen said, examining his cards closely. "And a minor incantation for gray hair removal."

"You’re making that one up," Tony accused.

"Am I?"

"Maybe," Tony muttered, and folded.

In the morning, or what passed for morning given the planet had no axial rotation, Tony went out early with Peter to scope out his titanium hunting grounds.

"You weren't kidding about the landslide," Tony commented.  The entire northeastern wall was a fallen staircase of rubble, with boulders the size of Tony's car scattered like some giant's toys.  "Probably caused by volcanic activity or an earthquake millions of years ago."

Peter swung out and over to a large, secure outcropping in the center of the chaos.  "I got all the titanium I could reach by hand.  A lot of it was too unstable to try moving things around."

Tony hummed agreement, looking around.  He flew upwards for a better view, angling along the cliff face.  "Stay there, kid."

"Hey!" Peter called, as Tony went soaring away.  "Where're you going?"

Tony popped up over the ridge of canyon, braced this time for the force of the wind as it tried to steer him off-course.  He briefly took in the incredible view of the flat, open plains beyond their sheltered spit of land.  The distant horizon was painted in continuous streaks of red and purple, frozen in a permanent sunrise. 

He eventually turned his attention back to the ground below.  "Hell of a mess down there," he muttered, examining the readings.

"The rubble is extensive," FRIDAY agreed.

"Any benefit to us clearing it out?  Taking the doc at his word, apparently if we just ask magic politely, it can do basically anything."

"The benefits would be minimal.  There is little titanium remaining."

Tony hovered indecisively for a moment, finally dropping with a shrug.  "Show me where the copper and zinc are then."

"Well?" Peter asked as Tony descended.  He jumped three large boulders closer.  "What's up there?  Anything?"

"Rocks, rocks, and more rocks," Tony replied.  "And speaking of, c'mon kid.  Time to go find a few shiny ones for our collection."

Peter stood on top of the suit for their flight this time.  Which, while practical, left Tony with the distinct impression he was being used as a surfboard.

They eventually came to a break in the sediment, the rockslide petering out into a sandy divide of shale and limestone.

"Here?" Tony asked, looking around from all angles while Peter scaled lightly up the wall.  "How deep will we need to go, FRIDAY?"

"About twelve feet down, boss.  There's a natural tunnel system and an underground river beneath the surface."

"Wow," Peter said, hopping near again.  Tony considered telling him he looked like a frog when he did that.  "Is it completely sealed off?  Are we going to, like, expose it to air for the first time in millions of years?"

"No," FRIDAY said.  Peter deflated with disappointment.  "The system connects to the surface through small ventilating shafts, too narrow for humans to pass through."

"Guess we're lasering our way in then," Tony said, and set to work.

After an hour spent clearing away slabs of rock, Tony punched through the final layer of stone to reveal a cavern of vast, unbroken darkness beneath.

Peter leaned over the edge of the cleared opening, his eyes wide and wondering.  "I can hear the water."

"FRIDAY, give us an infrared view."

Tony's HUD was already running, but Peter's helmet had to snap closed to engage his.  He almost tipped over into the hole in surprise.

Tony pushed him back lightly with a repulsor.  "Steady, kid."

"That's so cool," Peter breathed, clearly paying absolutely zero attention.  "Can I come down?"

Tony shook his head.  "River might be treacherous.  Haven't you ever heard the tale of the Itsy Bitsy Spider?  Legend has it, water washed the poor thing away.  Completely savage.  Let's consider it a cautionary tale."

"But -"

"No buts," Tony said, descending into the darkness below.  "Stay there."

The cave was eerily silent, as Tony imagined most caves were.  The water was the only real noise, the quiet hush of it moving and the collection of moisture in the air providing an uncanny background for the black.  Tony pushed aside an instinctive feeling of alarm and peered around at the thermal imaging.  "FRIDAY, what am I looking at?"

"The copper and zinc deposits are located ten feet in front of you and to the left, boss."

Tony approached the wall indicated.  "This place isn't going to collapse on me if I start digging here, is it?"

"It's structurally sound for excavation up to six feet."

Tony hummed, glancing below him and blinking as movement flickered over the HUD's display.  "What the hell's that?"

"There's a level of aquatic life in the water," FRIDAY noted, new information beginning to stream over the display.  "Mostly small stygophiles and stygobites.  Some insect and invertebrate life."

Tony was even more pleased to have left Peter behind.  "Just so long as none of them are poisonous."

"Unknown at this time," FRIDAY said, unhelpfully.  "I'll continue to analyze."

"You do that."

While FRIDAY took readings, Tony started to carefully extract the metal deposits, taking them in large slabs up to the surface for Peter to roll into bundles.  It took four trips to clear out the majority of it.

"What's down there?" the kid asked eagerly, cheerfully picking up chunks of stone the size of his torso and moving them into a webbed carrying sack.

"Water, water, and more water," Tony said.  "And a few of your distant cousins still crawling out of the ooze below."

Peter looked far more fascinated than Tony thought a few alien spiders and insects deserved.  "That's awesome!  Can I see?"

"Sure you can," Tony said amicably, and when Peter looked ready to hop aboard Tony's shoulders for a ride, added: "FRIDAY can show you when we get back on the ship.  Isn't that right, FRI?"

"Of course, boss."

Tony left Peter to absorb this devastating disappointment and descended back underground for a final sweep.  He approached the hole in the wall he'd been digging but had to stop halfway there.  There was something occupying the space he'd created.  It was large, and had huge, cavernous eyes.  And teeth. 

It had rather a lot of teeth.

"FRIDAY," Tony said quietly, staring.  "What the hell is that?"

"It appears to be some sort of reptile or amphibian, boss, similar to a snake or salamander.  I recommend returning to the surface immediately."

"Don't have to tell me twice," Tony said, and propelled backward fully intending to jet out of the cave without delay.

Something reached up and snagged his boot, jerking him off course and into the water below.

Tony was thankful he'd had the faceplate fully up and secured; the HUD projection was entirely unaffected.  Tony's heart, of the other hand, tried to slam its way out of his chest entirely.  The thought of being held under water in a cave in the dark inspired gut twisting memories best left forgotten.

Whatever had hold of his leg dragged him a full two feet below the surface.  Then four.

"FRI, little help," Tony said, calmly.

"It seems to be the same creature, boss.  It grabbed you with its tail as you approached.  It's approximately thirty-two feet in length and seems to be an ambush predator."

"And all thirty-two of those feet are looking to have me over for dinner.  Flattered as I am by the invitation, I'm going to have to decline."  Tony experimented with pulling away, but the animal only coiled up tighter.  "Options?"

"I recommend avoiding weapons systems down here, boss.  It could cause a cave in."

"Great."

The HUD shaded suddenly into a red warning overlay.  "It's beginning to draw you further into the tunnel system."

Tony activated the repulsors, coming to a firm and jarring halt.  The tug on his leg turned into a vicious, twisting wrench.

"FRIDAY, give me a low yield laser.  I want to singe it, see if we can scare it off."

"Got it, boss."

But singeing the thing turned out to be a mistake.  Tony'd expected it to let go at the first sign of pain, but it did the exact opposite.  It wrapped two more layers around Tony's feet and thighs, effectively pinning him from the midriff down.

"No lasers, no explosives," Tony said, breathing shallowly.  "Can we electrify the outside of the suit?"

"The charge required to stun the creature would likely kill the other stygophiles and invertebrates."

"I am shockingly okay with that."  Tony patiently endured the thing wrapping another coil around him at chest height, pinning one arm.  "Getting more okay with it every passing second.  If you have any ideas, FRI, I'm all ears."

"Have you tried talking to it?" Peter asked.  "Maybe it'll talk back.  The last alien looked like a squid, and he definitely talked."

Tony glared into the HUD.  "You better not have hopped into the cave, Peter.  If you have, I'm going to ground you forever."

"I heard you crash into the water," Peter said, far too cheerfully.  "Thought you might need a hand.  FRIDAY patched me in.  So, do you?  Need a hand?"

"No."

"Any assistance would be appreciated," FRIDAY said.

Tony heard the kid make a low, considering noise.  "Wow, that thing really has a hold of you.  Oh my God, it's huge.  Do snakes get this big on Earth or is it just an alien thing?"

"The reticulated python can grow to a similar length," FRIDAY offered helpfully.

"Wow."  Peter seemed suitably impressed.  And then: "It has so many teeth."

Tony felt the first niggling tingles of worry.  "Why are you close enough to admire its teeth?  Who even admires teeth?  Why is that a thing?"

"It's not.  I'm not," Peter protested.  "I'm just saying.  It has a lot."

"Keep your distance, kid.  The last thing we need is for Stephen to be patching you up because you got bitten by some bacteria-ridden alien reptile."

"I'm being careful.  I have the helmet on," Peter promised, which was of course not the same as keeping his distance.  "How did this thing get so big living in a cave?"

Tony felt the maybe-snake turn him sideways and then upside down, it's grip still solid and immovable.  "It probably didn't," Tony said.  "Not entirely.  It must get in and out of the tunnels from the ocean.  The vibrations from my excavation probably attracted it."

"This planet is so cool," Peter announced, which was easy enough for him to say.  He wasn't on the menu as dinner for their new alien friend.  "Okay, I think I got it."

"Got what?"

Tony lost anything else he might have said, because at that moment the alien-reptile-snake-thing started to thrash, taking Tony on a dizzying ride with it.  "Whoa.  Whoa, Nelly!  What the fuck did you do, kid?"  He could feel his teeth rattle in his head as it swung him into the side of the cave wall.  "Bad snake.  Sit, boy.  Roll over.  Play dead.  Bad snake."

"I got him.  He's all webbed up now," Peter said, and the whole thing shuddered into unwilling stillness.  Then strong fingers began prising the coils off Tony, one inch at a time.

"Are you in the water?" Tony asked, seething.  "Of course you are.  You're in the water.  Get out of the water right now, Peter."

"How else could I get you free?  I mean, even if it talks, I don't think it's going to let you go just because I ask politely."

Tony growled.  "What if there's another one of those things in here?  Unlike my suit, yours doesn't come equipped with repulsors.  If one starts dragging you away, you'll be screwed."

"Hang on," Peter said, ignoring him entirely.  "I've almost got it."

When Tony had full use of both arms again, he firmly clamped a gauntlet on Peter's shoulder, using the other to propel them back to the water's surface.  He got stuck halfway there and tugged ineffectually at the two coils still wrapped tightly around his knees and feet.  "Kid, I think you missed a spot."

"First you wanted me out of the water, now you want me back in it.  Which is it?"  Peter sighed theatrically.  He was getting far too much entertainment out of this.  Tony would have to talk to him about that.  Later. 

"Grounded forever, that's which."

"Hang on, I think I see the problem," Peter said, shaking off Tony's hand to swing low and start wedging the reptile off again

Tony watched some of the readings coming up on the HUD with reluctant fascination.  "Have you ever actually measured your average strength, Peter?  I have Cap's numbers on hand and from what I can see you have nothing to feel shy about in comparison."

Peter made a pleased noise just as both coils slipped away.  "I haven't, like, tested it scientifically.  But when I first got bitten, I -"

And Tony had to shelve the 'bitten' remark into a file for later, because with a gasp of surprise Peter was wrenched unexpectedly away, disappearing into the current.

"Shit," Tony said, and dove after him.  "FRIDAY?"

"The creature has freed itself from the webbing and is moving away at significant speed."  She sounded urgent, which did absolutely nothing for Tony's alarm.

"Fuck it.  Give me a full power laser."

"No, wait, " Peter said, breathlessly.  Tony came to a halt, watching on the HUD as the kid breached the water's surface five feet away, swimming immediately over to the side and scaling shakily up the wall.  "I'm okay.  I'm fine."

Tony swooped close and snatched him up without a word, propelling them both out of the cave and back into the dubious twilight of the surface.

"I'm okay, really," Peter insisted, while Tony flew them a good distance away from the cave's new entrance.  Tony realized he had the kid's wrist in a death grip, forcing him to dangle uselessly in the air like a sack of potatoes.  He swiftly set him on the ground.

"Where are you hurt?" he asked grimly.

Peter waved his arms widely.  "I'm not.  I'm good.  I don't think it meant to grab me.  I think it was just trying to run off, and I got in the way."

Tony flipped up the faceplate to look him over suspiciously.  "Are you sure?  Maybe you're in shock.  FRIDAY, is he in shock?"

Peter bleated in annoyance.  "I'm not in shock.  I'm fine."

Tony watched closely as Peter began brushing off the murky water from below, the helmet retracting.  The kid truly seemed unharmed, and Tony could feel his instinctive panic start to wane.  "How can I be sure of that?  Am I really supposed to take the word of a B average Biology student?"

"I told you, that was only because I missed the labs!"

Tony circled him twice, with only slightly exaggerated concern.  "What if you're injured and don't even know it?  Maybe we should ask Stephen to have a look at you."

"You were down there longer than I was," Peter countered.  "Maybe he should take a look at you first."

Tony frowned at him.  "I'm fine.  I was in the suit."

"So was I."

"My suit's more durable."

Peter snorted. "My body's more durable."

"Well, that's just petty."

"Wonder where I learned it from," Peter muttered.

"What could you possibly be implying, young man?  I should take away your web shooters and make you walk home."

Peter looked up at him with a poorly hidden grin.  "But then I'd have to explain why I was late and that you almost got eaten by an underground eel."

"It was a giant anaconda."

"Right, sure," Peter said skeptically.  "Who's Doctor Strange more likely to believe?"

"FRIDAY," Tony said promptly.

Peter scoffed.  "But FRIDAY says what you tell her to say.  I bet he'd believe me first."  He walked over to peer with bizarre eagerness back down into the cave they'd left behind.  "Are we all done collecting deposits?  Maybe I should go down and get a few more."

Tony flew back over and repulsed a boulder directly on top of the uncovered hole.  It settled with a heavy, rumbling boom.

"Yes," he said.  "We're done.  In fact, seems to me we're done with this entire planet.  Time to be moving on before giant, cave-dwelling bats come for us next."

Peter perked up with interest.  "Do those exist?"

"Thankfully, not on this planet."

"Maybe the next one," Peter said, far too hopefully.

"Are you kidding me?"  Tony stared at him.  "Did you not see what just happened down there?  That's the second sushi special from outer space that's tried to kill me.  And you want to go another round?"

Peter shrugged with an awkward grin.  "Maybe we should pick a desert planet next time.  Avoid the ocean, you know?"

Tony mulled that over, circling around him once more for good measure.  "I'll think about it."

"Wow," Peter breathed, and then picked up all three hundred pounds of the ore they'd collected, threw it over his shoulder, and bounded away.

Tony settled on a nearby rock to watch him go.  Peter didn't even have the decency to look mildly breathless at the exertion.

"Remind me not to piss that kid off," Tony remarked.

FRIDAY beeped a gentle acknowledgement.  "Noted, boss."

Tony considered the A.I's easy agreement curiously, thinking back on Peter's words.  "Kid has some interesting ideas.  FRIDAY, are you capable of telling a lie if I ordered you to?"

"Boss?"

"You have the same ethical programming as all the A.I's since Ultron.  If I asked you to tell Stephen we'd been fighting Godzilla down there instead of some little garden-variety snake, could you do it?"

FRIDAY gave this due consideration.  "My primary function is to fulfill your needs in whatever capacity is available to me.  In the event of competing ethical concerns, you've programmed me to complete one of three tasks: begin a full ethical diagnostic and shut down if cascade failure is detected, consult with Miss Potts or, in her absence, consult with you."

"So in other words, yes.  You can engage in deception, as long as I say you can."

FRIDAY was slow to respond, but eventually said: "It seems so, boss."

"That's interesting," Tony said, lowly.  "I wonder what other loopholes I left myself?"

"Boss?"

"Interesting," he repeated, then flew off after Peter with plenty of food for thought.

Chapter Text

Tony had always enjoyed the mystery of technological discovery.  He was an engineer by trade, but an inventor at heart, and new scientific breakthroughs were of interest.  And yet there were some findings he would almost rather have remained ignorant of.

"Run it again," Tony ordered.

"I've run the simulation four times, boss," FRIDAY said.  "The outcome is identical."

"So run it five times," Tony said sharply.  "Or six or seven, or however many times it takes to find the problem."

"Based on the parameters and variables provided," FRIDAY said, almost gently, "there's no problem."

"You won't know that unless you run it a fifth time.  Do it."

"Yes, boss."

Tony paced while he waited, drifting from one engineering console to the next.  Eventually, the holographic display crystallized clearly as it finished its most recent projection.

It was the same.

"Come on," Tony said, scrubbing two hands over his face.  "What are we missing?"

FRIDAY filtered through to a new screen, a diagram in green and blue.  "According to all known permutations and calculations: nothing."

Tony stared at the numbers until they started to blur, until he'd read through them so many times he realized he was no longer seeing them.  "What about a design flaw?  I know I'm usually faultless, but even I make engineering mistakes once every decade or so."

"According to my final scans, the design was exactly to specifications.  No flaw was detected."

"Random misfire?" Tony tried.

"Afraid not, boss."

Tony picked up a spanner and threw it into the corner just to enjoy the hard, clattering crash of it.  "What about a random act of God?"

"Divine intervention might be the only alternative explanation," FRIDAY said.

Tony lowered his head and put both hands on a console, leaning into it hard.  He smacked it with the heel of his palm and stared at the floor paneling.

"Eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," Tony quoted softly.

"Boss?"

"Never mind."

"Should I run the numbers a sixth time?"

Tony shook his head, straightening up.  "No, five's enough.  FRIDAY?"

"Yes?"

"Am I a good man?"

There was a small hesitation, barely a blip, before FRIDAY responded.  "Boss?"

"I'm not asking you to provide me an opinion," Tony said, rolling his head back to examine the dark ceiling carefully.  He felt chilled.  "But tell me: by the dictionary definition of 'good', and cross-referencing terms such as 'moral' and 'just'.  I don't make the cut, do I?"

FRIDAY was silent for a time, rather a long time actually, given the A.I's capacity for instantaneous computation.  Tony raised an eyebrow curiously. "FRIDAY?"

"I've screened through all available references," she said. "By the search terms you've provided, you don't meet the requisite parameters of a good man."

Tony laughed and it scraped raw and hard in his throat. "No news there, then."

"However," FRIDAY continued, and Tony jolted.  "If I may, I believe your analysis is flawed."

The shock of that lodged somewhere in his chest, just beneath his sternum.  "My - what?"

"The initial conditions of your search have biased the results.  You've deliberately chosen terms which don't apply to you.  They suggest a fixed concept that a good man is someone who operates from a position of moral certitude and applies ethical principles of fairness and justice to all."

"Biased the results," he repeated faintly.

"There are other parameters which might apply to a good man that do apply to you," FRIDAY said.  "Parameters such as reciprocity, accountability, perseverance, loyalty -"

"Stop," Tony said suddenly.  FRIDAY fell silent.

"Okay, that was interesting.  Who fed you that drivel?"  Tony frowned at the obvious answer.  "Peter?"

"Mr. Parker speaks highly of you, boss."

Tony snorted hollowly.  "That doesn't mean you need to go spouting off his words verbatim at a moment's notice.  Have some dignity, FRI."

"Dignity wasn't part of my programming."

"Well, that's a character flaw you definitely inherited from me," Tony muttered.  He idly tapped his fingers against one of the consoles.  "I shouldn't have asked you that.  Addressing my insecurities was something I'm sure I left off your programming."

"I was designed to meet all of your needs equally."

"That almost makes it worse.  Let's keep this little discussion between us, shall we?"

"Of course, boss."

"Except for the simulation results," Tony sighed.  "Unfortunately, can't keep those under my nonexistent hat.  Where's our wandering wizard at?"

"Do you mean to inform Doctor Strange?  Is that wise?"

Tony laughed shortly.  "Of course it isn't.  But reckless self-endangerment is my middle name.  That's something I hope you never inherit, by the way.  Where's the spiderling swung off to?  Busy spinning his web somewhere?"

"Mr. Parker is in the dining area.  Doctor Strange is on the bridge."

"Of course he is," Tony muttered.  He took a deep breath. "Time to face the dragon in its den.  Give me plenty of warning if the kid starts migrating toward us, alright?"

"Sure thing, boss."

Tony made his way briskly to the bridge.  When the doors opened to the expected view of stars streaming past, the familiar jolt of adrenaline was almost tiresome.

"Stephen?" he called, looking around.  The lights were dim, and the sorcerer wasn't immediately in evidence.

"Out from your lair?"  Stephen asked.  Tony looked up, squinting, and saw him sitting on one of the upper levels, half-reclined against a support strut and deeply in shadow.

Tony spread his hands wide in confirmation.  "I have vacated the Batcave."

"The Batcave," Stephen repeated, and Tony could hear the amusement in his voice.  "There are parallels, I suppose.  Billionaire, fights crime in a mask, has a ridiculous public persona."

"That's not a persona.  That's just me."

Stephen huffed, floating into sight as he glided away from the ceiling.  He alighted soundlessly on the elevated walkway.

"You forgot to add genius," Tony said.

"Oh, well," Stephen drawled. "Wayne couldn't hold a candle to you."

"He really couldn't.  He was only as smart as Einstein."

"Tragically low then, less a genius and more a superior intellect."

"Well," Tony demurred.  "I wouldn't go quite that far."

"Wouldn't you?  What brings you here, Tony?"

Tony twitched and let one corner of his mouth lift in a self-deprecating smile.  "We should talk."

"About?"

The smile became a snarl.  "The future."

Stephen leaned back warily.  The cloak flared out around him, responding to whatever had the sorcerer on guard.  "What about it?  What could you want to know that I haven't already told you?"

"Rephrase: what haven't you told me that I could still want to know?"

"Well," Stephen said, "certainly not stock market tips."

"True.  You can keep those; I'll take the rest of it."

Stephen grimaced.  "Sometimes full knowledge of the future does more harm than good.  Especially with you."

"Why especially with me?" Tony asked sharply.

"It's complicated," Stephen said.  He must've seen something in Tony's face because he quickly continued.  "Nearly every time I've given you the details of what's to come, you inevitably do something to change it.  And not always for the better, even if you mean to."

Tony paced some ways further into the bridge, considering this with a sinking sensation.  "How and why?"

"Many ways.”  Stephen shrugged.  “You're a futurist, Tony.  You never live in the moment.  You live three steps removed from it."

"And that’s a bad thing, why?"

"If the average traveller thinks two left turns ahead, your mind is busy looking at traffic in the next city over."  Stephen mimed a collision with two fists coming gently together.  "Which just means when the bus hits you at the intersection, you can honestly say you never saw it coming."

"Who rides the bus these days when they can take the train?"

"See?"  Stephen turned both hands up in supplication.  "Always an answer.  You're so sure yours is the only way.  You're never quite willing to believe me when I say otherwise, and even when you do, it's only because you're already making an escape plan that may or may not backfire.  For you, knowing the outcome is actually a hindrance."

Tony considered this scathing assessment of his planning abilities.  "Fine.  Let me rephrase my ask, then.  I don't want to know about the future.  I want to know about the past."

Stephen blinked, frowning.  "What?"

"At this point in the timeline, we've passed the point of no return for your condition.  In worlds where we never corrected or controlled the phased material, you're officially dead."

"Yes, thank you for that reminder," Stephen said.

"So tell me about the timelines where the surgery killed you."

A hunted look settled on Stephen’s face. "Why?"

"Why not?" Tony returned, impassively.  "Who's to say what killed you isn't something that might show up later on?  You're the doc, doc.  How does it make sense to withhold the information, knowing the emitter could kill you?"

"It didn't."

"It might've.  It still could."

Stephen twitched, the red cape rippling along his shoulders warily.  He walked a few feet away, outside Tony's direct line of sight.  "I don't understand."

"Yes, you do.  Prying information about the future from you's been harder than prying patriotism out of Rhodey.  And considering who you are, the power you have, and what's at stake, that just doesn't jive."

"Perhaps it's because of what's at stake that I've been silent."

"And your silence is as much a manipulation as your words," Tony said flatly.  "You're just as guilty as I am of thinking you know best."

Stephen was still moving, slowly, and from the corner of his eye Tony could see a spark of fire curling around his tall form.  "I haven't manipulated you.  I've been careful to be openly transparent wherever I can.  If I've lied in this timeline, it's only by omission."

Tony turned to him sharply, rage almost overcoming common sense.  He had to firmly shove aside thoughts of another Steven he thought he’d known once, who lied with silence.  “Absence of truth is still a lie.  Well-intentioned or otherwise."

Stephen stopped.  "Why are you asking me this now?"

"Something Peter said on the planet.  That combined with your little bombshell about your mentor's death.  I had FRIDAY run some diagnostic simulations, and the results are impossible to deny.  We ran them five times, just to be sure."

"What results?" Stephen asked.

"First tell me about the surgery, Stephen.”  Tony smiled grimly.  “You're not the sort of man to let that failure go unanswered.  That's not who you are.  You read books just for the sake of reading; for new knowledge, no matter how useless.  You have to know."

"What do you know about who I am?" Stephen asked, lowly.  "You think just because your A.I picked up some of my biographical information and now we've spent some time trading witty barbs that you understand me?"

"I understand that you spent most of your life at the top of the food chain, second to none," Tony said.  "Then you hit the wall, pretty much literally, and remade yourself from the ground up.  I know what that's like, and I know you don't get to where you are by burying your head in the sand." 

Stephen made a thin, brittle noise.  "Have you decided you want to know me after all, Tony?"

"Misdirection, doctor?"  Tony laughed, not kindly.  Anger felt so close to the surface of him; in their first days aboard the ship it'd tripped him at every step, dogged his every move.  Now it came less frequently, but always potently, fueled by old fears and new loss.  "That's as bad as blatant manipulation, in its own way.  Guessing you learned to be more subtle after some rather spectacular failures in a few other timelines." 

"I've made no move against you, and I won't," Stephen said, a seeming non sequitur, which told him one thing: Stephen knew exactly what Tony was talking about.

"In this timeline, you've made no move against me.  That wasn't always true.  It couldn’t have been.  How often did you try lying to my face before you realized what a phenomenally bad idea that was?"  Tony held out one hand, palm up, and the nanotech gathered in it to form a reproduction of a familiar black disc.  "Remember this?"

Stephen reached cautiously for the outline of the emitter beneath his own skin.  He never took his eyes off Tony.  "Yes."

He started to flip the disc over his knuckles like a coin.  "I think we both know what went wrong during the surgical procedures where you died." 

"Do we?" Stephen asked, entirely too neutrally.

"There's no way the emitter could've been fatal on its own.  The only possible explanation is third-party interference.  In other words, artificially changing the design to rapidly disperse and accelerate the phasing process rather than neutralize it.  And even then, for it to kill you in less than five minutes, there'd have to be a strong power source to catalyze the speed of the reaction."  Tony covered the disc with one hand, reabsorbing the nanotech and then revealing its absence with a flourish like a street magician.  "There's only one person on this ship with that level of technical expertise.  Two, if you count FRIDAY, whose ethical programming I have total veto power over.  FRIDAY does what I tell her to, up to and including lying if I give her permission.  She also holds the failsafe protocols for the emitter, and there's only one reason she wouldn't activate them."

"You," Stephen said.

"Me.  I killed you in those other timelines," Tony said flatly.  He looked directly at Stephen, whose eyes were very open and very clear.  "You knew.  You had to know."

Stephen glanced away.  "Not for sure.  I always lost consciousness too quickly to gather any real information, and what limited impressions I made were lost when I surfaced from those potential futures.  But I strongly suspected, yes."

Tony shook his head in disbelief.  "And you went through with the surgery anyway."

"Well, as you pointed out, in the futures where I refused the operation, I'm already dead by this time.  It never mattered how skillfully I lied.  You always seemed to know."

"FRIDAY can read any lie or attempt at deception," Tony said, watching the readings streaming to him over his glasses.  Stephen leaned back, eyes wide in surprise.  "Better than any existing polygraph on Earth.  You said it yourself, doc.  I have a million tiny robotic spies on this ship.  And believe me, in the beginning I had every one of them trained on your every move."

Stephen mulled this over, glancing to the side.  To the viewport, Tony realized.

"That's why you've been testing me," Stephen commented shrewdly.  "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"

Tony moved, glancing at the viewport himself, locking his limbs against the instinctive push of fear.  "Notice what?"

Stephen rolled his eyes.  "You're not subtle.  Ever since the surgery you've been providing me opportunities to mislead you.  Asking me questions that you already know the answers to, or think you do."  He smirked, drawing out a coil of fire between two of his fingers in a long, braided shape.  "Rope from which to fashion my own noose."

Tony hummed confirmation, unrepentant.  "I needed to see if you'd try to steer me in the wrong direction.  Whether I could trust you."

Stephen made a noise of enquiry.  "And?"

"Jury's still out.  But you’re safer today than you were that first week."

"I suppose I should count myself lucky."

Tony shrugged noncommittally.  "So, why did I do it?  What clinched it for me?"

Stephen looked over with a politely incredulous look on his face.  "How can I possibly know that?"

"Because something you did triggered it," Tony said.  "I wouldn't kill a man for lies.  I'd just maneuver around them.  What else happened that tipped me over the edge?"

"Why do you assume it was something I did?" Stephen asked.

Tony grinned sharply.  "Because it was.  Don't get me wrong.  I really was prepared to kill you when I hopped aboard this ship.  I was prepared to kill both of us.  But it's one thing to kill a man before he can be tortured into giving up a weapon of mass destruction, or even to let him die when I could've prevented it.  It's another thing to plan out premeditated murder."

"Learned something new about yourself, did you?"  Stephen asked with vicious cunning.  "Surprised you could do it?"

"Yes," Tony said, and the word was a knife sunk slowly into the marrow of his soul.

"Good," Stephen said.  "We should all know the things we're capable of, given the right circumstances."

"Interesting phrasing.  I assume the circumstances were right for you, too.  Did you find out what you were capable of, Stephen?"

The sorcerer turned away without answering.

"How much further did you take it?  When the lies failed, what happened next?  Attacks?  Threats?"  Tony bared his teeth, even though Stephen wasn't looking at him.  "Did you try force, Stephen?  How'd that work out for you?" 

Stephen made a soft, wounded noise.  "Badly.  For both of us."

Tony prowled behind him, watching the wizard's silhouette against a backdrop of streaking stars.  "Meaning what?"

"Meaning I made mistakes," Stephen said quietly.  "I don't admit that often, Tony, so take it as read."

"What kind of mistakes?" Tony asked doggedly.  "You've made so many."

"Shall we talk about how many you've made?"

"There's not enough hours in the day," Tony said with brittle humor.  "You’re still avoiding.”

"It’s worth avoiding,” Stephen said quietly.  “You should let this one go."

"I can't.  If we're going to keep working together, I need to know.  Did we finally have that duel, in those timelines of yours?"

"Hardly," Stephen said, but gently, very gently.  "It's never much of a duel."  He turned, and Tony stumbled back one wary step when he saw the deep shadow of the man was limned in a ring of blazing magic.  "You forget.  I always draw faster."

Warning bells of alarm were ringing loudly in his ears.  Tony tried to speak, tried to step away, but his feet had somehow become stuck to the decking.  His mouth was unexpectedly glued shut.

"Sometimes we fought," Stephen said, fire sparking around him almost lazily.  "Sometimes you won.  Sometimes I did, temporarily, at least.  I always seemed to lose in the end."

A chill settled in Tony's bones and started spreading.  Again, he tried to speak, and again he found his voice locked away.

"Other times, I forced you to yield," Stephen said, almost casually.  Tony tried to shift his fingers to activate the nanotech, but he discovered with growing alarm that those were also immobile.  Stephen looked at him, and he'd never seemed more remote, more alien to Tony.

"It could happen any number of different ways, but most often it was like this," Stephen said, into the silence.  "Even now, you have no defense against it.  You never do."

And Tony'd been expecting something dramatic, something truly awful, because that was the only explanation he could think of.  He'd been prepared for anything from magical confinement, to threats against his life, against someone else's life, maybe even some form of sinister persuasion; pain, intimidation. 

He hadn't been expecting this.  

"I can't kill you, Tony," Stephen admitted.  "But control you?"  The sparks around him grew longer angles, taking on the shape of a thing shining with edges like knives.  "That's not a difficult thing.  I just have to be willing to get my hands dirty."

Stephen studied him, stepping close enough he could reach out to touch.  Tony could feel his heart trying to pound its way out of his ribcage as he watched the sorcerer's hand approach, fingers hovering just short of his frozen cheek.

"In most timelines, this really is the only way to get you to stop talking," Stephen said, using Tony's voice to pronounce the words.  The sorcerer let his hand fall without making contact.

The feeling of his mouth moving against his will was indescribably awful.  Tony could feel a raw, ugly cloud of fear start to swamp him.  It was strangely, horribly familiar, the sensation of being trapped in his own body, of being paralyzed while someone pulled the rug out from beneath him.  He'd lived this before; watched his deepest fears come to life at the hands of an enemy.  Obadiah, Wanda, Stephen; the three blurred together in that moment.  Tony was nothing but a puppet dancing on strings, watching the dreamscape of his own nightmares bleed into living color.

"Boss," FRIDAY said suddenly, her voice echoing in the cavernous room.  Tony tried to recall why he might be pleased by her voice, why the sudden reminder of her presence might reassure him, but.  He couldn't remember.  His every thought was shredding into panic.  He couldn't remember anything.  "Your biorhythms are looking dodgy.  Are you well?"

Stephen glanced up as though just realizing the A.I might be on hand, and then down again to take in Tony's still figure with bleak satisfaction.  When they locked eyes, though, he faltered.  Tony wondered what Stephen could see.  Whatever it was, it was enough to make the man look away in shame, the cold facade of his indifference cracking down the center and fading away.

"Compulsion spells are terrible things," Stephen said quietly, and closed his eyes, and suddenly Tony had control of his body back.  He staggered and fell to one knee.  He could feel violent tremors immediately start to rattle through him.

"The mind is a many faceted thing," Stephen said, almost soothingly.  "Yours more so than most.  You're a very dynamic man, Tony."

Tony could barely hear him through the roaring drum of his own pulse.  He realized dimly his breathing had started to stutter and anxiety was already clawing its way out of his control. 

"You always fight it, every -"  Tony lost track of reality for a moment, time stuttering by in blips.  "- in the end - never gone well for either of us."  

Tony's whole world was collapsing into itself, the streak of the stars in the unbroken ink of space glimmering in the viewport.  The dimness around him was magnifying the vast expanse until it was all he could see.

"- not something I excel - had few alternatives -"

And suddenly Tony was through the wormhole and he was alone, and there was nothing but death around him.  The vice of the approaching end sat on his chest like an anvil.  He couldn't breathe.

"Tony?" he heard dimly, and the floor vibrated with the thump of footsteps.  Tony tried to take that in, remember that he was safe, that he wasn't alone after all. 

Of course he wasn't; the sorcerer who'd just high-jacked his brain was with him.  Panic tripped over itself into sheer terror.

"- wrong?"

"Boss -" and there was FRIDAY, her mechanical voice an urgent, broken balm, "- rate - dangerously high -" 

"- alright?"

And he wasn't alright, of course he wasn't.  He couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe -

Something slammed into Tony, hard enough to knock him sideways, and the impact was like a punch to the gut.  Air whooshed out of his lungs, which reminded his body he had them in the first place, and he gasped in a breath.  And then another, and another after that, panting as numbness tingled in his fingers and toes, the sparkles at the edge of his vision warning him he was seconds away from passing out.

Stephen's face came into view a moment later, looking surprised.

"Tony," he said.  "Are you alright?"

"Am I alright?" Tony rasped back, feeling the panic dissolving into ribbons of dull, throbbing pain.  "Am I - seriously?  Fuck you, Strange." He tried to sit up, but whatever had slammed into him was still there.  The weight against his arm was heavy.  It was straining; it was restraining, it was -

"Let him go," Stephen said, and a moment later the restraint was gone.  Tony sat up until he could tuck a knee hard against his chest, wheezing.

"Breathe," Stephen said, and he had a hand against Tony's back, firm and guiding.  Tony shoved him off.

"Don't touch me," he panted.

"Alright, I won't."  Stephen was crouched, both hands held out and to the side.  "I won't.  I'm sorry."

"What did I say," Tony rasped, "about apologies."

Stephen looked far too calm and steady for someone who'd just succeeded in momentarily taking over Tony's mind and body.  "Some things are worth apologizing for."

"Some things are worth never doing," Tony snarled.

"What, things like kidnapping?"

Tony glared at him speechlessly.

Stephen looked more than a little disturbed.  "It's never set you off like that before," he said, bizarrely. 

"Are you fucking kidding?"  Tony could feel his voice start to steady, the tremor in his hands slowly waning.  "In what world would that not set someone off?"

"This one," Stephen said.  "Usually."

Tony shook his head.  "FRIDAY, lights.  Get the lights."  The room obediently brightened, and the vice of anxiety ebbed just slightly further away. 

"Breathe slowly," Stephen said, clearly moderating his voice.  "In through the nose and out through the mouth.  Follow my count."  He started to tap a hand against the floor rhythmically.  Tony wanted to tell him where he could shove his counting, but it was surprisingly settling, so he just kept taking deep breaths at that pace until his vision stopped swimming like soup.  

"Better?" Stephen asked quietly.

"Don't expect me to thank you for it," Tony rasped.  He uncurled far enough to put both hands on the decking, twin points of cold anchoring him to the here and now.  "You're an idiot if you think that’s never happened in the other timelines.  You're not the first person to screw with my head.  There's no way that could ever not set me off.”

"Not the first person," Stephen repeated blankly. 

"The first, I killed,” Tony said bluntly.  He punched out a hard laugh at the sickening realization on Stephen’s face.  “The second turned out to be an ally; go figure.  I still never turned my back on her afterward.  If you never saw this happen before, it's only because I never wanted you to."

"I'm sorry," Stephen said, entirely sincerely.  It didn't make Tony feel an ounce more charitable.  "Truly."

Tony pressed a hand hard against his chest, grimacing.  "Tell it to my heart.  Two years off my life, at least."

"How long have you been prone to panic attacks?" Stephen asked.

"None of your fucking business.  You don't get to ask about my tendency for them after setting one off."

Stephen shook his head slowly.  "This wasn't my intention."

"Famous last words from idiots everywhere," Tony snapped.  He blew out a breath, forcing himself to look around his rage until he could see the logic on the other side.  "Myself included.  Caught up in my own need to know.  I shouldn't have pushed."

"No, you shouldn't have."  Stephen held out one hand between them, palm up.  "May I touch you now?"

Tony eyed him warily.  "Why?"

"I want to check your vitals."

"FRIDAY can do that," Tony said, sitting back on shaky legs. "FRI, read the doc my vitals."

"Heart -"

"No," Stephen interrupted.  "If you're willing, I'd prefer to take them myself."

"I'm not exactly feeling keen to indulge your whims, Stephen." 

Stephen kept one hand raised in carefully respectful enquiry.  “I was a doctor before I was a master of the mystic arts, and I took an oath to do no harm.  It took me too many futures to see what I was doing to you.”

“Then you’re unobservant on top of being an idiot,” Tony muttered.

”I admit it was a mistake,” Stephen said evenly.  “I won’t willingly hurt you again, now or ever.  And your A.I can tell you whether or not I mean that.”

He said it as if he was granting magnanimous permission, but Tony was way ahead of him.  He hadn’t taken his eyes off FRIDAY’s data since walking onto the bridge.  Tony gave it another moment of prickly silence before eventually nodding.

Stephen was brisk and professional.  "Heart rate about normal for someone who's just had an attack.  Respiration's obviously elevated.  You're flushed, but cool in the extremities.  Excessive perspiration and involuntary tremors.  Any dizziness or nausea?"

"A little," Tony muttered.  Stephen nodded, sitting tentatively next to him.  Tony allowed it.

"Panic attacks," Stephen said quietly.  "That's unexpected."

"Surprise: Tony Stark has issues.  Other breaking news: aliens exist, and they really are out to get us.  Extra, extra, read all about it."

"Perhaps it’s surprising more superheroes don't have them, really," Stephen said.

"How do you know they don't?"  Tony scrubbed his hands roughly over his face.  "You could've just told me, you know.  Could've used little words, even.  Didn't have to give me the full demonstration."

"I didn't.  That spell can be used for far more terrible things."

"Thanks," Tony said.  "Now I feel much better."

Stephen shrugged, folding his long limbs in close.  "You weren't going to let it go without some tangible display.  You needed to see how completely inescapable that spell was.  I needed you to understand why I won't subject you to it again.  It's an awful violation."

"I'm surprised I could break free of it long enough to kill you," Tony said.

"So was I," Stephen said wryly.  "But somehow you always found a way."

"Congratulations, past alternate me," Tony said.  "Herein lies yet another object lesson.  I asked for this exhibition, so you get a pass this one time.  But we're both aware of the consequences now if you try that again.  Understood?"

Stephen let out a long, slow breath.  "Understood.”

Tony finally looked at the sorcerer, noticing his lack of red designer wear.  "Where the hell's your cape?  That was what knocked me over, right?"

Stephen nodded over Tony's shoulder.  He turned to find it floating there, twitching in a way that seemed almost uneasy.  Ridiculous, anthropomorphic cloak.

"Thank you," he told it, and glared when the thing actually folded it's upper half down and then up in a clear nod.  "You have to be kidding.  How human is that thing?"

"It's not human at all.  But it does have a personality.  All the old relics do."

"A name, a personality, and at least basic sentience.  If it's not human, it's alien.  If it joins the rest of the universe in trying to kill us, I'll be really pissed."  Tony unfolded himself into a less cramped, defensive position. "What are relics?"

"An explanation for another time, perhaps," Stephen said.

"Spoilsport.”

They sat in shared silence for a time, though eventually Stephen stirred.

"When did you first start to suspect?" he asked.

Tony sighed.  "I knew something was off when we installed the emitter.  You insisted Peter stay during the insertion.  You remember?"

"Of course."

"The kid obviously had no grasp of the phasing technology, or the nanotech, or even a basic first aid background to help if something went wrong.  But something about his being there could affect the outcome of the procedure.  The most reasonable explanation was you thought his presence might affect my actions or yours in some way.  I wasn't sure how, at the time, but it seems clear now you wanted to deter me from killing you in front of him."

Stephen hesitated, but eventually nodded silent confirmation. 

"Did it work, before?"

"Usually," Stephen said.  "You're very protective of him."

"Peter?"

Stephen nodded.

"Well, someone has to be," Tony muttered defensively.  "Kid has no survival instincts to speak of.  Always getting into trouble.  If I'd known how much gray hair he'd give me, I never would've recruited him.  I may need that incantation of yours soon."

"He's good for you," Stephen commented.  He raised a hand, skimming it down one side of Tony's face without quite touching, the warmth of his hovering fingers burning like a brand.  Tony jerked away, startled.  "Gray hair and all."

"The kid's a good influence," Tony agreed, leaning warily back.  He breathed through a sudden, unexpected surge of adrenaline, warmed all the way to the tips of his fingers and toes.  "Or some kind of influence, anyway.  He'd make the cut.  I wonder if you would."

Stephen glanced at him sideways.  "The cut?"

Tony ignored him.  "I suppose if I meet FRIDAY's criteria, you probably do too.  I'm willing to die or kill to win.  You were only willing to lie, threaten, and coerce."

Stephen turned fully to face him, then, curiosity in every line of his face.  "Criteria for what?"

Tony shook his head.  He'd exhausted his ability for explanations today.  It was clear both of them variously succeeded and failed at being good men.  Only time would tell how closely they managed to stay true to the course.

Chapter Text

Tony managed to keep his distance from Stephen for almost two weeks. 

It wasn't easy.  The ship was a confined space, probably medium-sized as far as spaceships went, but naturally too small for any two people to avoid one another indefinitely.  Tony grimly made it work.

It wasn't that he had anything against the sorcerer, really.  Tony never quite trusted anyone these days, having been burned too many times before.  So there was little lost in knowing what he now did.  It was actually Stephen's calm acceptance of Tony's murderous tendencies that aggravated him the most.  Tony would much rather the sorcerer fight him on that one; then he could spend more time arguing with Stephen about it, instead of arguing with himself.  For one of the first times in his life, Tony almost wondered if it was better not to know something.

On the other hand, the truth was now out about FRIDAY's invasive surveillance skills.  Tony's paranoia was out in the open for all to see and, shockingly, Stephen had yet to make any objection to it, and even seemed content to let it go on unchallenged.  The unbelievable result of that was a part of Tony he hadn't even known existed, unexpectedly - relaxing.

Not having to prove the validity of his mistrust was a new and bizarre sensation for Tony.  For all Pepper and Rhodey were his closest family and friends, they believed in a world where the good guys did good things, and the bad guys did bad things, and there was very rarely anything in-between.  Those two always baulked when Tony took steps to protect himself; steps like wearing a nanotech housing unit (just in case, Pep), or not operating within any branch of the government (correction: corrupt government, Rhodey).  They certainly would've disapproved of Tony surveilling a mostly-ally.  Somehow Stephen's acceptance of Tony's compulsive suspicion did more to save the peace between them than anything else the man could've said or done.

It was almost freeing.

Peter clued in quickly to the increased tension, even though there was no blatant clash of titans where he could see.  At first he tried asking Tony about it, but he gave that up after just a few days.  If he asked Stephen, Tony never found out.  Either way, the kid kept any answers he found firmly to himself, and a fragile peace quietly grew between them.

Of course peace, fragile or otherwise, never seemed to last for very long, so Tony shouldn't have been surprised when it ended abruptly during the second week.  It was about that time that the engine blew up.

Though, technically, it didn't blow up.  It just overheated to the point of melting one of the primary intake manifolds.  And nearly crashed them into a small moon when they dropped unexpectedly out of light speed.

"Catch!" Tony called, throwing a sheet of scrap metal behind him and over his shoulder as high as he could.  He didn't hear it hit the ground coming down, so clearly Stephen was keeping a wary eye out for flying debris.

"How much more can you possibly get rid of?" the sorcerer asked.  His voice echoed resonantly in the large, empty chamber of the engine room.  "It looks like there's enough here to build a second ship."

"My point exactly," Tony said.  "Their redundant material’s ridiculous.  Severity of the heat damage, we can't even reuse most of it."

The ship hadn't been designed to stay in constant operation for as long as it had, so possibly Tony should've been on the lookout for something like this occurring.  Still, it was clear that faulty technical design was the culprit for most of their predicament.

"Seriously, who designs an engine for a spaceship and then doesn't create a sufficient thermal management system to support it?"

"I don't know," Stephen said.  "But I suspect I'm about to find out."

Tony ignored him, grunting as he tore out bundles of unneeded cabling.  "Bad engineers, that's who.  Thanos should take whoever they were out and have them shot.  Hell, maybe he did.  Rightfully so."

Stephen sighed.  "If he catches us, perhaps that can be your sales pitch.  Spare the universe and I'll fix your conquering space fleet.  No charge."

Tony paused long enough to wipe away the sweat beading on his forehead.  He was probably getting grease everywhere, but he was too exhausted to care.  The room was blisteringly hot with the engine panels removed for cleaning and repair.  "If this ship is any example?  That almost sounds like an even trade."

"I doubt he'll be interested in your expert opinion of his fleet." 

"You're just saying that because you don't realize how badly screwed his fleet is.  Thanos should be ashamed to be seen in it.”

Tony crawled out of the maintenance compartment for a drink of water and narrowly avoided a box of damaged access panels as it went flying past him at eye-level.  He looked up to see Stephen hovering four feet off the ground, calmly directing discarded bundles of material into a growing trash heap on one side of the room.  Unlike Tony, he had nary a hair out of place, and he looked as clean and cool as any magical cucumber. 

"We could tag team it," Tony said.  He watched as three rods of rebar that each weighed almost as much as Peter went merrily floating by.  "I'll offer to fix the fleet, you offer to do the heavy lifting.  Literally.  You can lift the heavy things.  You have some skill at it."

"Presuming Thanos manages to enact his plan and still agrees to spare our lives, we might end up press ganged into his crew and repairing his fleet anyway."

Tony huffed.  "Raining on my parade, doc.  I was having a moment there."

"A moment of delusion," Stephen muttered.

"Delusion, inspiration, innovation.  Amazing how often those things get confused."  Tony picked up a nearby cloth, dampening it to scrub over the back of his neck.  "Know what I'm not inspired by?  This heat.  It's starting to remind me of how we spent our last vacation."  He glared at Stephen suspiciously.  "How are you not dying in your sparkly wizard's robes over there?  Are you holding out on me again?"

Stephen looked down at his outfit speculatively.  "At no point does my clothing involve sparkles."

"Obvious misdirection is obvious."  Tony beckoned impatiently.  "Give."

"I haven't used a spell," Stephen said, coming down to ground level.  "I'm simply working more efficiently than you are."

"You're cheating with magic, is what you're doing," Tony said.  "I want in."

Stephen sighed loudly, pretending to check his cuffs as he dallied.  He had gloves on today, tan leather ones that somehow made his outfit more dramatically magical than normal.  Tony suspected a spell of some kind.

Tony kept glaring at him, and eventually Stephen gave up his dramatic posturing and approached with an expectant look on his face.  Tony plucked out a hair without being asked and handed it over.  He watched as the sorcerer sketched a familiar geometric image, the shape of the spell crystallizing in a shower of sparks.  Stephen held the completed spell out, stopping with it halfway between them, waiting for Tony to take it.  Or not to take it.

Tony stared at it.  He'd demanded the spell mostly on a whim, and at least in part to be contrary.  Now that it was down to him accepting it, the moment seemed more weighty than he'd intended, as if by taking it he was acknowledging an unwritten agreement between them: good or bad, I trust you and your magic at least this far.

It was enough to make Tony wish FRIDAY's scans of Stephen's magic were more comprehensive.  Maybe then this wouldn't feel so beyond his control. 

But, well.  No one'd ever said Tony got to where he was by being overly cautious.  He took the array of orange fire from Stephen and silently collapsed the spell between two hands, shaking them off as the tingle of dispersing magic spread through his fingers.  The relief from discomfort was almost instantaneous. 

"Thanks," he said, grudgingly, and felt something slot unexpectedly into place.

"You're welcome," Stephen said, and there was a weight in his eyes too.  Or maybe he was just staring.

"What?" Tony asked, feeling oddly exposed.

Stephen hummed, blinking.  "You have fibrous tufts in your hair."

"I have what?"

The wizard plucked a white patch of material from Tony's shoulder, telegraphing his movements clearly enough Tony didn't flinch back.  He blinked at the cluster of silky strands Stephen let fall between them in demonstration.

"Huh."  Tony examined it, picking out the material properties as FRIDAY streamed him sensor readings over the glasses. 

"What is it?"

"Insulation from the wiring.  I think."  He backed up to put both hands in his hair and scrub viciously.  Small clouds of particulate immediately sloughed off, leaving him in a ring of glittering dust debris. 

Stephen crouched down for a closer look.  "You've had your head underneath that console since we started.  Is it harmful to breathe in?"

"No?"

"Was that a question?"

"The individual properties don't set off any red flags.  Then again, they thought asbestos insulation was harmless too."

Stephen picked up a handful, sifting it through his fingers.  He frowned.  "We should check your lungs, just to be sure."  He made an abortive reach for something and then a noise of frustration.  "Not that I brought a stethoscope with me."  He glanced at the ceiling.  "FRIDAY?"

"I detect minute traces of particulate in Mr. Stark's lungs."

"Hey," Tony said.

Stephen ignored him.  "How is the tissue managing it?  The cilia?"

"I detect no abnormalities.  They seem to be expelling it without obstruction."

"Who said you could scan my lungs without permission?"  Tony protested.

Now it was FRIDAY's turn to ignore him.  "My analysis shows no toxicity, though I recommend avoiding long-term exposure."

"A half-face respirator could be helpful," Stephen said thoughtfully.  "Can one be constructed for use?"

"There should be no difficulty utilizing the nanotech for such a device."

"I'm still standing right here," Tony remarked.

Stephen turned to regard him narrowly.  "Standing there when you should be making a breathing apparatus."

"That sounds like an awesomely uncomfortable thing to wear."

"I'd imagine not breathing would be more uncomfortable."

"Always so dramatic."  Tony let the tech flow over his hands until it had completed a reasonable working model of a respirator.  "There, happy now?"

"Overjoyed," Stephen said.

Tony fit the mask over his mouth, reshaping the breather as he did so to allow speech.  "FRIDAY, inform our friendly neighbourhood spiderling he needs to have his suit on while he sorts this shit."

"On it, boss."

Stephen prowled around the nearest console, examining one of the ship's schematics.  "Is he still in the cargo bay?"

"Yep."  As the only other person onboard remotely familiar with engineering components, Tony'd sent the kid away with the first batch of scraps to salvage what they could.  "I caught him spider-napping earlier.  Let him have a couple hours before I had FRIDAY cut the line on his hammock.  Speaking of FRIDAY, when did the two of you get so chummy?"  Now equipped to brave the apparently hostile depths of the engine again, Tony slipped underneath a floor panel to continue stripping unnecessary parts.  "FRI, I thought we had something special.  Don't tell me you're cheating on me with a newer, flashier model."

"Never, boss," FRIDAY said.

"I've been teaching her first aid," Stephen explained placidly.  "It's required a few intimate discussions, long walks in the moonlight, that sort of thing.  Our relationship's grown by leaps and bounds, you could say."

Tony paused with his hands wrapped around a redundant support pylon and scrambled back up so he could poke his head into the open again.  "You what?"

"She's building a database of basic medical procedures," Stephen said.  He'd folded back into a lotus position and was hovering somewhere near the ceiling.  "She already knows the anatomy and the appropriate texts for reference.  She doesn't have the adaptive intuition necessary for complex care, but she's quickly mastering the basics." 

"You're teaching her medicine," Tony repeated flatly.  He stared at Stephen suspiciously.  "Why?"

"Because she's a brilliant learning system," Stephen said, almost fondly.  "And because I can."

Tony stared at him for a solid minute, searching for any sign of deceit.  He couldn't remember the last time someone other than Peter had spoken with such open admiration about one of his A.I's.  He'd always been proud of them; JARVIS, FRIDAY, even the earlier models like DUM-E and U.  It was just that so few others seemed to see the potential, and of those that did no one looked beyond the superficial to recognize the possibility of depth.  Tony hadn't realized Stephen could.  Most humans didn't want to see machines as having the potential to learn, to grow and become more.  If machines could do all that, they were too close to being people.

Then again, FRIDAY had saved Stephen's life.  Things like that were known to make a lasting impression on a person.

"Hear that, FRI?" Tony said finally, resting a hand on top of the floor panelling, pushing into the hard surface firmly to still the insistent pound of his heart.  "You're brilliant."

"I'm aware," FRIDAY said serenely. 

Tony blinked slowly, taking that in.  "Just don't let it go to your head."

"That won't be a problem," she said.  "I don't have one."

Tony squinted at Stephen, who squinted back.  "I can't decide if she's joking or not.  That could be dramatic irony, or total sincerity.  What do you think?"

Stephen snorted.  "I think if you're surprised an A.I you created might be joking, you're more unobservant than I am."

Tony grumbled at this injustice.  "Next she'll be inheriting my love of fast cars and hard drinking.  Don't do it, FRI.  It's a trap."

"This ship is capable of light speed, and we've spent the majority of our time at that velocity," FRIDAY noted.  One of the consoles flickered to a navigational overlay to demonstrate their interrupted course and trajectory.  "Doesn't that meet one of those requirements?"

Tony moaned, banging his forehead against the floor.  "Why me?"

"Why not?" Stephen laughed from above, and the pylon Tony'd been reaching for soared past him and into the trash pile.

They spent the better part of four days with Tony wreaking havoc on the propulsion systems, ripping out substandard components to put better ones in place, reconfiguring what he could, working around what he couldn't.  Convincing the computer systems to utilize energy more efficiently and minimize overheating took somewhat longer.  Tony was starting to understand the science behind the alien technology, but he was still some distance away from being able to totally recode any of the primary subsystems.

"Peter, hand me that coupler."

"Which one?"

Tony swung out from beneath one of the consoles to find the kid staring at him blankly.

"Round cylinder, two attachments, left-hand side."

Peter handed him an instrument that fit the description.  Tony frowned at in bewilderment.

"No, the other cylinder with two attachments."

Peter gave him another one.  Tony tossed that over his shoulder.

"No, the - you know what, never mind."  He dragged himself entirely out, stretching his knees painfully in front of him.  "Maybe it was two cylinders with one attachment.  I think I'm starting to see double."

Peter's eyes widened, partly in genuine concern, but mostly Tony suspected in mischief.  He held up his hand in a peace sign.  "How many fingers do you see?"

"One," Tony said, and flipped him the bird.

Peter laughed.

"It might be time for a break," Tony admitted, working some loud kinks out of his back.  "Ow.  I can't actually remember the last time I ate."  He made a face.  "Or maybe I blocked it out.  Man can only eat so much jello before he goes mad."

"It's been eighteen hours since your last meal, boss," FRIDAY said.  "And I'm registering moderate dehydration.  I recommend full fluids and at least a half-ration of food."

Tony glared at the nearest console.  "FRIDAY, you're starting to sound suspiciously like a nurse.  Exactly whose brain child are you?"

"Doctor Strange has impressed on me the importance of proper nutritional hygiene."

"Of course he did," Tony muttered, quite sure the sorcerer had done it on purpose.  Like so many before him, Stephen had gradually come to realize Tony had a priority list in life that put machinery and work at the top, and personal wellness somewhere near the bottom.  As far as Tony was concerned, the sorcerer had no room to judge.  From what Tony'd seen of him so far, it was possible Stephen actually had the worst survival instincts of them all.

"I've calculated the frequency at which you consume the daily recommended intake of food and water," FRIDAY offered helpfully.

"I'll go out on a limb and guess it's bad."

"Less than eight percent, boss."

Tony pursued his lips thoughtfully.  "It could always be worse, FRI.  It could be zero."

There was no way to be sure, but Tony got the feeling FRIDAY's pointed silence was extremely disapproving.

"Come on, kid," he said to Peter, and the teenager scrambled up to his feet.  "Lunch time.  Or dinner time, whatever."

"I just woke up an hour ago," Peter said.  "I think it's morning?"

"I'm in no mood for your sass," Tony said, subtly checking the time.  The kid was right.  "You'll have dinner with me now and like it."

"Sure, Mr. Stark."

They'd determined the gelatin came in something like five subtle flavors.  Or possibly it was one flavor, with five color variations that they could then imagine tasted slightly different.  Either way, Tony chose the almost-green-maybe-lime and sat down at one of the dining tables where he could pretend to enjoy his meal. 

Across from him, Peter was valiantly trying to be stoic as he picked away at his mostly-red-possibly-cherry .

"What's with the long face?" Tony asked, shoveling in his food without tasting it.  "The red one's the best."

Peter slowly nudged his plate until it sat closer to Tony's side of the table than his.  "Want mine?"

"I think I've found the first major difference between you and Cap.  You know, aside from all the web-slinging, and the decade you were born in, and his general disdain for technology.  He couldn't throw away food if his life depended on it."

Peter looked curious.  "Did he have to eat a lot?"

"Well, yes.  But it was more his generation than his metabolism.  Depression-era, remember."  Tony pointed with a utensil at Peter's plate.  "You like chemistry, kid?  The chemical process to make that gelatin is sort of interesting."

"Really?" Peter asked dubiously.

"Scale of one to ten: somewhere in the fives.  It has seven vitamins and two minerals the human body doesn't actually need.  Thankfully the dose is small enough our kidneys can get rid of them.  And that they don't filter through the liver, since mine's pretty shot.  I'd probably already be dead."  Tony took a contemplative bite, musing out loud.  "When you think about it, the fact this stuff meets our nutritional needs at all is weird.  Wasn't originally meant for us."

Peter perked up, as he always did when the details of alien life came up in conversation.  Tony wasn't sure where the fascination came from, but he could vaguely recall being an excitable teen at one time in his life.  He imagined if he'd been abducted by aliens during his youth, he might've been a walking ball of curiosity too.

"Did you ever find out if there were more aliens on this ship?"  Peter asked, leaning forward eagerly.  "Where they went?"

"No idea," Tony admitted.  "Ship seems to be one of a larger complement, designed to dock to a home base at some point.  Actually, FRIDAY ran across a failsafe program just the other day.  Originally supposed to shut the ship down if it strayed too far, for too long.  Guess Thanos didn't trust his minions with his stuff.  Though I have no idea what he was worried about; Squidward seemed pretty damn loyal, as far as I could see."

"FRIDAY disabled it, right?"  Peter had a confident, expectant look on his face, and for the second time in a week Tony was wrong-footed by someone's reaction to his A.I. 

Tony was used to defending his bots from suspicion and censure; he wasn't used to the default response being one of genuine acceptance.  It was starting to give him a complex.

"Right," Tony said, blinking back to himself.  "Yeah.  First week onboard we disabled all the outgoing signals.  The 'go home'  function relied on tracking the mother ship; no tracking, no return course.  Isolated that little gem to one server and then dumped the whole thing down the garbage disposal.  They have redundant physical components up the wazoo, but no backup programming to speak of.  Amateurs."

"Computers were never really my thing," Peter admitted.  "I always asked Ned."  He hopped up on his heels to perch on the edge of his chair, tipping it back and to the side to balance it on one leg, full of youthful invincibility.  Tony scowled at him, tempted to reach out with his left foot and topple the whole thing over.

"Aren't you from Generation Z?  How can you not have picked up a bit of computer hacking?  It's practically on the school curriculum."

"Must've missed the lab again," Peter said cheerfully.  "I always liked science better anyway."

"Computers are a science," Tony insisted.

"Chemistry's the best, of course," Peter said right overtop him.  "I could use lab time to sneak out the materials I needed for my web formula."

Tony made a noise of curiosity.  "About that.  Interesting choices on the element combinations.  The methanol's a bit weird.  Why'd you pick it?"

Peter blinked at him with wide eyes while Tony silently finished off his dinner.  Eventually he pushed his plate away and leaned back in his chair, tipping it on two legs instead of one.  Tony was old and wise; he couldn't risk a broken bone the way the kid could.

Peter still looked shocked, so Tony kindly tapped the side of his glasses, waggling both eyebrows.

"Oh!" Peter said.  "Oh, I totally forgot about those!  It's, well.  The methanol, yeah, it's.  A work in progress?"  He trailed off weakly.  His flush was almost painfully shy and uncertain. 

Tony took pity on him and reminded himself it was bad to tease hero-worshipping teenagers. If Stephen found out, he'd probably make Tony pay for it in terrible and creative ways.

"I'm impressed," Tony admitted candidly.  "And maybe a little jealous I didn't come up with it first."

Peter's whole face lit up like someone had turned on a light behind his eyes.  "Really?"

"Yep.  I'd like a closer look at your thought process, if you don't mind filling me in a bit."

"Of course!  But don't you know it already?  I mean?"  He gestured at Tony's face, the glasses there.

"I know the properties.  I don't know the why or how, or even when.  Organic chemistry was never my strong suit, anyway.  I was always more Zen with the physical sciences."  He tilted his head thoughtfully.  "We need to setup that tutoring session we were talking about."

"When?"  Peter looked thoroughly delighted at the prospect.  Tony had never imagined seeing anyone so excited over what amounted to school.

"It'll be at least a week before I'm finished with the engine, and we'll need to do another milk run for supplies somewhere in there before I can complete fabrication."  He could almost see the joy starting to seep into Peter's bones and continued quickly before it could set in.  "Don't get any ideas, kid.  Between that and the suit, the mineral deposits I need are substantial.  Unless we want to spend weeks digging up deposits on another planet, I'm better off finding a suitable asteroid field somewhere."

"Oh."  Joy gave way to tragic disappointment.

"Take heart, Peter.  We're bound to run out of food and water sometime."

The kid brightened up considerably at that, which was a bit worrying, really.  Peter had some strange priorities.

"A week today," Tony decided.  "You, me, science.  We'll do a thing."

"Great!" Peter said, once again back in his happy place.  Tony suppressed a smile at the resilience of youth.

"Also, in the name of science," Tony continued.  "When we get back to Earth, I need you to patent your web formula.  That's some phenomenal intellectual property, and it needs protecting."

"You think so?"  Peter fidgeted, leaning forward even further, possibly just to show off how completely he could defy gravity.  "But aren't patents public?"

Tony slanted one hand back and forth.  "Technically, yes.  Your name would be on it, so if you're not ready to come out of the superhero closet, that might present an interesting challenge.  I'll make an appointment for you to sit down with my legal team; they can give you your options."

"You'd do that?"  Peter smiled bashfully.  "You don't have to.  I never really thought about patenting it before.  I mean, it wasn't about the money, and really, who'd want it?"

"Stark Industries, for one," Tony said bluntly, and even though it was the truth, he said it mostly to catch another look at Peter's radiant grin.  "Ultimately, if you don't want your name on it, S.I can buy it off you.  But you'd make more if you licensed the formula for use."

"You don't have to buy it," Peter insisted.  "You gave me this suit!  I should just -"

"Peter," Tony interrupted firmly.  "No.  Bad spider.  Don't make me get out the Raid.  Inventors never give away their creations for free.  Do I have to teach you basic business etiquette on top of science?"

"You haven't actually taught me any science yet," Peter pointed out.

"Because I was mortally wounded by your failure to acknowledge the superior science of computers."

Peter dropped the smile to roll his eyes, which as far as Tony was concerned was almost as good.

Tony was reluctant to insert some sobriety into the moment.  But.  "Fair warning, though.  The most lucrative proposals you'll get will probably be military, most likely offensive contracts."

Peter frowned, suddenly wary.  "What?  Why?  What for?"

Tony looked at him skeptically.  "You're telling me you made the formula from scratch and can't think of how it could be used as a weapon?"

"No, that's," Peter fumbled.  "I mean, obviously, yes.  I use it that way sometimes.  But not in, like, any kind of lethal way, it can't be used like that.  I don't care how much they pay."

Tony felt some small, distant part of him relax.  He hadn't really been worried that Peter might agree to have his invention used as a weapon, but sometimes money had a way of blinding people, and more importantly the kid wasn't used to navigating the shark-infested waters of the business world.  Thankfully, he had a mentor looking out for his best interests.  Two, really, although Stephen could hardly claim to be a successful millionaire these days, penniless as he was.

"Good," Tony said briskly.  "S.I realigned its operational model in 2008 after there was a -" death "- change of management.  Stopped weapons production.  So your patent with a non-negotiable clause on weaponization would fit right in.  Even if S.I doesn't buy it from you, we can probably shelter you under one of my subsidiaries."

"You say it so offhandedly," Stephen said from the doorway, "but I saw that press conference live.  Realigned its operational model?  More like Tony Stark walked into the room and decided weapons no longer suited him."

"Well," Tony demurred.  "Sort of.  Iron Man is a weapon, and it literally suits me.  I designed it personally, and technically that means S.I designed it personally.  So there's one exception to S.I's rule."

"I suppose they have to allow their former CEO some leeway," Stephen said, leadingly.

Peter turned to look at him with wide eyes.  "Are you not the CEO of Stark Enterprises?"  He looked shocked.  "But I thought?"

Tony shook his head.  "It's Industries, and nope.  Do you know how much paperwork CEO's have to do, kid?  Was happy to let that one go to Pepper.  Guess that happened before your time, too."

"Quite an achievement for Virginia Potts," Stephen remarked, coming over to their table after making a selection for his meal.  Somewhat-blue-probably-raspberry.  As he sat, Tony noticed he blended more into their surroundings today; his red cape was missing.  "I understand before that she was your personal assistant?" 

There was no insinuation in Stephen's voice, no hint of disrespect, but Tony felt his hackles rising anyway.  He couldn't help but bristle defensively.

"Pep's more than qualified for the position," he said sharply.  "She's done well by S.I."

"She certainly has," Stephen said, and Tony deflated.  "Considering how your stock plummets every time you end up missing or presumed dead, she must be some kind of miracle worker to keep that company afloat."

"Excuse you, every time I come back it rebounds with interest."  Tony drummed his fingers on the table, then admitted:  "And I always hold back a few shiny new toys for occasions I need to boost quarterly profit margins."

"Of course you do," Stephen muttered.  "Your board must hate you.  Speaking of which, I'm surprised they had no objections when you changed the company's business model after Afghanistan."  Stephen had a look on his face that was very knowing.

Tony bared his teeth, thoughts of Obadiah too near the surface to be comfortable.  "They warmed up to it."

"I'm glad," Stephen said, which derailed Tony's building anger again.  That was two in a row.  He was starting to think Stephen did it on purpose; sneakily used honesty to deflate confrontation before it could occur.  Or maybe that was just how normal people spoke to each other.  It was always so difficult to tell, neither one of them being very normal to begin with.

Tony wanted to be annoyed at Stephen's tactics, but that was probably too petty, even for him.

"A patent's probably an excellent idea for Peter's web formula," Stephen said, turning to speak directly to the teenager.  "You might get some interest from the medical community, if you speak to the right people.  A bonding agent with that kind of adhesive strength that degrades over time could have any number of applications.  I know a few doctors who can think outside the box."

Tony raised both eyebrows appraisingly.  Medicine; that was an interesting thought.

Peter lit right back up, completely invested at the thought his creation could help save lives on the mundane as well as the heroic level.  He and Stephen started a discussion on different functions for the webbing and Tony tuned out the words, letting the drone of their lively voices stream past him.  He closed his eyes.

"Tony."

He was floating peacefully on something, surrounded by indistinct shapes, maybe clouds.  That was nice; lately, when Tony hovered anywhere, it was in a dark expanse of stars.  Stars were so hostile.  He wouldn't mind being surrounded by the gentle obscurity of clouds instead.  He trailed his fingers through the air, catching on vapour like gossamer silk.

"Tony."

Someone was with him, but Tony wasn't alarmed; the voice was a familiar one.  He wondered how there could be a voice in the clouds.  Who else but Iron Man could be flying through the air?  Thor?  No, it couldn't be Thor, that made no sense.

Actually, none of this made sense.  How could he be touching the air if he was flying in the Iron Man suit?  Or, if he was touching the air, was he out of the suit?  But then, how was he flying?

"Tony."

He came awake with a start, instinctively reaching for the hand approaching his shoulder.  He wrapped his fingers tight around a wide, fine-boned wrist, the nanotech crawling out to half-form the chest plate, speedily inching up his shoulder and arm.

"No need for that," Stephen said quietly.  He made no move to pull away, even though Tony was holding him hard enough to hurt.  "It's just me."

Tony hesitated, the line between reality and sleep blurring the edges of his world just enough to cloud his judgement.  Stephen didn't move, letting him work it out in his own time.  His stillness more than anything was what allowed Tony to draw the suit back.

"Just you," Tony repeated, letting his fingers slip away from Stephen.  "Couple weeks ago, 'just you' was crawling around in my brain, trying to make a point."

"That was a couple weeks ago," Stephen said.  He withdraw his hand politely, tucking it down at his side.  "And I was the one who said you should let it go."

Tony shrugged.  "Fair enough.  A word to the wise: if you plan to keep all your limbs in good working order, don't sneak up on me again." 

"I didn't sneak," Stephen said.  "You fell asleep in the middle of breakfast."

"It was dinner."

Stephen settled leaning against the table in front of Tony.  He realized he'd zoned out basically in the remnants of his meal, and in a ridiculous part-reclined position, ass halfway down the chair like he was back in university again with his mind anywhere but where it should be.

"Yes, FRIDAY told me," Stephen said.

Tony refocused.  "Told you what?"

The sorcerer silently held out a glass.

"FRI, you're turning into a snitch," Tony muttered.  He accepted the water with poor grace, but drained it dry.  His mouth felt like a bone yard.  Stephen must have anticipated that would be the case, because when Tony finished and looked up, he silently held out a second glass.  Tony took that one too.

"Thanks," he said grudgingly.

"Let me help you to bed," Stephen said, instead of offering a simple 'you're welcome', which would've been a gracious and much less bizarre expression of courtesy.

Tony stared at him, the water paused halfway to his mouth.  "What?"

"You need to sleep."

Tony finished off the second glass mostly to have something to do with his hands.  "I realize that.  What I'm confused by is your assumption I need help to make that happen."

"Not at all," Stephen said.  "It looks to me like you could sleep anywhere, really."

"There you go making jokes again.  Between you and FRI, it's practically a conspiracy."

"Only practically?"

Tony gestured at him triumphantly.  "See what I mean?"  He started to stand and heard at least two distinct pops.  He glared at Stephen, daring him to say a word.

The wizard put up both hands in a universal sign of peace, but Tony could see his lips twitching.

"Just you wait, Stephen," Tony said, levering the rest of the way up.  "You're not that far off, I promise."

Stephen held up one hand, the faint tremors a permanent fixture they could both see shaking through the limb.  "It's not my joints I worry about each morning."

"You will.  It'll be something to distract you from your hands, something new.  Won't that be fun?"

Stephen stood up straight, clearly intent on joining Tony for the short jaunt to his quarters.

"Look, doc, I'm sure I can take it from here," Tony said, trying not to feel like an old man as he hobbled toward the door, past injuries and the indignity of age flaring up sharply after his nap.  "Where'd the kid get to?"

"History lessons with FRIDAY."

Tony stopped.  "What, really?"

Stephen shrugged.  "Peter takes his studies seriously.  He asked me for tutoring in bio-science last month.  And I'm sure FRIDAY's far more suited to handle history than either of us."

Tony couldn't suppress the slow ripple of pride that curled itself warm and solid in his chest.  He fought back a smile, then realized there was really no reason to. 

"So far all I've managed to teach him is poker," Tony said, resuming his walk.

"Hopefully not how to lose at it," Stephen murmured.

"Hey, I'll have you know I'm a great poker player.  The two of you are just card sharks or something.  Don't bother denying it."

Stephen didn't bother gracing that with an answer, and they strode briskly through the dimly lit corridors of the ship.

The silence was almost dangerously comfortable.  It could've been because Tony was half asleep, but it might also be that Tony was genuinely starting to get used to the sorcerer in his space, the same way he'd become used to other super-powered individuals being in his space through the years.  That hadn't always worked out well for Tony.  He reminded himself that Stephen was only in his space because Tony had kidnapped him.  Then he spent the rest of the walk wondering how it was they didn't spend more time fighting about that.  The answer was almost certainly: Stephen.  It was a well known fact, biographically published, even, that Tony started fights and wouldn't know how to back away from one even if his life depended on it.

When they came around the corner to Tony's quarters, he stopped abruptly.  Stephen kept going a few steps before he paused to glance back in enquiry.  Tony jerked his head down the hall, staring.

Stephen glanced back at Tony's room and choked off a startled bark of a laughter.  Tony blinked at him for some kind of explanation.

Stephen declined to provide one, even though in front of Tony's door, Stephen's red cape was floating in ominous judgement, a silent sentinel weaving gently from side to side.  It seemed entirely unbothered by their presence, moving neither toward them nor further away.  It looked like a headless Halloween costume, and it was possible one wrong move might set it off.  Tony was definitely not in the mood for this.

"This isn't going to be like a bear protecting its den, is it?" Tony asked warily.  "Has it decided to make a nest in my room?  Please tell me that thing doesn't make nests.  What is it doing?  And why is it doing it here?"

"The cloak is a fickle thing sometimes."  Stephen looked like he couldn't decide between exasperation, irritation, or amusement; possibly all three.  "I'm sure it has its reasons."

"Reasons for what?  The hell's that supposed to mean?"

Stephen shook his head.  He made a firm, beckoning gesture, but the thing didn't move.

"Wow," Tony remarked.  "I can see you've got it trained well.  I get that this is probably some weird 'asserting dominance' ritual, but could we somehow move it along?  Some of us are on hour fifty-something, and desperately need to sleep."

"Well, you heard him," Stephen said, and he wasn't speaking to Tony.  "Best to let the only person who can fix the engine get some rest before he puts another hole in this ship.  This one accidental."  He beckoned again and this time the flamboyant garment flew over, settling easily atop his shoulders.  Usually the thing reminded Tony of a dog, but just then it seemed almost cat-like, wrapping itself proprietarily back into Stephen's personal space.

"What, did you send it to make sure the coast was clear?" Tony asked.  "I have news for you; there's only three people on this ship.  Famous though I may be, there's no need to clear the corridors for me.  I give you permission to axe that custom for the duration of our voyage together."

"How gracious," Stephen said.  "I'll have to bear that in mind."

A surprisingly heavy silence settled for just a moment between them, a blip as they circled cautiously like wolves, reminded after an easy stroll and some banter that in fact they did have things to be wary of.  Then they mutually took a step apart, Tony tapping for entry at his quarters while Stephen moved off.

"Well, thanks for the escort, doc.  Who knows what kind of trouble I might've ran into if you hadn't been there."

"Hardly bears thinking about," Stephen agreed, already starting to turn away.  "Rest well."

"You too," Tony said automatically, sighing when the sorcerer laughed.  Right, it was morning, and apparently Tony's internal clock was screwed. 

Not much different from being back home, really.

"Goodnight, oh wizard," Tony said, and his door slid shut decisively between them.

"FRIDAY," Tony said as he started to disrobe blearily.  "We really need to talk about how free you've been with my information."

"Boss?"

"You're giving away all my dirty little secrets."

"Which ones, boss?" she asked.

Tony sighed, the conversation feeling like far more trouble than it was worth.  Bed was calling him, and it wasn't using gentle words.  "Can't remember.  Ask me in the morning."

"It's morning now, boss."

Tony didn't bother answering, collapsing face first on to his mattress. 

"Any luck finding that asteroid belt yet?" he slurred, eyes closed.

"Yes.  I've located one with the correct compositional makeup in a nearby star system.  It should take us less than three days to navigate there."

"Good.  Great.  G'night, FRI.  Sleep now."

"Goodnight, boss."

His last thought was a brief rising memory of clouds in an otherwise empty expanse, and the feeling of flight with comfortably familiar voices droning on about - broken bones and fibreglass casts?

Then everything fell into soft, seductive silence, and sleep swept him gently away.

Chapter Text

It was very quiet in space. 

Tony'd been aware from the moment he set FRIDAY the task of finding him an asteroid field that he was going to end up in space vacuum.  It was the best and only option they had, since the ship naturally lacked the ability to mine asteroids on its own, and Tony was the only one with repulsor navigation.  He'd resigned himself to the constant state of low-grade anxiety to follow; really, at this point it was so habitual it was borderline tedious.  Exposure therapy at its finest.

He'd made contingencies.  FRIDAY had full access to the nanotech, and she had instructions if Tony's brain went walkabout at any point.  This time, he'd sternly forbidden her from sharing her readings with their overly solicitous physician.

FRIDAY hadn't voiced her disapproval, but Tony had no doubt it was there.  Her silence was very loud.

So, certainly Tony'd been expecting some challenges on this most mundane of missions.  He'd planned for them, and considered all possible ways to mitigate them.

He hadn't accounted for the tenacity and determination of his fellow exiles.

"Coming in for a landing," Peter shouted.  Tony looked up in time to see the kid go soaring over his head, doing a slow barrel roll and a diving hop to an asteroid a hundred yards off.

"Peter, stop that.  If you miss your mark and force me to come get you, I'll be mildly annoyed."

"Please don't," Stephen agreed.  "His mild annoyance would probably ruin my whole week."

"No probably about it, doc.  I live to make you miserable."

"You do seem to have a talent for it."

"Flatterer."

Tony was distracted as Peter went swimming by again, lazily flipping end over end through zero gravity.  The kid hadn't let his lack of repulsors work against him; far from it.  Tony cleared his throat sternly.  "Spiderling, work now, play later.  We still have half a cargo bay to fill."

"Sorry," Peter said, though of course he sounded anything but.  He flailed back into a semi-upright position, from Tony's perspective, and crouched down on the first asteroid he came into contact with.  "This is just so cool."

"Preaching to the choir, kid.  Now start loading up."

"Aye aye, Captain Stark, sir!" Peter said brightly, straightening into a crisp, formal salute.

Tony pinched his eyes shut, sighing.  Peter hadn't stopped babbling about captains and treasure and black pearls ever since they'd arrived and Tony made the fatal error of cracking a pirate joke.  But he honestly hadn't been able to help himself.  Finding an untapped goldmine of raw minerals and precious metals just waiting to be plundered - it'd practically begged for a pirate pun.

Stephen made a noise of consideration over the communicator.  "The bay's clear and ready for round three." 

Unlike Tony and Peter, the sorcerer had no access to an airtight suit, so he was fully confined to the ship.  Tony got the impression the sorcerer rather preferred it that way.

"Great," Tony said.  "FRIDAY, start processing the iron and carbon.  I want a stock to replace what we used in the engine."

"And for me?" Stephen asked politely.  "Any new orders, Captain Sparrow?  Oh, sorry.  Stark."

"Yes," Tony said.  "Not that you'll follow them: shut up."

Stephen's laughter faded to static, fuzzing briefly as the signal attenuated.  The presence of so many heavy metals was playing havoc with their readouts. 

Tony cut off a new section of material with a laser, repulsing it in Peter's direction.

"Catch, kid."

"Going long!" Peter said excitedly, and made a heroic leap that naturally faded into slow motion as his momentum fizzled.  He easily caught the giant piece of stone and metal and let it spin him into a flip, cheering as he did so.

"And the crowd goes wild," Tony said flatly, though he thought his smile might've accidentally leaked through.

Peter waited until the rotation brought him back into alignment with one of the asteroids.  Then he kicked off, zooming back to his former position.  "Touchdown!"

"You're having way too much fun over there," Tony said, tossing him two more deposits.  "Stop that.  It's suspicious."

Stephen snorted.  "The number of times I've wanted to say that to you."

Peter loaded the new materials with a flourish.  When open, the mobile storage container they were using reminded Tony mostly of a very large shoe box with wings.  Peter insisted it looked like a boat, as long as one squinted at it sideways and didn't think about it too much.

"You're about full up, kid," Tony said, watching weight ratios tick up over the HUD.  "Time to send you packing.  Buckle up."

Peter patted the side of the container almost fondly.  "I'll batten down the hatches."

"What were you, a sailor in another life?  Stephen, Peter's incoming.  ETA twelve minutes."

"Oh Captain, my Captain," Stephen said.

"I hate you."

Peter hopped onboard the container, reaching over to either side to disengage the stationary magnetic locks.  As it floated free, the kid settled with one hand on a hip and one foot propped on what would've been the prow of the ship.  He adjusted after a moment to the other foot, clearly going for the most dramatic pose.

"Really, Peter?"

"Avast!" the kid said, in a fierce growl that quickly dissolved into laughter.

"What does that even mean?" Tony asked.  "You made that up.  I refuse to believe that word can be used in a sentence.  FRIDAY, take Peter and his juvenile sense of humor away."

"Aye aye, boss," FRIDAY said. 

Tony narrowed his eyes.  "Stephen," he said ominously.

The sorcerer was trying and failing not to laugh.  "Don't look at me.  You created her.  I just provide her the comic material."

"I'm going to poke you with so many sharp sticks when I get back."

Peter started humming something distinct enough it was probably some type of theme song.  The container he was on moved into the distance, makeshift thrusters carrying it slowly away.  Tony shook his head, grumbling as he went back to work.

They'd been excavating the field for almost three days.  Its size and the scatter of material objects made it so they couldn't bring the ship close enough to load directly, so they'd had to devise a way of packing and ferrying the minerals back and forth.  Between the three of them, they'd made decent progress.  Tony hollowed out rock, Peter loaded and shuttled, and Stephen unloaded and sorted when it reached the cargo bay.  Their progress had waned a bit as Tony was forced to move to further and further vantage points, increasing the time between ferry rides, and naturally putting him at much greater distances from the ship.  Tony was secretly extremely grateful for Peter's playful presence.  It was a bright spot on the horizon, a stain of color in an otherwise colorless and isolated world.

The communications line beeped as it switched to a private two-way.  "How's it look out there?" Stephen asked.

Tony shook his head, resigned to the man's shrewd perception.  He wasn't sure how Stephen had figured out there was a link between Tony and space and panic.  Maybe he hadn't; maybe the guy just got bored waiting for Peter to show up.  But they hadn't been an hour into their first day of mining before Stephen made it clear he knew something was going on.  Tony strongly suspected FRIDAY's enforced silence had given the game away.  In any case, Stephen had been like a dog with a bone ever since they started, rarely leaving Tony to his own thoughts for more than five minutes at a time.  Which was at various stages annoying, distracting, and hilarious. 

It was also strangely and alarmingly reassuring, and on two separate occasions had successfully kept Tony from absolutely losing his mind.  Not that he'd told Stephen that.  It was hard to find the right words to thank someone for being nosy and perceptive enough to stop a panic attack before it could start.

"View's great, doc.  Black rock, on black rock, on black space.  It's a pretty boring color scheme nature's come up with out here, I got to tell you."

"At least we know your armor stands out," Stephen said.  "Can't miss it, just as I'm sure you intended."

"Hey.  Maybe I just like the color red."

Stephen snorted.  "There's a reason people buy red sports cars, and it's never because they like red."

"I notice the one you turned into a pretzel was a respectable gunmetal gray."

"Red wasn't my style.  I always preferred to dazzle people with my good looks and amazing personality, not my accessories."

"Why not all of the above?"

"You would say that," Stephen said dryly.  "It's probably too much to ask that Tony Stark leave some things to the imagination."

"My imagination never has any trouble.  Maybe everyone else just needs to be more creative."  Tony grinned as he thought back.  "And for your information, red is my favorite color, and I lived up to the cliché.  First sports car was this fantastic ruby red; phenomenal machine, great condition, 1968 Shelby Mustang.  Really loved that car.  Sadly, I'm old enough to admit I bought it when it wasn't quite a classic yet, and of course totalled it before it could become one."

"I'd comment," Stephen said, "but I'm probably not in a position to judge."

"Well, your record was pretty clean aside from that one obvious and spectacular exception.  Though I think you helped fund the entire NYPD with your traffic tickets.  But it's New York; if you're not getting ticketed, you're not doing it right."

There was a notable pause over the line.  Tony raised both eyebrows, wondering.

"Unless there's something not in your record," he said leadingly.

Stephen huffed a laugh.  "That FRIDAY couldn't find?  Is that possible?"

"Improbable, but not impossible.  What's up, doc?  Cat got your tongue?"

A few more seconds of surprisingly heavy silence passed, and then:

"I haven't driven," Stephen said.  "Not since the accident."

Tony hesitated.  There were a lot of things he was good at in life, but compassion and human decency usually didn't make the list.  And this seemed like something that probably called for both, not to mention tact.

"That your choice, or did your hands decide it for you?"

Never mind.  Tact was a waste of time, and Tony couldn't be bothered.

Stephen had obviously resigned himself to Tony's unique brand of offensive, because all he did was sigh.  "Both."

"Please tell me you don't ride the hypothetical bus," Tony said.  "Which according to you could hit me at any moment in an intersection.  Tell me you hop the subway like a relatively normal and enlightened city dweller."

"I don't use either.  Sorcerers have other ways of travelling."

Tony worked quietly for a minute, hearing in that voice a familiar defiant edge, the bloody remnants of an open wound papered over with a brittle smile.

"You ever feel like getting back on the ground with the rest of us," he said finally, "you know where to find me.  We can cruise around Manhattan like rich people with nothing better to do.  Well, I can.  You can fake it."

Stephen made a faint sound in the negative.

"Don't knock it.  You haven't seen New York by car until you've seen it in one of mine.  We can spend a few hours racking up new tickets, paying off a few more NYPD salaries."

"I already fear for my life on the road," Stephen said.  "I hardly need to make that worse."

"So don't," Tony shrugged.  "All my cars these days come equipped with Stark tech, everything from deployable armor, to flight capacity.  No safer way to travel, really."

Stephen sighed.  "Your cars fly.  Of course they do."

"Yep.  Tell me you're surprised."

"By you?" Stephen asked.  "Every day."

It was said in jest, but there was a thread of startling sincerity to it, something akin to gratitude; almost nostalgic, definitely wistful.  Tony could feel hives breaking out at this accidental glimpse of genuine sentiment.

"So," he said hurriedly.  "You obviously don't collect cars.  What's your vice?"

It was a piano-wire tense moment before Stephen responded.  "Who says I have one?"

"It's in the rulebook," Tony insisted, oddly relieved.  "Required for all millionaires, past or present.  You're new money, or you were before you bled yourself dry.  I'd guess cufflinks?"

"Yes to vice, no to cufflinks," Stephen said, the shadow of a smile back in his voice.  Tony relaxed.  "These days I mostly collect magic spells.  It has the benefit of being both unique and useful."

"Magic spells," Tony muttered.  "Please can we call them something else?  What about science spells?  Science 2.0?  Breaking physics for beginners?"  Stephen's silence said better than words exactly what he thought of that.  "Alright, fine.  But there had to be something before the spells.  I would've put down real money on you collecting cufflinks.  Ties?"  He rethought that.  "No, not ties, too blue-collar.  Not wands or wizard hats, either, too modern.  Classic art?"

"Watches."

"And you said you didn't like accessories.  Admit it, Stephen, you liked to show it off as much as the next highflyer.  Still do, obviously; have you seen your outfit?"

Stephen scoffed.  "People in glass houses."

"My glass house has reinforced palladium in the windows.  Pretty sure thrown stones won't be breaking anything in there.  Missiles, on the other hand.  People really need to stop throwing missiles at my buildings."

"Boss," FRIDAY interrupted, and Tony twitched.  For a second, he'd almost forgotten she was present on the lines, listening to their every word.  A private two-way line was only so private when there was an A.I involved.  "Mr. Parker is on final approach to the ship."

"No rest for the wicked, doc," Tony said, changing gears.  "More on your watch obsession later." 

"I wouldn't call it an obsession.  More a mild preoccupation."

"As if you could do anything mildly," Tony muttered.

They switched back over to public channels, dropping into the middle of Peter discussing something at breakneck pace with FRIDAY.  Stephen jumped in easily enough, and Tony let the drone of their voices hashing out details keep him distracted while he worked.

It was oddly, bizarrely domestic.  For a given value of domestic.

"How many more, do you think?" Peter asked the next day, as chipper and cheerful this close to the end as he'd been at the beginning.  "Boatloads, I mean."

Tony looked around them at the wide expanse of the field stretching as far as the eye could see.  "Two or three more and we'll call it good."  It'd be another half a day's work, but worth it.  Tony didn't technically need everything they'd mined so far, but he was an inventor stranded in space; he was sure he could find a use for all of it.

"Alright, I'm off then," Peter said.  "Time to count our booty!"

"It sounds so wrong when you say it like that."

"Like what?"

"Like you mean it."

Peter saluted cheekily, and shortly thereafter vanished from sight on his longboat full of plundered treasure.

"Stephen, you have a floating arachnid heading your way.  Roll out the welcome mat."

"Red carpet special, coming up," Stephen said, fading into static at the end.  Tony was at one of the furthest points communication could reach, and the signal was thin and reedy.  Peter now had a return trip of up to forty minutes, depending on if he had to maneuver around any asteroid drift on the way back. 

"Did you know some spiders actually float?" Peter asked, always happy to share odd and unasked for information about his namesake.  "They catch the wind with webbing and it carries them off."

"No webbing in space vacuum, Peter, that's not going to work out well for anyone," Tony said.

"It's called ballooning," Stephen added easily.

Tony sighed explosively.  "Why do you know that?  What possible use could that information have for you?  Hell, who am I kidding.  Might as well ask why you know half the weird things you do."

"Enlightened self-interest," Stephen answered.

Tony didn't credit that with a response.  "Kid, what made you decide on Spider-Man?  I'm still waiting on the full story; something about a thing that bit you.  Got nothing but time, here.  Out with it."

"Oh, it's, well," Peter started, hesitantly.  "It's not that interesting, really."

"A thing bit you and gave you super powers.  What part about that isn't interesting?  Disgusting, maybe, but still interesting."

"Sounds unhealthy," Stephen said.  "I imagine that bite would've been severe.  I hope you got it looked at."

"Looked at where?" Tony asked.  "The local walk-in clinic?  It wasn't an STI, Stephen.  See, kid, this is why we always use protection.  One good bite and the next thing you know -"

"So, it was during a school trip," Peter said loudly, cutting him off.  "There was this lab -"

Tony kept chipping away at the field, filing away Peter's explanation for later examination.  Bit by a radioactive spider; what were the odds, really?  Kid was lucky the whole experience hadn't just killed him.  Tony made a mental note to look into the research behind it the minute they got home.

"Boss," FRIDAY said suddenly, right overtop of Peter so everyone immediately lapsed into surprised silence.  "There are three large vessels approaching our location."

"There's - what?" Tony blurted, the HUD immediately filling with three separate data streams, all scrolling into a blur as the interface turned danger red.  "Where?"  He heard Stephen and Peter echo his alarm.

"Coming in from the outermost section of the solar system."

Tony turned instinctively to look, which was of course not effective.

"How close?" he asked.

"At their rate of approach I estimate they'll intercept our position in less than fourteen minutes."

"FRI, give me visual from the long range sensors.  How did we miss them coming in?"

FRIDAY loaded the requested information, and Tony had to take a second before he could readjust the angle and stare.  The fire of unwanted adrenaline and dread stabbed him hard in the chest.

"It appears they maintained light speed beyond recommended safety margins to avoid detection and went sub-light due to a near collision with one of the planets."

Tony felt like he was listening from under water.  The only thing that mattered was the image of the ships bearing down on their location.

They were very familiar.

"They're with Thanos," Tony said numbly.

"What?  How can you tell?" Stephen asked sharply, at the same time Peter said: "It can't be!  How'd they find us?"

"The ships," Tony said, the words coming even though he couldn't feel his mouth moving.  He felt totally disconnected from himself.  "They're the same as ours.  Sister ships."

FRIDAY switched to an extended view, capturing all three of them in the shot.  The resemblance was terrible, and undeniable.

"They are of identical design and construction," FRIDAY agreed.  "Boss, I recommend making your way back to the ship immediately."

She sounded calm, reasonable even, a strong contrast to the rising swell of Peter and Stephen's vocal demands in the background.  But beneath the artificial composure, there was an urgency in FRIDAY's voice that spoke to knowledge the others lacked.  Tony wished he could pretend he didn't also know.

He sat, allowing the nanotech to anchor him to the asteroid.  The numbness was spreading, taking over everything in his body.

"You know that's not going to happen, FRI," he said.  Stephen and Peter immediately stopped talking.  "They're fourteen, maybe thirteen minutes out, now, and I'm thirty away, twenty even if I punch it.  There's no math in the world that gets me back on our ship in time."

"Boss," FRIDAY said, and her distress was clear and shockingly real.

Stephen understood first.  "Tony, no.  Start back.  We can move the ship closer to you, meet in the middle."

"If we could take the ship into the asteroid field, we would've done it by now.  You need to start off, before they get in close enough to get a weapons lock."

"We don't know they'll fire on us."

"Wait, are you saying," Peter started.  "You're coming back, aren't you?  You have to come back.  We have to go."

"You're going," Tony agreed quietly.  "You're leaving.  FRIDAY, how close is Peter to the hanger?"

"One minute, twenty seconds."

"No," Peter said, raw and trembling.  "No, I'll turn it around.  I'm coming back, I'll come get you -"

But Tony was way ahead of him.  "FRIDAY, shut down his suit.  Mag-lock him to the container and bring it in remotely."

Peter made a noise of wounded outrage.  "You can't do that!"

Tony's brain was already moving on.  "FRI, cycle on light speed systems.  Stephen, you'll have to maintain sub-light until you clear the fifth planet, otherwise you'll run the risk of collision.  Everything's in working order again, but if something comes up, listen to FRIDAY.  She'll walk you through any troubleshooting." 

"FRIDAY won't have to if you're onboard," Stephen said, tight and angry.  "Start back.  You can make it."

"Math doesn't work that way.  Don't be stupid, Stephen.  You need to leave.  Thanos isn't onboard; if he was, you'd already be dead.  That means their primary goal will be to cripple the ship before you can escape.  They'll fire on you the second they're in range.  They'll have to."

"I won't abandon you here."  The sorcerer sounded implacably stubborn, and Tony felt urgency twist into rage.

"You were the one who threatened to leave me behind after we made Squidward into calamari," Tony reminded him.  He took a deep, uneven breath.  "Call it fulfilling a delayed promise."

Stephen made a strange, hollow sound.  "That was different.  I didn't know you, then."

"Knowing me doesn't change the risk to the stone.  The difference this time around is you don't get to wash your hands of everyone to keep it safe.  I'm assigning you spider-sitting responsibilities."

"Tony -"

Peter gasped something garbled and indistinct.  "Mr. Stark, wait.  We'll, we can come back, we'll -"

"Alright, come back," Tony agreed calmly.  "Make sure you've lost them, first.  Give it a day before you circle around.  Make sure you stop at the next system over and do a long range scan first, just in case.  FRIDAY, you understand?  A day, no sooner."

"Boss -"

"No sooner.  You need to start a full systems scan for outgoing signals.  We eliminated everything in the computer core, but we had to've missed something, maybe a sleeper virus.  There's no way they randomly showed up here."

"Already on it, boss."

Stephen started to say something, and Tony could already hear the excuses in that even, placating tenor of his.  He cut him off.

"FRIDAY, take the ship out, maximum thrust until you can engage light speed."

"Boss -"

"Maintain your ethical programming and basic command set.  Add Stephen into your priority authentication sequence."

Tony could feel panic starting to slide beneath his skin, the impending abandonment cutting all his thoughts to ribbons like razor wire.  There was so much to do, and not enough time to do it in.  But one thing stood out, as he thought about Peter and Stephen seconds away from freedom, with him on the other side of an impassable chasm.  He remembered saying to Fury, once, something about fathers and the power of words: my dad, he was cold, he was calculating, he never told me he loved me, he never even told me he liked me -

"Peter, you're an awesome kid," he said before he could chicken out.  "Second to none.  Stephen, I'm trusting you to look after him.  Don't let me down.  FRIDAY, you're my girl; you better keep an eye on both of them, or there'll be so much hell to pay.  Go dark, no radio signals until after you clear the alien ships.  Direct order.  About face and take off.  Go."

The communications line cut to total silence, like a blade had chopped it out of existence.  For a second, listening to the empty sound of his own heart pounding in his ears, Tony felt like the universe had come to a total standstill. 

But of course it hadn't.  That was just Tony.

It took nearly five minutes before he could unbend enough to slump and hunch over the way he wanted to, the clink of suited fingers scraping metal-on-metal as he wrapped both arms tightly over his chest.  He forced himself to breathe shallowly, in spite of his lungs screaming for more, better, now, now, now.  Hyperventilating wasn't going to help him; in fact it'd work against him.  Using up his oxygen in any kind of hurry would be extremely unwise, now.  He had a limited supply, after all.

Very limited, in fact.  A day's worth if he really, really stretched it.  If FRIDAY and Stephen did end up circling back, they'd have one chance to pick up Tony directly, before time got the better of him.  The margin for error was going to be very narrow.

Of course, if they didn't get a chance to circle back, it was probably because they'd been caught.  In which case they were all screwed anyway.

Tony wanted to move.  In fact, his body was really rather demanding he move, but he made himself leave his feet solidly in place, melded to the stone beneath him.  In a few minutes he'd put some brain power into thinking up other solutions, into how he might best prepare for the possibility of rescue tomorrow.  In a few minutes he'd figure out how he could possibly stay sane for that long alone in the middle of an asteroid field at the ass-end of space.

For now, he just needed to breathe.

The seconds ticked away, ticked down, and he watched on the HUD until ten minutes had come and gone.  Then fifteen, then twenty.  Until the moment came when the ship would've reached minimum safe distance to engage light speed.  At that point, he could finally consider the reality that after just a few minutes of travel, the ship would already be hours or days away from him.  Soon they'd be so far away, in fact, that even if they stopped dead and Tony went after them at his top speed, he might never actually catch them in his lifetime.  

It was very quiet in space, and Tony had never felt more alone.

Tony allowed himself another ten minutes of self-indulgent misery.  But when the time lapse hit thirty minutes, he decided that was enough melodrama for one day and firmly called his sluggish brain back into working order. 

It was cynical to say the others might be captured.  Between a brilliant A.I, a genius sorcerer, and a teenage superhero, those three had enough brain power Tony doubted there was much of anything they couldn't handle, save perhaps Thanos himself showing up.  Tony knew they'd be back, one way or the other.  But that wasn't to say they might not be delayed.

There could be any number of reasons for it.  The alien vessels might stay too near this system.  FRIDAY might have to backtrack further than intended.  They might need time to figure out how they'd been tracked.  They might run into a hardware issue.  The list went on and on, which meant that Tony needed to find a way to stretch out his twenty-four hour deadline.  The name of the game was going to be survival.

Maybe he'd strike out for one of the planets; that was probably the easiest way to supplement his oxygen supply.  He could get back on solid ground, find a source of water as a priority.  Maybe he could leave FRIDAY breadcrumbs, a subtle trail to follow; this way, here I am, follow this, follow me.

Of course, if they weren't delayed, Tony'd be much better off staying where he was.  They might miss the trail; maybe they'd never find him.  Maybe they'd be the quintessential ships passing unseen in the night.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Tony might've spent hours at that, really, one string of possibilities constantly at war with another while he tried to put his formidable genius to good use predicting the odds for success versus failure.

But.  He didn't get the chance. 

It was about that time that a void spiraled into existence beneath Tony and dropped him through a ring of fire.

He couldn't rightly identify his first reaction to this turn of events; probably some combination of shock and confusion.  Really, confusion seemed such an inadequate term for Tony's state of mind as he found himself on the ground, blinking through the HUD at a dark, generic metal ceiling.

He'd been looking at similar ceilings quite a bit over the last months, so he probably should've recognized it more quickly, but he didn't.  Nothing quite made sense, in fact, until a familiar, anxious face popped into his view, hovering just in front of his nose.

"Mr. Stark?" Peter asked, breathlessly.  He reached for Tony, hesitating to touch like the kid thought he might be fragile.  Possibly he was right.  Tony felt unbelievable fragile, looking at him.

Peter made a noise of distress.  "Are you alright?"  He turned away, looking over his shoulder at something Tony couldn't see.  "Is he alright?  He doesn't seem alright."

"FRIDAY says yes," Stephen said, and his voice was impossible.  Both their voices were impossible.  "Breathe, Tony.  FRIDAY, can you retract the helmet?"

Tony's line of sight became immediately less digitized, full range of vision and color returning as the faceplate vanished.  He blinked dazedly up at Peter, at Stephen standing over and behind him.  The sorcerer looked down at him inscrutably.

"How the fuck," Tony said in a voice he hardly recognized as his own. 

"Magic," Stephen replied, and Tony was going to get him with the sharp stick for that.  He was.  They were going to have so many words.

Just as soon as he got over the painful relief lighting up his bones from the inside out. 

Chapter Text

It turned out when Stephen said magic, he really meant it.

"You can make inter-dimensional portals by waving your hands in the air," Tony said flatly.  He was still on the floor, and this new revelation felt like it might lay him out there permanently.

"It's a little more complicated than that," Stephen replied.  "But essentially, yes."

Tony wanted to laugh, but he had the ugly feeling that if he did he might not stop.  "Physics is crying right now, you understand?  There's you doing magic and then there's this."

Stephen ignored him, crouching down so they were eye-to-eye.  "We have a few minutes before we need to start moving again.  May I?"  He held out one hovering hand in enquiry. 

Tony stared at him blankly.  "May you what?"

"Your vitals, Tony."

"My - seriously?"  He tried to smile.  It felt remarkably brittle.  "Don't you have better things to worry about right now?"

In answer, Stephen reached for him.  Tony allowed it, blinking at the feel of fingers ghosting over his temple, drifting to the corner of his eye to check his pupils.  They settled at the left side of his neck, pressing for a count of five.  When the hands slipped away, Tony almost called them back.  The cool certainty of the sorcerer's touch was an anchor in an otherwise totally mystifying world.

"I don't like your heart rate," Stephen said.  "Stress on top of low fluid intake isn't doing you any favors."  He turned to address Peter, who was still hovering anxiously.  "Bring a double ration of water and food, some of those legumes if we still have any.  I want to prevent a crash if we can."

"I can get that," Peter agreed brightly.  He bounded away, zipping out the door far too quickly for Tony to track.  Of course, at the moment even just watching the door ponderously slide open and closed seemed like too much to track. 

"How'd you do it?" Tony asked, looking for something, anything to distract himself from the full-body tremors that wanted to shake him apart.  He gestured at the bridge around them, sitting up to allow the nanotech to recede into the housing unit. 

"Magic," Stephen said, straight-faced.  "In fact, I feel as if we've already had this discussion."

Tony rolled his eyes, the sarcasm putting him back on solid ground more quickly than probably anything else could.  "Give me some credit.  Unless you've decided to abolish science entirely, an inter-dimensional portal connecting two points has to be bidirectional.  So how'd you get me on the bridge without losing the atmosphere to space vacuum?"

"I didn't," Stephen admitted.  "Peter and I had to wait in the aft cargo bay.  It's the closest area with pressurized bulkheads.  Another design flaw for you to work on: most of the ventilation shafts on this ship are interconnected and can't be fully sealed.  When I opened the portal, we lost almost thirty-three percent of our oxygen stores before I could close it again."

Tony glanced at one of the ventilation shafts in question, mind happily veering off in this new, distracting direction.  He felt himself steadying.  It was taking longer than he'd like, but as he got used to the unyielding feel of the ship around him, Stephen across from him, a new problem for his brain to work on, he felt the vice of tension slowly start to wane.

"Sounds reckless," he said.  He traced a mental map of the bridge shafts, considering how he might go about sealing them.  "I'm not sure if I should be proud of inspiring that or appalled I've corrupted you into rash decision making."

Stephen shrugged, standing to retreat back to one of the consoles.  "I would've done it sooner, but we were too far away.  I didn't want to chance creating the portal without a visual on your location.  I had to be as precise and fast as possible."

Tony nodded agreeably.  Then understanding hit him like a brick.  "You were too far away.  And where are we now, exactly?"

Stephen didn't answer.

"FRIDAY," Tony demanded.  "Where are we?  What's the location of the ship?"

"Approximately five minutes relative to your previous position, boss."

"Five minutes - the asteroid field.  You brought the ship in."  Tony found himself on his feet, facing Stephen.  The man met his eyes directly.  "Are you insane?  You have to be.  Certifiable."

"No more so than you.  It was safer than you think."

"To bring a ship this size directly into the field?  Nothing could make that safe!"

Stephen smiled grimly.  "Magic could."  As if in demonstration, he glanced down when the console blared a collision warning.  Tony watched him move to the observation viewport.  He held up one hand with his third and forth finger tucked in, a square ring of some kind bracketing two knuckles.  His other hand swept into a wide circle, sparking orange fire, but nothing unusual appeared where Tony could see.  A second later the warning tone stopped.

Tony stared at him.  "What are you even doing?"

Stephen didn't answer, sketching more circles.  Tony forced himself to move to the window, peering into space. 

There were four enormous rings of fire swirling in front of the ship.

"Holy shit," Tony blurted.  He followed the mesmerizing spin of one, watching it swallow an asteroid the size of a car.  "You're holding four portals open at once?  How?"

Stephen shook his head.  "With difficulty.  We actually need five for full coverage, but I couldn't sustain that.  We're making do."

"You did this the whole way in?"

Stephen nodded.  Tony couldn't have blamed him if he'd been smug about it, but he looked too preoccupied for smugness.  "I'm moving the asteroids behind us to block any pursuit."

Tony moved closer to him, unwillingly drawn as if on string.  His eyes drifted to that odd metal ring around Stephen's fingers and lingered there.  "How is this a thing I didn't know you could do?"

"What you don't know about magic could fill libraries," Stephen said dryly.  "And does, in fact."

"I'll allow that.  Why didn't you say something before?  We could've been using this the whole time."  Tony only realized after the words were out how ungrateful they sounded.  He shrugged philosophically.  He'd always been a lousy diplomat; Stephen was more than familiar with that fact about him.

The sorcerer didn't even bother calling him on it.  "I'd never considered trying to open more than one connection at a time before," Stephen said.  "I still wouldn't advise it except in emergencies."

"Why?"

Stephen shook his head.  Small rivulets of sweat were beading on his forehead, sliding down the long lines of his face.  His hands, always so prone to tremors, were visibly shaking.

Tony slipped on his glasses to examine FRIDAY's sensor data, where he wasn't surprised to see Stephen's readings spiking completely off kilter.

"Your biochemistry's getting into some pretty alarming numbers," Tony said.  "Not that I'm shocked.  This probably counts as the single largest strain on your magic since the surgery."

"That's an understatement," Stephen murmured.

"Problems?"

"Some.  I tried three portals first, which was difficult.  Four's almost impossible."

"Only almost?"

Stephen nodded at the viewport, directing Tony's gaze to the number currently open in front of the ship.

"Point," Tony conceded.  "Navigating must've been a bitch.  Good thing you had an A.I on hand."  Which reminded him.  "Speaking of.  FRIDAY?"

"Yes, boss?"

"How the hell are you still here?"

For a moment the bridge was eerily quiet.  "Boss?"

"I told you to take off.  You should've been long gone by now.  Long before now, even."

"Doctor Strange made the decision to remain."

Tony wanted to take that personally, but it came as no surprise.  The sorcerer was carefully not looking at him.  "I told you to leave."

"You told me to default my ethical programming to Doctor Strange," FRIDAY said.

Tony gave up staring at physics-breaking magic in order to stare at the console Stephen stood next to.  "I ordered you to leave first."

"Technically," she said, "you gave me that order second."

Tony felt his heart thump hard once and then roll into a faster beat.  "That's semantics, FRIDAY."

"It's fact."

"Semantic fact.  You knew what I meant!"

"In the event of competing ethical concerns," she started to quote, "I've been programmed to complete one of three -"

"It was a command, completely in alignment with your authorization protocols.  Go dark and take off.  I said that.  How are you still here?"

"Doctor Strange issued a counter-order.  You weren't available for consult."

"Stephen issued -" Tony started.  He stopped, turned instead to face the sorcerer.  "You issued a counter-order.  How?"

"I used words," Stephen said, almost absently.  "I realize actually talking about plans must deeply offend your sensibilities, Tony, but it's something people like to do -"

"No, forget it, I know, I'm a bad person, moving on.  How did you know you could give a counter-order?"

Stephen glanced at him, quickly, before returning his gaze frontward.  "It wasn't difficult.  FRIDAY said she needed a verbal order to countermand yours."

"FRIDAY said it or you asked about it?"

"Boss -"

"Quiet," Tony said sharply, his lethargy from before burning up fast. "Stephen?"

The sorcerer frowned, his concentration obviously and understandably elsewhere.  "I wasn't looking for ways to undermine you.  She said she couldn't revoke your direction without secondary authorization.  Just be thankful you left us a loophole.  You realize you'd probably be dead, otherwise?"

"Not yet," Tony corrected, mulling that over.  "I had until tomorrow at least."

"Oh, until tomorrow.  Plenty of time."

Tony would've said more, but before he could, his sightline was filled with Peter's face.  He hadn't heard the kid return, but then, he didn't seem to be hearing much that made sense these days.

"Here," Peter said, handing him two rations of food, a handful of the remaining protein legumes they'd found, and a container of water.  Tony took it unthinkingly, blinking at this generous bounty. 

Peter stared at him expectantly.  Tony wordlessly held it all back out, having no free hands to do much of anything.

"Oh," Peter said, sheepishly taking back the food.  "Right.  Sorry."

Tony carefully popped the top off the water and downed a mouthful, thirst making a surprise appearance at the first touch of moisture against his tongue.  He tossed back half the contents.

Peter was holding out the food eagerly when Tony lowered the bottle.

"Thank you, nurse Parker," Tony muttered, but he took the items without complaint.  For once, jello seemed like a luxury.  Possibly because Tony had expected to go without it for a while. 

He'd expected he might have to go without everything for a while.

Tony ate everything he'd been given, famished.  Peter barely let him get in his last bite before taking away the remains.  "Better?" he asked politely.

"Yeah," Tony said, and meant it.  He could feel his insides start to untwist, settling with the heaviness of food and unforeseen safety.  He was amongst friends, when he'd thought he might be a day or longer on his own.  Possibly forever.  He felt both entirely off-center and amazingly alive about the whole thing.

"Good," Peter said firmly.  "So: what the hell was that?"

"What?"

Tony looked over.  The kid was glaring at him, hard and incensed and angry.  Very angry.

"What was that?" Peter repeated, growled really.  Tony took a wary step back.  "Locking down my suit like that!  Why did you do that?"

Tony had the terrible feeling this conversation was going nowhere good.  "For your safety -"

But Tony realized that was the wrong thing to say when Peter's face shaded a livid red.

"I was safe!" Peter said fiercely, even though Tony distinctly remembered him declaring he was coming after Tony, which was obviously not safe.  It didn't seem like the time to point that out, however.  "What if we'd had to leave and couldn't make it back in time for you?  You could've died."

The last Peter said softly, defiantly, and with a faint wobble on the last word that made Tony's gut clench hard.

Tony was too aware of Stephen carefully pretending he couldn't hear every word being spoken.  He ducked his head, the prickle of inconvenient emotion jabbing at him.  He moved off toward the navigation console.  Peter followed him, dropping the remnants of Tony's meal to jump up on one of the girders, hopping onto the wall to skip a few steps ahead. 

"If you'd just waited," Peter said heatedly, barging right on top of the display Tony'd been angling for, obscuring readout panels with his hands and feet as he crouched.  "Doctor Strange took us in seven minutes after you cut the connection.  We could've planned it together."

"We did plan it together," Tony said, stymied.  He put his hands on his hips and tried not to feel like he was being scolded.  Next thing you knew he'd be getting his wrist slapped for his trouble.  "Well, alright.  I planned it while you three listened."

"That's not together!"

"Well, I'm not good at together.  In fact, I'm bad at it."

Peter barked a laugh.  Stephen snorted, abandoning his pretense of deafness.  "No kidding.  You know, this wouldn't have happened if you'd just listened."

"I'm bad at that, too."

"We noticed," Stephen and Peter said together.

Tony sighed.  All things considered, that seemed only fair.

"You need to stop making one-sided judgement calls," Peter ordered.  "Especially when you use bad judgement.  Which is, like, all the time."

"That's the only kind I'm good at."  Tony reminded himself of who was the adult in this scenario, then gave that up as a lost cause when Peter turned those big, wounded eyes on him.  "Give me a break, kid.  I was trying to save your lives.  Democracy isn't my strong suit, okay?"

"Not okay," Peter insisted.  "What if we hadn't made it back in time?  What would've happened when your air ran out?"

"Figured that out, did you?" Tony muttered.

Stephen hummed from where he was standing, impressively still keeping his concentration as he sketched circles in the air.  "I asked FRIDAY to run the calculations."

"You three've been busy.  What fun discussions those must've been."

"We were at loose ends after shaking off the ships.  They didn't seem to be aware of your presence; I didn't want to open a line with you in case they intercepted the signal."

Tony glanced over, drifting near to join him at the viewport again.   "They can't have given up that easily.  You're sure we're not being followed?"

"Not at the moment."  Stephen looked up briefly from his work.  "And certainly not into the field.  FRIDAY?"

"The ships have been unable to clear the debris.  One has remained stationary, but two have split to either side in an attempt to intercept us at different exit points."

Tony nodded, considering.  "Odds of us making it out before they can cut us off?"

"Guaranteed.  We should exit the field in forty-three minutes.  It will take them approximately three hours to follow the circumference to that point."

"Will they be able to track us after we take off?"

"Our sensors weren't able to track their approach at light speed.  We should escape detection in the same way."

"Hopscotch us a bit anyway," Tony directed.  "Use a few of the nearby stars to obscure our escape.  Did you figure out how they found us?"

"Yes," FRIDAY said.  "Mr. Parker?"

Peter was still grumbling darkly under his breath, but he stalked off obligingly enough.  He was back a second later, carrying a rectangular device, two feet across, dense and compact and heavy.  Tony blinked as Peter handed it to him.

"What's this?"

"Similar to a black box, boss.  It's emitting a low-frequency radio wave which can only be detected when the light speed slipstream is inactive."

"You're shitting me," Tony said.  "All this technology and it's an antiquated homing beacon that almost does us in?"

"Seems so."

Tony considered the box with a frown.  "Thanos is certainly paranoid.  A universe-conquering tyrant should have more trust."

Stephen laughed shortly.  He was worryingly breathless, almost wheezing.  "I imagine paranoia is how he made it this far."

"We should all take tips," Tony said.  "FRI, if this has been on the whole time, how did they not find us when we stopped at that planet?"

"Unknown, boss.  Possibly the beacon was active but no ships were near enough to respond to it."

Tony speculatively drummed the fingers of his right hand against the box.  "We need to deactivate this before we reach a departure point."  He turned it upside down to peer at the underside.  "Got to be an access panel somewhere."

"I already did it," Peter said, straightening proudly when Tony glanced at him in surprise.  "FRIDAY walked me through it.  After she let go of the suit."  The last he said very pointedly, and Tony ducked his head to hide a grin. 

"Oh, that again," he said, as casually as he could.  "Alright, fine.  Sorry about that, kid.  You too, doc.  My bad."

Stephen choked on a startled noise, and Tony looked up politely.

"Sorry," Stephen repeated.  "You're doing apologies, now, are you?"

"Under protest.  On occasion."

"Stop doing things that need apologies," Peter muttered.

"Do my best," Tony said, shrugging when they both turned at that to glare at him.  "Can't make any promises.  I'm bad at this, remember?"

"Get better at it," Peter ordered.

"Got the feeling I'll have to.  You guys'll never let me live it down otherwise."

"We won't let you live it down now."

"Thank you for that motivation."  Tony set aside the black box, turning his attention back to Stephen's magical lightshow.  He watched critically as portal after portal continued to clear their path.

"You're good at that," Tony noted, a tiny olive branch extended between them.

Stephen raised an eyebrow, one half of his mouth quirking in an almost smile.  "Yes, I am."

"See," Tony said.  He took a steadying breath, forcing himself not to chicken out on this one, either.  "Knew I made a good call.  If ever I had to trust someone with my girl FRIDAY and my favorite webslinger, can't go wrong trusting Stephen Strange, master of the mystic arts and Sorcerer Supreme."

"You didn't always think so," Stephen said.

Tony looked straight ahead.  "Well, kind of a lot's happened since then."

"Oh?  I hadn't noticed."  Stephen switched suddenly from wry, to entirely serious.  "Tony?" 

"Stephen?" he parroted back.

Stephen was still looking outside, but Tony could feel the full weight of his attention like the heat of a flame.  "I appreciate the trust.  Truly."

Tony side-eyed him warily.  "But?"

"Don't do that again."

"I can't," Tony admitted, and knew it was unwise even as he said it.  Still, Stephen had come back for him; he deserved some kind of game prize for that, if nothing else.  "FRIDAY has her orders.  She defaults to both of us, now."

"You could change that."

Tony tipped his head to stare at the ceiling again, thinking back to that first moment of seeing it, the long seconds of realizing it was familiar and not knowing why.  "No, I can't.  She needs a dual failsafe, in case one of us is incapacitated.  If this proved anything, it's that it's a dangerous game of hide and seek we're playing here.  If we get away scot-free today it's only blind luck and your magic that'll have accomplished it."

"With a little help from FRIDAY and your favorite teenager," Stephen said.  Tony could see from the corner of his eye Peter puff up eagerly, flourishing in this well-deserved praise.

"No doubt.  I should've amended FRIDAY's command defaults a while back, really."

"Why didn't you?"

"Well," Tony said, flooded with the unique and peculiar joy of being alive, of being free.  "The times were different."

Stephen raised both eyebrows.  "Different?"

"I didn't know you, then."

And Stephen had nothing to say to that.

They made it to the outer edge of the asteroid field with plenty of time to make the jump to light speed.  They were ahead of schedule, even.  Unfortunately, it was still about thirty minutes beyond Stephen's capacity to comfortably handle the magic.

"Your vitals are crashing all over the place," Tony said grimly.  He was on Stephen's left side, the wizard's arm slung over his shoulder.  Peter was mirroring him on the right side.  It was incredibly awkward, since Stephen was taller than both of them.

"I'm fine," Stephen slurred.  "I'll be alright."

Tony heroically refrained from pointing out the man could hardly walk.  "Didn't realize it was this bad.  You should've said something."

Stephen rasped something that could've been a laugh.  "Why?  So you two could wring your hands and worry?  It wouldn't have changed anything."

"You implying I'm useless with magic, Stephen?"

"Useless is putting it mildly," Stephen said.  He accidentally leaned in the wrong direction, sending them all off balance.  Peter righted them, carelessly taking all of their weight for a confusing moment.

"Kind of like saying your feet are useless right now," Tony retorted mildly. 

Stephen blinked, and his eyes looked disturbingly glassy.  They were also fixed to a point where, as far as Tony could tell, absolutely nothing existed.  "At least they're not shaking like my hands," the sorcerer said.

"How can you tell?  You probably can't even feel them.  You're basically drunk."

"Oh, hardly," Stephen said, then tripped over nothing and slammed them into a wall.

"Here, hold this," Tony told Peter, handing off Stephen and his uncoordinated limbs. 

Peter carefully propped him up.  "Should I just carry him?  I could just carry him."

"Way ahead of you, kid," Tony said, the nanotech already crawling along his frame to form the suit.  He tugged Stephen out of Peter's grasp, lifting him bridal style with a flourish.

Peter grinned, mischief in his eyes.  "I mean, I could've done that without the suit."

"Peter, this is obviously no time to show off," Tony scolded.  "FRIDAY, I want full video footage of this."

"Already done, boss."

"Or even, you know," Peter continued heartlessly, "his cloak probably could've done it without either of us."

The garment in question twitched, fluttering eagerly in an unseen breeze.  It was mostly pinned between Stephen and Tony at the moment.  Now Tony thought about it, it seemed a bit odd the thing hadn't made any move to defend or otherwise support Stephen in their stumbling journey through the ship.

"What's up with you?" Tony asked it.  "Please tell me you're not also drunk."

It ruffled itself, the collar edging up and then out in what might've been a shrug.

"You worry me sometimes," Tony said, and it reached out and tapped him twice as if to say 'there there'.

"Don't be alarmed," Stephen said.  The effort he had to put into keeping his words clear would've been funny if it weren't so alarming.  "It chooses friends wisely."

"It chose you, so you're not allowed to say that."

"The wand chooses the -" Stephen started, then stopped to squint into the distance.  "Damn."

"What?"

Stephen glared at the ceiling.  "I was about to make a pop culture reference."

"See?  Told you you were drunk."  Tony started making his way down the corridor, the hydraulics in the suit whirring gently.

"Tipsy, if anything."

"I've never been drunk," Peter commented, easily keeping pace with Tony.  "What's it like?"

"You've never been drunk?" Tony asked dubiously.  "We need to fix that, obviously.  Staple of every teenager's misspent youth."

"No, I mean, I tried.  I think my body breaks down the alcohol too fast.  Best I got was a really weird tingling in my fingers."

"How much did you have?"

Peter looked shifty.  "Enough," he said.

"Such a subjective term.  What's enough?  One drink?  Two?"

"I tried two," Peter said, then grudgingly followed up with: "Bottles."

Tony's brain immediately wanted to segue and chase that rabbit to its inevitably fascinating end, but.  Now did not seem the time to work on corrupting the youth of America.  That was for tomorrow.

"Hold that thought, Peter."

Tony kept going for half a dozen steps before realizing he was automatically navigating to his own quarters.  And that he had no idea where Stephen's room was.  The sorcerer seemed to spend the majority of his time on the bridge.

Tony jostled his cargo.  "Stephen?  Where do you stash your sleeping bag these days?"

The wizard didn't answer, and a quick glance down confirmed he was unconscious.

"Is he?" Peter asked, wide-eyed and anxious.

"FRIDAY?"

"I detect no critically dangerous abnormalities.  It appears to be simple overexertion."

"Knew it.  He really is a heroine in a romance novel."

"Who just saved your life," Peter reminded him, frowning.

"I did say heroine, didn't I?  Of course he saved the day before swooning.  FRIDAY, any signs of pursuit yet?"

"None, boss.  The ships were poorly positioned to follow us into light speed.  I believe we have successfully evaded capture and detection."

The relief was so intense it was actually painful.  "Perfect.  I should take a look at the engines, make sure everything's working to capacity.  Last thing we need is another thermal malfunction grounding us after almost getting caught with our pants around our ankles." 

Tony hesitated, considering the insensate man he was carrying.  His first instinct was to tuck the guy somewhere FRIDAY could keep an eye on him and let him sleep it off.  But Tony was reluctant to leave him alone.  Stephen was apparently prone to reckless acts of self-endangerment.

And also, Tony could still feel a panic attack trying to slip in under his guard to cripple him.  The thought of striking out alone, of allowing Peter or Stephen out of his sight for long - it was enough to make his skin crawl.

Besides, nothing said the sorcerer had to sleep it off in his quarters.

"Peter, go snag a mattress and some blankets from one of the rooms and haul them down to engineering.  You're going to play nursemaid while I make sure the ship isn't about to blow up."

"A mattress?"

"Heroines need comfortable places to sleep.  Just don't bring any peas back with you."

The look of confusion on Peter's face was comical.  "Peas?  What?"

"Missed that fairy tale?  You can add classic literature to your curriculum.  For now, go grab that mattress, there's a good spider."

Peter went without protest, his ever-present desire to help in full swing.  He hopped away, performing a spinning kick to push off from one wall and ricochet down the corridor.

"I said no showing off!"

The kid's laughter trailed behind him like an echo.  As he vanished around a corner, the knife of his absence sank quickly into Tony's gut.  He had to suppress the almost overwhelming urge to go after him, demand he stay where Tony could see him.  He could feel his feet lock rigidly against the floor, his entirely body freezing up.

FRIDAY wordlessly brought up Peter's biorhythms, streaming them in over the glasses.

Tony let out a long, slow breath, achingly relieved.  "Thanks, FRI."

"Anytime, boss."

He looked down at Stephen again.  The bulk of him in Tony's arms was a substantial, solid weight, unexpectedly welcome and close.  The sorcerer had slumped with his cheek pressed to the suit's left shoulder.  His eyes were closed, and a fan of long lashes cast gentle shadows over his face and across the edge of his sharp cheekbones, his nose and brow.  And his mouth, with its surprisingly soft-looking lips, parted on an unspoken word.

Stephen really was an unfairly beautiful man.  And the sight of such stillness on his usually proud and patrician face did something to Tony's insides he would rather not think about.  Thankfully, Tony was a master of avoidance, and looking at Stephen just then reminded him of something else he'd been thinking about for a while.

"FRIDAY, start up fabrication on projects Geek and Chic.  I think I owe our two heroes a thank you."

"Sure thing, boss," she said.  Then: "And for me?"

"Oh, don't feel left out, FRI.  I have all kinds of ideas for you.  Just you wait."

She didn't seem particularly reassured by this, but that was fine.  That was exactly as Tony had intended.

Chapter Text

Tony entered engineering and stopped dead.

"Stephen," he said.  "We have to stop meeting like this.  People will talk."

Stephen didn't answer.  He was lounging just above one of the new intake manifolds, reclined on his back in mid-air.  He had his eyes closed, hands interlaced over his middle, feet crossed at the ankles.  If he weren't glowing to Tony's eyes, limned with a faint shine of magic through the glasses, he might've thought the sorcerer was sleeping again.  Stephen'd slept quite a lot in the last few days.

Tony dropped his supplies on the floor, the ringing screech of metal-on-metal echoing through the room.  "FRIDAY, I distinctly remember telling you to lock the door while I was out." 

"Sorry, boss.  My previous protocols have been overridden."

"Did you steal that line from your big brother?  It didn't work for him and it won't for you."

Stephen broke his pretense long enough to glance over, curious.  "Big brother?"

"Long story."  Tony snapped open his supply bag to start rummaging noisily.  "Maybe I'll tell it to you sometime.  When you're not invading my sanctuary and getting your muddy footprints all over my equipment."

"Invading?" Stephen asked languidly, closing his eyes again.  "How quickly one forgets.  I was invited."

It hadn't taken Tony long to realize he'd made a tactical error in temporarily stashing Stephen and Peter in engineering for safe keeping.  They'd taken it to mean they had an open invitation to enter his private domain whenever they felt like it, and between Stephen's magic and Peter's sticky fingers, there wasn't a lot Tony could do to deter them.  He could've retreated to his quarters to sulk in peace, but.  He'd tried that once, and it'd been a spectacularly bad idea.  Days later, and he still couldn't quite forget how vividly graphic the nightmares had been.

"I didn't invite you," Tony said, finally.  "I had Peter make a nest for you in the corner while I made sure the ship didn't fall apart and you practiced your heroic fainting."

Stephen hummed peacefully.  "I do make it look heroic, don't I?"

"The important part was the fainting."

"Not the part where you made me a nest?"

Tony withdrew one of the welding clamps and dropped it onto the console with a clang.  Stephen winced.  "Peter made it.  Besides, I can't be held accountable for my actions.  I'd just been yanked from the jaws of maybe-death.  I was in shock."

"You barely let me leave to use the facilities."

"Trauma," Tony insisted.  "People do strange things when they've been traumatized."

"You asked Peter to sleep above the power transfer grid because there was something wrong with it and you wanted to test his spider sense."

Tony glared.  Peter was currently napping in one of the cargo bays, having spent an hour collecting mineral samples at Tony's request before naturally getting distracted.  "So?"

"So there's nothing wrong with the grid," Stephen said dryly.  "And now Peter's convinced his instincts are faulty."

Tony looked over his shoulder at the grid in question.  It was centrally located in engineering, hence why he'd wanted to station Peter there, where he could keep an eye on him.  Not that he was about to admit that to Stephen.  "You don't know there's nothing wrong with it.  There was a reverse flow fluctuation."

Stephen snorted.  "That you induced."

"FRIDAY," Tony said seriously.  "If you don't stop giving away my secrets I'm going to strip you down to your bare circuits and sell you to the highest bidder."

"Sorry, boss," she said, and actually sounded contrite this time.  "Though I suspect Doctor Strange would win my bidding war."

"With what money?  The man's broke.  Don't hitch your wagon to failed millionaires, FRI, I programmed you to have better taste than that."

"I could trade you a spell of -" Stephen started.

Tony threw the empty supply sack at him.  The sorcerer's cloak, ever-present and always vigilant, blocked it.  Tony resisted the urge to throw anything else.

Stephen sighed.  "You realize if you wanted Peter to stay close, you could've just asked.  Being needed would've made his day.  He worships you like a plant worships sunlight."

"He does not," Tony protested automatically.

"FRIDAY, play back what Peter said when he brought up the water yesterday -"

"FRIDAY, belay that," Tony said loudly.  He could see the sorcerer smiling, even with his face turned away from Tony in profile.  "Stephen, stop abusing your power.  I gave you authorized access for a reason, and it wasn't to spy on me or corrupt my A.I."

Stephen waved one negligent hand.  "If I wanted to spy on you, I have easier ways than trying to convince FRIDAY to help me."

Tony walked over and raised a spanner to poke him in the boot suspiciously.  "What kinds of ways?"

Stephen let the small shove tip him sideways, curling gracefully into a half-roll that ended with him sitting cross-legged and meditative.  He opened his eyes, blinking into the low light.  "Sorcerers use a mirror dimension to practice spells, a place that doesn't affect the real world but mimics it exactly.  It also serves as a means of shadowing someone in this reality without their knowledge."

Tony put both hands on his hips, staring at him.  "What a fantastically disturbing thought.  Thanks for that.  Now I definitely won't be sleeping tonight."

Stephen rested both hands on his knees like a skinny Buddha.  "It's no worse than your nanobots giving you eyes and ears everywhere.  I doubt there's a corner anywhere on this ship unoccupied by them, at this point."

Stephen wasn't wrong, but Tony had no intention of justifying that with an answer.

"Besides," the sorcerer continued.  "You weren't going to sleep tonight anyway."

Tony did an about-face and marched back over to his supplies.  "Tonight, tomorrow," he said flippantly.  "There's really no difference in space.  No sun to inspire a diurnal sleep cycle.  The fact we sleep at all is probably just habit."

"No, that would be circadian homeostasis.  The brain needs sleep to regulate basic biological functions."  The sorcerer regarded him skeptically.  "Not that one would know it, looking at you.  You're still walking and talking after day, what?  Four, five days without sleep?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Tony said. 

Stephen ignored him.  "It's been the better part of a week, Tony.  Have you caught more than a handful of hours?"

Tony resolutely turned his back, staring blindly at the engine readouts.  "Maybe I could sleep if you'd get out of my space."

"If that were true, I'd be gone," Stephen said.  "But it's not."

Tony flexed his hands against the console until he could feel his bones protesting.  "Who died and made you the sleep police, anyway?  I wasn't the one passed out on the floor a few days ago."

"And unlike some, I've actually managed to sleep that off," Stephen said.  "Full recovery.  As I'm sure FRIDAY's already let you know."

"Any lingering side effects?" Tony asked, curious.

"None.  No interactions with the emitter, either."

"None at all?  That's interesting.  We should -"

"Tony," Stephen admonished.

Tony sighed.  "Yes, not sleeping, I know.  I'm a terrible person, and I suck at doing normal-people things; we all know this.  What's your point, Stephen?"

"My point is this: you wanted us near, because to use your own words, Tony Stark has issues.  Now you're trying to regain distance because, again, Tony Stark has issues."  Stephen didn't sound smug about it.  Tony might've had to hit him if he'd sounded smug about it.  "And one of those issues is going to result in an injury soon if you can't find a way to sleep."

Tony wanted to deny it, but the proof was in his blurry vision and inability to concentrate, not to mention his hands shaking more obviously than their resident sorcerers.  Tony’d been ignoring his vitals crashing everywhere in the last twenty-four hours; he could only imagine Stephen's interpretation.  He'd undoubtedly been watching with FRIDAY's help.

"Tony," Stephen said quietly.  "Tell me how I can help you."

"You can't, doc.  I asked Pep to move in the last time this was an issue, and that still didn't do it.”

They'd been gone from Earth for months, and he'd never stopped missing her, missing Rhodey, but the sharp blade of it had dulled as time went on.  And Tony had room in his head to stop missing them, now, too.  Room to focus on Peter's unfailing optimism and Stephen's dry wit, their combined companionship.  Those two had not only seen the worst of Tony; they'd been bludgeoned and blindsided by it, cheated and deceived in all the worst ways.  But they'd remained steadfast; they hadn't turned away.  Tony couldn't fathom it.  But he was starting to realize he could rely on it.

He shook his head, blowing out an explosive breath.  "Shelve the worry, Stephen.  Eventually I'll pass out from sleep deprivation if nothing else.  Just toss a blanket over me when that happens.  We'll call it good."

They lapsed into silence for a time, then.  Tony started tinkering with some of the power ratios, not because they needed it, but because he needed something to occupy his fingers.  Whenever he stopped tinkering he could feel the exhaustion starting to creep over him, and the thought of closing his eyes was enough to send him into a tailspin.

He was changing the numbers for the fifth time when Stephen spoke again.

"You could let me spell you asleep."  Stephen waited until Tony looked over, then carefully sketched a glowing octagram of magic, a secondary ring of triquetra symbols rotating around it burnished in fire.  "I am a sorcerer, after all."

"That sounds like a terrible idea," Tony said, even though it very much didn't.  "No offense, but I doubt your sleep spells have FDA approval.  I require at least three double-blind studies before I'm willing to allow third-party interference with my REM cycle."

"As opposed to not having a REM cycle."

"So glad you understand."

"I understand that you have trust issues," Stephen said.

"Pot, kettle."

Stephen sighed, shaking his head.  Tony felt a tug of reluctant guilt, considering recent events.

"It's not you I don't trust," Tony said.  He shrugged when Stephen glanced over in surprise.

"The magic, then?  You didn't mind the cooling spell."

"You may've noticed, I have what some might call a difficult relationship with sleep.  Nothing personal, doc.  I don't take pills for it either.  Besides, I took that spell before I knew you could rip holes in the fabric of space with your fingertips.  Magic might be science, but it's not one I can quantify.  Don't trust what I don't understand."

"Would you like to try?" Stephen asked.  He held out one hand, and in the center of his palm was the two-fingered ring he'd been wearing when he'd opened a portal into space.  "I've heard magic described as a program.  If it helps you to look at the source code, you can attempt it.  I have no doubt you've been trying since the beginning anyway."

"I would never," Tony said, trying not to stare too greedily at the ring.  He beckoned and Stephen came obligingly down to ground level, settling lightly on his feet.

"You're willing to perform like a circus monkey?  What's the catch?"

"Every minute you spend examining the data is a minute you spend sleeping."

Tony considered this deal with a frown.  "You mean under a spell.  Stephen, I know I'm as stubborn as a Disney princess, but let's be clear: I'd make a really terrible sleeping beauty."

"You can spend it trying to sleep, if you prefer that to actually sleeping," Stephen said dryly.  "But if you're willing to accept a spell afterward, I'm certainly willing to provide you one."

"This all seems very one-way.  I propose a counter-offer."

Stephen raised an eyebrow.  "A counter-offer of what?"

Tony reached into his left pocket and casually withdrew the object there.  Stephen's gaze honed in immediately.

"I call it Project Chic," Tony announced, casually tossing the electric razor from hand to hand.  The way Stephen's eyes followed with avid interest made him smile.  "What do you think?"

"How long have you had it?" Stephen asked, staring.

"Few days, thereabouts.  Haven't gotten around to using it yet myself.  Meant it as a thank you for saving my life, but this could work too."  Tony politely offered it to him.  "Shall we call it a trade?  One razor, one magical double-blind study."

Stephen handed Tony his ring without another word.  The metal felt textured and unusually heavy, oddly warm to the touch and almost - slick?  Tony held it flat on his palm, letting the nanotech flow underneath it to create a small platform on his fingers.

"FRIDAY, light it up," Tony said, trying not to sound too excited.  He probably failed miserably, but really, it was magic given physical form.  The possibilities could be endless.

Though apparently not as endless as he might've thought.  He blinked, startled by unexpectedly familiar readings.

Standing across from him, carefully examining his own prize closely, Stephen blinked back.  "What is it?"

"Nothing bad," Tony said automatically, mind whirling.  "Just.  Unusual.  Do you know what this ring is actually made of?"

"No," Stephen admitted, shrugging when Tony gave him a look.  "The composition of it mattered less to me than what it could do."

"Fair enough.  It's actually an alloy, though what exactly makes up every element of the alloy I've never been able to figure out.  Half of them aren't recognizable from Earth's periodic table."

"And yet you recognize it?"

"It's not naturally occurring on Earth, or I suspect anywhere even remotely close by.  But then, I hear Asgard's a realm far removed from any of the worlds we know."

"Asgard," Stephen repeated, genuinely surprised.  "You've been?"

"Please," Tony muttered.  "Like Thor'd ever let me.  He gave me some crap about it being a protected realm, not suitable to outsiders, blah blah blah.  Pretty sure the whole thing was a ruse to throw me off the scent.  He must've known I planned to raid the armory."

Stephen looked amused, whereas words like that probably would've sent most anyone else running.  "You wanted the weapons themselves?  Surely not."

"Surely not," Tony echoed.  "I wanted to break one of them down to its constituent parts.  I would've settled for armor if no weapons were handy.  A chest plate, a helmet, a gauntlet.  Even a boot; I'm not picky.  Sadly, Thor must've read it off me: no dice."

"Perceptive of him."

"More's the pity.  Want to know what I did get an occasional look at?  That fancy hammer of his.  And the metal used to make it?  Closely resembles that ring of yours."

Stephen looked up sharply, narrowly.  "That's unlikely."

"Don't get me wrong, it's not quite the same.  But it's more similar than it isn't."

Stephen picked it up again, turning it over in his hands intently before slipping it on two fingers.  "Apprentice sorcerers are given one early in their training.  I've seen close to two dozen in Kamar Taj at any given time."

"Two dozen?  Plenty of extras," Tony said brightly.  "Sounds like they won't miss one.  Any chance -"

Stephen smiled, silent and bold, and Tony deflated.

He put on a wheedling grin.  "It's not like I want to use it for magical purposes, you know.  Not in the long-term.  I just want to have a look, see what makes it tick."

"And then break it down to its constituent parts," Stephen quoted helpfully.

"I'd put it back together," Tony protested.  "Or, well.  I'd try."

"No."

"Fine, be like that.  Do I get a consolation prize?"

"That depends," Stephen said, leadingly, and with an unexpected drawl.  "What are you looking for?"

Tony glanced up.  Stephen stared back at him, his face entirely innocent of overtones except for the bare hint of a grin tugging at his mouth.

Tony returned the smile automatically, long-ingrained instincts kicking in almost before his mind had quite caught up.  "Oh, I'm sure I can think of something you can provide."

"Do tell."

Tony beckoned him forward, leaning in suggestively.  Stephen mirrored him, but warily, a reluctant humor already beginning to replace the innuendo.

"I want to watch," Tony purred, and surprised himself when a thrill of real interest threaded into his voice.  He hadn't meant to do that.

Stephen twitched, hearing it too, and what had been playful banter faltered into surprise.

"What do you want to see?"

"Well," Tony said coyly.  "Magic."

Stephen grinned reluctantly.  "You want to watch me perform magic?"

"Using that ring of yours," Tony confirmed.  "All other accessories optional, of course."  He flicked his fingers negligently at Stephen's shoulder.  "Though I'll be disappointed if you don't at least strip off that cape of yours."

The cloak bristled in clear indignation, fluffing itself up immediately, collar straightening with angry precision. 

Stephen soothed it absently.  "What, this old thing?"

"Yes," Tony purred, then dropped the seductive tone.  "Seriously, it interferes with my sensors.  The thing's like a shield against science on so many levels.  Fascinating as that is, it'll ruin my readings."

Stephen smirked.  A rope of fire twisted into sight, snaking over his fingers like a living flame.  "Careful, Tony.  You might offend it."

"You've met me, right?  Offensive is my middle name.  Or maybe my first.  I'm sure the name Tony Stark could be considered a curse word in several languages native to Earth."

Stephen laughed, power retreating from him like a tide.  The look on his face slipped from flirtatious to genuinely fond, which was actually not what Tony'd been going for.  It was a good look on him.  And Tony had far too many other things to be doing than admiring Stephen Strange's good looks.

Tony pointed a demand.  "Cloak, off.  Magic, on."

Stephen shrugged the relic away, and for a moment it hovered, looking somewhat lost.  Then it soared through the air, flying off to the side.  Right at Tony.

He ducked, instinctively, but of course that wasn't overly helpful; the cloak wasn't bound by linear direction.  It slipped over where he'd been standing, the heavy brocade of it trailing over one shoulder.  When Tony straightened up again, it was to find the thing swaying just next to him.  It brushed along his left side like it had no concept of personal space.  Which it probably didn't.

Tony took a wary step away.  It didn't try to follow him, but he had the strong suspicion it wanted to.

"Stephen, control your pet." 

Stephen sounded no less amused than he had before.  "Apparently you'll have to work harder to offend it.  As I said before, it's fickle."

"Fickle is another word for badly housetrained."  Tony sternly held up a hand to ward off his surprise visitor.  "Do not make me housetrain you.  You won't like it."

The obnoxious garment rippled with smugness, but it made no other move to accost him.

Tony spent the next two hours racking up entire servers of data as Stephen created portal opening after portal opening for FRIDAY's sensors.  Eventually, Tony had pulled so many readings on Stephen manipulating the device, apparently called a 'sling ring', that he ran out of new tests to try.  So then he went back and started repeating the old ones.  He only stopped when FRIDAY announced that Peter was awake and headed in their direction.

"I swear that kid created his web formula just so he could make hammocks wherever he went," Tony commented, watching his magical research compiling.  "Spends more time napping in them than you do communing with spirits."

"I don't commune with spirits.  I monitor the rhythms of the multiverse," Stephen said.  "And have you ever tried one of his hammocks?  They're surprisingly comfortable."  He vanished his portal conduit away somewhere Tony couldn't see. (and that was what it was, a conduit rather than a generator, a key in a lock that only ever needed a bit of magical turning. magical objects seemed the way to go, really, accessible to all, only a little bit of training needed -)

Tony resolved not to tell Stephen about his budding plan to one day steal into Kathmandu and find himself a sling ring of his own.

"Well?" Stephen wanted to know.  "Do I pass inspection?"

Tony waved him off.  "You're gorgeous and you know it.  A one-two combination I'm familiar with.  And I guess your magic is alright, too."

Stephen smirked.  "High praise, I'm sure."  He created a small spell in his hands, one Tony recognized, and floated it near, close enough for Tony to touch.  If he wanted to.

"Verdict?" Stephen asked, quietly.

Tony stared at it, twitching.  Half of him desperately wanted to take it, more than ready to drop like a stone into slumber.  It'd been long enough now that Tony was starting to forget what it felt like to be properly rested.  The exhaustion dogged his every step, dragged down each of his thoughts like weights.

But that was just half of him.  The other half -

That half remembered the yawning blackness of space in an endless field of rock, the razor's edge of knowing he'd been left behind, however unwillingly.  And sleep seemed more frightening than any army Thanos could send after them.

Tony opened his mouth to say something, what he wasn’t sure, but at that moment Peter came barrelling into the room, a full supply sack slung over one shoulder.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, slinging the bag down on the ground with a clang.  He looked insultingly chipper.  "Got distracted.  Found everything on the list, though!"

"Great," Tony said, blankly.  For one awkward moment he had absolutely no idea why he'd wanted the ore samples in the first place.  Fortunately, common sense returned to him swiftly.  "All of it?"

"A little bit of everything," the teenager confirmed.

Tony brought up a holographic overlay of his nanotech housing unit, tapping until he was at a cross-section of an individual nanobot.  He wasn't sorry to leave the topic of sleep behind.

Peter made appreciative noises as the hologram sent a web of reflected light cascading over each of them. 

"Still cool," the kid announced, playing his fingers through the air.

"Your admiration's noted.  FRIDAY, you ready to start your new profession as a metallurgist?"

"I was created ready," she said.

Tony shook his head, a reluctant smile tugging at his mouth.  "FRI, no.  If you're going to do a play on words, make it a pun.  They're catchier."

"Puns are the highest form of literature," she quoted in agreement.

"Please, no," Stephen said, pained.

Tony ignored him.  "How're our fabrication units looking?"

FRIDAY streamed in a set of statistics beside the hologram.  "Nano-unit manufacturing systems at twenty-six percent completion, boss.  Full assembly estimated in sixty-one hours."

Tony grinned, success lighting up every pore.  "Ahead of schedule.  You rock my world, FRI.  What'd I ever do to deserve you?"

"Unknown, boss."

"Must've been something awesome."

"I suspect so."

"I'm curious what you did to deserve us," Stephen commented, glancing at Peter.  The sleep spell had vanished, and Tony was simultaneously relieved by that and bitterly disappointed.

"I think it's called felony kidnapping," Tony said.

"Oh, that's right."

"Easily forgotten, I know.  Time flies, having fun, all that."

"Your interpretation of fun leaves something to be desired."

"Everyone's a critic."

"I'm not," Peter said cheerfully.  He'd hopped up on the wall for an upside down perspective on their light show.

"You're a teenager, kid, you're always criticizing."

"No, that's, hey."  The kid frowned down at them.  "That's unfairly judgemental and indiscriminate."

"Exactly."

Tony moved to one of the consoles, studying the data.  "This'll serve as a model for a new nanotech template.  We don't have quite the same materials I used to make the first housing unit, but this alloyed substrate should still be viable.  I hope.  Fortunately, we have a lot of it to experiment with."

Peter turned with a look of glee on his face.  Tony urgently flailed at him.  "Kid, if you say one more word about a pirate hoard I will end you."

The look of disappointment on Peter's face was tragic.

Stephen idly picked up one of the smaller deposits, examining the obvious flecks of metal in the rock.  "I take it you're satisfied with your haul then?"

"And then some," Tony confirmed. 

"Even though you're still missing two key elements?"

Tony glanced at him sharply.  "How do you know that?  Dammit, FRIDAY -"

"No spying necessary," Stephen said.  He shrugged.  "Or rather, I did my spying much earlier on.  One of the materials is very rare.  You've never managed to find it free-floating in space that I can recall.  We have to stop somewhere for it."

"Yes!" Peter blurted, hopping on top of a console in his excitement.  "We totally should.  For, uh, the mineral.  Obviously."

Tony stared at Stephen narrowly.  "We've stopped at that asteroid field before."

Stephen smiled, but not happily.  "Yes."

"You knew we'd be ambushed," Tony said flatly, new anger starting to burn in his gut.

Stephen shook his head.  "I didn't.  It's only happened a handful of times, and never before in the field."

"You still could've warned me."

"If I have to warn you that Thanos is looking for us," Stephen said dryly, "then we're in serious trouble."

Tony muttered something vulgar under his breath.

"But we got the beacon, and FRIDAY cleared the rest of the ship," Peter piped up quickly.  He leaned forward, paying no attention to gravity.  "I think.  Right?  FRIDAY?"

"Confirmed," she said.  "I detect no further signals unaccounted for by normal ship operations."

"You didn't detect the homing beacon before, either," Tony said.  "Even after breaking the core encryption.  I vote we avoid dropping out of light speed for awhile."

"How long is awhile, Tony?" Stephen asked, knowingly.  "A lifetime, perhaps?"

Tony glared at him.

"How long are we intending to run?"  Stephen put the deposit down between them like a thrown gauntlet.  "What happens the next time we run afoul of Thanos' army?"

"You're sure there's a next time?"

Stephen rolled his eyes. "You don't need me to tell you that.  What are you intending, now you've got most of your ducks in a row?"

"Start quacking, I guess."

"Tony."

Tony ground his teeth, biting back words he'd probably regret later.  "I have no idea, Stephen.  Nothing's changed.  I still don't have any grand plan to take him down.  Do you?"

"No," Stephen admitted candidly.  "But I know we certainly won't find it flying from one end of the galaxy to the other.  Running has a finite end.  We need a plan before Thanos catches us at the finish line."

Peter lit up excitedly.  "Hey, I know.  We could look for people this time, aliens, maybe they could help us -"

"No," Tony said immediately.

"But -"

"No.  We just had our third encounter from the black lagoon.  Did you miss the part where we almost got caught?  I've had enough of aliens."

"I don't think they've had enough of us," Stephen said quietly.  "One way or another, this journey is eventually going to end.  You're someone who has exit strategies on top of exit strategies.  What's your plan?"

Tony realized he was drumming the fingers of one hand on the console in a rapid, faltering rhythm, the restlessness inside him needing some kind of outlet.  "Originally the plan was to hold out until you agreed to space that pretty rock of yours.  Obviously that one's been out the window for awhile."

Stephen breathed a laugh.  "Tell me you have a backup."

"Nope.  Figured I'd improvise.  I'm good at that."  He gestured expansively.  "I mean, look where we are now."

"Oh, hell."  Stephen put a hand to his forehead, an exaggerated look of dawning horror on his face.  “I need to get off this boat."

"Don't be so dramatic.  We only almost died.  Once or twice."

"We should maybe avoid that in future," Peter said.  Tony looked over and blinked when he saw the kid had secured a sling of webbing to sit on, swaying gently as he kicked his feet.  Tony shared a private grin with Stephen and felt the anvil-heavy tension in his chest unwind a few inches.

Peter continued, oblivious to their byplay.  "Maybe if we look for civilizations that are, like, more advanced than us?  Maybe they'd have new weapons we could fight Thanos with."

"We'll have to stop somewhere, regardless," Stephen remarked.  "Our oxygen stores are back in the red."

Tony crossed his arms mutinously.  "We're still on a half-tank."

"Tony," Stephen said, all joking aside.  "We stop sooner or later.  We have to."

"I'm thinking later rather than sooner."

"It was you who said this was a dangerous game of hide and seek.  If we want to take on Thanos with any chance of winning, we need options.  That doesn't happen unless we stop."

"And," Peter added brightly.  "Maybe we could ask the next set of aliens for, you know.  Something to eat.  Something not-jello."

Tony would never admit it, but it was that argument more than any other that came the closest to convincing him.

"Tony," Stephen said.  When he looked over, the sorcerer drew up both hands, framing the pendant he wore with them.  A slip of striking green energy spilled from inside.  "If you can find a way to destroy it, I'll consider giving you the stone."

Tony stilled, narrowing his eyes.  He felt his sluggish thoughts kick into high gear and start spinning as they tripped over this surprising offer.  "Just like that?  What happened to protecting that stone with your life?"

Stephen shrugged, letting the pendant close again.  "At this point, if the best I can do for the stone is prevent it from falling into enemy hands?  Then I'm willing to entertain the possibility of its end."

Unspoken between them was Stephen's distant confession that there may come a time where he wasn't around to protect the stone at all.  In which case it would fall to Tony to discharge that duty, in whatever way he deemed necessary.

"And you'd just give it to me," Tony said skeptically.  "No questions asked."

"Oh, I'd ask questions.  But if you can find a way to do it, destruction's no longer out of the question."

Tony glanced at Stephen's data stream over his glasses.  The readings remained perfectly steady; he wasn't lying.  He was serious.

Tony squirmed like a bug on its back, stuck in a web of his own faulty logic.  If he didn't take them to a planet, nothing changed.  If nothing changed, presumably they lost.  Stopping anywhere had the potential to change everything.  If everything changed, they had the chance of success, but Tony would no longer know all the variables.  If he lost the variables, he lost control. 

He'd never been very good with losing control.

Stephen must've read some of that off Tony's face, because he said: "We're in this together.  You don't have to do it alone."

Tony smiled, sharp and brittle.  "I've been lectured on losing together before, Stephen.  It's not the together I have a problem with.  It's the losing.  It's the end-game."

"Then find us a way to win," Stephen said simply.

Tony closed his eyes, sighing.  Decisions, decisions, decisions.

"Which planet?" he asked.  He ignored Peter's instantaneous glee.  The arachnid was practically vibrating as he launched himself into a victorious triple flip through the air.  Tony stared hard at Stephen.

The sorcerer shrugged.  "I still know very little about astrological features.  The choice is yours.  Pick one, Tony.  The rest will follow."

Tony made a wretched face.  "Oh, God.  We've become a pop culture reference.  We've become Star Trek."  He squinted in consideration.  "Stark Trek.  There's one for your pun lexicon, FRIDAY."

Stephen grinned confirmation.  "Boldly going where no human has gone before."

Tony rolled his eyes.  "FRIDAY, find us another planet, preferably desert conditions.  Look for a humanoid species, one unlikely to eat us, if we can manage that."

"Sure thing, boss.  Scanning."

Peter whooped, bounding from one corner of the room to the other.

"If you mean to explore a new planet, you realize you should be well-rested," Stephen said archly, both eyebrows raised suggestively.  Tony sighed.

"I give it another eight hours, ten tops, before I do my own heroic fainting.  Pretty sure that's the best I can hope for at this point."

"And you're sure you won't -" Stephen started, the beginnings of the sleep spell curling into reality.

Tony hesitated, eventually shaking his head.  Stephen stared at him thoughtfully.

"What?" Tony asked, warily.

"Would it help to see another magic trick?"

Tony pretended to buff his nails casually.  "Maybe.  What'd you have in mind?"

In answer, Stephen tossed out his right hand, and the space next to Tony shattered. 

Tony leapt away, the armor automatically starting to melt over his form.  He stared at the place beside him, at the crack rending the air like broken glass.  Peter dropped from the ceiling, gaping.

"Wow," the kid said, verbalizing what Tony refused to.  "What is that?"

"Relax," Stephen said.  "It's supposed to do that."

"What is?" Tony asked.

Stephen walked forward, and as Tony watched, the crack began to spread, rippling outward like an ocean of mirrored fragments, a kaleidoscope of color.  Stephen paused just in front of it, turning so half of him was silhouetted by the strange effect. 

Tony watched as FRIDAY's every scan slipped over and around this obvious tear in space, error message after error message appearing on his glasses.  Whatever it was Stephen had there, as far as FRIDAY was concerned, it didn't exist.

Tony took one step toward it before he could quite stop himself, burning curiosity overriding natural caution.

"Boss," FRIDAY said urgently.  "Be careful."

"Don’t worry, FRIDAY."  Stephen looked up at the ceiling, even though he had to know by now it wasn't necessary.  "I'll keep him safe."  Then he looked back at Tony.  "Trust me."

And that last he obviously meant for Tony.  Just Tony.  Who stared back at him and wondered if maybe the sorcerer had cast another compulsion spell, because he could feel himself being drawn toward Stephen Strange like hooks had been laid into his soul and were reeling him closer one inch at a time.

Stephen held out a hand, scarred and powerful and impossibly inviting.  "Well?" he asked, as glass fractals broke the world behind him.  "Are you coming?"

Helpless to resist temptation, Tony took his hand and let the sorcerer pull him into a world of magic.

Chapter Text

Three months and six days.

James Rhodes sat in front of his luxurious floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking a massive courtyard in matte black and chrome.  His eyes skipped from one side to the other, automatically counting the tiny faults.  There weren't many.  Wakanda prided itself on quality, primarily in technology, but also in design.  Imperfections, no matter how small, rarely made it into anything they produced.  That included their architecture. 

That didn't stop Rhodey from looking for them anyway. 

In the last three months, he'd come to realize he had a tendency to that.  Looking for imperfections.  It was something he did, something he'd always done.  That hadn't mattered as much when he was still on the military's payroll.  The military was a place that thrived on perfectionism, on routine.  But Rhodey wasn't part of the military anymore.  He'd ceded that right by siding with enemies of the state. 

He didn't regret it.

What he did regret was having so much time to think.  He'd spent the better part of his life with a very specific set of rules and values, one that leant itself to a sense of moral certainty.  Now he lacked that compass, Rhodey found he lived many of his days wondering about past choices he'd made.  Which ones he stood by, which ones he'd change, which ones he wouldn't.  People he'd done right by, those he hadn't.

He thought a lot about Tony.

Rhodey had just moved on to searching out imperfections in the facade of the nearest building when he was surprised by a light, ponderous tapping at his door.  Five knocks, precise and measured.  Cautious, but not tentative, calm but not quite perfunctory.

Rhodey considered that knock, listening to it sound again before he reached for the intercom.

"Romanoff?" he guessed.

She huffed an almost silent laugh.  He could hear her smirking.  "You're getting better at that."

"That's me.  Just bursting with hidden talents.  What do you want?" he asked.

Natasha rarely appreciated small talk, mostly Rhodey suspected because she hated to use it herself.  Rhodey had come to know enough about the Black Widow to recognize she only bothered with pleasantries when she had someone to impress, someone to manipulate, a job to do.  Left to her own devices, Natasha Romanoff was blunt to the point of being rude, but she wasn't unkind.  In fact, Rhodey had started to find her no-frills, no-nonsense approach refreshing.

"Heads up," Natasha said, her voice echoing tinnily over the speaker.  "Team meeting in thirty."

"Sitrep or urgent update?"

"Sitrep."

"Wonder what it says about me I was hoping for something urgent."

The smirk vanished from her voice.  "It probably says we've all been idle so long we'd do anything for a change of scenery."

"Copy that.  I'll be out in ten."

She left without saying goodbye, and Rhodey rolled to his feet.  Such a strange sensation, rolling to one's feet.  It'd been more than two years since he'd last done it without the leg braces, and a few months with them fixed by Wakanda's charity wasn't long enough for it to feel commonplace yet.  Rhodey couldn't seem to get over the urge to jog from place to place, just because he could.  Which at least had the added bonus or getting him most everywhere he had to be, pretty much always ahead of schedule.

By the time he arrived at the meeting, though, everyone else was already there.  Which maybe said less about him, and more about the others.

"Cap," Rhodey greeted, taking a seat.

Steve nodded at him solemnly.  He always seemed to be solemn these days.  Or maybe he'd always been like that; Rhodey probably wasn't the best judge.

"We've had word from Thor," Steve said without preamble now they were all present.  The whole room seemed to come alive with their combined curiosity.  "He's been scouring all his contacts, looking for information, answers.  No change."

"No change as in no sign at all?" Bruce asked.  

Steve shook his head.

"Of anyone?" Bruce pressed.  "Thanos, Tony, Doctor Strange?  The Time Stone?"

"None."

Rhodey felt that small ember of hope he kept well-hidden in his back pocket start to gutter just a little bit further.

"Does that seem funky to anyone else?" Bruce asked, and Rhodey blinked.  "It's been what, three months now -"

"Three months, six days," Rhodey corrected.

Bruce hesitated, looking for a moment as haunted as Rhodey felt.  "Okay, so almost thirteen weeks, and still not one word about Thanos.  He's literally the strongest creature in the entire universe.  He had Thor's axe in his chest last time we saw him, and it barely seemed to slow him down."  He raised his hands wide in a universal sign of bewilderment.  "Three months.  I mean, how has he not made another move yet?"

Steve hesitated, and Rhodey felt every instinct he owned sharpen into clarity.

"Cap?"

Steve crossed both arms over his chest and shrugged, looking troubled.  "Thor's come across a few rumors."

"Rumors?" Natasha asked, and Rhodey could see her frown.  T'Challa, standing next to her, seemed equally uncertain.  Beside the Wakandan king stood the head of the Dora Milaje.  Unlike the other two, she had absolutely no expression on her face, but that didn't concern Rhodey; in the months since he'd arrived, he'd never so much as seen her smile.

"Apparently Thanos is looking for a ship," Steve said, and Rhodey's attention snapped back to him.  "Or at least, he has his followers asking about one."

"A ship?" Bruce repeated blankly.  "He has four infinity stones and he's looking for a ship?  What, he doesn't like the fleet he already owns?  Time to look for a newer model?"

Steve leaned back against the table with one hip.  "Maybe.  According to Thor, it's a circular ship.  With a track of interlocking rings, rotating around an empty center. "

Bruce jackknifed to his feet, and for one horrifying second Rhodey was sure the Hulk was about to make a mess of all Wakanda's pretty, perfect architecture.

But no, the wide eyes and open-handed flailing were just Bruce.

"That's the same design as the ship in New York!"

"I saw the footage," Steve agreed quietly.  "Sounds right."

"If that ship never returned to Thanos," T'Challa mused, rubbing one hand absently over his chin, "then much might be explained."

"Then Tony could still be alive," Rhodey heard someone say.  He saw a few people wince, glancing over, and realized it'd been him.  He'd spoken.  He repeated it just for the novelty of it, the idea, that a thing that'd seemed more impossible every day might actually be true.  "He could still be alive."

"If Thanos searches for that ship above all else, we know that someone is," T'Challa said gently, into the uncomfortable silence.  "A ship must have a pilot." 

Rhodey didn't look at him.  He looked instead at all the others, the reluctance, the quiet pity on their faces, and felt anger ignite inside him.

The king didn't let the silence dissuade him.  "We must assume the infinity stone is aboard.  Whoever its keeper is, they are our ally."

Natasha made a considering noise.  "Or at least an enemy of our enemy.  Not the same, but I've worked with worse."

Rhodey's fingers hurt, and he realized he'd tightened them into bone-jarring fists.  They weren't so crass as to say it, but each of them had their doubts, their skepticism that Tony might still be breathing.  Rhodey wanted to tell them all exactly what he thought of their ambiguous fatalism, their doubt in a man who'd always beaten the odds.

Bruce beat him to it.  "If anyone could steal the Time Stone and hide it from Thanos, it'd be Tony.  He might use it to remake history in ways we'll all regret, but I'd bet my bottom dollar he's on that ship."

Rhodey carefully unfolded his hands, stretching out the ache in sore knuckles.  He wanted to clap Bruce on the back in solidarity, but truthfully the doctor had no concept of how out on a limb he might be stepping.  He hadn't been here for the Accords.  He hadn't seen the destruction wrought, the trust broken.

Then again, he'd had three months to read all about it.  Maybe he was more aware than Rhodey was giving him credit for.

"Do you even have a dollar?" he asked, instead of what he was itching to say.  He kept it light and airy.  Neutral. 

From the corner of his eye, Rhodey could see Sam turn to him sharply, the Falcon's sharp eyes and keen perception serving him well.  Of all those present, Rhodey identified with Sam the most; just one more soldier trying to do his best when faced with the end of the world.  That didn't mean he wanted to talk to the man today.

"What?"  Bruce looked shifty, tugging subtly at the clothes he wore; Wakandan style, and obviously not his by any stretch.  "Well, I -"

Natasha interrupted.  "If the ship went walkabout and Stark's onboard, he pulled a fast one."

"Or Doctor Strange did," Bruce mused.  "He didn't seem the space ship type, but those portals of his were something else."

Steve nodded thoughtfully, and if he had any question about the benevolence of magic, there was no visible sign of doubt on him.  Rhodey couldn't exactly say the same, and he knew he wasn't the only one who found the idea of a couple of inconspicuous wizard's living quietly in New York a little hard to swallow.

Rhodey pictured magic and he thought: Loki.  Wanda.  Not exactly people or power built to fly under the radar.

"Doctor Strange is an unknown quantity," Natasha said.  "Motivations unclear.  Assuming it's Stark -"

"It is," Rhodey said firmly. 

"- the question remains.  Where would he take a ship like that?  Or where did he take it?  Thirteen weeks is a long time."

"And why didn't he bring it back here?" Steve mused, considering.

"What, and park it in our backyard?" Rhodey asked.  They all turned to look at him expectantly.  He wanted to tell them they were barking up the wrong tree, that even after years, decades of friendship, there was only so much a person could know Tony, only so far he let people in.  Rhodey had no idea where Tony would go with access to a spaceship and endless possibilities spread out before him.  But there was at least one thing Rhodey knew for certain.

"He wouldn't have brought it back here, not as long as Thanos was going to show up chasing it.  If there was going to be a showdown, he'd've taken it somewhere, anywhere else."

Minimize the collateral damage, Rhodey didn't say.  Collateral damage had become so important to Tony, in the last years.  The shadow of Tony's failures sat like a noose around his neck, and every time the world spun around on its violent axis, he seemed to feel it tighten just a little bit further.

Steve nodded, clearly having come to the same conclusion himself.  "Either way, all we know now is whoever else might be on that ship, the Time Stone's probably with them.  We need to find it before Thanos does."  He let that sink in for a moment.  "Thor could use some reinforcements."

Disbelief swept through the room like a chill wind, but Rhodey just closed his eyes, a hot brand of relief rolling through him.  He'd been a military brat almost as far back as high school.  The court martial offense of disobeying direct orders and abandoning his post had effectively guaranteed the end of that career.  And it had been worth it, of course; the fate of the world always was.  But that hadn't made the aftermath any easier for Rhodey to bear.  The idea of finally having something to do, of at last being able to throw himself into the fray again -

Rhodey felt something slot into place that'd been lost for a while now, the part of him that had spent the last three months screaming about duty and honor and purpose.

"I'm in," he said, before anyone else could.  He saw a few incredulous eyes turn his way, but he didn't look away from Steve, who nodded in agreement.

"Thank you, Rhodey," Steve said quietly.  "I'll be going, too."  He held up a hand to forestall immediate protests from several corners.  Bucky Barnes, silent to this point, stepped forward mutinously and only subsided when Steve added: "Voluntary basis only, but any one of you would be welcome.  We need to start spreading a net, as far reaching as we can make it."

"Won't be that far," Natasha said.  Rhodey had no sense of her opinion on their choices; she might have thought them heroic, or foolish, or ridiculous, but her tone and countenance was bland at best and indifferent at worst.  "The galaxy's pretty big, Steve.  We could send entire armies from Earth into the black, and still not cover more than a fraction of the ground we'd need to.  You can bet that Thanos has already done that, which adds a whole new layer to our problems."

Bruce was quick to interject.  "And I'm assuming we're not doing that.  The armies thing, that just seems.  I mean, assuming it's Tony, and that one of us actually manages to find him, it has to be someone we know we can trust.  An infinity stone is a pretty big temptation, you know?  Big leap of faith to give total strangers access to it."

"Could be that total strangers already have access to it," Natasha pointed out.  "Stealing a ship's a big ask for one person.  They could've been attacked by an unknown third party.  Or Doctor Strange could still be alive.  We assumed KIA when he disappeared, but if Stark's alive, he might've made it out too."

"There's too much we don't know," Rhodey said.  "All the more reason to try and send people Tony will trust.  If we don't, the minute he smells trouble he'll book it to the nearest galactic highway exit, first chance he gets.  I guarantee it."

He wondered unkindly how many of those present still met the criteria.  Maybe two in this room; maybe three or four on the whole planet, really.

T'Challa made a soft, disgruntled noise.  "I cannot join in such a quest.  My place is here, among my people.  A search of this nature can have no known end.  I cannot be away for so long.  I will watch from my position here on Earth for signs of attack."  He shrugged, the long elegant lines of his formal overcoat rippling with the movement.  "I would offer you the eyes of the Dora Milaje, but I do not believe they will go with you.  Our numbers are depleted since the battle, and their loyalty is to Wakanda, forever."  His body guard snorted her stern agreement, and T'Challa smiled with one side of his mouth at some inside joke.  "My sister, however, is less predictable.  She may choose to assist you."

"I'm with Steve," Bucky said.

Steve turned, and if the look on his face was aiming for neutral, it missed by a very wide margin.  Rhodey suppressed a smile.  Honestly, he would've expected Cap to have a much better poker face, but somehow it fit him to always be wearing his heart on his sleeve.

"Buck," Steve said quietly.  "I don't know if that's a good idea."

"You said volunteer-only, Cap," Rhodey said.  "I know you guys go way back, but at this point?  None of us are any safer on Earth than we would be off it."

Steve shook his head.  "That's not what I meant.  You said yourself it needs to be someone Tony can trust."  He raised one hand, palm open.  "That's not Bucky."

Bucky made a noise like he'd been punched in the gut, and Steve clenched his hand into a fist, looking away.

Rhodey looked around for an explanation, but most of those present looked as confused as he did.  Except Natasha who looked almost aggressively neutral, but then, she probably made it a point never to look confused.  Ruined the mystique.

"No offense," Rhodey said finally, when it was clear no other answer was forthcoming.  "But I'm not sure you fit that bill anymore, either.  We're talking about a drag net on the entire galaxy.  We got to do the best with what we have.  Beggars can't be choosers, here."

Steve closed his eyes, and Rhodey almost felt bad, because from the looks of it there was a lot of genuine regret there.  Unfortunately, that didn't change the truth, and the truth was that Tony didn't trust anyone anymore.  They were going to have to chance that if it was Tony behind the wheel of that ship, he could be convinced by a familiar face to at least stop and listen before he went haring off in the opposite direction.

Steve reached up, pinching at the bridge of his nose.  "Thor's run into a few allies in his travels too, and they'll be on the lookout."

Rhodey raised an eyebrow, a smirk pulling up one corner of his mouth.  "On the lookout?  You might want to clarify what that means with the demigod, Cap.  If his friends try and take Tony down gently, you know it'll turn into an all-out war.  If Tony's attacked, or thinks he's being attacked, there's no way he'll hold back.  War is kind of what he does."

Steve blinked.  "You saying they should take him out hard, Rhodey?"

Rhodey shook his head.  "I'm saying I know Tony probably as well as anyone can, and half-measures in any direction are going to get people killed.  My advice: tranq him first, ground that ship, steal all his valuables, and then start asking questions."

"Hmm," Natasha said.  She'd lost the neutral look, and a glimmer of genuine good humor was shining through.  "Reminds me of a birthday party I remember being at, once."

Rhodey shrugged unrepentantly.  "I call it the Stark maneuver."

"This is such a bad idea," Bruce said, before anyone else could get a word in.  "I was just in space.  I woke up there.  It's really not all that welcoming."

"Don't think we're going to be out there looking for new friends," Rhodey said.  "Old ones, more like."

"Such a bad idea," Bruce repeated.  "But.  I guess I'm in."

Natasha turned to him abortively, reflexively.  "Bruce -"

"No, I mean," he said, ignoring the interruption, "this is basically the last thing in the world I want to do.  It's really, honestly, a terrible idea.  But."  He grimaced bitterly.  "I don't every time get what I want.  The big guy refuses to come, but I can work on an algorithm to track Tony's arc reactor.  He was using nanotech when I saw him last, but the arc energy still seemed like the primary power base.  That's probably the most unique signature we can ask for to track him down."

"Bruce," Natasha said again, softly.  She sighed when he turned away, a painful flush working its way up his neck. 

"Thanks, Bruce," Steve said into the uncomfortable silence.  "I know it's a lot to ask of you.  Your help will be invaluable."

Bruce waved a hand over his shoulder, still turned away.  "Just glad to finally have something to do."

And with that, at least, Rhodey could not agree more.

Natasha seemed of a different mindset.  "Space isn't exactly screaming for the espionage skill set."  She made a face, something not quite a smile rising.  "I guess I'm probably more use to you guys here on the ground."

Steve shook his head.  "I don't agree.  It's up to you, but we could always use someone used to flying beneath the radar."

She was entirely inscrutable.  "Not sure how much a human can hope to fly under the radar amongst aliens."

"From what Thor says, there's a lot of folks that could pass for human out there.  I'm willing to chance it."

She grimaced and shook her head.  "Steve, I don't think you could fly under the radar if your life depended on it.  And it's probably going to."  He looked ready to protest his innocence, and she held up a warding hand.  "I'll think about it."

"Man, I got the same concerns," Sam said.  He wasn't wearing the wings today.  "I'm basically a guy in a flight suit and some heavy artillery.  Don't know what help I can be for you big guns, but if what you need is reliable bodies at strategic sites, you can count me in."

Rhodey wondered if that's how the rest of the world saw them.  Not just the disgraced Avengers, not just powerful or influential humans, not even superheroes.  Big guns.

"What's our timeline?" Natasha asked.

"Nothing concrete," Steve said.  "Thor's due to swing back in a week.  Anyone looking to join should be ready by then."

"Good."  She nodded thoughtfully.  "That gives us time to get a few more players at the table."

"Yeah, speaking of," Rhodey said, because it seemed like no one else was going to.  "I know this is probably insensitive, but we're kind of on the clock here.  What are the odds that - Wanda?"  He trailed off, letting the rest of them fill in the blanks.

Steve turned to T'Challa, who shook his head.  The king looked grim.  "Miss Maximoff remains under the care of Wakanda's best physicians.  Her physical recovery is complete.  Her mental recovery is less so.  I would not recommend asking her to join you in this task."

Rhodey sighed.  "Well.  Was worth a shot."

"There was that other guy, too.  Spider-Man?" Bruce said, halfway to asking.  "He was there, that day in the park.  Has anyone seen him, since?  Does he operate out of New York?  Or the other one you mentioned, Ant Man?"

"Family man," Natasha reminded.  "I doubt he or Clint will be signing up for this mission."

"I can look into Spider-Man," Rhodey said.  "Tony worked with him a few times.  He was on the roster at the compound.  Always kept his identity on the down low, but I've got a few contacts I can ask."  

"There's also that guy Doctor Strange was working with.  Wong?  He was in New York too."

Rhodey nodded, standing, mind full of drive again.  It was a damn good feeling.  "On it.  Don't go planning the fate of the universe without me.  I got to make a couple calls."

He received a round of nods as he left, high tailing it back to his quarters.  He was already composing the questions he might need to ask; who to ask them to.  If he were back at the compound he could've just put in a service request to FRIDAY, but here he had no access, and more to the point Rhodey knew FRIDAY had gone dark, all systems on lock down with Tony out of communication for more than two weeks.  It was Tony's failsafe against tampering when he wasn't around.  Rhodey hoped she was frustrating the hell out of Secretary Ross; there wasn't a man alive who deserved it more. 

It was only when he was almost back that Rhodey admitted to himself he was needlessly complicating things.  And he was doing it mostly to avoid thinking about the one phone call he actually needed to make, the one that might solve a number of problems.  The one he had to make first.

Pepper took a long time to answer; longer than the time of day warranted.  It was early afternoon in Wakanda, making it late evening in New York.  Rhodey didn't hang up.  He let it ring through four, seven, nine times.  He hung up when it went to voicemail and tried again.  Eleven, thirteen, sixteen.  He waited patiently.

She picked up after the nineteenth ring, her tired face filling the screen in his room, the video feed.

"Rhodey," she said, no apology present at having obviously ignored the phone.  He didn't hold it against her.  She could've not picked up at all; let it go to voicemail again, blocked him.  Put her head in the sand, buried so deep she never had to see the light of the superhero world again, the world that had pretty much exploded every part of her life in a variety of really awful ways over the years.

Rhodey took a deep breath and steeled himself.  "He might still be alive."

"Of course he's alive," Pepper replied, calmly, with no surprise.  "Tony's a survivor.  It's what he does.  Do they know where?"

Rhodey hesitated.  He hadn't been expecting that, but maybe he should've.  Rhodey'd known Tony the longest between them, but Pepper'd known him best.  Or, well.  She'd certainly known him in ways Rhodey never had and never would.

"Not exactly," he admitted.  "That's the holdup, actually.  Looks like he got tangled up with someone bigger and badder than him.  Now he's ghosting."

"Where?"

Rhodey smiled weakly.  "Anywhere not Earth."

"Of course he is," Pepper said, still quietly, still peacefully.  But that last had a tremble, just the barest brush of sorrow sweeping up against it.  Rhodey hadn't meant to look, but the picture was a wide shot, and Pepper was sitting ramrod straight, hands tucked in front of her, clenched into fists that belayed her calm.  There were no rings on her fingers.

"You know if he could've stayed, he would've."  Rhodey wanted to qualify that, wanted to point out that Tony had so far, to their knowledge, delayed if not actively prevented the death of an incalculable amount of lives.  But Pepper knew that, of course.  Others might doubt, but not Pepper; she'd known from the very beginning how Tony must've been pulled in, where he must've gone, that he wouldn't have been able to turn away.

She shrugged and looked off to the side.  There was a hint of genuine fondness in her voice as she spoke.  "I guess I should be grateful he put the suit away for as long as he did."  She turned her gaze back to him, and Rhodey felt pinned, skewered.  "You know he was talking to me about kids, just before?  The day before, even."

Rhodey jolted, more shocked than maybe he really should be.  Tony and kids; Rhodey would never have seen that one coming.  Then again, Tony'd spent the last decade of his life looking for redemption.  Sometimes kids could be a road to that.

"No," he admitted.  "I didn't know."

Pepper laughed tremulously.  "I told him if he was serious about that, he should never have put the housing unit on."  She closed her eyes.  "It was one of the last things I said to him."

Rhodey didn't know what else to do except offer her the same conviction he offered himself.  "We have to believe he's still alive.  Tony doesn't give up.  We can't either."

She almost seemed not to hear him.  "I knew it wasn't going to last," she said.  Her voice was thin and thready.

"He loves you, Pepper," Rhodey said, because there was really nothing else he could say.

"I know," she said.  This time her voice was more present, less distant, and more painful for it.  "But he needs Iron Man more than he loves me."

Rhodey took a long, slow breath.  "The world needs Iron Man."

Pepper nodded.  "I know that, too."

"Pepper -"

She shook her head.  "I thought I could live with it, Rhodey.  I thought eventually he'd change.  But he won't."

Rhodey couldn't say anything to that.  He'd wanted to change Tony too over the years, more so than might be healthy for any normal friendship.  But only Tony could change Tony.  And Tony wanted, needed, to be a superhero, to make up for lives ended with lives saved, until the scales balanced.

Rhodey'd tried to tell him, once, that the scales would never balance.  But Tony hadn't wanted to hear.  And maybe it was better that way, because if he had, there was no telling how many people would be lesser if Tony had given up being what he was: he was Iron Man.

Apparently Pepper could read minds, because the next thing she said was: "And maybe I don't want him to change.  But I can't marry who he is.  And I can't ask him to be who he isn't."

"I'll find him, Pepper," Rhodey said, helplessly.

"Good.  I'm glad.  Bring him home."

But nothing more.  Bring him home, she'd said.  But not bring him home to me.

Pepper smiled again, genuine and encouraging this time.  Real.  "And bring yourself home, too, Rhodey.  Be safe."

"I will," he said.  He continued quickly before she could sign off.  "Wait though, just before you go."

She looked at him expectantly.

"Remember that kid Tony was working with, the one who likes to go swinging through the streets of New York?"

She nodded curiously.

"Right, so what can you tell me about Spider-Man?"

Three months and six days since Tony Stark vanished.  It was a long time for Earth to be without one of its heroes.  And well past time to start bringing him home.

Chapter Text

Stephen didn't expect that his offer to let Tony analyze the magic would result not in a day of anticipated study, but a week of solid, grueling, scientifically brutal research.  But obviously he should have; they were talking about Tony Stark, after all.

"These readings don't make any sense," Tony said, for probably the fifth time in as many days.  He'd let Stephen go after the first three days, calling him back periodically so he could accuse him of breaking physics again.  Today he'd yanked Stephen in almost every hour, on the hour, seemingly just so he could belabor this terrible point.

Stephen laughed.  "Not to you they don't."

"Don't get smart with me, Stephen.  I know where you live and I'm not above petty revenge.  See this measurement?  It's saying that when you use magic, at the atomic level you're accessing energy that physically can't exist in our universe.  You're pulling from a force beyond our dimension."

Stephen pursued his lips, unwillingly impressed.  "That's accurate.  Sorcerers use energy from other planes of the multiverse and convert it to a useable form in this world."

Tony waved him off impatiently.  "That much I'd speculated from day one.  Theory confirmed.  But these other readings."  He gestured to encompass a significant portion of the math on the screen, essentially just numbers to Stephen's eyes.  "The part where my scanners say all you're doing is wiggling your fingers to crack open the universe and start yanking on another one like yarn?  That's bullshit, because one, the human body wasn't built to channel dimensional energy, and two, your fingers are not antennas searching out new signals from other worlds."

"If you're asking me how you get from waving your hands uselessly in the air to opening portals with them, I have a simple answer for you."

Tony stared at him expectantly.  "Yes?"

"Study and practice," Stephen said, grinning.  "Years of it."

Tony groaned a protest.  "No, don't do that, don't pretend to be worldly and wise instead of a charlatan.  It's obvious your magic is false, I'm convinced.  It's a sham job, barely worth more than some dime-store eight-ball's predictions."

Stephen raised both eyebrows.  "It's saved a lot of lives for a sham."

"How do I know that?  You could be lying.  Except for my life, clearly, saving my life was a thing.  Maybe you could tell me how it's a thing?"

Stephen gestured with some amusement at the four consoles around them, each of them lit up with separate scanning parameters.  "Perhaps it's you who should be telling me."

"See?" Tony complained.  "Magic eight-ball.  Your answer to all my questions is basically 'it is decidedly so'."

Stephen nodded sagely.  "Signs point to yes."

Tony poked him with one of his instruments, leaving his point firmly stated and a bruise behind.

"I will get this magic thing," Tony announced determinedly.  "I will.  Even if I have to get you to perform actual miracles just so I can take readings."

Which Stephen would not in any way put past him.  "Fair warning: if you try blowing up a sun, I won't be able to stop that."

Tony frowned.  "That sounded pointed.  Was that pointed?  Did I try that at one time?"

Stephen had meant it mostly as a joke, but it occurred to him he'd felt very sure when he'd said it.  And he vaguely recalled there were at least two futures he'd seen where a sun going nova had actually featured at one point.  He tried to remember where and why it'd featured, but the details were too murky, too indistinct to pull from.  Stephen could feel each timeline he'd witnessed ringing through him like a bell, resonant and implacable, but their echo so often escaped him.  In the past week even the act of reaching for them had started to bring on increasingly painful headaches.

"I can't remember," he said.

Tony looked satisfyingly disturbed by that.  "Right.  No blowing up suns.  Check."  He subsided, looking at the readings again.  "Okay, riddle me this, Batman.  Why does magic have a physical form?"

Stephen blinked.  "A what?"

"A physical representation.  It appears visually as sparks.  It has color; it has depth, or it seems to.  We experience it in a spectrum our eyes can detect.  Why?"

It had never occurred to Stephen to wonder, though honestly it seemed like an interesting question now Tony mentioned it.  "Energized particles can appear in the visual spectrum."

"More often they don't without some kind of equal and opposite interaction.  The visual spectrum is ridiculously small, comparatively speaking, and dimensional energy doesn't seem the sort that would be easily perceived."

"You're saying it would make more sense if it were invisible?"

"Possibly."  Tony threw up both hands, frustration stamped across his brow.  "No, honestly, it doesn't make sense no matter how you cut it."  He pointed emphatically at Stephen with one finger.  "But at least if there were nothing to see I'd feel better about it."

"Who has seen the wind?" Stephen started to quote rhetorically. 

"Neither you nor I," Tony finished impatiently, and Stephen caught his breath in surprise.  "Thanks, I always appreciate being fobbed off with Victorian poetry."

Stephen had to physically restrain himself from reaching out.  The urge to touch, to covet, was very strong.  He wanted to beckon with magical fingers, wrap fire around Tony's wrist and yank him closer.  He wanted Tony to laugh when he did it, wrap strong fingers around Stephen's wrist in turn, grin in that charming way he had.  He wanted -

He waited until the impulse had subsided before shaking his head.  "I was trying to say that in some respects magic shares commonality with the wind.  It's tangible, harnessed for thousands of years as an energy source, quantifiable and material to some, but inexplicable to others."

"I'm not 'some' or 'others'.  I'm Tony Stark.  I'm good with tangible.  Show me the theoretical proof, give me math, explain to me how known laws can measure it."

"Natural law persists, but no math is going to be able to adequately explain magic for you, not insofar as humans understand math."  Stephen thought back to words he'd heard once, in a time when he hadn't been ready to hear it.  He could remember every wonderful, terrifying second of his own introduction to magic, courtesy of the Ancient One.  "Tactile, material existence is only one of an infinite number.  At the root of awareness, the body's only part of -"

Tony interrupted.  "If you're about to go off about streams of consciousness and the human spirit, I'm leaving.  I didn't sign up for a religious sermon."

Stephen didn't think now was the time to point out Tony had called him to have a look.  He changed tactics.  "Maybe if you got some sleep the numbers would make more sense."

"I've slept," Tony said immediately.  "Not well, but that's just another day of the week as far as I'm concerned."

"Define not well.  Have you ever -"

"Uh uh," Tony said, waving an admonishing finger.  "This is my interrogation, doc, not yours.  I've kept to our deal.  That's all I'm going to say about that."

"The magic will still be here in the morning, Tony.  So will your readings."

"Easy for you to say.  You realize how all that new age stuff sounds, right?" Tony thunked one side of his hand down like a blade against a console.  "As a doctor, imagine a patient listening to you go off about immaterial existence while you're cutting into them with a scalpel."  He swept the hand aside, dismissive.  "Never fly.  All science has method and mechanism.  If it's quantifiable, then so does magic, one way or the other.  It's that or you lied."

"I didn't."

"I know," Tony said.  He looked more frustrated than ever by this information.  "I was watching."

Stephen thought he really should find that intrusive, even violating, but he didn't.  Almost the opposite, really.  FRIDAY watched for lies, because Tony needed her to in order to feel safe, and Stephen found there was something addictive in making Tony Stark feel safe.

He spread both hands in supplication.  "If we ever get back to Earth, I can show you the library in Kamar Taj.  There are books there that might explain this better than I can.  My own study was focused on understanding magical application, not the atomic theory."

He could see the offer had surprised Tony, who actually subsided into an awkward, searching silence.  The weight of his eyes felt heavy and tangible on Stephen's skin, like the trail of an inquisitive touch.

"Unless you want more poetry," Stephen said dryly, to fill the quiet.  "That I can provide."

Tony blew out a loud breath, eager to jump on that distraction.  "Only if you pick more interesting verse.  I refuse to listen to anything that goes on about the soul or determinism or nature or some other esoteric concept I'd like to set on fire."

Stephen raised both eyebrows, only half in jest.  "I'd be interested to know what poetry you'd find acceptable."

Tony didn't hesitate.  "Abide the twin-damnation, to fail and know we fail."

Kipling, Stephen wanted to say.  Hymn of Breaking Strain, 1935.  The urge to blurt that out was strong; he'd always been like that, mind churning out facts to fit the words of his colleagues.  Stephen knew he was prone to showmanship, one-upmanship.  He'd never hesitated before to use that, to blatantly display his own brilliance for the world.

But here he didn't need to.  Tony's mind rivalled his as a black hole of information, albeit usually of different varieties.  The engineer needed no reminder of Stephen's brilliance.

Perhaps it sounded arrogant to say, but Stephen had never met someone who could keep up with him before.

"Of course you'd pick one about engineering," Stephen said at last.

Tony nodded decisively.  "Only poetry worth reading.  And maybe not even then."

"Damned with faint praise."

Tony handed Stephen a spanner to hold while he entered new information on the data overlay.  He trained his eyes on the numbers and carefully didn't look up.  "My mom had a thing for poetry.  Loved the rhythm of it; said it helped slow things down, helped her see the world through new eyes.  She used to read it to me when I was growing up." 

Stephen didn't move, hardly dared to breathe.  He remembered millions of different futures, some of them incredible, others horrifying.  But in none of them could he recall Tony ever talking about his mother.

Tony obviously felt the weight of his own words.  He shrugged, apparently nonchalant.  "It was never my thing.  But it made her happy."

"She sounds like a woman of taste," Stephen said softly.

Tony cleared his throat.  "Anyway, I suppose magic is a bit like poetry.  Relies on a level of absurdity to work and uses incomprehensible language that glosses right over the details.  Offers zero explanation and remains widely open to interpretation, but dresses everything up in a pretty package for the average person to admire."  He spun the overlay to face Stephen, where a scrolling set of red numbers and error messages faced him.  "I'm not an average person, Stephen."

"Yes, what was my first clue?"

Tony ignored him, looking forbidding.  "If I can't quantify it, I can't measure how finite it is.  Everything has limits.  Magic must too, and if I can't predict it, then I can't rely on it."

"Then don't rely on it," Stephen found himself saying before he could think better of it.  "Rely on me."

Tony paused, glancing over for just a moment, the whole of his mind turned to this idea.  "I am relying on you.  If I wasn't, you wouldn't be here."  He gestured back and forth between Stephen and the console, but Stephen could see that for the deflection it was.

"You have all the readings you could ask for, at this point.  You may have to build an entire new subset of science to understand them, but I have faith you'll manage it one day.  In the meantime, magic is going to be an integral part of our fight against Thanos.  If you can't trust it, then trust me."

Tony wasn't moving, his tinkering hands for once still in their work.  "Barking up the wrong tree, doc.  Pretty sure we've openly established I'm bad with trust."

Stephen shrugged, feeling out the razor sharp edges of the moment before they could cut him open.  "Your choices are your own.  But if they should include me, I need you to know: I'm here."

He saw Tony clench one hand into a fist, probably involuntarily, then deliberately relax it.  They stood in silence for a moment.

"How is it," Tony said, almost too softly to be heard, "that you so often hit the same note as another Steve I once knew?"

A lightning bolt of memory almost struck Stephen down.  Tony's voice, a thunder of sound in a forgotten future, a tortured rasp as he said 'Steve would've liked you, you're two peas in a pod, lying to my face and mostly lying to yourself, telling yourself it's for my own good, it's justified, it's necessary, let me go, get out of my head, I'll kill you for this, Strange, I'll kill you -'

"- need to fix the calibration of this console, there's a two second delay in FRIDAY's overlay, the display's gone wonky, and - you're not even listening, are you?  Where'd I lose you?  Stephen?"

Stephen blinked back to the moment, feeling his heart pound nauseatingly in a rib cage that felt too small to contain it.  "Sorry?"

Tony looked amused, one half of his mouth slanted in a grin as Stephen watched him slip underneath the console to pry up an access panel.  "You were drifting, doc.  Something I should know about?"

Stephen could feel bile try and crawl up his throat, the distant sense-memory of this man's rage battering at everything he thought he'd known about himself.

"Nothing I'm keen to share," Stephen said, conscious to be as honest as possible.

Tony looked at him sharply, but to Stephen's relief he didn't push.  Stephen thought about leaving, quickly, before the ripples of an averted future could pull him beneath an unseen tide and start to drown him.  It wouldn't be the first time it'd happened; not even the first time this week. 

"We're two days out from our next planetary adventure," Tony said, hopping back to his feet before Stephen could decide.  "Anything I should know about planet number two?"

There could be a hundred things, really.  Stephen knew Tony spent most of the time frustrated at what seemed to be Stephen's refusal to disclose vital information, but the truth was that even with the Time Stone, so much of the future remained uncertain.  For all his photographic memory, Stephen could never be sure what would be sharing enough, what would be sharing too much; what mattered and what didn't.  Did he reveal the name of the first humanoid they most often traded with, the physical characteristics of the two others who tried to cheat them, the color of the sky on the planet where one almost killed them?  Did he try to describe the ship in twenty-seven futures that had ambushed them and crippled their systems, the same ship that in forty-three others had been their ally?  Did he point out how many planets were in every system they'd stopped in, how the sun in one system had made them ill for a month, how the moon in another had drawn all the magic from Stephen like a siphon?  Did he talk about the times Tony died, the times Peter almost did?  Did he tell Tony how on some days Stephen ached for an intimacy they hadn't achieved in this world and might never if the future didn't turn in that direction, how some days he woke up and reached for someone beside him and it took him full minutes before he remembered he was alone, and why -

"Nothing I'm keen to share," he repeated tightly.  He waited for Tony to shove at that tenuous boundary, demand more.  Tony was a man not easily put off.

But Tony was watching him, the quality of his attention focused and specific.  Stephen realized he must be looking at FRIDAY's readings, judging for himself how the question had sent all Stephen's levels fluctuating wildly, how adrenaline must be spiking in his system.

"Just tell me we don't bite it," Tony said at last.  "Or tell me that if we're about to, you'll warn me."

"As long as I'm alive and able, and if I could prevent it, I'd never let the future unfold in a way that might end our lives," Stephen said, entirely honestly.  "Or anyone else's."

"Okay," Tony said, almost too cheerfully.  "Then I guess I'll have to, what was it you said?  Rely on you."

It was an olive branch clearly meant as a gift.  The words were casual, out of alignment with Tony's sharp attention, the thoughts Stephen could see darting behind his eyes.  Stephen had never known someone whose mind actually worked faster than his.  Not better, not more adeptly, but faster.  Tony Stark was someone for whom the world was almost inevitably two steps behind, and staying ahead of him was an exhausting prospect some days, an effort in futility on others.

Millions of futures Stephen remembered piecemeal, like old film-reels flickering in stopgap motion.  Hundreds of thousands where he'd had opportunity to see Tony's mind in action.  Many more where Stephen was able to demonstrate his own brilliance, where he'd been subject to the laserpoint intensity of Tony's curiosity, his attention and regard.  More importantly, his trust.  There were a million futures Stephen had never managed to earn that, and a million breathtaking more where he had.  It never stopped being exhilarating.

And dangerous.  Tony's Stark's enmity could be almost literally a death sentence, and having his trust was only slightly less perilous, but for different reasons.  It was fragile, like glass, and Stephen had lived through futures where he'd broken it beyond repair, and futures where he'd seen what that trust could become, given time. 

"There you go again," Tony said.

Stephen looked up, startled.  "What?"

The engineer was smiling at him oddly.  "You were off in Neverland."  He tapped a spanner against the console thoughtfully.  "Find anything interesting there?  Fairy dust?  Analog clock?  Detachable shadow?  Pirates?"

The word triggered another sense-memory.  There were a number of futures where they'd run into real pirates.  He could clearly visualize one of them, an alien tall and red, fins on either side of its head, battle armor over its chest.  Stephen remembered being startled, the shock of meeting something, someone so different.  He could hear Tony's voice, even, saying 'sorry buddy, you're not the first sushi special to try eating me, fins off my ship -'

Stephen tried to remember how that ended, where the pirates got to, but the details slid past him like water on slick ice, and the more he tried to chase it the faster it slipped away.  What had been the beginnings of a headache bloomed swiftly into an excruciating migraine.

Stephen shook his head, feeling the world slosh painfully from side to side.  "Nothing I'm keen to share," he said again, with heavy irony.

Tony sighed.  "Stephen, we really need to work on your communication skills."

"What's that phrase you favor?" Stephen asked, forcing himself to smile through the first flickers of visual disturbance, colors starting to blur and twine.  "Pot, kettle -"

"No need to get touchy, I'm just saying -"

Hours later, with Tony left in the engine room to tweak some of their course values, Stephen sat on one of the bridge girders and stared at the stars streaming past their ship.  He'd spent a solid sixty minutes in his quarters, a cold cloth over his eyes while he fought the urge to wretch and desperately missed analgesics.  He'd made his way to the bridge when he felt like he could reliably walk in a straight line again.

The dark and the starlight had finally managed to dial the migraine back to more tolerable levels.  Stephen had always preferred the bridge, for the view if nothing else, but in the last week he felt like he'd barely left it.  It wasn't the first time he'd had to use the stars as a meditative focal point when the headaches started.  It'd made Stephen pause; he'd had to consider that maybe his efforts were doing more harm than good, that potentially they might not be making any difference at all, or that the only real difference might be an increased danger to his health.  So far he'd managed to convince himself that he could make it work, that he had to keep trying, all the way through days five, then six, then seven.

A week since he'd opened the Time Stone again.

Stephen fingered the Eye, one hand at the catch of the chain. That first day, the very first time he'd done it since the emitter was installed; that had been a disaster.  Stephen'd been confident.  He'd activated the stone with a flourish, without enough thought given to how it might affect him.  He'd been sure he could feel his way through it, that he'd sense if anything started to go awry, that he'd have time to withdraw if something went wrong.

That lasted until he woke on the floor, an anxious cloak hovering beside him and Peter calling his name, two hands gripping him with painful strength at the shoulders.  The dried remains of a bloody nose (maybe caused by him falling, but more likely caused by the magic overload) had given Stephen enough of an excuse to put the kid off, beg for his silence, but Peter wasn't stupid.  He'd been watching Stephen like a hawk ever since, sure something was wrong. 

He was more right than he knew.  Which only made it more paramount that Stephen avoid any scrutiny while he practiced.

"FRIDAY," he said. 

She filtered in through the ceiling speakers, vast and echoing.  "Yes?"

"Can you alert me, please, if Tony or Peter start making their way to the bridge?"

"Of course," she said, as calm and pleasant as ever.  He thought he could detect a note of curiosity in her voice, but she said nothing further.

Stephen framed the Eye with both hands, locking his fingers in a three-pronged position, sweeping them over the face of the pendant.  The bright emerald glow of the stone spilled into the air as it woke. 

He stayed that way for a time, just letting the air breathe with potential, charge with the power.  The borders of the past and present started to blur.

"Doctor Strange," FRIDAY said, and he blinked in surprise.  "I'm detecting an unknown molecular energy at your location."

Stephen smiled.  It was the same thing she'd said last week when he'd opened the pendant.  "Yes, I know."

"Do you require assistance?"

He shook his head, even though she couldn't see it.  "No, thank you."

Stephen let the seconds count down, let the moment start to saturate.  The magic snuck along his senses.  He waited until he was sure he felt steady, that there was nothing unexpected.  Then he let it slide down his arm and tighten into a shadowy bracelet, rotating clockwise.  The first hint of temporal energy slipped beneath his skin.

It settled into his bones and began to violently shake him apart.

Stephen let it go, disappointment stabbing at him bitterly.  The green dissolved back into the ether without a sound.  He breathed through the first wave of disorientation, unfortunately familiar, and then through the secondary wave of nausea and light-headedness.  He reclined against the wall before his crashing blood pressure could force him down off the girder.

FRIDAY's voice filtered back into the room.  "Doctor Strange, your biorhythms appear to have destabilized.  Should I request assistance from Mr. Stark?"

"No," he panted, fixing his eyes on the trail of stars painting the viewport a serene white and blue.  He cleared his throat, put one hand against his chest to sit against the pressure there.  "Just give me a second."

Stephen waited until everything had settled again before shuffling his legs into a lotus position beneath him.  He rested both hands on either knee, frowning.  After a few minutes he silently urged the cloak into the air, the slipstream of its levitation cushioning him in a gentle grasp as they rose.  He waited warily for a return of the nausea, the weakness, maybe the first prickles of a hollow pain, but there was nothing.  Magic thrummed through him normally, completely unchanged.

Stephen called until it manifested, curling into physical form around him, a rope of orange, sparking fire twining over his wrist, up his elbow, his shoulder.  He waited for the sickness to come again, but nothing happened.  All was frustratingly, annoyingly well.

He let the magic melt back into nonexistence, blowing out a rough breath.  "Dammit."

"Doctor?" FRIDAY asked politely.

He sighed.  In the early days aboard the ship he'd had limited interactions with the A.I, but as time went on that had changed.  Her use of formal address was starting to wear thin.  "FRIDAY, please just call me Stephen.  This is too small a ship to stand on ceremony."

She sounded almost surprised as she considered this.  "My protocols encourage a respectful address for all forms of personal interaction."

Stephen frowned dubiously.  "You call Tony 'boss'."

And now she sounded defensive.  "That form of address is acceptable in describing Tony Stark's role and function as my creator and primary commandant -"

"No, I'm sorry."  Stephen closed his eyes.  "I didn't mean to imply you were being disrespectful.  Just.  I doubt you came up with that one on your own.  Did Tony ask you to use it?"

"He did."

"Then can't you use Stephen if I'm asking you to?"

She was silent for a long, speaking moment.  "That seems in alignment with my etiquette programs."

"Good." Stephen traced the outline of the Eye with his fingers, careful not to accidentally open it.  "FRIDAY, how closely are you able to monitor the emitter now that it's fully installed?"

"I maintain hourly scans to ensure the emitter's operation doesn't deviate from predetermined parameters."

"How's it looking now?"

"The emitter is functioning to optimal specifications."

"You took hundreds of scans when I was activating my sling ring last week.  Did that affect the emitter's function in any way?"

"There was no detectable change in function or process at that time."

"So even magic used to a significant degree doesn't affect it," he mused, thinking.

"It doesn't appear impacted by your method of harnessing dimensional energy," she agreed.

Stephen had to smile.  Like Tony, FRIDAY insisted that magic had its basis in science.  Although she didn't seem capable of true disdain, she made a subtle point of never calling his spells 'magic'.

"I'd like to try an experiment.  Can you run a continuous scan?"

"Of course."

He slipped one hand over the Eye, rotating his fingers just enough to tease a ribbon of green from beneath its protective cage.  Dizziness immediately assaulted him, but he held it for five seconds, ten.  He let the energy wrap into a smaller temporal construct this time; not a bracelet, more a ring.

A warning tone sounded.  "Level three scan indicates a fluctuation in emitter functionality.  I advise caution."

Stephen closed his eyes, breathing through the third wave of chills and the fourth wave of spasmodic tremors.  

He'd almost made it to the fifth wave (pain) when FRIDAY issued an urgent alarm.  "I'm registering a significant power flow disruption.  Emitter readings are beginning to degrade.  I recommend stopping immediately."

He thought about continuing, regardless.  The urge to push, to shove at the boundaries of his power until they gave way to new limits was very strong.

But the first lightning-shocks of pain were starting to pull at his extremities like barbed hooks, and he wasn't eager to see what the sixth wave might look like.  He let it go.

This time it took much longer to subside.  He tipped over to lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.  The cloak supported him gently, tucking beneath his legs and feet to provide some purchase.

"Did the emitter return to baseline when I closed the Eye?" he forced himself to ask, though opening his mouth made him feel like his whole stomach might try and squirm out of it.

"Readings are still stabilizing."

"Let me know when they're fully back in range."

Rather than confirm the request, FRIDAY issued a curious series of beeps.  "May I ask why you're tracking this data?"

"Research," he said, relieved as the discomfort finally began to dissipate.

"Research?"

Stephen grinned tiredly.  "Your boss isn't the only one capable of it."

"This method of research seems ill-advised.  Disruptions to the emitter could potentially cause damage, with both short term and long term consequences."

"Needs must."  Stephen stretched, the world steadying around him as the last of the symptoms sloughed away.

"Emitter readings have returned to normal," FRIDAY said.  "Functionality is ninety-six percent baseline."

Stephen nodded.  He was starting to get a sense of the borders, the limits of the box their alien host had unintentionally locked him in.  Infinity stones weren't to be trifled with, and after the emitter, after all the dizzying illness that'd come before it, Stephen had been content to let the stone lie dormant.  He reasoned that he'd gone through most of his life not knowing it existed.  Obviously he could manage without.  It wouldn't be difficult; just a return to the norm.

But Tony's words had hit closer to home than he might have realized, all those months ago.  Had stung more than Stephen'd let on, more than he'd been willing to acknowledge.  Doc, I'm beginning to think you have a problem -

So Stephen had been comfortable letting the stone sleep.  He hadn't had much of a choice, really; that was what he told himself. 

But that was before they'd almost been caught.  Before Tony almost got left behind.

"Alright, FRIDAY.  Keep that scan running.  Let's try this again."

This time Stephen let slip only a bare fraction of the stone's magic, less a ring construct and more the suggestion of one.  The symptoms were much slower to appear, but still powerful for all that.  Stephen forced himself not to rush it, not to take more than he needed.  FRIDAY had a point; the phased material could still kill him if he wasn't careful. 

Like the others, and in spite of Tony's accusation, Stephen had been as surprised as any of them by their ambush in the asteroid field.  He hadn't seen that one coming, and they'd all nearly been killed because of it.  He knew then that he had to use the stone again, that before it all came to a head, one way or the other, he had to know enough to keep them safe.  Destroying the Time Stone was a red herring, one he'd offered Tony because it was the only thing that might convince him they had to move forward, that there was no going back.  And if the engineer managed to find a way, Stephen meant to honor his word.  But in all the millions of future he'd seen, all the ends, one thing he remembered clearly: the stone was always there.

"Emitter readings are beginning to fluctuate," FRIDAY said.  Stephen could feel the sickness lurking like poison in his bones.  He closed his eyes.

Study and practice.  That's all this would take.  Stephen was sure of it.

Chapter Text

Tony had known vaguely that looking for an inhabited alien world probably meant at some point actually interacting with an alien species.  That was sort of the point, really.  But it was something he'd thought about for a maximum two minutes, between other more significant considerations like the preservation of all universal life and the acquisition of new technology and the pursuit of science (not necessarily in that order).  If anything, he'd probably worried more about how they'd avoid armed conflict if someone took exception to their ship dropping itself uninvited into the neighbourhood.

Of course, it occurred to Tony about sixty seconds into trying to communicate with the alien-lizard-reptile that possibly he should've thought of this sooner.  And in spite of all evidence to the contrary, apparently English was not actually the predominant language of the galaxy.

"FRIDAY," Tony said through a fixed, pleasant smile.  "Fade out the signal to static.  Make it look like we've caught some solar wind and can't compensate."

Not really a lie.  Tony'd had to recalibrate most of their equipment, including communications, to account for the significant electromagnetic activity in this system.  It wasn't much of a stretch to say they might've had trouble maintaining a video and audio feed.

"Sure thing, boss," FRIDAY said, and the picture started to fuzz and warp, the image of the aliens distorting into an unrecognizable watercolor painting before slowly disappearing.

"Shit," Tony said.

Peter looked like he couldn't decide between explosive excitement and apprehension.  He gesticulated wildly from where he'd been hovering on the ceiling.  "They looked like dinosaurs.  Space dinosaurs!  Wow!"  He stopped flailing to cross his arms thoughtfully.  "Our dinosaurs died out, what, sixty-five million years ago?  Maybe these are, like, descendants -"

"I think I've seen this cartoon before," Tony muttered.  "Let's speculate on their possible origins after we figure out how to tell them we come in peace.  Options?  FRIDAY?"

"The ship's memory does not contain any specific linguistic data for this world," FRIDAY said apologetically.  "Nor do I find any entry on the equipment manifest to assist with communication."

"So much for universal translation.  Damn Squidward, anyway.  He set my expectations too high."

Stephen made a low, considering noise.  He'd stepped up to peer speculatively down at one of the consoles.  "I doubt technology was what our host relied on."

"You're about to say he used magic, aren't you?  Of course you are."  Tony sighed.  "Of course there'd be a spell for it.  Color me surprised."

Stephen waved that ingratitude away.  "If you'd prefer to go without -"

"Hell, I think that ship's sailed.  Or this ship has.  And now I'm mixing up my metaphors."

Stephen ignored him.  He steepled his hands together as though in prayer, touching the tips of his fingers to just under his nose.

"Do you need hair for this one?" Tony asked, tugging demonstrably at his, short and neatly trimmed once more.  After almost three months without a cut, he’d had a crazy-mountain-man look going, but a quick razor application had fixed that.  A more dapper Tony Stark had returned, and with style.

Stephen shook his head, pulling his fingers apart to show a web of interconnected strings stretching like molten wire between them.  "No.  This is a generic spell."  The strings sagged until they started to separate, fluttering down to form overlapping concentric circles.  The circles broke into rings moving gently around one another, like a dizzying slow-motion explosion.  Eventually Stephen seemed satisfied and set the whole thing spinning atop one finger, the same way a sportsman might with a basketball.  He widened his eyes at Tony expectantly.  Behind him, Peter hopped down to the floor, almost vibrating with enthusiasm.

Tony held out both hands dramatically.  "Alright, doc.  Hit me with your best shot."

When they called back five minutes later to find the hissing, clicking vocalizations of their new intragalactic pen pal now made sense, Tony silently admitted to himself that in spite of magic doing unholy things to physics, sometimes it really wasn't half bad.

"Hi, hello," he said brightly, once it was clear their new friends could understand him.  "This is Dunkin Donuts, party of three calling.  We mean you no harm, so please don't shoot or otherwise maim us.  I just got my hair back the way I like it, so let’s not make all that work for nothing."

Beside him, Tony could almost feel Stephen rolling his eyes.

The two aliens on the screen, who may or may not share ancestry with a velociraptor, had twin looks of confusion on their faces.  Or possibly that was just how their faces always looked.  Tony doubted an alien species was going to have the same micro-expressions as the average human.

"Sir," the one on the left said, and the word seemed to slip away for a second, almost disappearing into a guttural clicking.  Tony wondered if that was some kind of affectation from the spell; maybe this species didn't have sirs.  "I am unfamiliar with your words.  What are your intentions in our system?"

Tony had an excellent but entirely inappropriate response to that, one Peter might approve of since it heavily featured the word pirate, but Stephen pre-empted him.

"We come seeking trade opportunities," the sorcerer said.  "We're in need of a variety of supplies."

"Yes, this is often so," the one on the left said.  "Our world is far removed from well-travelled paths and rarely visited.  You search for food?"

"Among other things," Stephen agreed.  "Would you be willing to consider a deal?"

The aliens turned to each other, silently conferring.  Tony wondered how they were managing that without even twitching the muscles in their face.  Maybe through scent, or subtle sign language, or telepathy.  Or magical, undetectable air currents.

It was amazing what seemed possible, or even probable, when considering the behavior of an entirely alien species.

"I cannot speak for our chancellor," the first alien said finally, turning back.  "But a trade of essential supplies seems reasonable.  I expect an arrangement can be made."

"Thank you," Stephen said.  "I'm not sure what you might accept in exchange.  I'm afraid we don't have much in the way of local currency."

Or much of anything, really, Tony didn't say.

"We have little use for galactic coin," the one on the right said.  "What alternative do you offer?  The chancellor may negotiate a price."

"Awesome question," Tony said cheerfully.  "I don't suppose you folks eat jello?"

"Jello?" The word came across with a distorted hiss, the spell again seeming to compensate.

Tony nodded peaceably, then had to pause and wonder whether nodding to this species meant the same as it did to humans.  Probably not.  "Yeah, jello.  Gelatinous MRE, comes in a variety of colors and maybe flavors.  Life saving and soul destroying little snacks.  I'll be honest, if you don't take them off our hands I might have to sneak them into a care package for you anyway."

Tony could hear Peter make an emphatic noise of agreement while beside him Stephen stifled a beleaguered sigh.

The alien, meanwhile, looked entirely unimpressed.  "I don't understand."

"Not surprising," Stephen muttered, before clarifying: "We have non-perishable foodstuffs and valuable metals and ores onboard.  We'd also be willing to consider a trade of knowledge.  We have access to information from far off star systems."

"Knowledge."  And Tony could assume that lilting hiss was interest, maybe, even though the facial expression hadn't changed one iota.  "That is interesting.  Do you have additional water supplies?"

"Water supplies?" Stephen echoed. 

"Such supply is often sought on our world."

Which, actually, now Tony thought of it that shouldn't surprise him.  FRIDAY'd been taking readings since they'd arrived in this system, and of the six planetary bodies orbiting the A-type star, all of them were desolate.  The only one with humanoid life was not only primarily sand and rock, most of it volcanic, but solar activity had stripped off most of the planet's atmosphere, leaving it in drought, or with just barely livable environs.  Given those circumstances, Tony supposed water would be a precious if not absolutely priceless commodity.

Tony broke in before Stephen could say anything.  "Well, I'm sure we can come to some arrangement.  I'm certainly willing to trade water for a couple things on our wish list.  A look at your very pretty satellite systems, for example."

The aliens shared another speaking glance. 

"Sir?" the leftmost one asked.

"Your satellites," Tony repeated.  "They're kind of a work of art.  Lots of tender loving care in their layout, impressive structural design, all that.  The thing that interests me most, though, is we're half a system removed and you're still getting our signal loud and clear in spite of the solar winds.  That's impressive.  Mind giving me a sneak peek?"

"A sneak peek?" one of them echoed slowly, clearly feeling out the words.

"Yeah, I'd like to take a look under the hood.  Well, under the communications grid, really.  What're the odds we could make that happen?"

"You wish to examine one of our communication arrays?" the one on the left asked, and there, Tony could finally say for sure he'd gotten a reaction out of one of them.  He could hear the alien's curiosity.  "Why?"

"I'm an engineer, and I like shiny metal things and seeing what makes them tick."

"You are a machinist?" the right alien asked, more pointedly than Tony thought was warranted.  Maybe they didn't like the term engineer on this world, or the spell didn't have an equivalent translation.

Tony grinned at the understatement anyway.  "I work with machines, sure, and I'd like to work with yours."

"That is an unusual request."

"I'm an unusual guy."

Alien sign language voodoo took place again, and it was eerie how they both stared at each other in absolute silence before turning to look at him in tandem.  "You offer a unique proposition.  It will be for the chancellor to decide."

"Good, great," Tony said brightly.  "Put him or her on the line."

One more glance.  "Chancellor Zet will not negotiate over remote communications.  Traditionally, the chancellor would meet travellers at a designated place to discuss terms."

"Maybe he could make an exception in this case," Tony said.

"That is not possible.  Negotiation is often brief, but it is followed by a ceremonial sharing of food to close relations."

"We're in," Peter interjected quickly, because obviously his stomach was doing the talking for him.

Tony spoke right overtop of him.  "No, see.  Thanks for the offer, really, it's kind and probably generous.  But we're really not looking to come and visit, per say.  We're more interested in -" running off with your more interesting technology, or minerals, or valuables, or any other items of interest "- just trading for supplies, and then being on our way.  No muss, no fuss."

"Honored guest," the one on the right said, in a tone that was overly patient.  It was obvious they'd decided to treat their unreasonable alien visitor with kid gloves, since Tony couldn't be counted on to demonstrate common sense.  "Even if that were possible, we have no available space-faring vessels.  To effectively trade, you must land in order to receive supplies."

"Okay, but say we didn't," Tony said.  "Imagine if you will that we might be able to pick up and transport things using this thing called technology."

The one on the right looked as scandalized as it was possible for a lizard to look.  "You would demand Chancellor Zet forgo the ceremonial meal?"

Which, well.  Said in that tone of voice, it sounded like Tony was asking this chancellor to commit murder, or at least join in some kind of bloody rampage.  These people obviously took their meal times way too seriously.  

Which of course immediately spawned paranoid thoughts about being the main course in a post-negotiation celebration.  "Guys, I’m flattered by the offer, really, but I'm not sure dinner’s such a good idea.  I have a sensitive stomach.  Food allergies, you know.  It could just never work between us.”

It was clear by their non-expressions that they weren’t amused.  It occurred to Tony, as it had obviously not occurred to Peter, to wonder what these people actually ate. Judging by the size of their incisors, they probably weren’t all about their leafy greens.

"We're practicing vegetarians," Tony tried.  "Or jello-tarians, maybe.  Three months strong and counting?"

The aliens looked at each other again. 

Tony smiled weakly.  "Vegan?  We could be vegan."  He grimaced.  "Of course, then we'd probably have to do crossfit -"

"What my companion means to say," Stephen broke in dryly, "is we're honored to be invited and we'll be happy to join you for this ceremonial meal in exchange for your cooperation in trade supplies.  Are you able to provide coordinates for us to land and travel to you?"

And that downward head-tilt paired with a squint was probably meant to be relief, or something like it.  Tony should start a database.  He doubted he was going to have much luck reading these people, otherwise; they clearly had no sense of sarcasm, which was basically the only language Tony spoke.

"We will provide coordinates," the one on the right said.  "Our chancellor will be pleased to greet you there."

"Thank you," Stephen said graciously.

The live feed cut abruptly, leaving behind a picture of six planets painted in bright, monochrome color across their viewport.  The sun in this system created beautiful but distinctly odd light that shaded into the blue spectrum for the human eye.

"Why do I feel like we're about to star in a fairy tale?" Tony asked the room at large.

"Which one?" Peter asked.  He'd approached the viewport the moment it no longer held a communication from an alien species.  He had his nose pressed nearly to the glass.

"Hansel and Gretel comes to mind.  Or maybe Goldilocks and the three bears."

"That’s not too bad.  I mean, at least everyone survived in those stories."  Peter pulled himself up one side of the viewport until he could peer at it upside down.  "Except the witch, I mean."

Tony shook his head.  "Depends which version of the tale it is, and who's telling it.  But gold star, kid: you've expanded your collection of classic literature.  Moving up in the world."

"Thanks," Peter said brightly. 

Tony turned to Stephen.  "So, doc, what're the odds of someone trying to roast us alive if we touch down somewhere to break bread with these people?  Have we eaten at this drive-through before?"

Stephen grimaced, a brief look of frustration shifting over his face.  "I don't know."

Tony raised a skeptical eyebrow.  "You don't know, but you're still sure it's safe to dine with them?  And if you tell me signs point to yes one more time, I will do something we'll all regret."

"We've met them," Stephen said.  "But that's all I remember."

He looked no more pleased about that than Tony felt.

"Sure you can’t think of anything more helpful?" Tony asked.  "Like if they have any giant space guns, who this chancellor is they were talking about, whether we'll be the main course at dinner or just guests, the correct fork to use if the latter."  Tony paused expectantly.  "You know, important stuff like that."

"I doubt they even use forks," Stephen said.  "Did you see the claws on their hands?"

Tony grimaced.  He had.  At two inches long, they were a good complement to their enormous fangs.  "Yeah, thanks for that.  I was doing my best not to imagine eating dinner next to someone who could disembowel me before I can try stabbing one of them with the butter knife, but now that's all I can think about."

"It won't be that bad.  I doubt they use butter knives, either."

"Thanks for that scintillatingly useful speculation."

"You want useful?" Stephen asked.  He rubbed at his eyes as though he might just claw them out.  "Usefully, I can tell you that we badly need to top up our oxygen supplies and we’d probably end up on the surface of this planet one way or another.  And also that none of our deaths in any universe involved evisceration by dinosaur."

"Yes, I'm more pleased than words can say that's the measuring stick we're using to gauge our safety."

"I’m kind of okay with it," Peter piped up, subsiding when Tony glared at him.

Stephen pinched the bridge of his nose.  "Most of your life's been spent avoiding safety anyway.  Why stop now?"

"I'd accuse you of defamation," Tony said, “but I'm on public record as a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie.  Also, why is your blood pressure hopping around like a rabbit on steroids?"

Stephen laughed, looking up.  "A rabbit on steroids.  Dare I even ask?"

"What?"  Tony said, light and airy.  "It is."  He glanced at Peter.  "Or maybe a spider on sugar high."

"I don’t really get those," Peter admitted.  "Metabolism.  But if we can find sugar, I’m totally willing to try."

Tony shuddered dramatically.  "I take it back.  Stephen?  You obviously don’t get the sugar excuse."

"I've been getting headaches lately," the wizard said.  He didn't look concerned, shrugging philosophically when Tony peered through his glasses at him.  "Don't worry about it."

"Your mouth says don't worry, but the rest of you says worry."

"You'd probably know something about that," Stephen muttered.

"In my defense, that's usually just because I don't want to talk about it."  Tony took the hint, turning to one of the consoles.  "Alright, FRI, take us in."

It didn't take FRIDAY long to maneuver down through the atmosphere to the coordinates given.  There was no aeronautic traffic from what Tony could detect, so nothing to be careful of avoiding as they descended to near-ground level.

That was where they discovered a problem.  Well, several.

"This sucks," Peter declared with a frown. 

Tony hid a grin behind one hand.  "Can't be helped, kid.  Still don't have much in the way of landing gear.  You didn't mind it on our last planetary adventure."

"But we weren't meeting aliens the last time," Peter protested.  "The trees were the only ones to impress.  Well, and that giant eel, maybe -"

"Don't even start.  It was an anaconda.  Don't make me leave you behind, kid.  I'll do it."

Peter gazed at him with limp, pleading eyes and Tony could feel himself cave like a wet noodle.

"Okay, I won't take you in a fireman’s carry.  But no standing on top of me like a surf board this time, either."

Peter nodded eagerly.  Tony turned to Stephen, waiting for the inevitable objections from that quarter too.

Stephen surprised him.  "It makes more sense for me to take us down."

Tony raised both eyebrows.  "Well, we already vetoed the fireman's carry.  So unless you're planning to cart me off bridal style, afraid I'll have to pass."

"I can do bridal style."

The image that brought to mind was at once hilarious and strangely compelling.  "Oh, I'm sure you can."  Tony smirked.  "Planning to carry me over the threshold, too?"

"Perhaps.  But only if you ask me very, very nicely," Stephen said, and there was something a little too even in his voice.  His eyes were charged with a heat that made Tony itch to respond in kind, something prickling beneath Tony’s skin he didn’t dare name.

He forced himself to backtrack.  "Doc, I never do much of anything nicely."

"You will," the sorcerer said, continuing before Tony could respond.  "Though perhaps we can skip the bridal carry during negotiations.  I have a better suggestion, anyway."

Stephen's cloak rippled like an excited red flag.  Tony looked at it automatically, skeptically.

"I'm not sure that fancy flying carpet of yours has enough square footage to fit all three of us," he said.  It immediately snapped to rigid attention, bristling with outrage.  Tony rolled his eyes.  "No offense."

"No, the cloak will need to stay behind," Stephen said.  He tugged it off, gently brushing aside its immediate efforts to slip back into place.  It gave up after a few attempts and hung beside him very forlornly.  Tony reminded himself it was an overrated piece of outerwear and incapable of feeling forlorn, or anything else for that matter.  But it certainly faked it well.

"There a reason you’re grounding one of the best tricks in your arsenal?" Tony asked.

Stephen snorted.  "You haven't seen most of my arsenal.  The cloak presents too convenient a target.  There are several species that're all too happy to get their hands on a relic.  I won't take it down to any planet we visit."

The cloak threw itself over a nearby console, looking absolutely inconsolable at this news.  Tony tried not to laugh.

"Without the cloak, how exactly are you suggesting you’d get us down?  Throw us overboard?  Wouldn't be my first low altitude free-fall, but I honestly don’t recommend it for the uninitiated."

Stephen flicked out one hand, turning it over to emphasize the square metal ring there.  Tony blinked in surprise.

"FRIDAY can give me a visual," Stephen said, gesturing at the viewport.  The scene obligingly changed from an open-screen view to an aerial perspective; the ground recorded from one of the external sensors, Tony realized.  "I can put us down out of sight.  There's no reason to reveal the Iron Man armor prematurely."

Tony narrowed his eyes.  "Said with particular emphasis.  What do you have against the armor?"

"Nothing, except perhaps its overly ostentatious design."

"Hypocrite," Tony said.  "That cloak isn’t exactly demure.  So is this tit for tat?  You’re leaving your fashion accessory behind so you figure I should too?"

"Partly,” Stephen admitted.  “But mostly it’s because that suit is a beacon for the kind of attention we want to avoid.  I realize it goes against your nature, but if we’re going to search other worlds we’re going to need to blend in."

Which made far more sense than Tony wanted to admit.

"You’ve met me, right?” he asked flippantly.  "Do I seem like the type to blend?"

"Iron Man has his place.  Let’s not advertise it for the entire universe."

Tony had the urge to keep arguing, but it didn't take more than opening his mouth to realize the urge wasn't because he had a good reason; it was because he wanted to have a good reason. 

Tony liked being Iron Man.  He liked others knowing he was Iron Man.  

Being told to put his toys away and pipe down didn’t exactly sit well. 

"For all we know, they have a million cameras setup at this location and they'll catch your little light show just as easily," Tony muttered.

"Unlike some, I can be discreet.  And if FRIDAY detects surveillance we can pick a more removed location and walk in."

Tony made a couple more token protests, but eventually he gave in with as much grace as he could muster.

They showed up at ground level, sheltered behind an outcropping of rocks.  The air was crisp and dry, warm but not necessarily as hot as one might expect on a desert planet.

"At least it's not a water world," Peter commented, hopping immediately atop a convenient boulder so he could scale up it to the top.  "No fish people.  That's a good thing, right?"

"Define good,” Tony said.

"Well, maybe they won't try to eat us?"

"You obviously weren’t paying attention to the size of their teeth.  Ten to one they're carnivores and probably not all that picky about who they put on the dinner table.  Oh, sorry, who they invite to it."

"Children, please," Stephen admonished.  "Our escort should arrive soon.  Try not to alienate them."

"Alienate," Tony commented.  "Now that's an interesting word.  In this context, are words like that considered racially charged?  Or species charged.  Specially charged?"

"Tony."

"What?  I'm just saying.  FRIDAY, you can add that one to your lexicon."

"Yes, boss," FRIDAY responded, coming through tinny and blunted over their micro-receivers, tucked just inside the ear.  Tony had insisted they each wear one before leaving the ship, miniscule nanotech deposits converted to basic radio wave transmitters.  Warm greeting or no, they could never be entirely sure what to expect out in the black, and having a subtle way to communicate with FRIDAY and with each other could be the difference between life and death.  

Besides, the receivers also doubled as a tracking device.  Tony had even eventually, reluctantly shared that with Stephen and Peter when Stephen made it clear he knew exactly what Tony was up to and wasn't putting anything in his ear until he got the full story. 

It was almost like Stephen knew Tony for the radical paranoiac he was.

They heard the greeting party before they saw them, a string of slow-moving ground vehicles gliding easily over the rough, rocky terrain.  The humans stood in the open for visibility and eventually the vehicles stopped.  Out poured a mix of stately looking officials and a slew of people clearly meant as security.  Tony eyed the latter warily.

Although really, they almost needn't have bothered with bringing any muscle.  The shortest of the delegation still stood a foot taller than even Stephen, and all of them had the bulk and natural weapons that came from being, well -

"Dinosaurs," Peter breathed, eyes round with wonder.  Tony elbowed him in the side.

"Hello," Stephen called as the group approached them in eerie tandem.  He cleared his throat.  "Thank you for coming out to meet us.  We're grateful.  But we could've come to you."

The official looking people stepped forward, and Tony recognized one of them: the leftmost alien from their earlier communication.  It was this one who spoke.  "The desert can be treacherous for those unfamiliar to its ways.  We would not ask you to traverse it unaided."

Tony wanted to ask why they'd told them to park this far out, then, but he heroically refrained.

"I'm sure your guidance will be invaluable," Stephen said.  Tony grinned.  From the faint wry note in his voice, the sorcerer was politely not informing their escort of how three superheroes weren’t likely to be intimidated by a desert.

Except for the intense ultraviolet radiation given off by the A-type star.  That was actually pretty dangerous.  They’d had to slather on an impermeable protection compound over every inch of skin before they could even leave the ship.   

The ship, which was still hovering a good half-mile above the ground, and which their alien friend was now busy looking at.

"Will your vessel not be required to land?"

"Fortunately not," Stephen assured them.  "It will remain airborne.  Though we can relocate it if its position is troublesome."

The alien continued to study the ship curiously for a moment, eventually looking back down.  "No need.  This area is set aside for your use.  I am the chancellor's aid, Gwar."

"Hello Gwar," Stephen repeated easily.  "A pleasure to meet you.  I'm Stephen.  This is Peter, and that’s Tony."

Tony waved, but Peter was basically ignoring everything being said, staring intensely at their greeting party as if to immortalize every line of their faces.  Tony wanted to tell him to take a picture, it'd last longer, but technically he was already doing that.  FRIDAY was recording their whole adventure planet-side, actually.

"Unusual names," Gwar commented.

Tony shrugged.  "Only to you.  Besides, like I said before, we're an unusual people."

"Some of us more so than others," Stephen said blandly.

Gwar looked interested at this.  "I am sure our names and ways must also seem strange to you.”

"I’m withholding judgement until dinner time," Tony said.  "Speaking of judging, though, here’s something I honestly can’t tell, and it’s driving me crazy.  Gwar, buddy, are you a guy or a girl?"

Now it was Stephen’s turn to elbow Tony.

Gwar blinked.  Twice.  Once by slowly opening and closing an eyelid vertically, as a human might, and then a second time horizontally when a nictitating membrane slid from one side to the other.  Tony twitched and tried not to stare too obviously in reaction. 

"Guy?" Gwar asked, the word wobbling with the alien’s pronunciation.

"Male," Tony clarified.  "On my world, we mostly identify along binary gender lines, being born either male or female, or in some awesome cases both.  How about you?"

Gwar made an odd gesture, half a shrug and maybe a bow.  Some kind of acknowledgement?  Or possibly a prelude to offense, in which case Tony should probably be prepared to start running.

"Like you, we have two genders," Gwar said.  "I am male.  All who you see before you are male."

Which was interesting.  Tony couldn’t decide whether that meant everyone present was male, or everyone they’d be allowed to see was male.  Maybe both.

Gwar went on, oblivious.  "Forgive me, I have delayed unnecessarily.  I will show you to the chancellor."

Which, as far as Tony was concerned, marked one of the more peaceful ends to his growing repertoire of alien first-contacts.

Or it did.  Right up to the moment they stepped onboard the chancellor’s ground transport and the almost nonexistent whine of FRIDAY's transmitter went abruptly silent in Tony’s ear.  At the same time, Gwar stepped forward and said: "Chancellor Zet.  Our guests have arrived." 

An alien at least three feet taller than Gwar turned around, blue and purple where the others were green, long and graceful and clearly not at all related to a velociraptor.

And every biorhythm sensor Tony had on Stephen slid into a red danger zone.

He turned to find the sorcerer chalk white with shock.  Behind him, Tony could see Peter glance down at his own arms in surprise, and then up again a second later with alarm.

"Greetings," Chancellor Zet said quietly, amicably.

"Shit," Stephen replied, and immediately raised both hands in a clear sign of surrender.

Which made sense, because not two seconds later their escort all pulled out some kind of impressive looking space gun and pointed it at them.  Tony raised his own hands slowly, staring down the length of a half-dozen weapons.  Peter did the same, eyes wide.

"Well," Tony said into the ensuing silence.  "I hate to be that guy who says I told you so, but -"

Stephen sighed loudly.

"- I fucking told you so."

Chapter Text

"Remind me again why we're not just busting out of here," Tony said.

Stephen muttered something vulgar, the low tone of it echoing in the darkness.  The lights in their cells had been turned off hours ago and now every sound seemed amplified. 

"It's weird," Peter said, almost wistfully.  His voice was muffled; Tony watched his thermal image roll so his head pressed into the flimsy excuse for a mattress each of their cots came equipped with.  "They seemed so nice."

Tony growled at that.  "No, they didn't.  They seemed nominally willing to trade with total strangers entering their star system unannounced.  In retrospect, maybe our first clue something was off."

"That's not a good measure," Stephen said.  Unlike Peter he was sitting up, both feet planted on the floor.  "There're any number of species willing to trade out here.  It's actually one of the few options for commerce from a galactic perspective.  That, or true piracy."  He paused.  "Or slavery."

Tony scowled.  "Maybe those'd be less attractive if they established a universal system of supply and demand.  They could call it a galactic marketplace.  G-Mart for short."

"Perhaps you could pitch the idea to the powers that be," Stephen suggested dryly.

"Maybe I will.  And I'll exclude this planet for unethical trade practices.   Kidnapping prospective customers is so gauche."

Stephen huffed a disbelieving laugh.  "Yes, kidnapping people does seem inconsiderate, doesn't it?"

"We're talking about our captor's bad behavior, not mine.  Which brings me back to my original question: why the hell haven't we already flown the coop?  I know you said we can’t, but maybe you could elaborate.  I'm sure there's more to it, because I'm telling you right now we absolutely can."

Stephen made a low, considering sound.  "How certain are you there’s no surveillance in our cells?"

"Certain.  They left me the glasses after I whined ad nauseam I couldn’t see without them.  More fool them."  Tony adjusted the frames smugly before considering no one else could see it.  "No electronic monitoring devices to speak of."

Shuffling sounds came from the darkness, and Tony had to ward off a shiver of apprehension when he realized he couldn't tell whether it was coming from Peter or Stephen's cell.  Glasses or not, he was starting to lose all sense of acoustic direction.  He breathed through the first inklings of anxiety.

"You know, I'm kind of with Mr. Stark on this one," Peter said, suddenly.  "I mean, they did point guns at us and drag us away from the ship and lock us in cells.  Why wouldn't we want to escape?"

"This would've been much easier if Zet had spoken to us himself," Stephen sighed.  "He always has before.  He enjoys laying the trap.  If I'd seen him earlier I would've been prepared."

"Prepared for what?" Peter asked.  "Who is he?"

"Is he in league with Thanos?" Tony asked evenly.

Stephen laughed without humor.  "No.  Or at least, we've never encountered them at the same time, and there were futures we were months under his thumb.  Of all the planets to choose from, Tony, you had to pick this one first."

"Hey, you were the one who said choose and the rest would follow.  Besides, technically FRIDAY picked it.  Blame her."

Reminded, he checked the transmitter in his ear, thankfully overlooked by their captors.  Unfortunately, it was still silent.  Tony frowned and tapped his fingers unsteadily against his chest.  The hollow of the missing housing unit felt like a physical wound in some ways, as if the arc reactor itself had been plucked from his sternum and carried off.

"What did you do with the Time Stone?" Tony asked, thinking back on the incident darkly.

Unsurprisingly, the aliens had been eager to relieve them of their weapons and equipment.  Equally unsurprisingly, Tony hadn't been eager to give it to them.  He'd side-stepped the first lizard who reached for the housing unit, backing up so he could calculate a dive, already thinking about escape, about gunfire vectors and minimum safe distance. 

One step was as far as he got.  Stephen wrapped painful fingers around his wrist and looked at him from a white, shocked face and said: "Don't."

"Give me one good reason why not."

Tony could remember the small army of lizard-beings milling uncertainly around them, looking to the chancellor for guidance.  He could remember how Zet had let the tension mount, how he'd watched them all with a strange, unsettling intensity, fixed and interested but in no way afraid.  The whole scene had felt frozen with the potential for violence.

"Because I'm asking."  The look on Stephen's face had been half a demand, half a plea.  "If you can't trust it, Tony, then trust me.  Don't."

Stephen’s horror couldn't have been any more obvious.  His biorhythms were all still firmly in the red.  Tony had hesitated, letting his mind skip ahead, weighing what he thought he knew against what Stephen clearly did know.  It came down to a leap of faith, in a way; whether he was willing to rely on Stephen's instincts over his own.

The next time one of the aliens reached for the housing unit, he'd let them take it.

Of course, that peaceful coexistence lasted all of two seconds.  One of the aliens apparently thought this meant it was open season and reached for Stephen's ornamental and seemingly innocuous necklace.  It promptly gave him severe third degree burns.  The guy made a sound like an angry snake, and before anyone could move he'd smacked the barrel of his gun into Stephen's gut.  The sorcerer hit the deck, wheezing.

Tony'd shoulder-checked the guy flat on his ass, but that was just about all he managed; the aliens were faster than they looked and they weren't gentle about putting Tony on the floor right next to Stephen.  Which was fine, because then Peter was barrelling toward them both, and the one that tried to block him got slammed into a wall, and then into the floor for good measure.

"Don't do that," was all Peter had said to their captors while he helped Stephen and Tony to their feet.  The aliens had given them a much wider berth after that.  Except Zet, who was still watching it all as if observing a wonderfully interesting performance put on solely for his amusement.

All that, but it still wasn’t until Stephen reached out and silently handed over the Eye that Tony realized something truly, phenomenally bizarre was going on. 

"What did you do with the stone?" Tony repeated.

Stephen hummed low in his throat.  "My options were limited at the time.  Fortunately, the guard gave me an opening when he so graciously helped me down to the floor.  While everyone was distracted watching you two pretend to be knights in shining armor, I took the stone from the Eye and hid it among the stars."

Casually.  Like he was talking about folding up laundry and tucking it away in a drawer.

"You hid the stone among the stars."

"Yes."

Tony waited for more, but nothing else seemed forthcoming.  "And that’s a thing you can just do, is it?"

Stephen sounded infuriatingly smug in the darkness; Tony could almost hear him smiling.  "Well, it’s a thing I’ve done.  Watch the stars and learn, Tony."

"I doubt Einstein was talking about infinity stones being among them when he said that."

"Or perhaps that's exactly what he meant," Stephen said.  "He was a philosopher as well as a scientist.  Who's to say he wasn't also a sorcerer?"

Tony held up both hands warningly.  "That's not a thing.  That's not ever going to be a thing.  Magic isn't allowed to subvert science that far."

"I thought all magic was science.  Conversely, that would mean all science is also magic."

"I know you can't see me right now, but I currently have my fingers in my ears.  I'm not listening, understand?  I can't hear you."

Stephen laughed, so loudly it echoed around their small enclosed space.  Tony felt some small, cramped part of him relax, hearing it; Stephen had a genuinely infectious laugh.  It lightened the ominous pressure of the dark and their captivity just a bit.

"I have no idea what you two are talking about," Peter said plaintively, lightening it even further.

"No problem, kid.  Add epistemology to your curriculum when we get back."

Stephen made a musing sound.  "I never read all of his philosophical works.  Did you?  FRIDAY might have them on hand."

"Closest I ever got to philosophy was a dinner date with someone who majored in it.  Spoilers: no second date.  But speaking of FRIDAY.  You realize we probably have a day before she confirms something's wrong?  We lost the transmitter signal in the car and I'm pretty sure we're underground right now.  There's no way to tell her we're alive, if not well."

Stephen sounded appropriately worried about that.  "Does she have any kind of protocol in place for this?"

"What, for our mass kidnapping and imprisonment?" Tony asked archly.  "Not really.  As an authorized user, her default if I'm kidnapped would be to tell you.  If either of you were kidnapped, she'd tell me.  For lack of other options, she's probably talking to your cloak right now.  Sadly, it's probably not talking back.  We have a forty-eight hour window to do a communications check with her.  After that we'll be considered overdue."

"What will she do after that?"

Tony hesitated, because everything he knew about A.I programming said one thing.  But his instincts said another.  "I don't know.  Might depend on our timeline.  How long do you think we'll be stuck in this hellhole?"

"Difficult to say.  Weeks, perhaps.  We won't be in suspense for long in these cells though.  Zet will make an appearance shortly.  He's not a man of any great patience."

Tony growled impatiently.  "You keep saying his name like that alone explains our predicament, Stephen.  Who is he?"

Stephen stood up, his thermal marker moving until it ran into the confines of his cell.  Tony watched him reach out and wrap both hands around the bars tightly. 

"A fascist dictator," Stephen said.  "An extremist.  One who does a credible imitation of a wartime Nazi.  He and Thanos might work well together.  They have views that aren't totally dissimilar."

Tony felt a sliver of dread work its way into his bones.  "Sounds like the two of you had some interesting chats."

"In the few timelines I was conscious in, certainly," Stephen said flatly.  "Be careful of him, Tony.  He looks harmless, frail even, but he's not.  He has some kind of telekinetic power, not unlike that of our previous host."

Tony groaned.  "Oh, come on.  Does every alien species we run into feel the need to pervert physics?  This is getting ridiculous."

Stephen ignored him.  "Zet preys on travellers, particularly ones with any skill or talent he can exploit.  He's going to pressure you to work on his behalf.  If you don’t, or you resist, he’ll persuade you.  He's good at that."

It was probably the lack of light that had Tony listening so closely, but he heard a tone in Stephen's voice then that he hadn't been expecting.

"He seemed welcoming enough," Tony said, testing.  "Creepy and a little standoffish.  But hardly this paragon of evil you're describing."

"He'll be cordial at first, but don't be fooled.  He's a tyrant and he's ruthless."  Stephen paused, blowing out a shaky sigh.  "Don't underestimate him.  Whatever he asks, if it's within reason, at least pretend to go along with it.  If you don't, he'll use anything he thinks he can against you to force your compliance."

And that wasn't a tone anymore.  That was an obvious warning sign painted in flashing neon red on the wall.

"Anything he can," Tony repeated softly.  "And anyone, I assume."

Stephen didn't answer.  From the dark, an uncertain shuffling came from the other side, the other cell.

"You mean us," Peter said, closer; his thermal outline was standing at the bars, looking hesitantly into the black.  "He'll use us."

Stephen sighed, long and low.  "I won't let it get that far.  The other times we were taken, it happened violently and fast.  I was - seriously injured."  Dying, Tony heard him carefully not saying.  I was dying.  "That's not the case now.  I still have my magic."  He snorted in amusement.  "And if Tony doesn't have his nanotech stashed somewhere nearby I'll revoke his genius card."

"You can't do that," Tony said patiently.  "Mensa awarded it and there's a process to take it away.  What kind of question is that, anyway?  Of course I have the tech."

He tapped again on the center of his chest, shaking his wrist to feel the concealed cuff of the bots there.  He almost hadn't managed to hide them in time.  They weren't as versatile without the housing unit, and he hadn't quite siphoned the entire batch, but it hardly mattered.  Even a handful of nanobots with the right formation and programming was enough to bring entire cities to a standstill.

"I don't have my suit," Peter said suddenly, anxiously.  "I left it behind.  I mean, we were trying to blend in.  I thought I'd be better off without, you know?"

Tony shook his head, even though the other two couldn't possibly see him.  "Doesn't matter, Peter.  You don't need the suit.  You know that."

"Oh," Peter said, since apparently he'd actually forgotten.  And then, cheerfully: "Right."

"So Zet’s going to ask nicely for my help and I should give it to him - why?" Tony asked.  "Because he’s such a nice guy?  All arguments seem in favor of us getting the hell out of dodge.  In fact, why are we still standing here debating?  They took your sling ring, but there’s a million other ways magic could get us out of these cells, even if I didn’t have some fancy lock picks hidden under my sleeve."

"We can’t leave yet," Stephen said.  "Our presence here sparks something that leads to an uprising.  Zet will be overthrown.  We can't leave before that happens."

Tony just about choked on the realization.  "You want us to stay here to help these people overthrow their government.  You're talking about some kind of revolution."  He seethed, incensed.  "Dammit, Stephen.  I didn’t take off into space to start revolutions.  If anything I was trying to stop Thanos starting one.  A universal one."

"Some revolutions are necessary."

"Yeah, that sounds exactly like something Thanos might say."  Tony modulated his tone until it was at least marginally neutral.  "Look, I'm sorry these people got stuck with a dictator.  I really am.  But I’m not going to risk our freedom and maybe the fate of the universe to save them.  They got themselves into Hitler’s clutches; they can get themselves out.  Earth certainly did."

"Yes, and all it took was a world war and more than fifty million dead," Stephen said flatly. 

Tony scowled.  "We didn't take off into space to save every alien species down on their luck."

"Oh, were we only interested in saving half the universe then?  Or perhaps just Earth.  Maybe just ourselves."  Stephen dropped the mocking tone for a coaxing one.  "We have the chance to help these people find a new and better path.  We can't just walk away."

Tony really hated being coaxed.  "We can and we should.  We don't have the resources to help everyone, Stephen.  We barely have the resources to help ourselves."

The sorcerer sighed in frustration.  "I'm not suggesting we help everyone.  Just these ones.  Just the ones we meet along the way we can make a difference for."

Tony smiled, not happily.  He was starting to understand Stephen Strange, and he didn't need a full uplink with FRIDAY to tell him the sorcerer was only giving him half a truth.  "Right, sure.  Just the ones we meet.  A dozen, maybe two if we have the time.  It'll never amount to more than that.  There's no chance we can live all the futures you've seen, save the millions of people I'm sure are out there who need it.  Tell me you'll be satisfied only saving a handful of them, Stephen.  Tell me you won't have nightmares about all the ones you can't."  He paused, but the sorcerer said nothing.  "This is a fight with no end.  It's not one you can win and it's an awful path to failure.  Believe me, I recognize what that looks like better than most."

Stephen uttered an ugly curse and something crashed into the bars of his cell.  Probably a foot, or from the pained grumbling that followed, a hand.

"Um," Peter said, startling them into silence.  "I know this probably won't go over well.  But, uh.  I agree with Dr. Strange."

Now it was Tony's turn to kick at his cell.  "Of course you do, kid.  He's basically proposing vigilantism on a galactic scale.  What's not to love?  Except for the part where we get ourselves killed trying to impose Earth-centric morals on the rest of the universe.  Have neither of you heard of the prime directive?  You clearly need to watch more Star Trek."

Peter cleared his throat quietly.  "No, see, that's not it.  I just.  My uncle Ben.  Aunt May's husband, I mean.  He used to tell me stories.  Big fan of the knights of the round table and Camelot and everything.  He'd act them out for me and I'd pretend I was one of them, had this awesome wooden sword that I - well, anyway."  He coughed.  "That's not important.  The important part is that, that Ben used to say people with power had a responsibility that couldn't be put aside.  To help others, to give to others, because great power brings with it great responsibility."

Peter paused, possibly to listen to the thumping sound Tony's head made as he banged it repeatedly against the wall to highlight the painful inevitability.

"I think we should help them," Peter said softly and with finality.  "It's the right thing to do."

"The right thing to do," Tony muttered sarcastically.  "For who exactly?  And how have I become the voice of reason here?  I mean, this is going to go so badly, you two.  Seriously.  So badly."

"It’s no use protesting, Tony."  Stephen sounded entirely too confident as he spoke.  "I’ve listened to you argue yourself into staying before."

Tony grimaced, because what he heard there was Stephen admitting he hadn’t been in any shape to argue with Tony himself.

"Zet will come for you soon," Stephen continued.  "As far as he's aware, you're the only one he wants.  We can use that to our advantage.  He has no idea of my magic, and as long as it stays that way we'll always have an escape route."

Tony snorted, musing silently on what a fascist dictator might do with Stephen's magic at his beck and call.  The power to break physics, even if they discounted the Time Stone entirely.  It didn't really bear thinking about.  "Great.  So I get to be the face of this little spy game, and you get to be our sleeper agent.  I officially hate this plan."

"Should we take your complaints to mean you're in agreement with it?"

Tony rolled his eyes.  "I wouldn't call it agreement.  This is more a temporary contract.  A provisional accord."

"I can work with that," Stephen said.

Peter's only contribution was a muted cheer.

Tony sighed, feeling very put upon.  "If we do this, we're going to need some better ground rules in the future.  I was serious.  We can't help everyone.  I'm willing to give it a shot today and that's as far as I'm committing.  But at the first sign of imminent peril, we're out of here.  I want your word, Stephen."

The sorcerer was grave and solemn.  "You have it."

"Right."  Tony shook his head.  "Superheroing in space with a madman on our tail.  What the hell am I thinking?  I must be crazy."  He sighed.  "So when do we start the ball rolling?  When does the creepy chancellor come calling?"

The words were almost eerily prophetic; it wasn't thirty seconds later that the lights flickered on in their cells and the main door swung ponderously open.

But it wasn't Zet who came.  It was his assistant.

"Good morning," Gwar said, stepping into the cell block while the three humans squinted at him with watering eyes.

"Is it?" Tony asked, sighing when the sarcasm once again went right over the alien's head.  "Okay, rephrase: no, obviously it isn't a good morning.  We were just kidnapped and thrown in jail yesterday.  How could that equal a good morning?"

Gwar stared at Tony inscrutably.  "I apologize.  It is a customary greeting on my world."

"To go along with this customary predicament we find ourselves in," Tony muttered.  "Your hospitality skills are seriously lacking."

"I understand why you would think so," Gwar said.  He passed his hand over the reader beside Tony's cell door and it unlocked with a click.  "Please come with me."

Tony stepped out warily.  Gwar turned without another word, gliding back to the cell entryway.  He paused at the door to look expectantly at Tony.

Tony returned his stare, glancing pointedly at Stephen and Peter, both stood at the door of their cells with their fingers wrapped around the bars.

Gwar followed his gaze.  "Your companions will remain here.  The chancellor has requested you attend him alone."

Tony raised both eyebrows mockingly.  "And I’m just supposed to take your word they’ll be safe?"

"That would be optimal," Gwar said peaceably.

Tony shot a questioning look at Stephen, who shrugged back.

"Just don’t do anything too crazy," Stephen said.  "I’m sure we’ll be fine."

"Please.  Do I seem the type to do crazy things?"

Peter looked truly alarmed, but Stephen just rolled his eyes.  "Don’t make me come save you again."

Tony scowled at this reminder.  He turned resolutely away to face Gwar.  "Alright.  Lead the way, Kemosabe."

The alien blinked at him with his strange reptilian eyes.  "My name is Gwar."

"And mine's who-gives-a-shit.  Let's just go, please and thank you."

Gwar stepped out, and Tony could see one guard stood at bored attention beside the door.  He straightened when they passed by and turned to follow them down the hall.

"I understood your name was Tony," Gwar said.

"Yeah.  That's short for who-gives-a-shit."

"I see," Gwar said, though he obviously didn't.  "Interesting."

Tony firmly kept his next response hidden behind his teeth, since it wasn't very polite and might actually get him slammed back into the floor.  That effectively ended the conversation, leaving Tony free to examine the halls of the complex as they walked.  He was distantly vindicated to have his theory confirmed; they were underground. 

Actually, it became clear they were in rather crude surroundings underground.  The walls were bare stone, the doors they passed made of crude metal with no finishing.  Even the floor was mostly rough mesh or brick.  The only sign of sophistication was the occasional swipe reader like the one that'd been outside Tony's cell, a flat black panel roughly embedded in the rock.

Tony frowned.  Set against the backdrop of advanced satellite communication and ground transport vehicles and space guns, this underground complex seemed almost insultingly rudimentary.

"Where are we, exactly?" Tony asked, memorizing corners and turns, counting cross-sections and doors.

Gwar seemed not to notice Tony carefully crafting his mental map.  "This complex is located underground at the foot of -" a hissing, clicking word the translation spell failed to interpret "- mountain.  The surface of this world is unsafe for extended habitation."

"Yeah, we noticed.  But what is this place?  Some kind of prison for those foolish enough to land on your planet?  Military base, maybe?"

Gwar paused, looking at him curiously.

Tony smiled brightly into the alien's face.  "What?  Are you about to give me some story about us not being prisoners?  Those cells make really crappy guest quarters, if so."

Gwar didn't react to the dig.  "A military base is a facility designed to house and coordinate martial forces?"

Tony stared at him skeptically.  Had there been some kind of communication breakdown?  Maybe the translation spell wasn't working.

"Yes," he said finally, when it was clear Gwar was waiting for an actual answer.

The alien resumed walking.  "We do not have those."

Tony only started moving when the guard gave him a hard nudge to keep up.  He glared at Gwar's back, wondering what game they were playing now.  No military bases.  Right.  And those space guns were obviously just decorative.

"Okay, fine.  Don't tell me, then.  How deep underground are we?"

"This complex is by necessity limited to the natural caverns of the mountain.  Depth changes accordingly."

Which probably meant there was no way Tony could sneak off and secretly message FRIDAY.

Tony looked at the ceiling, seeing evidence of stalactites.  "Do all your people live underground?"

"We have grown used to the mountain."

"What kind of food stores do you grow?  Not exactly prime farming environs on this world.  How do you -"

"If I might offer some advice?" Gwar interrupted conversationally.

Tony snorted.  "Could I really stop you?"

"Questions of this nature will not be appreciated by all.  I am willing to answer them."  Gwar paused pointedly.  "The chancellor will not be."

"You saying I should sit down and shut up when I get in there?"

"I am saying you should be cautious."  They stopped, and Tony backed up a step when Gwar turned to look at him.  No, Tony realized, to look at the guard behind him.  He sidestepped to keep them both in his sight, watching them exchange an impassive glance.  Tony had the distinct feeling there was some sort of subliminal nonverbal communication happening that he couldn't perceive.

When they finished it, whatever it was, the guard gave Tony a speaking glance, touched his claws in Gwar's direction, and did an about-face to retreat back down the corridor, disappearing quickly out of sight.

"Alone at last," Tony commented, circling to find Gwar staring at him.  "Darling, I thought he'd never leave."

"It is best to limit witnesses," Gwar said ominously. 

Tony shifted his weight to his heels, prepared to tuck and roll if necessary.  "Witnesses to what?"

"Sedition.  It is a punishable offense to speak ill of the chancellor."

Tony narrowed his eyes.  "And that's what you're about to do?  Speak ill of him?"

"Nothing so simple.  Please listen, as we have little time.  We expected resistance when we captured you.  Others have always resisted.  You gave us little, so Chancellor Zet will seek to make an example of you here, to impress on you his authority, that you may know how little rebellion of any kind will be tolerated.  He will search for the slightest provocation to apply punishment.  You must do your best to give him none."

Tony backed up further, until he could feel cool stone against his back, grit shifting against his fingers.

"Why would you tell me that?" Tony asked flatly, forcing himself to grin though it was the last thing he felt like doing.  "Is it because you think he won't find my jokes funny?"

Gwar dropped his head, staring down at his claws.  "You do not want to see what the chancellor finds funny.  If you wish to avoid injury, heed my words.  If you cannot, then remember: Chancellor Zet requires you whole and capable of work.  Whatever happens, he will do you no permanent harm."

Which was nowhere near as reassuring as Gwar probably meant it, but certainly succeeded in quashing any further impulse Tony had to crack jokes.  He followed Gwar the rest of the way in silence.

"Good morning," Chancellor Zet greeted the minute Tony stepped into his office.  If one could call it an office; it definitely wasn't strewn with paperwork or electronic gadgets or even a nameplate, as far as Tony could tell.  Instead the room was setup in an elongated fashion, no desk, a recessed table in the center of the room and some kind of seating area and then a floor to ceiling canvas of bright blue and red and green colors on one wall.  Zet was stood in front of that, and the contrast of his purple skin was striking.

Tony had noticed the guy’s height in the car; it was hard to miss, really.  But outside the cramped quarters of the vehicle it was even more obvious.  He had to come close to nine or ten feet, easily.  He was also willowy, where others from his world were made up of massive bulk, and his limbs were almost disjointedly long in proportion to his body.  Not to mention his facial structure was totally off, not lizard-like at all.  And he had feathers or some kind of fronds waving down from the top of his head, like the strangest hair Tony had ever seen.

In fact, as Tony stared at him he realized with some misgiving that Zet was so entirely dissimilar from Gwar, it was possible they weren't actually related as a species. 

Tony only understood he was staring when the silence had gone on long enough to echo back at him.  "Oh.  Yeah, hi.  Good morning, I guess."

Zet turned to Gwar, and the assistant bowed his head, retreating from the room silently.  There was no door, just an open doorway, which Tony felt on the one hand should maybe make him feel less trapped, but on the other hand did absolutely nothing of the sort.

Tony tried to smile and failed.  "Chancellor Zet, was it?  I'm Tony."

Zet tilted his head to one side curiously.  "On this world, one normally waits for a person of authority to speak first."

Tony managed to stomp on his first instinct to say something rude about people being locked in cells lacking patience.  "Right, no speaking out of turn.  Check."

Zet waved one languid, three-fingered hand, looking for all the world affable and gracious.  "Having viewed the record of your contact with my aid, I suspect controlling your speech is a challenge for you."

Tony wanted to laugh; he would've any other time.  Not now.  "You're probably right."

"That is often the case," Zet said.

Tony forced himself to stand in silence.

"Good," Zet said, as if praising a pet.  "It is fortunate for you I was occupied at the time of your initial contact.  I would not have been so tolerant of your foolishness as my aid was."

The alien didn't quite smile, and Tony had no idea if that was because he didn't know how, or wasn't physically capable.  Either way, it was clear he was amused, and the lack of expression didn't stop Tony from wanting to wipe that off Zet's face with a well-aimed punch.  He wondered if he could just pre-empt the whole maybe-revolution to come by killing Zet right here and now.

Zet made a low, hissing sound.  "It seems your insolence can be tempered when supplied with the correct motivation."

"What motivation is that?" Tony asked flatly.

Zet repeated the hissing sound.  It was rhythmic and chilling.  "I would think the answer obvious after your capture."

Which, put like that, perhaps it was.

"Why capture us at all?" Tony asked, leadingly.  "You could've just killed us."

"Do not be foolish," Zet chided.  "I require access to your skills.  You are a machinist."

"I'm an engineer," Tony corrected automatically.

Zet turned his head slowly to look at Tony directly.  And maybe he and Gwar were related after all, because the man had reptilian eyes, and there was something in his flat stare that set every instinct for self-preservation Tony had to ringing.

"You are a machinist," Zet corrected, so simply and pleasantly that Tony didn't understand the words at first.  "Though your designation perhaps matters less than your purpose.  Whatever you were before is now nothing.  You are mine."

Tony sneered, real anger curling in his gut and flowing rashly from his mouth.  "Sorry bud, I'm not good with sweeping declarations like that.  Commitment issues, you know -"

Tony couldn't have described afterward quite what happened next.  One minute he was standing there stupidly shooting his mouth off, and the next he was choking on blood as his face met the wall, a high pitched ringing in his ears while he scrabbled for purchase from three feet in the air.

Zet looked at him, looked down at him, even, from no less than half the room away.  He hadn't moved, and yet Tony felt the clutch of the man's slender hand at the notch of his throat, pressing hard against his windpipe.  

Tony couldn’t help it; his first response to danger had always been defiance.  "Was it something I said?" he rasped wetly.

Zet clicked gutturally and took one step closer.  An invisible finger trailed over Tony's neck, his cheek, and the violation of it was crawlingly intimate.  Tony could feel panic trickle into his lungs and choke off any remaining breath he might have. 

"You were doing well, or nearly so," Zet said softly.  "You almost managed to pretend at deference, in word if not in deed.  But of course that could not last.  Not for one like you."

He said the last with particular relish, with such perfect disgust it couldn't be mistaken for anything else.  Tony swallowed, the metallic taste reminding him of Stephen’s warning, of Gwar's.  He tried to modulate his tone to something approaching civil, clogged though it was with blood and resentment.  "Sorry.  My bad."

Apparently Zet didn't like civil, because the touch of a finger became the ripping tear of a claw, and new red warmth slid down his cheek.  Tony grit his teeth.

"You must not allow emotion to goad you so."  Zet glided toward him lazily, coming to a stop a short length away.  "Insubordination will only earn you pain."

Tony felt the claw trail up to the corner of one eye and tried not to panic when it pressed in there, gently.

"What do you want?" Tony forced out, feeling the hovering threat like an impossible weight.

"Hmm," Zet said.  "Better. But not good enough."  Reptilian eyes blinked wickedly, the secondary eyelid slipping slowly out and back again.  

Tony crushed the impotent rage that tried to rise, feeling it lodge somewhere in the vicinity of his heart where it could start to fan itself into a flame.

"What do you want, chancellor?" Tony asked, struggling to keep his tone even, his eyes clear.

He didn’t succeed.  He could see his misstep in the sway of Zet’s head, his chiding hiss.

"The words are pretty, but they cannot disguise your lack of humility."  Zet stepped away, turning to take in Tony fully.  There was something like greed in his eyes, a depth of cruelty that was almost stunning, and Tony felt true atavistic fear prickle along his nerves.  The chancellor made a noise like hissing music.  He could sense it, Tony realized.  Whether through scent or magic or some other mechanism, Zet knew he was afraid.  As he'd said, none of Tony's words could sway him.  He didn’t want a pretense of obedience.  He wanted fear. 

"I suggest you not move," Zet said, in a voice dripping with satisfaction.  The claw at Tony’s eye tapped once, in demonstration, before tracing a quick line of fire just beneath it.  Tony made a sound then that he’d deny to his last breath later.  "Struggling will not benefit you."

"Please," Tony said, giving him what he wanted, hating himself for it.  He reminded himself it wasn't only his life, his pride or his pain on the line.  Stephen and Peter were counting on him not to screw this up.  Tony could stand anything, as long as he kept that goal in mind.  "My mistake.  It won't happen again."

"I know," Zet said, exultantly.  "Careful, now.  Be still, or you will spoil my aim."

It seemed to go on for a long time, but of course it didn't really.  When it was over, Tony found himself shaking with the effort of locking down his rage, keeping it from doing something there’d be no turning back from.  The pain was transient, a pale shadow of the real wound, the impotent wrath Tony had to swallow down.  Zet hadn't been aiming to injure; he'd been aiming to terrify, to humiliate.  Tony had to uncurl his hands from the kind of shaking tension that told him he might actually have sprained something.  Probably his left third finger, which ached fiercely.  But that was okay, that was fine; curling his fingers had kept them from reaching for the nanotech activators.  If nothing else, he could say he’d safely concealed that.

"There," Zet said, when he was done.  He admired his handwork with sickening satisfaction.  "You see?  With sufficient incentive you are capable of proper behavior.  A marked improvement."

Tony bit the inside of his lip to prevent any unwise words from emerging, and the flare of teeth sinking into broken skin was like the final nail in a coffin.

Zet made a low hiss of approval.  "Yes.  Much better."

Tony spoke for what felt like the first time in years.  "What is it you want me to do?"

He was proud; he managed to keep that exactly civil and totally absent of the emotion boiling inside him.  He imagined his anger was more than obvious to someone with extrasensory perception, but Zet didn't seem bothered.  Apparently, helpless rage was to be preferred over feigned respect.  And the chancellor had already gotten what he wanted out of Tony.

"I require your services in repairing some of our equipment," Zet said, as if they'd never broken from their calm discussion before.  "You will do so, and once you have, I will consider allowing you to leave this world unharmed."  He looked at Tony’s face, hissing slightly.  "Well.  Alive, at least."

Tony digested that for a while, until he could keep his tone just as even as before.  "What am I repairing?"  A thought occurred to him.  "And how, exactly?  I have no idea how your technology works."

"You will learn."

Tony focused on breathing.  "What if I can't?"

Zet stared at him, unblinking.  "You will.  My aid will give you an allotment of repairs for every quarter.  If you do not complete it, I will exact a price for your failure."  The lightest touch of a sharp edge brushed over Tony’s cheek; a pointed, bloody reminder.  He shut his eyes, breathing, just breathing.  "The price will grow as your failure does."

"I should probably get started, then."  Tony licked his lips, daring to ask one more question.  "How long are these repairs going to take me?"

Zet rumbled something, that same rhythmic series of hisses coming from him, and the pressure against Tony's throat and chest pinning him to the wall finally vanished.  He dropped half a body length, stumbling as he landed jarringly back on his feet and slipped involuntarily to his knees.  He tried to get up, but an invisible force held him down.  Tony looked up from this new vantage point, that ember of rage burning brightly.

Laughter, Tony realized dimly through the haze of his own revulsion.  That recurrent hissing sound was laughter, or Zet's version of it.  He was laughing at the puny human asking what to him must seem a very, very stupid question.

"You will be finished when I say you are finished," Zet said.  "That is how it works on this world."

The heavy-handed implication being: don't step out of line again, or you might never be finished.

Tony only just barely kept the rest of his comments to himself.  Zet watched him for a long, considering moment.

"Well done," the alien praised gently, and Tony had to look away before he forgot himself. 

"Gwar," Zet said, suddenly.  Tony jumped and looked to the open doorway, where he could see the chancellor's aid now hovering.  Tony had no idea how long he'd been there.  He’d sort of lost track of his surroundings some fifteen minutes ago.

"Yes, chancellor?" Gwar asked, completely ignoring Tony, which suited him just fine

"Show him to his duty station," Zet said, almost negligently.  He'd turned away to glide back over to the decorated wall.  It wasn't just a collection of color, Tony could see suddenly.  It was a crudely painted image; a depiction of a planet either in sunrise or sunset, the blue of the alien star cascading over a desert background with a gray shapes, clouds, on the horizon.  The sand had been marked with red.  A lot of it.

"As you command," Gwar said, and the next thing Tony knew he was being hauled up to his feet by an alien hand and shuffled down the hall and out of Zet's domain. 

Tony yanked away the minute they were out of line of sight.  "Don’t touch me," he said flatly.

Gwar gave no reply.  Tony concentrated on the shuffle-step of his feet, fixing his eyes ahead.  He had the grim certainty if he let his mind wander the way it wanted to, he might never get it back.

Gwar barely waited until they were three halls away before he turned to Tony again, suddenly.  He raised one hand, with its vicious claws, and Tony jammed himself back against the wall, both hands up.  He had to put up with abuse from Zet; that didn't mean he had to put up with it from anyone else.  He glared at the aid, itching for an excuse to call the nanotech and release some of the dense storm of emotion crawling inside him.

Gwar hesitated, seeing his defensive posture.

"No harm is intended," he said, gesturing from a distance toward Tony's face, his chest.  "You are injured.  I only wish to check the extent."

Tony glared at him.  "Don't bother.  I'll live."

"Allow me to verify that.  The chancellor's strength is great and he is not always cautious.  Severe damage is sometimes unclear at first."

Even just the reminder of it was enough to send anger swinging like a pendulum inside Tony.  "I'm fine.  He avoided permanent damage, like you said.  I'll survive.  What did he write?"

Gwar hesitated, ducking his head mournfully.

Tony felt numb at this silent confirmation.  "I know it's lettering of some kind.  He was too careful about the pattern.  He wasn't aiming for depth; he wanted finesse.  What does it mean?"

Gwar looked at his face, his cheek, and clicked again quietly.  "There is an animal long dead on this world, a beast of burden known for its obstinacy.  It was eventually domesticated and broken to obedience, but it was not an easy thing.  It is called -"

But it didn't really matter.  Tony thought back again to Zet's approving words.  Well done, he'd said.

Good dog, he'd meant.

Gwar made a surprisingly helpless noise, an almost sorrowful hiss.  Tony blinked, startled.  The film of emotion retreated from his vision by tiny increments.

"He was more angry than I anticipated.  I am not usually involved in initial discussions with travellers.  I believe he felt deprived of his game."

Tony laughed, raw and so very ugly.  "His game.  Of course it is.  Of course it is."

Gwar gestured again with his hands, projecting his movements clearly.  "Please, will you not allow me?"

Tony shook his head, backing away from Gwar as he hadn't been able to with Zet.  "No.  Don't touch me."

Gwar clicked again, looking down.  "You do not trust me."

"Well, no," Tony said, still laughing.  "Of course I don’t.  If you'd really given a damn you wouldn't have lured us down here in the first place."

"You are not the only one under threat," Gwar said.

"I don't care."  He took a breath, forced himself to stop and think.  "You're in league with the guy who just bled me.  How can you possibly be surprised I don't trust you?"

Gwar lifted both hands again and while Tony watched warily, he extended his curled claws until his palms were visible.  Across the smooth, fine scales of both lay an odd assortment of raised lines, crisscrossing in an unpredictable pattern.  One hand had a raised patch, entirely smooth and pale, like something had sanded the scales there away.  The other, Tony realized suddenly, was missing one finger and two claws, leaving him asymmetrical.  Tony had the sinking feeling that wasn’t at all natural.

"It is not an easy thing to defy the chancellor," Gwar said quietly. 

Tony closed his eyes.  "Let's just go.  The faster we go, the faster you can take me back to my cell."  Back to Peter and Stephen.  The thought was like a wash of cool water, an aching balm against the bloody memory of his time with Zet.  He wanted more than anything else in that moment to retreat back into the careful confines of his ship, with FRIDAY ever watchful for danger, and a sorcerer and a spiderling at his side, a mischievous cloak to entertain them.  The thought was an oasis in this lousy desert of a planet.

"Vámonos," he said, when Gwar hesitated.  "Get a move on.  Time's a wasting." 

Gwar reluctantly turned away to take them down an endless series of corridors so he could finally show Tony his work station. 

Although it wasn't much of one; there was nothing all that impressive about it.  A simple desk, a set of tools.  A scattering of broken machinery, looking almost familiar.  Gwar stepped forward to name them off, and Tony hated the part of himself that immediately perked up with interest.  The part that wanted to examine each new thing presented, where scientific curiosity overcame the distaste of being ordered like a collared animal.

But the science was calming, at least; science, Tony knew.  It succeeded in reengaging Tony's brain as nothing else had.  He stared at the tools on the table, the first sign he'd seen in this mountain that technology on any real level existed, and frowned.

"Why haven't you had any of your own machinists fix this stuff?" Tony asked abruptly, staring at what he thought might be a spanner of some kind.  Gwar paused in the act of naming the implements.

"We have no remaining machinists."

Which was - surely impossible.  "Then how did you get this technology in the first place?"  Tony picked up one of the items, having no idea what it was for, but knowing from the circuit board and the conductive insulation it was well beyond stone walls and mesh flooring.  "An engineer of some kind built this.  Where are they?"

"We have no engineers," Gwar said.  "And no remaining machinists.  We must rely on travellers to provide their assistance."

"For your entire civilization?  That's."  Tony stopped, realizing.  "Zet has no intention of letting us go."  It wasn't unexpected, and yet something in Tony managed to be surprised.  "He never lets any of them go, does he?"

Gwar tapped his claws together and looked down. 

"How can you lure people here, knowing that?" Tony asked, honestly interested, morbidly curious.

Gwar hissed softly to himself, curling inward around some invisible hurt.  "He has my clan-sister and two of our clan's hatchlings.  Zet is devout in providing strong incentive."

Tony snarled, the maelstrom of fury growing ever stronger. 

"Had I been alone at the time of your signal I could have tried to turn you away.  I was not.  I cannot be seen to defy my orders except in dire need or among allies."

"Yeah, okay, I get it."  Tony frowned.  "Guy likes his hostages.  No surprise there.  Why do you guys follow him?"

"I believe I have already explained -"

"No," Tony said impatiently.  "I mean you as a people, not you as in you.  No way Zet controls everyone by threatening them or a loved one with bodily harm.  Too much for any one person to accomplish, even one with his power."

"He is not alone.  He has many enforcers pleased to do his bidding."

"Another shocker."  Tony considered this at length.  "You say he's not alone, but I have yet to see another one that looks like him.  Why is there such a difference between you?"  Tony watched Gwar look up at that, silent.  He smiled mockingly into the alien's expressionless face.  "Oh, what's wrong?  Don't trust me, Kemosabe?"

"Why do you call me by that name?" Gwar asked slowly.

"Because I can't keep my mouth shut," Tony said automatically.  The shadow of Zet's punishment for insolence tried to rise, but Tony shoved that firmly down.  He refused to let Zet have dominion over him, over who he was, what he said.  That way lay madness.  "You know, this is crap.  I think you guys should have to learn sarcasm instead of me learning to not-sarcasm.  Kemosabe was a sidekick.  Particularly apropos, since I'm all kinds of Lone Ranger."

Gwar didn't seem to know what to say to that.  He looked at the table of instruments.  "On this world, there has always been two peoples; those like me and those like Chancellor Zet.  History tells us there have been times of harmony, where all lived together.  But more often there is division.  As you see, one has unseen abilities, and one does not.  It is a simple thing for those with power to overcome those who have none."

Gwar looked at him then, and it was clear where he thought Tony fell on that spectrum.  Tony grit hit teeth and firmly stomped on the urge to show him how very wrong he was.

"So there are others like Zet."

"Yes, though few of his mindset," Gwar said.  "His is a radical view.  But none will stand against him.  All fear the consequences."

Tony raised a skeptical eyebrow.  "One man holds your entire population in check?  I'm not buying it.  There has to be more to this story."  There was something here Tony wasn't getting.  A question unanswered that would open a door to understanding if he could only find the right one.

Gwar looked down at his own hands again.  "There are less of us than you might imagine."

"How many?" 

"Perhaps a hundred clans yet remain.  All others have perished."

Tony had no idea what made up a clan, but that didn't sound like a lot, really.

"Perished from what?" he asked, putting aside how tactless the question was. 

Gwar was very still, looking at him, and Tony realized he'd brushed up against a dangerous boundary, something taboo, raw and bleeding.  He settled back cautiously, instinct nipping at his heels.

"You brought me down here," Tony said evenly, cruelly.  "Odds are, I'm never leaving.  I deserve to at least understand why."

Gwar stood up, suddenly, jerkily, and Tony felt his heart lurch with adrenaline in his chest.

"Come," the alien said, a series of unintelligible clicks and hisses following agitatedly.  "You wish to see?  I will show you."

They slipped out into an adjoining corridor and started to make their way back down a long series of halls.

"Did you see the city as we came in?" Gwar asked, staring ahead intently.

Tony rolled his eyes.  "No.  Must've missed it.  Not much of a vantage point from the floor of a moving vehicle.  You only let us out when we reached the underground."

"Yes," Gwar agreed.  "I understand this would make observation difficult."  They kept walking and Tony carefully kept words to himself, waiting out the silence. 

"The city is abandoned," Gwar said finally.  "No, that is incorrect.  It is destroyed."

Tony hummed, uneasy.  "Why?"

"Our world was not always as you see it," Gwar said.  "The desert was once a very small part of it.  Most was lush and green.  Many hundreds of thousands of clans thrived together.  We lived above-ground then, in cities teeming with life.  We had no desire to travel space, but we built satellites to explore the stars around us.  With these, we captured the attention of a space fleet nearby.  There was a man who led it.  He came down to our world, we thought in peace, but of course it was not so.  He killed many of us, at first only those who posed a threat to him, but then more.  He found us fascinating, so the records say.  He called us a world at odds with itself, two so different coexisting as one.  He said he would rend us into a true world divided, half to live and half to die.  Balance."

Tony felt his heart drop into his boots.  He stopped walking, but Gwar didn't and it was breathless moments before Tony could catch up again.

"What man?" Tony asked, urgently.  "When?"

Gwar didn't seem to hear him.  "He destroyed our cities, our homes.  Thousands of clans fell; thousands more limped on into slow death.  For my people, clan is who we are.  When it is lost, many fall to grief.  Those of strong will and purpose may rise again.  Those without join their loved ones."

Tony wanted to care about that, he did, but he was too distracted by the awful ring of panic in his ears. 

"Gwar, how long ago?  When?"

"Generations," Gwar said, still walking at such a rapid pace Tony had to jog to keep up.  "Before my lifetime.  Not before Zet's.  He survived, you see.  He survived to turn this world into a home of death and fear.  Death begets death, and now we are nothing but wraiths, waiting our turn for the end."

They rounded a corner, coming into a large, open space, a cavern, the rubble of an old cave-in piled high as a towering backdrop. 

"The man that came, he left us our satellites," Gwar said, "that we might call for help into the void and receive nothing in return -"

But Tony had stopped listening.  He was busy staring into the cavern.  There was a ship there.  A very familiar ship. 

"- this ship, and though we tried to learn, few scientists survived.  Fewer still had the desire to understand.  Most sought to destroy -"

Tony couldn't breathe.  He wondered vaguely if Zet had made another appearance, whether he had hold of Tony's throat again, because the pressure there was immense, inescapable.  He could feel his field of vision narrowing, tunnelling -

"- led to war, and from war, more death and disease inevitably followed -"

And the ship was - the ship was moving.  As Tony watched, the face of it, the Chitauri mouth and jaws and teeth of it started to animate, the articulated plates of its spine twitching into motion.  The head started to turn in his direction, and across the front, beneath the carapace, two empty, awful eyes were opening -

Tony blinked and found himself sitting in his cell, with Stephen and Peter huddled on the ground beside him.

He blinked again, looking around in confusion.  His head was aching, and his eyes felt like two hot coals in his head, burning fiercely.

"What happened?" he asked, startled to find he was slurring his words.

"We were hoping you could tell us," Stephen said quietly.  Tony realized with lazy surprise that he was leaning against the man, reclining against him actually, almost in his lap.  Stephen had Tony's head halfway on his chest, shoulders turned in and propped against him.  It was a surprisingly comfortable arrangement, not that Tony felt in any position to say so.  The sorcerer's hand was laying full length against Tony's cheek, too, which was a nice touch; restful and almost soothing.  Pleasant.  He could feel pressure around the fingers of his right hand and glanced down, expecting to see Stephen cradling that too.  But that wasn't Stephen; that was Peter.

"Are you alright?" the kid asked, with such even, artificial calm that Tony immediately had to assume the worst.

"I don't know," he replied warily.  "Am I?"  He glanced down his own body again, expecting to find some kind of wound, maybe blood or a variety of telling injuries.  There was nothing. 

Which was strange.  There’d been something wrong with Tony's face and neck, hadn’t there?  Red had stained all up and down his chest and shoulders, seeped into his undershirt, the jacket.  Now all that seemed entirely absent.  Tony frowned.

Stephen tilted Tony's face back up, and he thought about being annoyed at that; he'd never much liked people physically moving any part of him without his permission.  But this was Stephen, and he'd made promises to Tony and meant them, because Tony'd been watching to see if he lied, and he hadn't.  There was something very peaceful in knowing that he could trust Stephen because he could trust FRIDAY to trust Stephen, and because Stephen could be trusted to be Stephen.  Or - something.  Somehow.  Some combination of that.

The sorcerer gently tapped at Tony's temple for attention.  Tony slowly brought his eyes back into focus, looking at Stephen’s face; his incredible eyes, his cheekbones.  His mouth with its clever, compelling tongue, and lips Tony couldn’t seem to look away from.  Lips that were moving -

"Tony," Stephen repeated.

"Yes," he agreed.  That was him.  He was Tony. 

"What do you remember?"

Tony frowned, thinking.  The flavor of distant anger and fear curled his lip like a sour aftertaste, but the reason why was slower to come.  "I left with Gwar to see Zet, didn't I?  Gwar seems okay, I guess.  For what amounts to an indentured servant.  His boss, though; that guy's a real gem -"  But Tony's mind had skipped ahead while his mouth engaged, and he stiffened all over as the memory of humiliation and pain came trickling back, carried on a wave of low, hissing laughter.

"Tony," Stephen said.  He looked up.  "Do we need to leave?"

Tony stared at him, his sluggish thoughts struggling to keep up.  "What?"

"I gave you my word."  Stephen tightened his grip, cradling Tony in the crook of his body with warm, gentle hands.  "I have a tracer on the Eye.  I can take us to it in minutes.  Tell me we need to go, and we'll go."

"Go?" Tony repeated blankly.  He laughed and couldn't be bothered to care about the brittle, ragged edge in it.  Peter tightened his fingers, clutching with fierce strength at Tony's forearm, his wrist.  "We can't go now.  He's made it personal.  I'm not leaving for hell or high water."  He let the laugh trail into a snicker.  "Congratulations you two.  I'm officially invested."

Tony regretted that last, because Peter made a soft, wounded noise and huddled into himself, starting to withdraw.  Tony reached out blindly to pat the kid on the knee, draw him close enough to hug one-handed.  "No, hey, it's fine.  I'm fine.  Really.  If we needed to go, I'd say.  We're okay."  He frowned blearily.  "I think."

"Gwar brought you back some time ago," Stephen explained gently, taking Peter by the shoulder and pulling him into the shelter of a shared embrace.  "But you weren't quite - you weren't yourself.  He offered no explanation, but he agreed to allow us to share the cell.  You were injured."

"I was," Tony agreed automatically.  "I am.  I think?"

"I removed the blood," Stephen said, because apparently that was another thing he could do.  "The injuries remain.  I've never seen him damage you like this before."

"Probably because in another life he damaged you instead," Tony muttered.

Stephen hissed in realization.  "Perhaps.  On a scale of one-to-ten, where's your pain?"

Tony frowned, distracted.  "Hang on.  You removed it.  The blood.  Is that magic's answer to laundry?  Did you just launder my shirt?  Is that how you've been doing yours?  Have you been making me wash my clothes in the sink this whole time when I could've just -"

"Tony," Stephen said calmly, patiently.  "Focus.  I know it's difficult.  Most of your injuries were superficial, but some weren't.  You have a concussion.  Are you in pain?"

That sounded like the sort of thing that Tony should be in pain from, but he found he could feel very little at all, actually.  "Nope, no pain."

Stephen looked oddly displeased by that.  "You have at least two fractures in your left wrist, probably more I haven't found.  You can't feel that?"

Tony blinked, looking down his body again, flexing both hands.  He was certain Zet hadn't broken his wrist; that would've defeated the purpose.  He frowned, noticing suddenly that the nanotech beneath his clothes had moved out of alignment.  It was no longer stationary as a wrist bracer.  He shifted, feeling the familiar cascade of a composite layer instead, a body armor formation.  When had he done that?  He had a vague memory of it crawling out over his hands, his chest and legs, the faceplate trying to form and failing for lack of sufficient nanobots.  There'd been the whine of a repulsor, hadn't there?  Gwar had shouted in alarm, and then he'd heard the distant thunder and crash of rubble cascading toward him and the ship, the ship -

"Oh," he said, slowly.  "Oh, holy shit.  You guys are never going to believe what I found."

Chapter Text

Gwar never said a word about the nanotech.

Tony waited for it.  The first day, after their trio was allowed to catch their breath and then quietly shuffled into more spacious but no less locked guest quarters (apparently Gwar had taken his complaint about the cells seriously).  The second day, when Tony was dragged back to his Zet-approved duty station in the morning.  Then the third and fourth and fifth days.  By the time a week had passed, Gwar still had yet to mention the Iron Man suit, or the repulsor technology, or the obvious fact that Tony'd been concealing what amounted to weapons on his person since their capture.

Peter was convinced Gwar's silence meant he was secretly on their side; a spy and a potential ally hiding in plain sight.  A true sleeper agent, just waiting to strike. 

Tony had a different interpretation.

"It's blackmail material," Tony said decisively.  He shrugged when Peter rolled his eyes and flopped back on one of the beds, muttering a few choice words about superheroes and paranoia.  "What?  A hundred bucks says it is."

"You don't have a hundred dollars -"

"Excuse you, I'm a billionaire."

"- out here, and neither do I.  Just because you'd use it as blackmail -" 

"Just because you wouldn't."  Tony turned to Stephen.  He didn't have to turn far; larger though these quarters were, they still would've easily fit into one of Tony's many bedrooms.  But at least they came with lavatory facilities.  "Stephen, help me out here.  Tell the spider it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you."

Their friendly neighbourhood wizard had been ignoring them both up to that point, laying meditatively on one of the beds with his legs crossed at the ankle, hands laced over his middle.  He opened one eye to glance over and then shut it again.  "It's most certainly paranoia.  But they're probably still out to get us."

"One man's paranoia is another man's good sense," Tony insisted.

"I wouldn't go that far, Tony," Stephen said.  "Few people would accuse you of having good sense." 

Tony waved that away.  "Good, bad.  Sense is sense."

"Tony Stark in a nutshell," Stephen sighed.  "It does us little good to speculate on Gwar's reasons.  The one thing we know for sure is he hasn't told Zet.  You certainly wouldn't be in here resting if he had."

"Resting?"  Tony brandished the latest in a long line of useless technology at Stephen.  "This is slave labor.  I'm being told to work on these in our quarters now, not just the workshop."

"You were told, or you asked for it?"

Tony scowled.  "I was going out of my mind with boredom.  And anyway that's not the point, the point is my brain's a precious commodity.  Do you even realize how much these guys owe me for my time?"

Tony flipped his current project over in his hands, fumbling at the last second to catch it.  Wrist fractures and splints made it very awkward to look suave sometimes.

"Careful with that," Stephen said without opening his eyes.

Tony raised an eyebrow.  "Why?  Do you know what it does?"

"No.  Do you?"

"Fair point," Tony muttered.  "You know, so far every repair job I've been given is a cannibalization or outright replication of the Chitauri tech.  Someone should get back to these people about copyright infringement."

Someone should probably also get back to them about what a terrible idea it was to give prisoners with any level of technical knowhow the tools of their craft to use without supervision.  Tony should put them in touch with the Ten Rings.  Then they could hear all about the error of their ways.

"I imagine they're more concerned with survival than copyright infractions," Stephen said.

"If you can call this survival.  From what I can tell, they're using the more advanced tech mostly because their own tech is ancient in comparison.  Problem is, the disparity's so wide the two types aren't remotely compatible.  These people are basically Earth, circa 1980.  With the exception of their satellite systems."  Tony frowned.  "Whoever designed those was ahead of their time.  I'm still not sure how they manage to compensate for the solar wind, and Zet's not letting me do more than stare at those from afar, the jerk."

"You poor, deprived man," Stephen said.

"That's exactly what I said.  The one piece of native technology actually worthwhile and they want me working on things that're so far beyond their ability to integrate they might as well bin it.  It's no wonder they need to lure in travelling tech guru's.  They're basically trying to construct mnemonic memory circuits using stone knives and bearskins -"

Tony blinked at the sound of the door unlocking.  Early; he didn't normally see his morning escort for another hour yet.  He turned to watch it open, unsurprised to see Gwar step in.  He wasn't expecting the two people that shuffled in behind him.

One of them was purple.

It took Tony longer than it should have, an eternity counted in the pounding beats of his heart, but eventually he realized the purple face staring at him was different from the one he remembered.  Thinner, more angular; a wider forehead and a narrower nose.  And one reptilian eye was framed by a mass of scar tissue. 

Not Zet.

"Gwar, buddy," Tony said, smiling with all his teeth.  He clamped a hand down on Peter's shoulder when the kid made to stand up.  "Is it that time already?  How about that."

Gwar paced close enough that Tony could see the alien's hands were slack in front of him, claws loose and open.  He relaxed fractionally.  After a week of observation, Tony could recognize a few of the basic body language signals, if not the biorhythms of their hosts.  Gwar was comfortable with his entourage, or at least he didn't feel under any particular threat from them.

"Who're your friends?" Tony asked. 

Gwar touched his claws in the direction of his two companions.  "This is Minister Jira and his aid."

Tony forced himself to look at the alien again, relaxing further when he did.  Where Zet had been cold civility and cruelty, this one had a look of intense wonder on his face.  The aid beside him was mellow and distracted; bored.  Tony couldn't see any obvious signs of malice from either of them.

From behind Tony, Stephen rolled easily to his feet.  Tony tried to catch hold of his arm but wasn't quite fast enough.

"Minister Jira," the sorcerer said, ignoring Tony's warning cough.  "Minister of what, if I might enquire?"

Tony waited to see if this alien put the same emphasis on etiquette as Zet did.  Jira saw him watching and returned the scrutiny unabashedly.  His eyes settled unerringly on Tony's healing face, where vividly red lines still marked the bloody remains of Zet's efforts at calligraphy. 

"I oversee the education sector," Jira said, and then, apparently reading Tony's mind: "Please do not cater to ceremony.  I have come to engage in discourse.  You may speak freely."

Tony highly doubted any of the aliens would enjoy him speaking freely. 

"Education," the sorcerer said, meaningfully, glancing sideways at Tony.  Tony blinked a question at him.  "A noble cause.  On our planet, a wise man once said that education was the most powerful weapon one could use to change the world."

Jira seemed enchanted by this notion, peering down at Stephen with enthusiasm.

"I have been eager to meet you since your arrival," Jira announced, as if imparting a very great secret.  "But the chancellor was not disposed to grant requests for an audience.  I was required to petition four times before he would allow me to see you."

Which set Tony's metaphorical alarm bells to ringing, but Stephen got there before he could say anything.  "Admirable persistence.  I can understand the lure of learning from foreigners.  Studying abroad is a time-honored tradition on our world."

Jira swayed from side to side, the thin membranes at the top of his head rippling with excitement.  "Is education highly prized where you come from, then?"

"It's considered a fundamental basic right across a wide variety of nations."

Tony stared at Stephen incredulously, half expecting him to throw in a flirtatious wink next.  "Laying the flattery on a bit thick, aren't you?" he muttered under his breath.

"Shut up, Tony," Stephen said pleasantly.

Jira looked beyond thrilled.  It was clear Stephen couldn't have struck a better note if he'd tried.  Which he obviously had.  "A fascinating notion.  Education on this world has languished for many years.  Would you be willing to discuss this with me further?"

Stephen nodded.  "I'm something of a scholar myself.  In another life we might've been contemporaries.  I'm sure in this life we'll be allies."

The words were formal, very pretty and dressed-up, and completely out of context.  But Stephen obviously didn't mean them for their alien hosts; he meant them for Tony.  Apparently Jira was a familiar and welcome face. 

That didn't make Tony any more inclined to trust him.

Jira and Gwar shared a look, that strange nonverbal communication filling the room with momentary silence.

It went on for two seconds too long for their young arachnid.  "Hi," the kid piped up, even though Tony just about dragged himself off his feet trying to pull the teenager back.  Peter seemed not to notice.  "I'm Peter, by the way."

Jira turned to him, hair fronds fluttering.

"Maybe he's born with it," Tony whispered before he could stop himself.  "Maybe it's Maybelli -"

Stephen elbowed him.  Hard.

"Hello," the minister said, stepping closer to loom at Peter, looking him over extensively.  "I understand you are different from these other two.  Is that true?"

"What?" Peter looked as startled as Tony felt, staring up at the alien.  "No.  I'm exactly the same.  Why?"

Jira hissed something unintelligible.  "Then you are all part of the same species?  You do look the same, but I was told you are significantly stronger than your companions.  Is that not so?"

Tony glared at Gwar, betrayed.  Gwar blinked back at him innocently.

Peter's eyes went wide, alarmed at having his secrets bandied about so casually.  They really needed to work on the kid's poker face.  "What?  No!  I'm just like everyone else.  Well, not you, obviously.  But, like, everyone from my planet.  I'm just like them.  Of course I am."  Peter swallowed with a sickly looking grin.  "Why wouldn't I be?"

Jira looked at Gwar, questioning.  "Then strength of your level is typical to your race?"  He turned to stare speculatively at Stephen and Tony.  "Is it that these other two are defective, then?"

Peter quietly had a coughing fit while Tony raised both eyebrows expansively.  "Yeah, kid," he drawled, staring at the teenager.  "How do you explain that?  Go on.  We're listening."

Peter floundered.  "Well, I.  No, that's just because.  Not everyone.  No, it's - they're old!"  He pointed a wild finger at Tony and Stephen.  "And I'm.  Um, younger?  On our world, older people aren't as strong.  They're -"  He glanced over, deflating when he caught sight of Tony and Stephen's twin stares.

"Really," Stephen said flatly.  Tony exchanged a look of shared outrage with him.

Jira stared in wonder, eyes roaming as if he might find evidence of their advanced age hiding on them somewhere.  "I see.  On our world, it is also the case that the very old and infirm no longer possess the strength of the young."

Peter looked horrified.  Tony smiled brightly into his panicking face.  "Old and infirm, that's nice."  He turned confidingly to Jira.  "On our planet, the very old also have a tendency to forget things.  Which'll make a lot of sense when we leave you behind, Peter."

Peter groaned, covering his face with both hands.

"I would be interested to hear more about your world," Jira proclaimed.  "I have permission to take two of you with me for discussion."

Tony went still, realization hitting him like a truck.  "Two of us."

"Yes."  Jira eyed him closely, turning to Gwar, who clicked some type of agreement.  "Unfortunately, Chancellor Zet was unwilling to lend me all three of you.  A machinist's time is too highly in demand."

Peter suddenly looked far less interested in joining the discussion.  "Maybe we could just stay here and talk."  He looked uneasily back at Tony.  "Together."

"Nonsense.  We would only be a distraction for your companion.  And machinist matters do not require the oversight of educators."  He beckoned to Stephen and Peter respectively.  "Come.  We have much to discuss."

Jira started back for the door.  Peter took a questioning step in his direction, but Stephen didn't move.

"A moment, Minister," Stephen said calmly, staring at Tony.  At the panic Tony was sure must be working itself onto his face.  "Please."

"Yeah," Tony managed when Jira stopped, turning back.  "No one's taking anyone anywhere until we establish some ground rules.  I only ever loan these two out on curfew."

"Curfew?" Jira hissed, amused.

"Absolutely.  Someone has to keep an eye on them to make sure they wash behind their ears."

"I'm certain we'll be fine, Tony," Stephen said.  Which was all well and good for him to say; he wasn't the one being left behind.  Stephen caught his eye, having no trouble discerning where Tony's thoughts were.  He shook his head just slightly.  Tony stubbornly shook his head back.

"Enough delay," Jira said suddenly.  "You two will come with me while the machinist goes to his work.  My time is limited and I have no wish to waste it."

He crooked his fingers at Peter and Stephen, who rose suddenly into the air with two startled exclamations and started floating toward him.

Tony surged to his feet, twitching toward the nanotech involuntarily and only strangling the impulse by shaking out his left wrist and hand, jarring the healing bones there.  The pain fed an anger he'd been nurturing for what felt like years.  The curiosity in the alien's eyes was really rather closer to the same greed and avarice Tony had seen in Zet, if for different reasons.  Tony was reminded of the lengths people could go to in order to acquire knowledge.  Thoughts of human experimentation came to mind. 

Gwar looked at him, then, maybe sensing something in that invisible way these people had, maybe not, but obviously far more aware of the undercurrents than the Minister.  Tony ignored him to stare balefully after Jira, who was already turning away, oblivious.  His aid made to follow the floating humans without complaint.

"If you hurt them," Tony said, softly, barely loud enough to be heard, though it stopped Jira immediately.  "If you harm them in any way.  I'm going to hurt you back."

Really, there were so many ways he could hurt these people; ways they had no concept of.  Tony'd always had the means to do great harm, no different from any other superhero, really.  It was only that he lacked the motivation.  And Jira had two of those floating in the air behind him. 

Jira didn't look at Tony, though he was clearly listening.  Something in his stillness spoke of interest. 

"I won't hesitate," Tony said to his back, and meant it.  "If you damage them, I promise you'll regret it."

Jira turned back, while Gwar made a hissing noise of distress and dropped his eyes to the floor.  Tony braced himself for something painful.  But Jira only stared at Tony for a long time, head tilting slowly to the left and then the right.  Tony had no idea what he might be searching for, but if it was anger, he found it all over Tony in spades.

"I believe you," the minister said at last.  Jira looked slowly at Stephen and Peter floating peacefully next to him and then back at Tony.  His non-expression was too studied to be anything but deliberate.  "Interesting.  It has been an age since I was last threatened.  Longer still since the threat was of any real consequence."

Tony smiled sharply.  "Not a threat.  Just a friendly warning between maybe-allies."

"Allies," Jira echoed, hissing.  "You think rather highly of yourself.  Tell me, machinist, even if I meant you harm, how would you propose to stop me?" 

And there; that arrogant, infuriating dismissal, that mocking edge was enough to set Tony off like a spark to dry tinder.  He reached out to do something, probably something very unwise, but -

"Minister," Stephen said.  "It's really quite unkind to provoke him.  Wouldn't you agree?"

Tony glanced at him sharply, but Stephen was looking at Jira and the alien was looking placidly back from the corner of his reptilian eyes. 

"I have no idea what you could mean," Jira said.

Stephen didn't look impressed.  "Don't you?"

Jira clicked thoughtfully.  "Well.  Perhaps a little."  He affected surprise at seeing Stephen and Peter still aloft and set them back down with a flourish.  "But can I truly be blamed?  Your companion makes provocation so easy.  It will not serve him well with the chancellor.  Zet tolerates no challengers."

"Maybe if more people challenged him," Tony snarled, "he wouldn't be the tyrant he is today."

Jira blinked at him, suddenly serious.  "Perhaps."  Then he looked coy, all gravity immediately lost.  "Well!  If you insist, I suppose we could stay here instead of retreating to my office.  Gwar will be taking you off to your duty station soon, anyway.  A machinist's work is never done."

There was a not-quite smile on his face.  It was the same one Zet had worn when he'd ripped into Tony, but different for all that; there was no cruelty in this one.  Only good cheer.

He'd pushed deliberately, Tony realized.  Jira meant to talk to Stephen and Peter; that was obviously his goal.  But he hadn't needed to drag them away.  He didn't intend to, even; he'd just been looking to press at invisible boundaries.  He'd only wanted to see what Tony would do. 

Someone obviously needed to tell this man he was playing with fire.

"Really, Tony," Stephen said dryly.  Tony jerked out of his thoughts and found the sorcerer smiling at him knowingly.  "Flattering as it is, you must stop treating me like the damsel in distress I'm clearly not.  Ever the knight in shining armor."

"Right?" Peter said, hopping with two feet back on one of the beds.  "He has this protecting-people thing.  Super annoying.  Makes plans on his own.  Never consults others."

Stephen huffed at the teenager.  "You're in no position to criticize.  Half the reason we're having this discussion is because you couldn't keep your strength to yourself."

"That's not the same thing," Peter protested.  "The guy shouldn't have tried to stop me.  I wouldn't have hit him if he hadn't hit you first."

"He wouldn't have made contact," Stephen insisted, "if I hadn't let him -"

"I withdraw my protest," Tony announced, shooing at Jira with both hands.  "Please take them away.  I can already feel a headache coming on."

But Jira had sat himself down on one of the beds and was watching Stephen and Peter banter with blatant fascination.  "I think not.  You may leave at your leisure.  We shall remain here.  Yes, I think I much prefer this arrangement, really.  Now, please, someone tell me: what is a knight in shining armor?"

Tony had the overwhelming urge to flatten him into a purple alien pancake, but Gwar got to him before he could give in to his baser impulses.

"I have your allotment of repairs for the day," Gwar said, gesturing to the door, where Jira's aid had parked himself to watch the spectacle.  "If you will follow me, Tony?"

Tony looked on as two humans and a lizard-person started to descend into a deep philosophical debate about round tables and heroism and honor, decided that spending time with Gwar and science seemed infinitely more appealing, and silently followed his escort out.

That was how they spent their second week, with Jira coming and going as he pleased in spite of Tony glowering at him every time.  The minister had developed something of an alien-love-triangle-crush on Stephen and Peter and corralled them every morning to wax poetic about culture and academics and higher learning.  Tony was more than happy to miss out on those conversations.  He kept on with his mindless machinist work, which was so incredibly bland and monotonous it gave Tony frequent opportunities to sneak peeks at more interesting technology when no one was looking.  Sometimes even when they were.

"What is this thing?" Tony asked, tossing his latest project carefully from hand to hand.  Gwar watched anxiously, as he always did, his claws twitching with what Tony knew was a desperate need to intercede and snatch the thing out of Tony's grip.

"To my understanding, it is a propulsion device of some sort," Gwar said, his nictitating eyelid slipping out three times in distress as Tony casually twirled it on one finger and then pretended to drop it.  "Please be careful with that."

Tony stopped, but not because Gwar had asked him to.  The alien's answer proved these people really had no grasp of even basic reverse-engineering.  It honestly hurt Tony's soul a little.

"A propulsion device, huh?  Who classified it?"

"I am uncertain who," Gwar admitted, searching a manifest.  "It has been inoperable for many years."

Tony huffed a laugh.  "Alright, tell you what.  You give me a look at one of those neat little space guns you and your friends were packing the day you shanghaied us.  And I'll tell you what this actually does.  I'll even give you a hint: it has nothing to do with propulsion."

"Really?" Gwar asked, staring.  "What is it?"

Tony clicked his tongue disapprovingly.  He held the thing out temptingly.  "Space gun first.  Explanation later."

"Perhaps the explanation now," Zet said pleasantly.  "And the space gun never." 

Tony went rigid, his heart kicking once painfully before tripping into overtime.  He and Gwar both turned to the open doorway. 

"Chancellor Zet," Gwar said immediately, dropping into a half-crouch, touching his claws together at the center of his forehead in a painstaking sign of respect.

Tony wondered if mimicking that might help him.  He'd never been the bowing and scraping kind, and yet desperate times sometimes called for desperate measures.  But he felt too stiff with the echo of remembered pain and humiliation to move.

Zet paced into the room and Tony could feel the blade of his eyes, an invisible force moving in the air around him.  He and Jira looked superficially alike, but their similarities ended at the physical, really.  Where Jira's presence was light and lively, even when he was busy snatching people up like toys, Zet's was all unnatural pressure and malice, tangibly heavy and ominous.

The chancellor came to a stop near Tony, who trained his eyes on the floor.

"Hmm," Zet said, looking at him.  "Acceptable, or nearly so.  I will allow it."

Tony reminded himself how unappreciated sarcasm was on this world and that using it now might end up with his face being introduced to the floor.  He said nothing.

Zet clicked gently in approval.  "And even better.  Lovely.  In future, however, keep in mind: obeisance is preferred over silence."

Face-floor-introduction.

Zet cut behind Tony, reaching out with one hand to pluck up the piece of technology he'd been tossing around.  "Since you seem to have some desire to boast of your knowledge, tell me then: what is this?"

Tony unlocked his jaw to speak.  "A power coupler."

"Interesting.  And for what reason did you wish to examine one of our weapons?"  Zet floated the coupler close, turning it curiously.  "Perhaps to put the two together?"

A warning prickle lit the air.  Tony ignored it.  "No."

"Why, then?"

"Just curious about the bits of technology that actually work on this world," Tony said civilly.  "There aren't many."

"No," Zet agreed.  "There is little that works on this world, anymore.  We are a bleak and barren place.  I am often curious that travellers should choose to stop here at all.  We have little to recommend us to the galaxy beyond."

"Must take some convincing," Tony said leadingly, bitterly.

Zet hissed a familiar, skin-crawling laugh.  "Sometimes.  But an impression of kindness is usually enough."  He set the coupler down on the work station.  "The universe outside must be a harsh place.  It breeds desperation."

"You'd know something about that," Tony muttered.  He breathed evenly through the feeling of a powerful unseen grip taking hold of him, turning him to bear the side of his face and neck.

"Insolence so soon?" Zet asked, tracing a proprietary touch over the marks he'd left on Tony.  "And barely minutes into our discussion.  You took your last lesson well.  Do you require another?"

The lazy contempt in his voice was almost enough to send Tony's anger spilling out. 

"No," he forced himself to say.  "Sorry."

He wasn't surprised when Zet cut him anyway, the narrow edge of an invisible claw reopening a wound on his cheek.  Tony didn't flinch. 

"Apologies are an afterthought for misdeeds," Zet said.  "I will not accept one as an excuse in future."

"No apologies," Tony repeated.  Which was fine; he hated them anyway.  "Check."

Zet made a series of clicks, still staring at him.  Tony felt a sharp coil of pressure slip around his left wrist, creeping beneath the splint to squeeze over the bones there.  Tony made no move to resist; it wouldn't do him any good anyway.

"I did not cause this," Zet noted, interested.  The pressure tightened.  "How did you come by such an injury?"

Tony wanted to say something pointed about Zet's concern for his wrist when he had no apparent concern for Tony's face, but he bit his tongue.  "Stupidity.  Mine."

More clicks and hisses.  "That does seem to be one of your frequent traits."  He pretended to look thoughtful.  "Or perhaps you are simply prone to accidents.  Men who speak thoughtlessly so often are."

The threat was so obvious and heavy-handed Tony couldn't help himself.  "Not thoughtless.  Witty rejoinders actually take quite a bit of thought."

The coil wrapped once more around his wrist, contracting with enough pressure to do damage, and twisted.  Tony had to go down on his knees with the turn of it or risk another break.  He chose to go down, sliding into a controlled drop.

"Chancellor," Gwar said, startling Tony badly.  He'd forgotten the alien was there.  "Please.  The machinist requires the use of his hands to work."

Zet hissed in annoyance, waving an arm.  "Be silent."  Tony saw Gwar stagger back into the wall as if pushed.  At the same time the pressure against Tony's wrist vanished.  "You try my patience today, Gwar.  Take care.  The machinist might require the use of his hands but you do not."

Gwar shrank into himself, claws tucked close to his chest.  "Yes, Chancellor."

Tony ground his teeth, enraged.

Zet looked thwarted, staring at Tony.  "A very frequent trait," he said flatly.  "You are a curious creature.  Do you enjoy suffering?  I can find few other explanations for your repeated disrespect."

"Born like this," Tony said shortly, trying to regain his footing and failing when an impossible weight parked itself on his shoulders.  "Ingrained behavior.  Difficult to change."

"Shall I assist you?" Zet asked, tracing again over the healing marks of his handiwork, reopening a second wound.

"No, I think I've got it now," Tony said.

"We will see," Zet said.  He paced away, holding out one hand and floating Gwar's manifest into his grip.  He scanned over it briefly.  "You are managing with our technology quickly."  He looked at Tony again.  "Unexpectedly quickly."

Suspiciously quickly, Tony heard, and ducked his head down.  "Yeah.  I'm good at what I do."

"Hmm," Zet said.  "See that you continue in that vein.  I will be doubling your quarterly allotment.  Don't fall behind."  He turned suddenly.  "Gwar."

Gwar flinched, rallying a moment later.  "Chancellor?"

Zet handed him back the manifest.  "You will continue to monitor his progress.  Keep me apprised."

Gwar touched his claws together, bowing.  "Yes, I will.  Of course."

Zet swept out of the room, leaving Tony with the distinct feeling of having just barely dodged a bullet.

Gwar waited until they could no longer hear Zet's gliding footsteps before he spoke.  "Are you well?"  He reached out to touch Tony's left arm gently.  "Your wrist?  I apologize.  I was unaware he planned to visit today."

"I'm fine," Tony said shortly.  "Are you?"

Gwar blinked.  His claws went lax with surprise.  "Me?"

"Yeah."  Tony gestured at him, head to toe.  "Is he always like that with you?"

Gwar hissed defensively, backing up.  "As the chancellor's aid, it is my responsibility to provide for his needs.  When I fail, he corrects me.  But I do not often fail, and I receive many rewards for my good work."

Tony felt a sharp stab of pity.  "Hits you with the left hand; rewards you with the right."  He offered Gwar a twisted smile.  "My world has a name for that kind of relationship."

Gwar clicked querulously.  "The chancellor has never hit me."

Tony shook his head.  "Not with his hands, I'm sure."  Reminded of his own hands, he shook them out, relieved to find no evident injuries.  "Think I got off easy today.  Thanks for your help.  Pretty sure he meant to break my arm, there."

"Yes," Gwar agreed. 

"You don't speak much when he's around," Tony noted, picking up the discarded power coupler.  "Guess after that I can see why."

Gwar looked uncertain.  "I must be sparing with my words.  My value is in my obedience.  Without it, I can be easily replaced.  It has happened to others, before."

Which sounded like an impossibly precarious position to Tony.  He wondered darkly what'd happened to those 'others'.

"Wasn't criticizing," Tony said, tossing the coupler back and forth easily.  "Just an observation."

Then he paused.  He looked at his hands, wriggling the left fingers, stretching them cautiously as far as they'd go.  He experimentally rotated his wrist first one way and then the other.

Gwar tapped him with the tip of one claw, like a tuning fork, listening for something Tony couldn't see or hear.  "What is it?  Is there some new injury?"

Tony shook his head, frowning.  He prodded carefully at the flesh of his left hand, felt around the splint and wordlessly broke it off.

"What is wrong?" Gwar asked, anxious, looking at the remains of the brace.  "I sense no pain."

Tony flexed his entire hand and arm, staring incredulously at his wrist.  "Yeah, that's the funny thing.  Neither do I."

Which really only had one explanation.  And it rhymed with magic.

"What did you do to my wrist," he demanded, barreling through the door and brandishing his un-splinted limb in Stephen's direction.  The sorcerer was sitting unnaturally still on one of the beds and didn't respond.  Tony glared at him, then around the room in growing alarm.  Jira was nowhere to be found, but more importantly, neither was Peter.

Panic immediately tried to shove its way down Tony's throat.  He stormed up to shake answers out of Stephen, hesitating at the last second.  The sorcerer was completely upright, not out cold on the bed; obviously his immobility was deliberate, and probably had an explanation rooted in some kind of mysticism.  Shaking him out of it was liable to set off something rather unfortunate, like an explosion, or a stern lecture.  Tony counselled himself to patience.  He sat on the edge of the bed beside him instead.

It was an eternity later, ten minutes at least, before Stephen roused from his stillness.  Tony didn't notice right away, busy examining his left wrist narrowly.  He nearly jumped out of his skin when the sorcerer spoke.

"I'm impressed, Tony," Stephen said, blinking himself back to reality.  He glanced over.  "That's more patience than I normally see from you."

Tony didn't waste any time.  "Where's the kid?"

Stephen looked around as though to confirm their missing spider wasn't going to pop up out of the woodwork on his own.  "Peter asked for a tour of the mountain.  Jira was more than happy to provide him with one."

Tony glared at him incredulously.  "You let them go off alone?"

Stephen rolled his eyes.  "Of course I did.  And I wasn't just monitoring them with my astral form, and I didn't put a tracer on Peter before he left the room.  Yes, that sounds exactly like something I'd do."

"You have an astral form," Tony repeated, ignoring the rest of it.  "Seriously?"

Stephen scowled.  "Which is somehow more unbelievable than the existence of an entire mirror dimension or a stone that can break the space-time continuum." 

Tony wagged a finger in Stephen's irritated face.  "No need to get snarky, doc.  You should probably eat something.  You always get tetchy when you haven't eaten."

"I'm not hungry.  I have a headache."  The sorcerer frowned at him.  "And you're back rather early today, aren't you?  Did something happen?"

Reminded, Tony shook his wrist in Stephen's direction.  The man blinked, leaning back warily.

"Explain this," Tony demanded.

Stephen eyed him, taking Tony's wrist slowly in his hands.  "I realize anatomy isn't your forté, Tony, but I thought you at least had the basics.  Do you need me to show you on the doll where -"

"Cute, really, you're hilarious."  Tony pointed at him.  "Two weeks ago I had a total of three fractures in this wrist, according to you.  When I finally screwed my head on straight again, they hurt like hell.  Now they don't hurt at all.  Care to explain that, doctor?"

"Not especially," Stephen said.

"Let me put this another way.  Either you've been magicking me without permission, or I've spontaneously become an Enhanced.  Much though I think the latter would be awesome, I'm going to assume the former."

"An Enhanced?  Is that how you refer to -"

"Don't even try it."

The sorcerer didn't even do him the favor of pretending to be chastised.  "It was a legitimate question."

"Not today it isn't."  Tony wriggled the fingers of his left hand demandingly.  "Forget the doll.  Show me on the human where you did the magic."

Stephen stared at him, a frown slowly beetling his brows.  "You don't seem disturbed by the idea."

Tony blinked back.  "That you healed my broken bones?"  He paused.  "I wasn't until you said that.  Should I be?"

"No.  But you usually are."

Tony rolled his eyes, wondering if he ought to be more annoyed at Stephen constantly referencing alternate timelines, or at himself in those timelines for proving he was truly an asshole.

"I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth," he said, watching Stephen pull aside Tony's sleeve to carefully palpate along the ulna and scaphoid bones.  "Even if you should've told me.  I'm guessing you couldn't do anything about my face because it's, well, my face."

"Someone would've noticed," Stephen agreed.

"It does draw attention, doesn't it?  Always has, if I do say so myself.  So how did you do it?"

Stephen followed the metacarpal to the phalanges in the thumb and pointer finger, gently enough it tickled.  Tony shivered, an intriguing prickle of energy whispering up his spine. 

"Technically, you did it," Stephen said.  "I just sped things along.  Channelled energy directly into your stem cells to stimulate bone growth.  You have a remarkably healthy bone marrow system.  Can't say the same about your liver."

Tony grinned.  "Live fast, love hard, die young.  Leave a beautiful memory.  I got one out of four at least."

Stephen laughed.  "That was such a terrible song.  Not even I could listen to it more than once."  He rested Tony's wrist and hand on his thigh.  "These bones feel near enough to fully healed.  Six weeks or more along.  Not bad."

Tony turned over his hand, sliding his fingers along the sorcerer’s palm and further.  He traced a line over two of Stephen's knuckles, counting the hatchmark scars.  He felt the other man jerk in surprise.

"If you can do that with stem cells, you can do that with nerve cells," Tony said quietly, feeling the ever-present tremor increasing.  "You could have these back."

Stephen let Tony draw his hand into the air for them both to see.  He stared at it like it was the worst kind of temptation life could offer: the kind that haunted him every day.  "It doesn't work like that.  Your bones only required a nudge.  My nerves would necessitate a constant drain.  I can have my hands or I can have the magic.  Not both."

Tony quirked a smile.  "Sounds like the same dilemma all superheroes face.  A normal life or something greater."

"What an interesting choice of words," Stephen said, looking at him. 

Tony observed the visible tremor of those gentle, spellbinding fingers and felt warm appreciation sweep through him slow and thick, like honey.  A familiar impulse immediately stirred in his gut and he only realized he'd started to lean closer when Stephen blinked at him in question.  Tony forced himself to stop, to think first, because it wasn’t the wisest choice; it probably wasn't even in the same ballpark as wise, really.  But then, as Stephen had so kindly pointed out, Tony was so rarely accused of having good sense. 

And yet he hesitated, because if he got this wrong it might paint them both into a dangerous corner.  One it could be very hard to come back from.

But.  He didn’t think he was wrong.

Locking eyes with the other man, Tony bent his head and deliberately exhaled against the skin of Stephen's wrist, heated and intimate and close.  The sorcerer made a noise Tony doubted he meant to, startled but not quite surprised.

Tony smiled at him slowly, innocently.  "Oh, sorry.  Am I making you uncomfortable?"

Stephen's eyes were vividly curious, the remarkable blue of them rich with interest.  "Yes."

"Working as intended then."  Tony bent again, close enough he could graze first his lips and then his teeth over thin skin, feeling the flutter of Stephen's pulse like wings beating against his mouth.  "Have I thanked you yet for healing my hand?" 

"I get the sense you're doing that right now," Stephen murmured, cupping Tony's jaw with the tips of his fingers.

Tony pressed a kiss to the base of Stephen's hand, then his palm, hearing him suck in an unsteady breath.  "I'm usually as bad at thanking people as I am at apologizing.  How am I doing so far?"

"Oh, adequate, I suppose."

Tony brushed the prickle of his beard the wrong way, just to feel Stephen twitch in reaction.  "Is that nerve damage," he whispered against him, "or is your hand shaking?"

Stephen laughed like it'd been shoved right out of him, closing his eyes with a helpless sort of smile.  "That's an awful pick-up line."

Tony grinned.  "Very me, don't you think?"  He stared at the flush rising in the other man's face.  "Tell me if I'm reading this wrong.  This could go so incredibly badly if I am."

"You're not."

"Oh, good," Tony said, dropping his eyes to Stephen's mouth.  "I'd hate to think that -"

"Guys, you'll never guess what I found!" Peter exclaimed, launching himself into the room.

Tony drew back as naturally as he could, feeling Stephen do the same.  He brushed off his hands as though he'd been looking for something on them, then glanced up casually.  Peter had stopped in the open doorway.  He had a very peculiar look on his face.

"Peter," Tony said reasonably.  "What have I always said about knocking?"

"I," Peter started, frowning.  "I have no idea.  Have you ever said anything about knocking?"

"Probably not to you," Tony conceded.  He looked at Jira, standing behind Peter.  Tony wiggled his fingers meaningfully, the same way he would to call the nanotech.  He watched Peter's eyes widen in understanding and almost felt bad for misleading him.  "But my point stands.  You might want to do more of it from now on, before coming into my room."

"But," Peter said.  "This is my room?  Too?"

Tony raised both eyebrows at him, subtly poking Stephen, who he could feel shaking with badly suppressed laughter.  "Was that a question?"

Peter looked terribly, terribly confused.  "No?"

"Are you sure?"

So terribly confused.  "No?"

Then Peter startled, his hand flying to his ear.  He blinked rapidly.  "Oh!  Oh, right.  I, uh."  He looked back at Jira sheepishly.  "Do you mind if we pick up the rest of the tour tomorrow?  I think I should maybe talk with my," he stumbled, "with Doctor Strange and Mr. Stark."

Jira looked mutinous.  Apparently he didn't like having his time with new friends cut short.  "You said you only needed to return briefly."

"Well, but, I," Peter said, floundering.

Jira kept talking right over him.  "Tell me, why do your people use such a wide variety of names and salutations?  It is a very confusing custom.  I have never heard of such a thing before."

"You need to get out more," Tony muttered.  He pretended to check his nonexistent watch.  "Gosh, Minister, would you look at the time?  I think you might be late for a very important date.  Better go meet it."

Jira blinked in confusion.  "I have no pending appointment."

"Sure you do."  Tony waved him on.  "Bye now."

Jira took the hint, finally starting to edge back toward the door.  "Perhaps I could just -"

"No time to say hello, goodbye," Tony said loudly.  "You're late, you're late, you're late."

Jira looked extremely unimpressed by this as he shut and then locked the door behind him.

"Wow," Tony said, unenthusiastically watching him go.  "I thought he'd never leave -"

"FRIDAY says we need to reset our transmitters," Peter blurted.

"What?"  Tony stared at him.  Stephen sat up straight next to him.  "When?"

"Just now!  She says she can create a new VPN off the satellite carrier signal?  I think.  But you have to open the transmitter line to scan for new frequencies."

"But how will she know which one I'm -"

Peter frowned at him.  "Computers aren't my thing.  Ask me chemistry or physics.  I'm just telling you what she said."

Tony moaned in despair, covering his face with both hands.  "I thought I'd taught you at least the basics."

"Hacking satellite communications isn't basic," Peter protested.  "The only reason FRIDAY caught me in the first place was because we got near the top of the mountain.  I think the mineralization's thinner there.  But then I couldn't talk to her much because the minister was with me.  The signal cut off, like, twenty minutes ago." 

Tony frowned, thinking about that.  "I wonder what the metallic stratification looks like in this mountain.  The lattice must be denser toward the base.  Maybe if -"

Peter made an impatient sound.  He stared at Tony with big, pleading eyes.  "Transmitter line?"

Tony reached for his ear, glancing at Stephen as he did.  The sorcerer was watching him, a small smile curling the corner of his mouth like he couldn't quite help it.  His eyes were bright and fond.  Tony grinned back at him, feeling something warm and eager bubbling in his chest.  He dropped his unoccupied hand down between them, slipping it subtly over Stephen's knee with a wink.

"FRIDAY," Tony said, cycling the transmitter while he watched Stephen silently laugh at him.  "Tony Stark, master of all things engineering, calling FRIDAY.  Come in, FRIDAY."

He heard the open line sync with an audible whine. 

"Boss," FRIDAY said, loud and clear and never more welcome.  "Is that you?"

"There's my girl," Tony exulted.  "Now, FRIDAY.  We have so much to catch you up on and tons of work to do.  But first: be a dear and tell me how much you missed me."

Chapter Text

If Tony’d been asked to guess any one thing to turn the tide of an alien revolution, he'd probably have said technology, or magic, or war, or some other massive and unstoppable force of nature or politics or power.

What he got was not massive.  But it was certainly unstoppable.

"You're a lot smaller than the aliens I usually get to see," Tony said.

The tiny creature looked up at him from somewhere in the vicinity of Tony's left knee.  "That is because I am the smallest of my age-mates."

"Don't doubt it." 

A large part of Tony wanted to reach down and pluck the miniature being up to examine from all sides, as he might any new and interesting discovery.  But the tension in the room was thick enough to cut, and Valk was watching Tony like a hawk.  So really, it was probably a very bad idea to pick the hatchling up. 

Valk was interesting.  He was Gwar's equivalent of a second-cousin, six-or-seven-or-eight times removed; the tiny lizard-being was his, and it had eyes much too large for its face, and a row of teeth much too sharp for its mouth.  

"I am also the smartest and the fastest," the hatchling continued, fragile claws pulling with prickling scratches at Tony's calf and shin.  "And the most beautiful."

Valk hissed in exasperation, slipping around Tony to stare down at the smallest member of his clan.  "You know it is rude to say these things out loud."

"But you say them to me every day," the child protested.

Valk clicked uncomfortably, reaching down to gently tug stubborn hands away from Tony.  "Please forgive her.  She is young and has much to learn."

"No harm done," Tony said easily.  "I'm of the opinion if someone's got it, flaunt it."  He paused.  "She?"

Valk didn't answer, lifting the hatchling so she could balance with a painful looking grip over his right forearm.  The child stared in Tony's direction, reaching out with one hand.

"Are you full-grown?" she asked.

Tony had the fatalistic feeling he knew exactly what was coming.  "Yep.  All grown and released into the wild to fend for myself."

Her face didn't quite change, but she somehow looked very confused.  "But you are small."  She looked up at Valk, towering over all of them at nearly eight feet, Gwar a close second and of course Tony at the bottom of that totem pole.  She looked back at Tony unreadably.  "Are you like me, then?  The smallest of your age-mates?"

Definitely knew exactly where that was going.  "That's kind of a personal question.  Didn't anyone ever tell you it's rude to ask a lady her age?"

She whistled and clicked with surprise.  "You are female?"

The hilarious urge to say yes was strong, but Tony heroically refrained.  "No."

She looked more confused than ever.  She turned to Valk for an explanation, but he had none the offer.  When she turned to Gwar, he hissed something sympathetic in her direction.

"He is most confusing," Gwar confided, making no effort to modulate his tone or volume.  "The others of his kind are less so.  I believe this one is unique."

"Thanks," Tony told him.  "Nicest thing you've ever said to me."

"What unique things can he do?" she asked, skeptically.

"He is an engineer," Gwar said.  Tony looked at him sharply.  "He designs and makes new things.  Mostly machines."

"Can he make me a toy?" she asked. 

Valk jostled her, tapping her sharply in the center of the forehead with the knuckle of his third claw.  "More rudeness.  Must we have another discussion on manners?"

She drooped.  "Do we have to?"

"Not if you behave."

She clicked a squeaky sort of sound.  "Yes, of course.  I was impolite.  I must be respectful."  She turned to look at Tony earnestly.  "Please, will you make me a toy?"

Gwar dissolved into hissing laughter while Valk put her down on the ground, touching his claws in her direction resignedly.

"That is not what I meant by manners," Valk tried to say, half the words lost to his own amusement.

"Then what did you mean?"

"Tell you what," Tony said.  "Maybe you say what kind of toy you want, and I'll say whether or not I can make it."

She looked awestruck by this.  Her face seemed designed to be more expressive than either of the adults; Tony wondered whether that was an age thing, or a biology thing.  "I get to choose?"

"Were you not telling me just recently of something your clan-sister broke?" Gwar asked, crouching down to look at her solemnly.  "Perhaps you could ask Tony about that."

"Can he make me another?" She asked, now tugging at Gwar's knee in excitement.

"Or perhaps fix the one you have," Gwar suggested.  "Engineers can also fix old things to be new again."

She paused in her prodding to turn and look straight up at Tony.  "You fix things?"

"Yep, that's me.  Fixer of things.  I break a lot of things, too, but most people prefer I not talk about that."

She looked a question at him that was two parts demand and one part plea.  "Can you fix me?"

It was obvious by the guilty bow of Gwar’s head that this was the real reason he’d brought them to Tony, in spite of his cousin’s reticence, in spite of knowing the likely futility.  And it wasn’t an inconsequential question; though she looked normal enough on the outside, FRIDAY's data stream showed that wasn't at all the case on the inside.

Tony crouched so he could see her more clearly.  She reached out to touch his hand, his chin now that it was on level with her, finally resting her hands over his arm.  He suppressed a wince when she accidentally dug in, sharp claws leaving bloody furrows behind.  He could tell by Gwar's sudden stillness he sensed either the blood or the sudden pain. 

Tony smiled at her.  "I think the answer to your question is supposed to be: No, you're perfect, and there's nothing to fix."

"But that is not true," she protested.  Tony felt her eyes roaming over his face with avid interest.

"Well, I fix machines, so what do I know?"  He tapped her once on the nose, watching her eyes cross in surprise.  "See, people aren’t my specialty.  But I definitely know a guy."

It took Tony ten minutes explaining what a physician was and Gwar a half-hour of sweet talk before Valk was even remotely willing to let another stranger near her.  But nothing could calm him when he realized the stranger came with an audience.

"You brought one of them?" Valk hissed, reptilian eyes full-blown with shock and horror.  He was staring unerringly at Jira.  The minister was looming comically over Stephen, who loomed comically over Peter, who the tiny lizard-hatchling had attached herself to like a barnacle.  Peter had a look on his face that said he had absolutely no idea what to do, but he was willing to wing it.

"You know, I'm kind of with him on this one," Tony said, scowling in Jira's direction.  "I mean, does he really have to be here?"

Gwar ignored Tony.  "You should not address him in that way," he told Valk.  "They are not all alike."

"Of course they are!" Valk said, clearly torn between storming over and removing his hatchling from Jira's sight, and recognizing the fact that even if he wanted to, the only way that would happen is if Jira let him.  "They are all the same.  Arrogant and cruel and vile."

Gwar clicked in rebuke.  "They have power we do not, but that does not make them evil.  Minister Jira has always treated us fairly and well.  You may ask your clan-brother if you doubt me."

Tony glanced a question at Gwar, who shrugged back at him.  "The minister's aid.  He has served for longer than I have, happily and well."

Valk subsided, fixing his eyes intently on the scene.  Stephen’d steered Peter and his clinging burden to one of the nearby chairs.  The hapless teenager gently helped her into the seat, picking her up like she was made of glass.  Valk hurried over, then, snatching her away so she made two startled, ear-splitting whistles of surprise.  Jira looked enchanted by them, and Valk looked fiercely suspicious of his enchantment.

"Tony," Stephen said, beckoning, and Tony ambled over so he could be dragged into one of the corners, well away from all the fuss and concern.

"What's up, doc?  If you wanted to get me somewhere private, you only had to ask."

Stephen had a fixed, pleasant smile on his face.  "You realize I was a surgeon and not a general practitioner?  Neurosurgeon, even, at one of the busiest hospitals in New York."

"What?"  Tony stared at him blankly.  "Are you saying you're a living, breathing doctor?  No way.  I thought for sure you were making that up."

"My point is, what about my credentials suggests to you I'm in any way qualified to examine this child?"

"Mostly the lack of other people with credentials," Tony said.  He took off his glasses, passing them over to Stephen.  "We don't have enough biological information about these people for full analysis, but obvious indicators are obvious.  FRIDAY?"

Silent to this point, FRIDAY filtered in over both their transmitters, tinny but clear.  "Scans show a high incidence of abnormal cell proliferation."

Stephen looked distantly through the glasses, the wide, square frames sitting low on his nose to leave him looking oddly vulnerable.  A stray curl of hair worsened the effect, accenting his striking eyes with their collection of laugh lines at the corners.  Tony reached out, deliberately nudging the glasses more securely into place.

Stephen blinked at him, momentarily distracted.  "Tony."

"Yeah, I know.  Hands to myself, first things first, yada yada.  Heard you last week, doc."

Stephen pinned him with a stern glare before his eyes glazed over again.  Tony sighed.  One might think sharing a room on this planet would provide many opportunities to explore interesting new personal developments, but in fact Tony was finding quite the opposite.  For one thing there was Peter to consider, and for another there was the revolution at hand; both those things took priority.  Or that was how Stephen put it, anyway.  Tony had yet to be completely convinced.

Stephen frowned as something caught his attention.  "That's odd.  Her cellular mitosis is more rapid than I'd expect, even in a child."

"Early development in this species -"

"It's increased by a factor of four even comparing extrapolated data from the adults," Stephen muttered over top of him. 

Tony tried not to be turned on by his brain, but, well.  "Maybe we could talk about my cellular mitosis sometime.  Or yours, I'm not picky."

Stephen took the time to glower at him, though a small uptick at the corner of his mouth gave him away.  "Thank you for reassuring me you haven't lost your touch with terrible pickup lines."

"Just means they're unique and unforgettable."

"Yes, unfortunately they do rather stay with a person.  FRIDAY, give me a chromosomal analysis, or any genetic information we have."

"Readings are preliminary and of limited accuracy," FRIDAY cautioned.  "Twenty-two percent estimated margin for error."

"Show me the highlights."

Stephen blinked, both eyes widening in surprise.

"What?" Tony asked.

"She has an abnormally high incidence of homozygous alleles.  Much higher than the adults."

"Meaning what?"

"In and of itself, it might mean nothing.  From a population perspective, if she's the norm, it means everything.  The genetic drift in this species must be extremely low.  Approaching a critical flashpoint.  Her genetic mutations are off the chart."

Tony allowed no expression on his face.  "Will she die?"

"I don't know.  I don't think so.  She might experience lifelong growth abnormalities, though.  Not the most comfortable condition.  And if this is any example of the current generation, I can't imagine what consecutive generations will look like."  He hesitated.  "Or if there will be any consecutive generations."

It was FRIDAY who provided the translation.  "They're dying," she said, with a very real note of sorrow in her voice.

"What?" Jira demanded, rearing up over them suddenly, ominously.  Tony stared up at him and had to remind his pounding heart that Jira was not Zet.  "Who is dying?  When?"

"Keep your voice down," Tony bit out, looking over to find Valk and Gwar thoroughly distracted attending to the hatchling.  But Peter was looking at them with wide, horrified eyes, having heard FRIDAY loud and clear.

Then reality struck and Tony flailed at Jira.  "And how the hell did you hear that?"  He looked at the space between the two groups, a solid ten meters if it was a foot.  "Aren't lizards supposed to have shit hearing?  And FRIDAY's basically sub-vocal."

Jira ignored that.  "Your crew member mentioned death.  In what way are they dying?  Why?"

It took Tony a second to realize he was referring to FRIDAY.  (Crew member. Ha.)  "Cool your jets, Minister Malcontent.  You'll get your explanation as soon as I get mine."

Jira rose to his greatest height, which was unmistakably impressive, but Tony stood his ground.  He glanced up with a bored sweep of his eyes, refusing to be intimidated.  It wasn't a minute before Jira folded to the staring contest like a cheap suit.

"Your transmitters are clever," the minister admitted finally, a sentence that set all Tony's metaphorical alarm bells to screaming.  "But my kind are able to detect sounds up to and including the ultrasonic range.  I became aware some time ago that your ship had breached the satellite safeguards.  An impressive feat."

Tony stared at him.  "Jesus.  You have telekinesis, ultrasonic hearing, and great hair.  You're practically a supervillain."  He looked over again.  The hatchling had climbed onto the arm of the chair and was now trying to scale Peter like a miniature mountaineer.  Valk looked torn between intense parental pride and terror.  "Not the same for them, I take it?"

"No.  Our anatomy is quite different."

"So you had us pegged from the start," Tony said.  He looked at Stephen, who seemed just as surprised as he was.  "I assume you haven't told Zet?"

"If I had told him, or if he had heard you previously, you certainly would not be standing here right now," Jira said.

"Fair enough."

"I expected some type of escape attempt to follow.  The others all attempted early escape attempts.  You have not conformed to pattern."

"If we wanted to escape, we'd have done it a while back."  Tony scowled.  "What would you've done if we'd tried?"

Jira hissed impatiently.  "Let you go, of course.  Those clever enough to escape deserve a fair chance.  Why did you choose to stay?"

Tony stared at him, disturbed to think he might actually grow to like Jira.  "Well, don't look at me.  I wanted to leave and got outvoted.  This point, we're mostly here to help you people not die.  If that's possible."  He turned to Stephen, questioning.  "Is it?"

Stephen shrugged doubtfully.  "Difficult to say.  If the population keeps shrinking, perhaps not."  He didn't look at Jira when he added quietly:  "For those like you and Zet, the genotype variance will be even smaller.  It's probably already too late for your kind."

"Of course it is," Jira said.  "Ours has always been a sub-species on the brink of extinction.  We live long, but pay for that in low numbers.  After the culling, and then the war, there was no hope of recovery."

"You knew?"

"Naturally.  It has been obvious for several generations.  Zet always railed against it.  He has stolen minds both brilliant and dull to repair technology beyond our grasp, all in the hope it might eventually provide a solution.  But nothing can do that." 

"You must realize his oppression stifles an already endangered people," Stephen said.  "They need to break free or they'll join you soon in extinction."

"I know what you will ask me next," the minister said.  "You wish me to help you.  But I cannot.  Already I have done more than I should.  Each day you remain is another where he might discover my duplicity.  If he does, be warned: I cannot lie to him.  I will tell him all I know, and you will die.  Or perhaps you will only wish you had."

"Wow," Tony said.  "So you'll help by turning a blind eye, and that only if it's convenient for you.  Thanks for nothing."

Stephen sighed.  "Not helping, Tony."

"Just calling it as I see it, doc.  Far as I can tell from Gwar, no one much cares for Zet's way of life except Zet.  Maybe one or two of his enforcers.  Someone has to make a stand."

"Impossible," Jira said.  "In terms of raw power, Zet has always been the stronger.  He cannot be bested, and I cannot condone the violence needed to depose him.  Nor would I want the Chancellorship, even if it were offered to me."

Tony rolled his eyes.  "Then you're condemning this entire world to die.  And everyone who encounters it.  We're being held because we tried to engage in fair trade.  How's that for justice?  We should've stuck to pirating.  Equal chance of imprisonment, but less chance of bullshit."

"Zet lacks fairness, and he can be cruel," Jira acknowledged.  "He can also be kind to those he knows well."

"Tell it to my face," Tony said flatly, turning to show the red lines still fading even weeks after Zet had put them there.  Jira traced his eyes over the marks, the fronds at the top of his head falling in sorrow.  "No, better yet, tell it to Gwar's hands."

Jira drooped even further.  "That was a very bad time.  The war had just ended.  You were not there.  You did not see."

"No, you won't see -"

Stephen cleared his throat.  "Perhaps we should spread the web wider."

"The web?" Jira asked.

"Yes."  He glanced at where Peter had started a game of tag, or possibly he really was trying to run away from the hatchling.  "If you're unwilling to support change, there must be someone who will."

Jira chose not to respond to the implied criticism.  "It is unlikely, though not impossible.  But spreading this web would be a perilous endeavor.  It will not take long for word to reach Zet's ears.  He has many spies."  Jira hesitated, then said lowly: "He keeps many hostages."

"Right," Tony said triumphantly.  "A kind man who keeps hostages.  That's a new one."

"Now, see here -"

"Gentlemen," Stephen said dryly, but he was staring directly at Tony.  "And I use that term loosely.  We need more support and it has to come from somewhere."

"I have a plan," Jira announced, sounding suddenly rather excited.  Tony immediately had a terrible feeling.  "I sometimes host a gathering with several -" the translation spell slipped away for a moment before supplying "- contemporaries.  I will arrange this for tomorrow, and you will join me."

Which translated, far as Tony could tell, into: I want to show you off to all my buddies and maybe if you manage to impress them enough they might consider helping you on a cold day in hell.  Or never.  Whichever comes first.

"So sad I won't be able to join you on that one," Tony said dryly.  "Zet's tripled my quarterly allotment.  I barely have time to breathe, let alone swan around eating capers and canapés."

"Yes, of course," Jira said.  "An auspicious arrangement, as I do not believe the gathering would benefit from your presence."

"You implying I have a tendency to annoy people, Minister?"

Jira stared at him.  "Yes."

Stephen made a considering noise, bridging his hands to rest his chin on them.  "That could work.  We'd have to discuss strategy, of course.  What we intend to say, who to, how and when; likely responses."

Tony sighed.  Loudly.  "So you and Peter head into the lion's den and try not to get eaten while I, what?  Stay home and polish the silverware?"

"You need not fear," Jira told Tony.  "No one will attempt to consume them.  That would be quite unhealthy."

Tony grimaced.  "I hate you."  He turned to Stephen.  "Please feel free to educate this man in the art of sarcasm."

"Let's not pollute this planet any more than we have to," Stephen replied.

A throat clearing softly caught their attention and Tony turned to see Peter had finally allowed himself to be caught.  He had a small lizard perched on his shoulders who looked like she was considering making a nest there for the foreseeable future.

"What's going on?" Peter asked, quietly.

Tony sighed, squared his shoulders, and went to convince a little girl that she really was perfect and there was no way to fix her.  And then to convince her clan members that they had to do something about that, and why, and why now.

All told, news of the dire timeline facing the aliens took less than a day to start circulating.  And it was just the sort of motivation a revolution needed in order to grow claws and teeth and heart, and supply people with the right amount of righteous resentment to use them.  It wasn't long before Earth's mightiest heroes had a veritable army of dissidents growing in their ranks.

Of course, Tony later reflected, the thing about armies was they were visible coming from a mile away.  And for all he was an insane, power-hungry tyrant, Zet wasn't blind, and he wasn't a fool.

"No," Tony explained patiently for the fourth time.  "You can't move there.  It has to be a diagonal space connected to the one you're on, or reachable by jumping over one of mine.  No, the same type of square.  No.  No.  Yep, there you go.  Got it."

Gwar tilted his head to the side, staring at the makeshift checkers game Tony'd made.  Five days and three games since Tony had first introduced it to him, and the guy seemed to have no better understanding of game mechanics now than he had in the beginning.

"No," Tony said two minutes later.  "Only kings can move backwards.  Good, there, now you have to jump my piece on your next move unless I block you.  Which sucks for you, but them's the rules."

"I do not understand," Gwar said, as he had many times before.  "The purpose of the game is to capture all your pieces.  Why would I not wish to jump this one?"

"Because I set up a trap, see?  Here and here, and boom."

Gwar clicked at the board in consternation.  "Then I will not jump this piece."

"No, you have to," Tony corrected him.

"Why?"

"Because that's what the rules say."

"Why?"

"Because rules exist to make life difficult.  Now shut up and jump me, Kemosabe."

"Boss," FRIDAY interrupted quietly, urgently.  Tony went carefully still.  "Someone’s approaching."

"Who?" Tony said immediately.  Gwar looked up in confusion. 

"From thermal imaging, I believe it is Chancellor Zet.  At his current pace, I estimate forty-six seconds before he intercepts your position."

Tony felt adrenaline spike with a hard kick to the gut.  The chancellor'd been making more frequent visits recently, ostensibly to check on Tony's progress but in reality probably just looking for reasons to take Tony to task.  Zet made no effort to hide his growing suspicion, probably not helped by the swelling tide of dissent slowly picking apart his empire.

"Twenty seconds," FRIDAY said.

Tony turned, snatched up the game board, and shoved it underneath a sheet of corrugated metal.  Pieces scattered everywhere.

Gwar backed away, raising his hands in surprise.  "What -"

"Company," Tony said shortly, sitting hastily down at his workstation and picking up one of the unfinished projects on the desk.  He snapped it open, disconnecting the defunct power source and cracking the casing at the same time.  "Pretend to be giving me a severe talking to.  Throw in some nasty words for authenticity.  Or maybe don't.  Do you even know any nasty words?"

"But -"  Gwar cut himself off, turning sharply toward the door, pupils blowing wide as Zet's footsteps became audible.  He scrambled upright and to rigid attention just as Zet came around the corner at a fast clip, stopping in the open doorway.  Tony watched him them both via the strategic vanity mirror he'd placed on the desk specifically for this reason. 

"Have you not yet finished that?" Gwar asked Tony, pretending to be ignorant of the chancellor's presence, though the slight tremble in his claws gave him away.  "I expected this lot to be done by now."

"No need to be a drill sergeant about it," Tony said cheerfully.  "I'm down to the last two.  This one needed soldering, that's all.  It's busted."

"If you required additional scrap materials you should have -"

Gwar wrenched abruptly to the far right, crashing into the wall and then hitting the floor with an unceremonious thud. 

Tony leapt to his feet, more out of surprise than anything.  "What -"

And then Tony had no time for surprise or speaking or really much of anything, because he was flying through the air too, yanked into a familiar grip and thrown into the wall opposite.  His breath whooshed out of him heavily.

It was Zet, of course, but a new one to Tony's eyes.  If Zet before had been cold menace and cruelty, there was real anger in him today, and it burned very brightly.

"Chancellor," Gwar gasped, the shock in his voice genuine and bewildered.  "What is -?  Is there a problem?"

"Of course there is," Zet said, and Tony felt himself dragged away from the wall and to his knees, skidding and rolling once before he could find his balance.  He banged his shin somewhere in there, heavily enough he could feel the low ache of it in the bone.  Before he could rise, an immense weight immediately landed on him, smothering and intensely claustrophobic.

"Chancellor, please," Gwar said, barely audible over the pound of blood in Tony's ears.  "What -"

Zet clearly had no time for trivial things like explanations.  "Be silent unless you wish to join him on the floor."

Gwar's voice faded away, and Tony could hardly blame him.  If there was more anger in Zet today, there was also less control, or maybe less time for pretense.

"Leave us," Zet said.

"But -"

"Do not give me reasons to question you as well, Gwar.  If I find out you helped him, you will bear the weight of your sedition as any traitor would."

"Leave him out of this," Tony tried to say around the thick taste of blood in his mouth.  He'd bitten his tongue, so the whole thing probably came out as garbled nonsense.

Zet clearly understood the insolence, if not the words, because suddenly Tony felt his air cutting off, a noose of force wrapping around his neck and tightening to choke him into silence.  His lungs immediately started screaming for air. 

FRIDAY silently buzzed three times in his ear, their silent call sign for danger.  Which was enough to make Tony laugh, the dry hack of it hurting his chest, panic only just starting to catch up with him.  He scrambled to send an SOS return signal.

From the corner of his eye, Tony could see Gwar plant two trembling feet firmly on the ground.

"I do not understand," he said.  "What has happened?"

It was a good question.  A variety of suspicious answers were already streaming through Tony's head, everything from Stephen and Peter being caught (unlikely) to one of the other aliens selling them out (very likely), to Zet discovering he was running out of time (most likely), and everything in between.

Zet hissed low in contempt.  "The machinist has overstepped himself.  Worse; to do so, he will have had help.  Yours, Gwar?  For your sake, I hope not."

"Chancellor, I would never -"

"Would you not?" Zet asked, and suddenly the scattered pieces of the checkers set floated past Tony's darkening view, like damning evidence of a crime.

Gwar's silence was wretchedly telling and Tony would've rolled his eyes if he were able.  Gwar seriously needed to acquire some acting skills if he meant to survive on this rotten little world of his.

"It is a game," Gwar said tremulously.  "A thing his kind does among -"  He trailed off.

"Among whom?"  Zet asked.  "Among friends?  Yes.  Exactly.  Tell me once more how you would never." 

Gwar whistled, suddenly and piercingly high in pain and distress, and it was that more than anything that tempted Tony to reach for the nanotech, rage burning inside him.  A second later Gwar cut himself off, hissing in wheezes of broken air.

"Leave us," Zet said again, and this time Gwar went.

The grip around Tony's neck finally fell slack.

Zet let him get in three solidly heaving breaths before he tightened it again.  "I will ask you several questions, machinist," the chancellor said while Tony forced himself not to show signs of the fear Zet could undoubtedly already sense.  "You will answer them promptly and truthfully.  If you fail, we will repeat this exercise," he tightened and relaxed the invisible noose, "until you reconsider your defiance or I succeed in doing you permanent damage.  If the latter, understand your usefulness to me may come to an abrupt end.  Do you understand?"

Tony stalled long enough to wet his lips and tongue, panting.  Zet rattled him around, like someone shaking the leash on their dog, and Tony overbalanced and smacked his cheek and nose into the rough mesh flooring.  Blood was a coppery reminder of how little he could afford to blow the whole operation now.

"Yes," he rasped.  

"Who helped you?" Zet asked.

"Stephen," Tony said immediately, the easiest of his rehearsed responses.  He remembered the sorcerer's careful touch, the way he'd whispered magic into Tony's bones.  He might need another session after this, if Zet had his way.

Zet made an impatient sound.  "Who else?"

"Peter."  His earnest desire to stand up for others, to save a world not his own.  His laughter and his trust.

Power coiled around Tony's throat warningly.  "Answer the question as it is intended, machinist.  Who?"

"No one.  Everyone," Tony grated, and before the noose could tighten again: "You."

Zet paused, his implacable grip on Tony slackening with surprise.  "Me."

"Couldn't have done it without you," Tony confirmed, meaning it.  Zet was the fulcrum, the motivation, the common interest uniting people.  Shared enemies were powerful that way; they created allies in the strangest of places.

Zet stared at him, hissing, and Tony heard him being surprised.  "You believe that.  I sense no lie."

Tony did his best to keep the triumph out of his face.  "Truth hurts."

Zet was silent a long time, considering.  His calculating eyes felt like a headman’s axe hovering above Tony’s shoulder.  Then: "How many crew members are still aboard your ship?"

Tony stiffened, and in his ear FRIDAY was silent, both of them tense with a sudden doomsday expectation.  Tony'd rehearsed his answer to this question too, but it wasn't as simple as the one preceding it.  It required conviction Tony lacked.

"None," Tony said, hands and palms pressed to the floor, the nanotech bracer digging uncomfortably into his skin, but ready if he needed it.  If he could even get to it before Zet stopped him.

"Lies," Zet accused softly and the noose squeezed so tightly it felt like wire trying to cut right into Tony's skin.  "How many?"

"Not a lie," Tony rasped when he could.  Zet stared at him, unappeased.  "Isn't.  No one else onboard the ship."

"You do not quite believe that," Zet noted, something like triumph shining in him.  "Nearly, but not quite.  Interesting.  I see, now.  You are using ambiguity of language to your advantage.  Lying to me not with words, but with context."

Tony's heart sank, but he didn't bother to deny it.  That, at least, would absolutely read as a lie.  Less than two questions and Zet had already figured out the correct tactic.  Tony'd been banking on more.

"It is a clever strategy," Zet said.  "I am almost impressed."

Tony felt himself suddenly dragged upright, forced to look up into Zet's face.  He glared, thoroughly finished with trying to appease this man.

"Do you know the punishment for treason on this world?" Zet asked.

Tony sneered, finally able to get in more than a few sips of air.  "Is it something more unpleasant than this?" he said.  "Because this is pretty unpleasant."

"Of course.  It has been so long since I last needed to use it, but still the practice remains, ready.  It begins with dragging the guilty deep into the desert.  From there, the severity of their crime determines their punishment.  For minor infractions a person is freed to walk home again within three days.  Three days is how long one can survive the radiation on the surface, though surviving predators is another matter.  For moderate infractions, it is often banishment.  But for the most severe, there is a cage."  Zet leaned forward, hard and cruel.  "A traitor would be locked inside it, to burn alive through the days and nights until they succumb to hunger and dehydration.  It is a terrible way to die."  He clicked an admonishment.  "That is what I will do to anyone found helping you."

"You first," Tony said.

FRIDAY buzzed him suddenly, a four-tone response signal.  Tony tried to signal back but suddenly found his fingers frozen.

He looked up and found Zet staring at him, amused and baleful.  The silence went on for a long time while Tony tried to twitch every muscle in his body and found them lifeless.

"If there is no one aboard your ship," Zet said, "then who are you communicating with?"

The transmitter in Tony's ear, small enough it certainly shouldn't have been noticeable from a distance, was suddenly plucked out and floated in the air between them.  Tony stared at it, tracked as it flew closer to Zet, watched in silence as it was pulled apart by an invisible force.

"This signal was in direct contact with your ship, outside the mountain."  Zet let the tiny broken ruin of the transmitter rain down in the air between them.  "How many more devices like this do you have on your person, I wonder?"

Zet swept suddenly toward the door.  Tony found his fingers released, but it wasn't a kindness; Zet had a hold of him, that same leash yanking him right off his feet and into a stumbling, unwilling pace.  He tried to snag the wall and earned himself a sprained finger and bloody knuckle for his trouble.  The nanotech was a powerful temptation, the urge to hammer Zet into the floor until he was pulp.  Tony would've like to say better sense prevailed and he refrained until a more opportune time, but in the end it was the fear.  Tony was fast, but Zet was probably faster.  And what he'd do once he realized Tony could control technology on that level.  Well.

They went down the corridors, passing several people.  Some Tony recognized; some he didn't.  None of them looked at him, and most of them froze where they were as Zet stormed past, too afraid to move, lest the chancellor acknowledge their existence.

"It is clear you think me a fool," Zet continued.  "Do you believe I have been oblivious to your pathetic rebellion?"

There was no safe answer to that, really, and Tony didn't have the breath anyway, so he said nothing.

"Life has grown barren on this world," Zet said as they went.  "But people still have so very much to lose.  It was no more than an hour after you began that I first heard tell of it.  Did you really expect these people to keep your secrets?"

Tony frowned, barely listening, because he’d suddenly realized the walls and doors and halls they passed seemed strangely familiar.  No different from anything else in this complex, uniformly boring in their sameness, and yet - familiar.

They turned down a long corridor and something about it thickened the limited air in Tony's lungs.

"Need to work on my cardio," he gasped, puzzled.

Zet made no response, pulling them both around a corner, where there was -

A large, open space, a cavern, the yawning black of unlit darkness flirting with the weak illumination of the corridor.  The rubble of a new cave-in obstructed the massive body of an old, forgotten relic of a ship.

Tony stared, pinned with the cold, terrible realization he knew exactly where they were. 

"Okay," he said, letting his mouth run while he tried to pull desperately back and away, "but look, machinists are good with machines.  Rocks are a bit beyond me, always have been.  So simple, and yet so complex and nuanced -"

Zet put him on the floor, but Tony was on a roll by then and it was clear the jig was up anyway, so, "- really, I always wanted to be a geologist, honest, but my dad was a bit of a slave driver, wanted me to go into the family business -"

Something slipped over Tony's face, an invisible gag of some kind, cutting off his words.  And then a tiny needle of power sank with painful delicacy into his lips and began to stitch them firmly shut.  Tony looked up to see Zet watching him, still flat, but with a faint hint of awful satisfaction in his eyes.

"Be grateful I do not take your tongue," Zet said, almost conversationally.  "It is tempting.  But I imagine I will need you to speak again at some point."

Tony went for the nanotech and felt it start to crawl over him with aching, breathless relief.  Relief that faded quickly into alarm when it stopped, halfway through materializing a body armor formation, slamming into inertia as though it'd hit a wall.

Zet was still staring at him, and if there was any surprise in his face, Tony couldn't see it.  "Interesting.  I wondered what other equipment you had managed to hide away.  This is more than I expected.  With that level of technology, I assume you could have left this world at any time."  Zet gestured and Tony felt himself float to eye level, an uncomfortable height off the ground.  Zet leaned in, searching Tony's face for evidence of secrets.  "What did you hope to accomplish by staying?"

If he'd been able to, then, Tony would’ve told him the whole truth of it, because it was basically: they'd set out to incite rebellion, and it was so close now it could almost be felt in the air.

Zet turned back to the cascade of debris obscuring the ship and waved a hand.  The entire thing started to dislodge itself, one rock after another floating away.  Tony tried to will himself to move, but he was as stuck as those rocks, maybe more so.

Tony almost didn't hear the shuffle of new steps behind them, but the drag of something heavy managed to distract him just as Zet started to uncover some rather important bits.

"Gwar informed me this was a naturally-occurring cave-in," Zet said, hissing a laugh.  "He has not dared lie to me so blatantly in a very long time.  Like you, it seems he will need a lesson.  One in the folly of misplaced trust, perhaps."  He paused, turning just slightly to look behind him.  "Don't you agree, Jira?"

"Oh, we all benefit from lessons in trust," Jira said, and the heavy dragging sound stopped.  "You and I simply learned ours early."

"Yes, of course," Zet said.  "You brought only one?"

Jira stepped past, into Tony's line of sight.  He strained to look up, into the towering visage of Jira's affable, open face staring back at him. 

"My aid is bringing the other," Jira said.  "The younger one proved difficult to capture."

Zet turned back, clicking something scornful.  "How can one escape you?  You have grown slow and complacent in your old age."

Jira hissed a quiet laugh.  "Well.  I have grown, at least.  He scaled the mountain wall beyond my range.  His hands have some kind of adhesive quality.  A very unique specimen."

Zet resumed uncovering the Chitauri ship.  "Always you are distracted by them.  You may have the other two back for your use, but only after the machinist tells me what I want to know."

Jira was watching in that curious way he had, lively and cheerful and incredibly deceptive.  "And what is it you expect him to tell you?"

"Where he has seen these ships before," Zet said easily.  "One of my informants tells me this one was attending the cavern with my aid when the cave-in occurred.  He caused it.  I can think of little reason but that he wishes to conceal something of importance.  He will tell me what that is.  If he refuses, I will damage his companion until he capitulates."

Jira hissed something almost sorrowful.  "I prefer the other two remain intact.  I still have so many questions for them."

"I allowed you access.  It is no fault of mine if your methods were too slow.  I require at least one of them to motivate the machinist.  He has little sense of self-preservation.  I must find other means of persuasion."

Tony cursed, the nanotech rippling around him as he yanked some of it back to form a repulsor.  It whined, charging, but his hands snapped suddenly into closed fists, impossibly tight.  The only way the repulsor was doing any damage was by taking his fingers off first.

"You see?" Zet said, almost gently.  "Already he is willing to reveal more than he has before.  Yes, this will be much more effective than other methods."

Jira shuffled until the edge of his delicate feet were close enough Tony could almost reach out and snap an ankle.  He tried, but whichever of them had hold of his hand had thoroughly locked down every part of him.  Beside Jira, dragging limply on the ground, Stephen lay still and motionless.  A halo of blood caked his forehead.  His eyes were closed.

"Zet," Jira said.  "Must you do this?  What do you hope to accomplish?"

"My goals have never changed, Jira."  Zet looked back, something broken and angry in his face.  "This machinist has an understanding others have lacked.  He will help us."

"And if he cannot?"

Zet turned away, new rocks sliding out of their resting places.  "He will."  They piled haphazardly behind Tony, floating over and around him to begin blocking the exit.  It wasn't a coincidence, of course; Zet meant for them to have nowhere to go.  The artificial lights, high in the ceiling, provided dim and shadowed illumination. The darkness in the cavern itself was weighty and terrible.

"Perhaps there is no need for this violence.  They might be convinced by other means to help us."

"You always say that," Zet admonished.  "Every time."

"Or perhaps there is nothing they can help us with.  Answers cannot be produced when there are none to be had."

"You always say that too."

"Then perhaps it is time you listened," Jira said, quietly.  Tony's roaming eyes shot up to stare at him, but the minister wasn't looking even remotely in his direction.

Zet paused in his interior decorating, turning slowly to face them.  The pits of his eyes were shadowed in the poor light, twin pools of black.  The ominous quiet made something in Tony's hindbrain sit up and start shouting.  "Jira, whatever you have done, tell me it is nothing foolish."

Jira clicked with consideration.  "Well, who can say whether it is foolish?  But whether it is or is not, I have done it."

"Done what?"

"Brother," Jira said quietly, the word falling like a stone in the middle of all of them.  "You cannot truly believe, after all this time, that there is any hope left for us."

Zet did not answer.

Jira continued, gently.  "You did all you could when disaster struck.  I was there.  I remember.  What happened to us was not your fault."

"No," Zet said, flaring suddenly into rage.  "No, of course not.  It was yours."

For a moment Jira seemed not to hear him, standing tall and firm and unyielding.  Then he crumpled while Tony watched, the alien shrinking to become a shadow of himself.  "Yes, I know."

"I warned you," Zet said, and Tony felt himself vibrate as the power surrounding him rippled, squeezing hard enough to shake the breath from his lungs, to rattle his bones.  "I told you what would happen when you commissioned the satellites.  I said no good would come of reaching into space, but you would not listen.  You have always been so concerned with meeting new alien life.  Look what your curiosity has wrought."

"I accept my responsibility."

"No, you accept guilt.  You punish yourself with it.  That is not the same.  Responsibility is a willingness to dirty one's hands to set it right.  But you will not lower yourself to such things, not even to save our people."

"Nothing can save our people," Jira said.  "We have been dead for a very long time.  But it is not too late for our cousins.  If you will only let them out from under your sight, they have real hope of recovering.  The grief has come and gone from our world.  The wars have all ended.  It is time for us to stop and step aside."

"Never," Zet said, pulling Tony toward him, hissing in fierce anger when something yanked Tony right back.

"Brother.  If you do not, they will die."

"Let them," Zet said with finality.  "They did little but cower when it mattered most.  When calamity came.  Their lives are nothing to me."

"Yes, I know that too.  We are long-lived, but not so long I have forgotten your ability to hold a grudge.  Nor your flair for the dramatic."

Of course, that was when Stephen rose to his feet with a flourish, unbowed and uninjured and the faintest glow of magic about him.  Because the sorcerer had his own flair for the dramatic. 

Zet stared at him, unimpressed.  His eyes drifted from Stephen to Jira and back again.

"You cannot be serious," Zet said flatly.  "You would betray me, after generations gone, for such as these?  Why?  They are nothing.  They are weak."

Jira clicked quietly.  "Anyone can be weak when faced with superior power."

Stephen rolled his eyes.  "And assumptions can be a greater weakness than any other."  The sorcerer slid a glance down at Tony, still held fast on the ground.  "Let him go."

Zet stared back at him, hissing in amusement.  "Or?"

Stephen smiled.  He put his hands together as though in prayer and then drew them apart.  A long blade of light appeared in the space he made, a sword of glittering fire.  He held it aloft, levelling it against Zet evenly.

"As I said," the sorcerer murmured.  "Assumptions can be so very dangerous."

Even Jira looked surprised then, something in his animated, sorrowful face falling slack in wonder.  "You did not tell me you could do that."

Stephen didn't take his eyes off Zet, the sword lighting the dimness around them with red.  "You never asked."

"Yes I did!"

"No, you didn't.  You made your own assumptions."

Jira looked offended at the very idea.

The weight holding Tony in place, holding the nanotech inert, holding his mouth closed all suddenly lifted away.  It took him a breathless, shocked moment to realize that could only mean Zet had other priorities he needed to contend with, something he considered more important than Tony.

"Stephen!" he called warningly, but too late; the sorcerer was already flying through the air, propelled by an unseen force toward one of the rocky walls.  Tony finished calling the armor, feeling the gaps where insufficient bots made themselves known, but it didn't matter anyway, he could already see he'd be too late -

Stephen slowed, wobbling as though skidding along an uneven surface, and then stopped.  Tony stared.

Zet made an angry hissing sound.  "You never did master the fine control needed."

"I dislike using it," Jira said, setting Stephen gently, if unsteadily, on his feet.  "And it is much more difficult when you are simultaneously trying to wrest control from me."

Tony slid to Stephen's side, free of Zet's iron grip.  "You alright?" he asked the sorcerer.

"Fine," Stephen said, two round geometric discs materializing over his hands.  One expanded into a large rectangular kite shield, standing like a wall between them and the two aliens.  The light from the magic gilded Stephen in a warm glow, burnishing his hair with filaments of gold.

Tony had a terribly inappropriate urge to kiss him, and it must've translated onto his face, because Stephen slanted an incredulous glance at him.  "Really, Tony?  Now?"

"What?" Tony said defensively.  "They say near-death experience is life-affirming."

"You didn't nearly die.  You barely got injured."  Stephen frowned at him.  "Except for your face.  Again.  Why does he always go for your face?"

Tony could still feel the terrible slide of an impossibly sharp needle gouging into his lips, but probably those wounds were covered up by more obvious damage from his earlier face-floor introduction.  He pushed back an instinctive shiver of revulsion at the memory.  "Can't say, exactly.  Must be my irresistible charm."

Stephen dropped the smaller shield to reach out and touch his cheek, tipping his chin with one finger.  "Well, you certainly -"

Stephen reached suddenly for his own throat, gagging on unsaid words.  The kite shield dissolved and his eyes widened in shock.  Tony whipped back around to find Jira a crumpled mess on the floor, and Zet staring at him thunderously.

"Did you really think it would be so easy?" the chancellor asked, sneering.

"Easy?" Tony asked, walking toward him, testing.  Zet froze him in place after two steps, and behind him he heard Stephen gasp in unsteady air.  Triumph flared. Zet's power was greater, yes, but his concentration was finite; he could hold two of them, perhaps, but not all three.  "No.  Just necessary."

Stephen took advantage, because he was a brilliant man who knew when to seize the moment, and a chakram of energy winged past Tony, heading toward Zet.  The chancellor released Tony to catch it on an invisible shield, and then Zet made a whistling, startled sound, staggering back and to his knees, his long limbs folding unexpectedly beneath him.

Jira rose to his feet.  There was a black smear of something oily and wet on his forehead.  "That was rude, brother.  I was speaking to you.  Why do you always go for the face?"

Zet clawed back upright.  He gestured with one hand and Jira stumbled toward him, dragged by invisible rope.

"You were always so soft," Zet said.  "So willing to believe the good in people.  I thought you had changed.  But apparently not even Thanos could teach you differently."

"He taught me madness is catching."  Jira skidded to a stop, mere feet away, a look of intense concentration on his face.  "Do you know, it has been so long since anyone said it out loud, I had actually forgotten his name?"

Zet made a wretched, terrible sound.  "I never have."

"I know.  You would have everyone remember his legacy even lifetimes after he left us to die.  You have carried it on and now it ends, just you and I.  The same as it began.  Ironic, is it not?"

Jira looked upward, at the ceiling, the great cavern above them, and pulled -

"Fool," Zet said, backing up as the rock rumbled ominously around them.  "You will bring the mountain down on top of us."

"Yes," Jira said.  "I know."

Tony grabbed Stephen, but Stephen was already grabbing him, already moving.  He was dragging Tony not back toward the exit but closer to the battling, insane aliens, closer to Zet's roaring anger and Jira's pain.

"Stephen, where the fuck -"  He tried to pull back, but Stephen kept yanking on him, the both of them running and sliding over the heaving, groaning floor.

"Trust me," Stephen said, pulling and pulling.  "FRIDAY, where, how close -"

Tony found himself on the ground, his ears ringing with the boom of the whole world breaking apart.  The cavern was a true cave-in, now, rocks and rubble and one entire side of the mountain starting to buckle inward.  Tony couldn't see anything through the growing cloud of dust and debris and darkness.

"Stephen -"

But then Tony lost what limited breath he'd managed to catch.  A void of red fire spiralled into existence beneath his feet and dropped him through the air and into a place where blindingly blue light seared across his eyes.  And then gravity snatched him up to send him into gut-wrenching freefall.

"Got you!" Peter crowed, and something sticky and strong like wire snagged on Tony's arm, his leg, banding together underneath him as he tumbled down, landing gently as if amongst a forest of colorless leaves.

Tony squinted into the unexpected glare of the alien sun, reflecting blindingly off webbing.  He turned to find Stephen beside him, the sorcerer blinking with at least some of the surprise Tony felt.  Beyond Stephen, as far out as the eye could see, stretched an enormous net of white.  

They’d been caught in a spider web, Tony realized slowly.  Stephen had thrown open a passage from one side of the mountain to the other, and they’d plummeted down through the air to be caught by a giant spider web.  Caught like insects.

Tony started to laugh, sputtering and coughing up dust as he listened to the cascading tremor of settling debris moving in the mountain beneath them.  He waited until all fell to silence before he turned back to find Peter watching him speculatively.

"Are you okay?" the kid asked.  "You're good, right?  You didn't fall that far.  We weren't sure the exact height, but this was the best we could estimate.  Doctor Strange?"

"Here," Stephen muttered, and Tony craned to see him looking more gray and chalky than the dust could account for.  Tony wondered if he was more injured than he'd let on.  He’d assumed that head wound was a fake, but maybe it was real.

"What kind of plan was that?" Tony asked.  "We almost died.  Who came up with this one?  Tell me it wasn’t Gwar."

"I had to improvise when you wouldn't stop back-talking the alien overlord," Stephen said.  "FRIDAY panicked when we lost contact with you and ended up on the clock.  Speaking of."

He sat up, offering Tony the transmitter from his ear.  Tony eyed it warily.  He could already hear the tiny squeak of FRIDAY's berating voice even from three solid feet away.

"You know, I made that one specifically for you.  It was almost a gift, really.  Rude to give it back."

"Coward," Stephen muttered, and put it back in his ear, wincing at whatever he heard a second later.

"Speaking of plans," Peter said.  Tony looked over to see the kid cheerfully scrubbing a hand through his hair, practically glowing with the satisfaction of a job well done.  "He wasn’t supposed to be here.  What do we do with him now?"

Tony followed the kid's pointing finger, jolting with alarm and then annoyance.

"Seriously?" Tony asked.  He jerked a thumb at Jira's sprawled form.  The minister was looking at his own limbs with some surprise.  Gwar was helping him to his feet, hissing words too low to follow.  "You had to bring him?  I mean, I’m glad he finally grew a pair, but really.  Was he in on the whole thing?"

"Good lord, no," Stephen said.  "He was supposed to bring me to Zet and walk away.  That was all he originally agreed to.  Something must’ve changed his mind."

"About fucking time," Tony muttered.  "You realize you probably ruined his dramatic exit, right?  He was all set to go out in a blaze of glory.  Now we have to actually explain shit to him.  He's not going to shut up about the magic until we can get off this rock."

"He wouldn't be here without it, so perhaps some explanation is called for."  Stephen glanced in the minster's direction and smiled suddenly, guilty amusement spreading over his face.  "Oh dear.  I couldn't see very well in the cavern.  I think I misjudged the portal aperture.  It's not very forgiving if it’s closed early."

Tony looked over for some explanation.  It took him a second to spot it, and then he howled with laughter.

"Oh, well," he said, suddenly feeling much better about life, the universe, and everything.  He took in Jira's decidedly lopsided appearance; half of his hair-fronds were missing.  "I take it back.  Dibs on telling him.  Best plan ever."

Chapter Text

Tony let the bags in his arms hit the deck with a loud, echoing clang. 

"Honey, I'm home!  Wake up.  Roll out the red carpet.  It's party time."

"Welcome back, boss," FRIDAY said, voice echoing over the ship's audio system.  "It's very good to see you again.  All of you."

"Hi, FRIDAY!" Peter piped up, hopping past Tony to run along the wall.  "Oh, man.  It's so good to be back.  I'm never leaving again."

Tony snorted, rolling his eyes.

"I'm never leaving for, like, a week," Peter amended.  He dropped down to start rummaging through one of the many haphazardly-stacked supply crates. 

A red projectile, suspiciously cloak-shaped, hurtled past Tony and went ricocheting down the hall.  A second later they all heard the muffled thump and crash of it impacting with something solid.  And alive, if the cursing that followed was any indication.

"Stephen, I think it missed you," Tony shouted over his shoulder. 

Stephen shouted something back that was decidedly less than friendly.

Tony looked around him, taking in the bridge in all its metallic glory.  After spending nearly a month planet-side working on inferior technology, laying eyes on the ship again was an indescribable relief.  It was like an extraordinary breath of fresh, familiar air after the cloying suffocation of their desert adventure.

It felt like coming home.

Tony strolled up to one of the instrument panels, patting the interface fondly.  "How about you, FRI?  Did you miss us?"

"To the moon and back, boss," FRIDAY said solemnly. 

"Must've been quiet up here by your lonesome."

"It was quiet, but I was not alone."

He grinned.  "Right, sorry about that.  Didn't mean to leave you with the crazy caped crusader for so long.  Thanks for babysitting."

"Babysitting is an unfortunately accurate description," FRIDAY said.  "It attempted escape.  Twice."

"Might have to rename it the crafty caped crusader.  How close did it get?"

"I captured it in an outflow vent the second time."

Tony whistled.  Very close.  "Glad you two had fun playing hide and seek.  What other diabolical things did you get up to while we were away?"

"I've consolidated a list.  I will sort it for you by most diabolical to least."

"Of course you have, and of course you will."  He knocked thoughtfully on the console.  "What's our ascent looking like?  Tell me we're about to do something out of this world.  Like leave it."

"Soon, boss.  We're on schedule and should reach orbiting distance in thirty-six seconds."

"Have I ever told you how much I adore your efficiency, FRIDAY?  Don't tell your siblings, but you're my favorite A.I."

"I am currently your only A.I," she said.  "It follows that logically I would be your favorite."

"Just don't let it go to your head."  Tony pulled up the ship's navigational data.  "Alright, prepare to break orbit the second we clear the atmosphere.  Cycle on light speed systems and move us out to a launch point."

"Course setting, boss?"

"Second star to the right," Tony said, "and straight on 'till morning."

Shuffling footsteps came up behind Tony.  He glanced over to see Stephen staggering forward, the last of the supplies wavering in the air behind him and a magical nuisance wrapped around his person like a second skin.  Tony reached out to steady him when he almost took a nosedive.

"Careful there, Stephen.  You're looking a little drunk."

"More than a little," Peter put in, plucking heavy containers out of the air for sorting. 

The cloak waved in colorful irritation but it was too distracted to do more than that.

"You know," Tony told it.  "Even if you break one of his ankles, he's probably still not taking you down for our next layover."

"Definitely not," Stephen muttered.  He stumbled when the whole thing squeezed around him in protest.  "Stop that."

Tony patted him firmly back into place, with more hands-on contact than was probably necessary.  "You might not have a choice, Stephen.  I don't think it's planning to let you go anytime soon."

The cloak flapped at him in agreement before finally settling peacefully over Stephen's shoulders. 

Tony tweaked the collar playfully.  "I hear you gave FRIDAY a run for her money.  Know something?  You might be a little too loyal for your own good."

The cloak responded by wrapping itself once around Tony's wrist, squeezing tightly and yanking him closer.  Stephen grunted when Tony overbalanced into him and they both went down in a painful mess of limbs.

"Whoa," Peter said, swinging over to a nearby console to stare at them.  "Are you both drunk?"

"No, but I think the cape might be," Tony said, propping up on his elbows to observe Stephen from inches away.

"I think it missed you, too," Stephen remarked, just as the cloak wrapped itself happily around the both of them, cocooning them in a flutter of darkness.

Tony blinked into the newly shadowed space, intimate and close.  "If I didn't know better, I'd think this thing had separation anxiety."  He couldn't see Stephen, but he could feel the faint tremor of the man's silent laughter.  "Or maybe I don't know better.  Does it?"

"Not exactly," Stephen said.  "But it's not a subtle relic.  It likes you."

Tony grunted as he searched out a seam in the darkness.  "Since when?"

Stephen shrugged and the ripple of it translated to Tony in very distracting ways.  "You must've done something to endear yourself.  I suppose saving my life might count."

"I guess no one's explained the finer points of kidnapping to it."

"The cloak doesn't recognize morality in the same way we do.  It recognizes intent, spoken and unspoken."  Stephen hesitated, another shrug doing unholy things to Tony's imagination.  "It recognizes my intent."

As if to confirm, the cloak tightened, pushing them more closely together.  Tony had to laugh then, flailing against the gentle confinement.

"You're kidding me.  It's a fucking yenta cloak -"

Light spilled into the close quarters between them and Stephen leaned away.  Tony squinted up to see Peter peering at them, easily holding the struggling cloak in place when it tried to twitch itself out of his grasp.

"Okay, but seriously," Peter said.  "Do you need help?  With, like, standing upright?  Or walking?"

"Release us," Stephen said, not to Peter, and suddenly Tony found himself without purchase.  He just about fell over, forcing Peter to catch him quickly.  The look of disbelief on the kid's face was priceless.

Tony shrugged at him, smirking.  "What can I say?  For some inexplicable reason it likes me."  He let Peter help him to his feet while Stephen floated back upright, the cloak suddenly as docile as a mouse.  "Though I usually like to be asked before getting molested by inanimate objects -"

"Boss, we have an incoming signal," FRIDAY interrupted. 

"That'll be Gwar confirming our departure.  Load it on the viewport, FRI."

An image solidified on the screen, a familiar raptor face fading into view.

"Hello," Gwar said.

"Hey buddy," Tony said.  "Looking sharp."

He did, too.  Tony'd never really paid much attention to the clothes any of the aliens wore, but Gwar's wardrobe had evolved since he'd been elevated to ministerial status.  It suited him.

"I will assume looking sharp is desirable," Gwar said.  "Though I cannot imagine why."

"Means you're dressed to kill," Tony said cheerfully.  "Metaphorically, of course, not literally.  Very in vogue these days."

Gwar clicked in resignation.  "I do believe you have grown more confusing with time rather than less.  I suspect this is purposeful on your part."

"I'm not sure I like your tone.  What are you implying, sir?"

Peter and Stephen snorted, sharing a look of commiseration.  Tony glared in their general direction.  Peter immediately slunk away to resume sorting supplies, but Stephen was totally unrepentant.

A second person stepped into range of the screen, someone far more purple than Gwar but just as well-dressed.

"The implication seems clear enough," Jira said.  "You are rather confusing."

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Tony said.  "I see you still haven't mastered sarcasm."

"I am trying, but it is a most confusing practice.  I am not certain I will ever fully understand it."

Stephen sighed.  "You're probably better off that way, Chancellor.  Like any other infectious disease, Tony's a difficult thing to cure.  But if you're lucky, his influence will fade with time."

Tony scowled, offended.  "Please.  No amount of time can erase my influence.  I'm permanent.  Like that one stain that never comes out in the wash no matter how much -"

"I'm really very sorry about him," Stephen said.

"Hey," Peter said.  He was holding up a parcel from one of the supply crates triumphantly.  There was a look of almost-euphoria on his face.  "You gave us food."

"That was the agreement," Jira said.

"But now I have it in my hands, and it's awesome.  I thought you might cheap out at the last second because Mr. Stark - well, because you - uh, never mind.  No offense."

"I'm sorry about him, too," Stephen said.

Jira seemed willing to ignore everything about that.  "Did you receive the clothing as well?  We sent enough for all of you."

"Yep," Peter said, holding up one of the new garments.  The fabric was odd; coarse but not scratchy and a bit too raw to be entirely synthetic.  Absolutely nothing fit them to specifications, but that was no surprise given the relative size of their hosts.  "Thank you.  Coolest thing ever."

"It was our honor," Jira said magnanimously.

"Question," Tony said, raising one hand high.  Stephen tried to shove it back down, but Tony won the brief wrestling match that ensued.

Jira blinked at him in a way that seemed very knowing.  "Yes?"

"Why was I the only one to get a dress?" 

He tugged demonstrably at the long billowing tunic of fabric that came down to his ankles.  Between being Zet's punching bag, the cave-in they'd barely escaped, constant wear, and a minor accident that may or may not have involved a rather large electrical fire, Tony's clothes had been basically toast.  Unfortunately, the replacements provided to him were going to need some work before he could show his face in public again.

Jira whistled in surprise.  "But it is not a dress.  It is a most fashionable garment worn by scientists who have mastered particular fields of study.  I could not clothe an engineer in anything less.  Unfortunately there were none in your size, of course.  You are rather -"

"You gave Stephen dress shirts," Tony said loudly.  "Normal-sized, even.  And he's a doctor."

"I thought he might appreciate a less ostentatious wardrobe."

"This is about me telling you your chancellor robes made you look like an aging Victorian widow, isn't it?"

"Of course not," Jira said.  "Though the explanation your companion provided of a Victorian widow was certainly not flattering."

"Kind of like these clothes."

Jira looked very superior.  "If you mean to imply vengeful motives, you are incorrect.  A chancellor must be above repayment of trivial insults."

"You've only been chancellor for like a day.  What about ministers?  Are they above all that?"

"I imagine most are," Jira said.

"You lying little -"

Stephen coughed, clearing his throat loudly.  "We're very grateful for the supplies and necessities."

"Especially the dress," Peter added.

"Careful, kid.  Chancellors might be above trivial payback, but I'm certainly not."

Gwar cleared his throat.  "I believe time may be running short.  How long will you be able to maintain this signal?"

Tony reluctantly turned to more practical concerns.  "Depends how far we got adapting the satellites.  FRIDAY?"

"Progressing slowly, boss," FRIDAY admitted.  "Eighteen percent completion and not currently useable.  However, I estimate by the time total integration is achieved we will have improved our communication range, signal clarity, and carrier efficiency by a factor of ten."

Tony patted the nearest available ship's surface.  "Like I said before, my favorite A.I.  Means we probably only have a few more minutes before we lose the call, though."

"Then the schematics met with your approval?" Gwar asked.

Jira leaned down to peer at the viewer closely.  "If they did not, I have no intention of redesigning them for you."

"Chancellor," Gwar protested.

"I'm sure we'll manage," Tony said haughtily.  "They're too primitive to assimilate into the ship directly, but I made a workaround.  Eventually we'll get them up to speed."

"Whereas I am not as confident in my ability to modernize your aqueduct designs," Jira clicked mournfully.  "I may have to restructure them entirely.  Though your aquifer map has been at least marginally helpful."

"Listen, if you'd prefer to go without, you can just give those back."

"Oh, I could not.  It is considered quite rude on this world to return gifts, even inferior ones."

"Exactly.  That's why Stephen wouldn't let me give back the dress."

"Don't pull me into this," Stephen muttered.  "Besides, unless you prefer to go around naked -"

Tony gave him a sly grin.  "Admit it, doc, you like it when I flash my ankles in your direction -"

"I think you look good in it," Peter said, laughing.  "Really brings out your eyes.  And your beard."

Tony nodded seriously.  "I know.  That's because I look good in everything, even Renaissance-style dresses.  But the real question is: does it make me look fat?"

"You're really not as funny as you think you are," Stephen sighed.

"Of course I am.  Part of my charm."

"What little there is of that."

"Oh, I'm sorry.  Did you want to be charmed, Stephen?"  Tony threw him a shallow wink.  "Why didn't you say something sooner?  I'd be happy to oblige."

Stephen reached out with one finger to tap him on the forehead solemnly.  "There's something wrong with you.  I'd try to pin down what, but I suspect it's not any one thing."

"It's everything," Peter supplied, grinning.

Tony grumbled.  "Peter, you used to be so respectful.  What happened?"

"Long-term exposure to a contagious agent," Peter said promptly.

Tony flailed in his direction.  "Stephen, look.  Now you've got him saying it.  You've corrupted the kid.  And you call me infectious."

"Boss," FRIDAY interrupted.  "We're approaching the outer range of communications.  Do we proceed or hold?"

"Hold a second, FRI."  Tony rubbed his hands together briskly.  "Alright, folks, this is the captain speaking.  It's time for takeoff.  Return all tray tables to their upright and locked positions."

"Are you sure you would not rather stay?" Gwar asked.  "Until you have finished incorporating the satellite systems.  You may encounter difficulty."

Stephen was the one who answered.  "I'm afraid we've been too long here as it is.  We really must be going."

Tony nodded his agreement.  "Time to leave the nest and make our way in the world.  It's been real.  Mostly a real pain.  If you know what I mean."

"I do not," Gwar and Jira both said.

"Philistines, all of you.  Take care of yourself, Minister Gwar.  Make sure you keep your new chancellor in line.  It's a big ask, I know, but someone has to do it."

"I can hear you," Jira commented.

Tony ignored him.  "And say hi to Valk and his suspiciously adorable kid.  She looked ready to lock Peter in the dungeon when she heard we were leaving.  I tried to explain why she couldn’t come with us into space, but I'm not sure 'fate of the universe' really translates well."

Gwar hissed with amusement.  "I am certain her new toy will serve as adequate consolation."

"It was a good one, wasn't it?  It's actually a fairly accurate representation of our native solar system, not that she's old enough to appreciate that.  Still.  Something to remember us by."

"No gifts or toys are required for that," Gwar said seriously.  "I will remember.  We will all remember."

"How could we forget?" Jira muttered, because apparently he'd mastered sarcasm after all.

"Sure you guys don't want to reconsider appointing him?" Tony asked Gwar.  "It's not too late to change your minds."

"Goodbye Tony, Stephen, Peter," Gwar said, touching his claws to his forehead in a ceremonial bow for each of them.  "And thank you.  All of you."

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends," Tony announced dramatically, then cut the feed before things could get maudlin.  The image on the viewport wavered and then disintegrated into a new view of the planet itself, golden desert sands and mountain ranges burnished in fiery blue sunlight.

They each took a moment to soak in the dazzling sight.

"Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted," Stephen quoted softly.

"Seems apropos," Tony agreed.  "Or just Poe.  One or the other."

Peter rolled his eyes.  "Are you guys talking in riddles again?"

"Only to you," Tony said.  "And probably our alien friends.  Which, by the way, I actually have no idea how that revolution even worked.  The whole thing was basically a treatise on how to make friends and influence people.  Which I think we can all agree I'm terrible at.  You're both thinking it, I'm just saying it."

"I don't know," Peter said.  "I mean, by the end there I think even Jira kind of liked you."

"Loved me, even.  Or loved to hate me, maybe.  Always hard to tell those two apart."

"Definitely loved to hate," Stephen said.

"Good to know I haven't lost my touch."

"Do you think they'll be okay?" Peter asked, as they made the jump to light speed and the planet was lost in the vast landscape of stars behind them.  "They still have so much to do.  Should we have stayed longer to help them?"

Stephen sighed.  "What they had yet to do were all things that wouldn't benefit from us staying.  Restructuring government, political reform, demography.  The most important part was the momentum toward change,  and we accomplished that."  The sorcerer tilted his head at Peter appraisingly.  "Some of us more so than others."

"Oh, well, maybe," Peter said bashfully.

Tony rolled his eyes.  "Drop the modesty, kid.  I was there.  You had them eating out of your hands.  Who knew what this world really needed was a trustworthy babysitter?"

"I didn't really do much," Peter protested half-heartedly.  "I just, you know.  Thought maybe Valk would lighten up if he saw Jira around the kids.  I was mostly a spotter, anyway.  There was always someone else around to help."

"I should hope so," Stephen said.  "I counted thirteen hatchlings the last time they had you."

"Fourteen.  One of them liked to hide.  Jira ratted me out.  He told them I'd give them rides up the mountain if they asked."

Stephen hummed curiously.  "I seem to remember him flying several of them through the air.  Carefully."

Peter grinned.  "Well, I ratted him out first.  I think that was what did it in the end, actually.  All that power and he was wasting it entertaining kids.  None of the adults had a bad word to say about him after that."  He sighed wistfully.  "I'm going to miss them, you know?  The kids.  I've never had siblings.  It was fun."

Tony rolled his eyes.  "Kid, we seriously need to talk about your idea of fun."

"Like yours is any better.  I heard you tried to teach Gwar how to use one of the Chitauri hovercrafts and set the lab on fire."

"Okay, in my defense, I deactivated the weapons system before I let him on there.  How he managed to reactive it is anyone's guess."

"Probably a good thing we left when we did," Stephen said.  "I'm trying to imagine where you go from setting the lab on fire."

"They figured it out in the end though, right?"  Peter hopped up onto the wall, looking at the stars upside down.  "The hovercraft?"

"Close enough.  I left them an instruction manual and schematics for some of the more useful Chitauri tech.  If they set something else on fire they have no one to blame but themselves."  Tony surveyed the cramped bridge area.  "We really need to start unpacking.  The cargo bays are still full of unprocessed mineral deposits."

"On it," Peter said, vanishing between two precarious stacks of boxes to start sorting again.

Tony moved away.  "I need to have a look at the satellite systems, see what the holdup is.  I'll be back in short order.  Don't do anything too destructive while I'm gone."

"I think I'll wash up first," Stephen muttered.  He rubbed a hand over his beard, frowning.  "Get this back in order."

Tony paused, zeroing in.  They'd been a long time on that planet; long enough they were all looking a bit rough around the edges, unkempt.  He had a sudden vision of Stephen clean-shaven and sharp and available for Tony to touch in a way he hadn't been before.  He could picture running his hands and then his lips up the slope of Stephen's chin and then his cheek, the soft corner of his mouth -

"Lend me a hand before you do," Tony said, mildly.  Stephen glanced up.  "I could use some help with the heavy lifting while Peter unpacks our ill-gotten booty."

"I already moved all the satellite equipment into place," Stephen said.

"Come move some more," Tony suggested, snagging a piece of the sorcerer's cloak to tow behind him as he made for the door.  The cloak obligingly dragged Stephen along.

Peter popped out from behind the crates quizzically.  "I can help lift things too, if you need."

"No, you really can't," Tony told him.  "Back to work, kid.  Get those food rations on ice before we all regret it."

"But -"

"No time to lose, food safety is serious business," Tony said brightly.  "And those satellites aren't going to integrate themselves." 

He shuffled them out before Peter could get another word in edgewise.

Stephen let Tony pull them half a corridor away before speaking.  "I thought we agreed: first things first."

"Technically, you agreed.  I just went along with it.  Besides, first things got dealt with.  And then second and third things.  Pretty sure we're down to fourth, fifth, and sixth things."

Stephen ignored that.  "We also agreed to be discreet."

"That was discreet."

Stephen slanted him an incredulous look.

"For me."

Stephen let them round the corner before he tugged them into a slower stroll.  "Where are we going?"

"Engineering," Tony said immediately.

"Opposite direction," Stephen pointed out.

"Engineering, eventually.  We're taking the scenic route."

Tony could hear Stephen being amused.  "And what exactly are we planning to do on this scenic route?"

"I thought you’d never ask," Tony said, yanking them into a nearby niche.  He shoved Stephen ahead of him and crowded close, ignoring the cloak righting itself, cushioning the both of them as they slid into the shadows.  Stephen's hands rose to rest on Tony's shoulders, light and almost insubstantial.  The touch was automatic and perfunctory.  He was careful not to push Tony away, but he made no pretense of pulling Tony closer either.

"Tony."

And there was something cautious in that voice, something that made Tony hesitate in the act of reaching for him.

"Stephen," he returned carefully.

"What are you doing?"

"Well, I think it's called flirting."  Tony squinted at him thoughtfully.  "But it's hard to be sure because you're being all inscrutable about it."

The inscrutability didn't change when Stephen looked at him.  "I'd call this a step past flirting."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."  Tony stared into that enigmatic face, searching for answers.  Stephen said nothing.  "You told me I wasn't reading this wrong."

"You weren't."  Stephen closed his eyes and blew out a long, slow breath.  "You aren't."

"Thanks for that wild endorsement.  Careful, or you'll scare me off with all that enthusiasm."

"It's not that I'm uninterested."

Tony scoffed in disbelief.  "I'd be more inclined to believe you if you weren't being two-hundred percent careful not to touch me."

Stephen smiled, and it was a small but genuine thing.  Tony felt the coiled tension inside him relax just slightly. 

"Habit," Stephen admitted.  "I suppose I got used to not touching."

"We should fix that," Tony said.  "Here: Carte blanche to touch me anytime you'd like."

Inscrutability cracked clean down the middle, and something real slipped into Stephen's eyes; something raw and hungry and wanting.  "That’s a generous offer."

Tony could sense the refusal coming from a mile away.  "But?"

"You don't mean it."

Tony leaned into him firmly.  "Don't I?  That's strange.  I don't normally yank sorcerers into dark corners that I don't want to touch."

"Oh, no.  You’re happy to touch me.  That much is clear."

"That obvious, huh?  And here I thought I was being so subtle."

"But you’re not really prepared for me to touch you," Stephen finished, sliding a hand to either side of Tony’s neck gently, in direct contradiction to his words.  Then they moved further; up the side of his face, into his hair, across his temple and the corner of his eye.

Tony stared at him, bemused.  "And this is what, exactly?"

"Proof," Stephen said, closing his fingers with a pinch around the edge of Tony’s glasses.  He pulled them down so the glare of FRIDAY’s digital stream was no longer in line of sight, so he and Tony could lock eyes with nothing between them.  Then he started to slide them entirely off Tony’s face.

Tony didn’t remember consciously deciding to intervene.  He didn’t remember actually moving his hand.  But somehow he found his fingers clamped down over Stephen's anyway, hard enough to hurt. 

The sorcerer made no effort to resist him.  His fingers were completely lax.  Stephen was watching Tony with caution in his eyes, and Tony realized suddenly there was a chasm between them where there hadn't been one before. 

No, that was wrong; it'd been there, but Tony hadn't seen it.  He hadn't been looking for it.  He'd only been seeing what he wanted to see.

Eventually Tony managed to unclamp his fingers and let him go.

"Carte blanche," Stephen murmured with irony.

Tony grimaced, baring his teeth.  "FRIDAY doesn’t fall under that umbrella."  He tapped his chest and the housing unit there, finally back in position after Jira had returned their equipment.  "The suits are part of me.  You don’t get one without the other."

"I don’t want one without the other," Stephen said.  He slid a hand down to his own chest to trace a finger over the Eye.  It opened to release the smallest slip of green light.  "Magic is as much a part of me as your tech is of you.  It's who I am.  Iron Man is who you are."

"Then what?"

The sting of rejection was remarkable, really.  It wasn't that Tony didn't experience rejection on a regular basis.  He did.  Tony Stark was in no way universally loved or desired on Earth, and he'd been shot down more than his fair share over the years.  It didn't bother him.  He'd grown a thick skin early in life.  But that was what made this sting so extraordinary.  There were few people in his life he'd ever gone after that really, truly mattered; he could count them on one hand.  And whenever Tony managed to implode those relationships and they ended in heartache and pain, somewhere in the middle it usually began with a small, awful sting like this.

"It's not the tech," Stephen said.  "It's your knee-jerk reliance on it."

"What does that even mean?" Tony asked flatly.  He felt partly absent from the discussion.  Half of his attention was focused elsewhere, already considering multiple escape vectors from this conversation.

Stephen stared at him, sighing in sudden, sharp exasperation.  "I don't need magic to see what you're thinking.  Don't." 

Tony blinked at him, surprised.  "Don't what?" 

Stephen leaned in, backing Tony into the corner, a look of intense frustration on his face.

"Why do you always assume the worst?"

"Self-preservation," Tony replied automatically.

Stephen offered no words in answer.  Instead he slid their mouths together, stealing Tony's breath and immediately derailing the discordant thoughts in his head.  Tony let Stephen have the lead, surprise and relief falling over him in a daze.  He let the sorcerer fit both his hands to either side of Tony's face and angle them closer.  He even restrained himself to sliding his lips along Stephen's with just a gentle, tingling pressure, soothing the angry frustration of the first kiss into passion with the second, third, fourth.

He waited until Stephen tried to pull back, until the man had just barely started to break away.  Then he stepped in, put one foot behind Stephen's and leaned into his left shoulder hard, pivoting them around to slam Stephen into the wall.  The sorcerer hit with a sharp exhalation.  One that stuttered in his lungs when Tony yanked him close with a hand on his ass, tilted Stephen's chin down, and kissed him until he opened to Tony's tongue.  Tony licked into his mouth as deeply as he could and dug a thumb into the sensitive bundle of nerves at the base of his spine until a strangled moan caught like flame in the air between them.  Then he did it again.  And again.

It didn't take Stephen long to put a stop to it, but seconds could feel like hours with the right motivation, and Tony certainly wanted to provide Stephen that.  He didn't fight when Stephen pushed him back, just made sure to angle out with the right flex of legs and hips to feel the unmistakable press of Stephen's arousal.  He let Stephen feel his, in turn.

"Tony," Stephen said breathlessly, and Tony'd expected an admonishment, maybe even some anger, but that wasn't what he got.  Stephen reached up and put a hand on his cheek and didn't try to move away.  Tony stared at him, watching closely for some sign of rejection, but Stephen's eyes were clear.  Flushed and blown wide with arousal, but clear.

Tony sighed, absently retracting his hands to rest on the sharp points of Stephen's hips instead.  "I don't understand you."

The sorcerer twitched at this new touch and Tony watched with interest as pale skin flushed further.  "Maybe if you'd let me explain before you start making assumptions."

"Maybe if you'd stop giving me ammunition to make them."

"Then let me dispel one," Stephen said.  "I wasn't saying no."

"Well, you have a funny way of saying yes," Tony muttered.

Stephen rolled his eyes.  "There's a lesson the Ancient One tried to teach me.  It's one you could stand to learn as well."

"What's that?"

Stephen leaned closer, enough so Tony wondered if he was about to be kissed again.  He started to close his eyes.

"It's not always about you," Stephen whispered, close enough that the breath of his words caressed Tony's lips.  Tony swayed toward him before he could quite stop himself. 

"Well," he whispered back.  "I'll go out on a limb and guess at least half of it's probably about me."

Stephen sighed a laugh against him, drifting close enough to drag his mouth across Tony's cheek, his temple, the tickle of it whispering across his skin.  "Maybe.  I meant what I said about your tech.  You're not ready.  But neither am I.  I haven't been with anyone since before my accident."

"Since before your -" Tony stopped.  He leaned back warily, raising both eyebrows in question.  Stephen looked back at him blandly, no sign of a lie in him.  "Your car accident?  That was, what, two years ago?"

"Three, working on four," Stephen said dryly.  "Thank you, I'd almost forgotten how long it was.  And how many years has it been since you were willing to leap without your technology as a safety net beneath you?  More than that, I'd wager."

Tony ignored everything after the first part.  "Three, four years of absolutely nothing?  What, did your entry into magic school require an oath of celibacy?"

Stephen grimaced with the faintest touch of defensiveness.  "I was a little busy recovering from a life-altering disability.  Then I was learning how to safeguard reality itself.  Neither of which provides the best backdrop for dating."

Tony held up both hands in the universal sign for peace.  "Right, my bad, I'm an ass, we all know it.  I just usually get to skip this part of the negotiation.  Whole world pretty much knows my history."

"You and Miss Potts," Stephen said quietly, not quite a question.  Tony realized it was the first time Pepper's name had been brought up in earnest between them since they'd learned to find common ground.  It wasn't an accident, either; Stephen had a look on his face that was at once curious and very, very watchful.  He’d obviously been waiting for the right opportunity to ask, and now he looked braced for some kind of blow.

Tony took a deep breath in, held it, and considered how much he trusted Stephen Strange. 

"Pep's special," Tony said, slowly.

Stephen blinked, the barest flinch tightening his eyes.  "I imagine she must be, to capture the attention of the great Tony Stark."

"She's special in all the ways you're thinking, sure.  She's talented and she's funny and she's gorgeous, inside and out.  But that's not what I meant."

It would've been easier, much easier, really, if Stephen had just left it at sex.  Sex was easy.  It was fun, it was exhilarating, and it was something Tony enjoyed for the deep, visceral thrill of losing himself in someone else's body.  Sex could be like learning a whole new science; experimentation and ingenuity and creativity set on endless repeat.  For most people, Tony knew, sex usually also equated to trust. 

Not for Tony.  He'd had sex with plenty of people he wouldn't trust with anything more complicated than picking up his dry cleaning, and maybe not even that.  He could count on one hand the number of people he'd ever slept with that mattered, and on just three fingers those he'd trusted well enough to watch his back, to tell him the truth, to safeguard his life.  And trusting anyone with Pepper was a step beyond even that.

It was a step Tony wanted to take with Stephen. 

"Pep's special because she needed me," Tony said.  "I mean, really needed me, as much as I needed her.  Not for my money, or my fame, or my brain, or something tangible I could give her.  She just needed me.  She just wanted me."

"Hence why you were getting married," Stephen murmured, leaning away.  Tony reached up and quietly snagged hold of his collar, tugging him back.

"The problem is: that's all she wanted.  She could put up with me being petty and selfish and thoughtless, because that's who I am.  It's not all of me, but it's a lot.  The other parts that weren't just me; the superheroing, the risks, the world always knocking at the door, all that she hated.  And most of all she hated that a part of me looked forward to the knock, because it meant I had an excuse to break my promises to her."

Stephen searched his eyes.  "The fate of the world's usually a decent excuse for broken promises."

"Not if you break them enough times.  In the end, the line between the parts of me she loved and the parts of me she didn't was pretty blurry."  Tony nudged up until he could rest their foreheads together.  "She was going to marry me anyway, and I was going to marry her, because that's what happens when you love someone you need and then you make them your everything.  You learn to ignore the parts of them you can't live with, because you're not sure anymore how to live without."

Stephen hesitated, looking at him from too close.  Close enough to see something in Tony that Tony wasn't sure he was ready for anyone to see.

"If 'everything' is what you want from me," Stephen said quietly, "then we should stop this now.  That can't happen.  It won't.  So little of what I have is mine; not my life, certainly.  Not yours.  I can't promise to be what you need, or even what you want -"

Tony kissed him before the last of it had left his mouth, locking the words between them where he could taste the heat of Stephen's desire and the temperance of his conviction.  It was more compelling than Tony'd thought; he wanted to lose himself in it, sink beneath Stephen's skin and bones and hook into the marrow of his soul.

Tony wanted Stephen in ways that didn't even come close to sex, and the shock of that was as sobering as it was alarming. 

"I'm not interested in one night in your bed," Stephen said, quietly.  "I want more.  As many as you'll give me.  But I won't rush it, because that's a quicker way of ending it than never having begun."

"Square deal.  Slow and steady wins the race."  Tony kissed him again, slowly, as promised.  "Stephen, I've done 'everything'.  Know the problem with being everything?  It's that there's no room for anything else.  And I can't do that again."

"Where does that leave us?"

He let Stephen go, licking the flavor of him off his lips, like cinnamon and smoke and electric fire. 

Tony grinned.  "Let's find out."

Chapter Text

Tony made no effort to sneak onto the bridge, but that was mostly because it was impossible to sneak when one came bearing two large, heavy cases.  And also, he knew for a fact Stephen was too busy to hear him coming.  As the doors slid open, revealing the yellow light of a new alien sun on the viewport, Tony could hear the smooth baritone of the sorcerer's voice rising and falling.

"Not all injuries can be addressed in the same way," Stephen was saying.  "Some wounds will have unique symptom constellations that won't fit predetermined parameters."

FRIDAY made an understanding sound.  "I will need to create a protocol of priority intervention criteria."

"For a start," Stephen said. 

Tony grinned, amused.  The sound of Stephen teaching had become a familiar one, but more so in the last week.  They hadn't been back aboard the ship a day before FRIDAY had politely demanded some additional updating to her systems; particularly the systems dedicated to her burgeoning medical expertise.  She'd made no secret her determination first started after getting a better scan of Tony's bloody face.  Stephen had obliged by incorporating the lessons into Peter's homeschooling.  The program now included Advanced Anatomy and Introductory Healing.

Stephen hummed in consideration.  "The method you have of effecting tissue repair with nanotechnology.  How exactly does it work?  Are you simply closing the wound?  Or are you interacting with the cells?"

"Stark Industries employs Doctor Helen Cho on retainer," FRIDAY said.  "She designed a regeneration process in which artificial biological material could be bonded to host cells, effectively creating synthetic tissue.  The nano-molecular substance I use is based on her design.  It can be applied to organic or inorganic matter."

Stephen huffed out a disbelieving laugh.  "That's bleeding edge medical tech.  Incredible.  Helen Cho?  I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I've certainly read some of her research.  She's one of the leading geneticists in the world.  How'd Stark Industries manage to snag her?"

"I am uncertain.  However, I believe there was a great deal of money involved."

"All the money you make will never buy back your soul," Stephen quoted dryly.  "I'm curious about the polypeptides.  Do you have any of her covalent formula's on file?"

"I do.  However, the information is considered proprietary.  I am unable to share it with you, as you are not an authorized user."

Tony could well imagine the incensed look on Stephen's face by his outraged silence.

"Oh, let him have a peek, FRI," Tony called, setting down the cases so he could slip into the shadows along the wall.  "Sign him in with a non-disclosure agreement.  We'll cite extenuating circumstances, which certainly applies.  Besides, S.I owns two of the patents, and I own S.I."

"Technically Miss Potts remains CEO," FRIDAY corrected.

"Yeah, but it's still my name on the company logo."

"Tony?" Stephen asked, peering around one of the giant metal girders.  Tony ambled closer, using the overhang equipment for cover.

"Stephen.  Helen Cho's a beautiful woman who's something akin to a genius.  Should I be jealous?"

Stephen snorted.  "That depends.  Something akin to a genius?"

"Well, I wouldn't want to speak out of turn.  Helen's not a big fan of flattery.  Or parties.  Or me, really."

"I'm sure your ego will recover."  Stephen turned to watch curiously as Tony moved around the circumference of the bridge.  "What are you doing?"

"Who, me?" Tony asked cheerfully, ducking behind one of the consoles.

"If this is an attempt at hide and seek, it's a poor job of it."

Tony ignored him.  "Where's Peter?  I thought he was supposed to join you for this lesson."

"He is.  He's running late."  Stephen walked closer, stalking Tony halfway up one of the elevated platforms.  His red cloak, inert until then, obligingly fluttered to give him a dramatic look.  "You're being coy.  You're only ever coy when you're about to do something you think is hilarious but probably the rest of us won't."

"Stephen, everything I do is hilarious.  You just lack the appropriate sense of humor to appreciate that."  Tony let the sorcerer get close enough to see him fully.  Then he turned so the brilliance of the alien star slid across his face like a warm breeze.  Stephen froze.

Tony spread his hands, angling to let the dazzle of light hit him from every direction.  "I wanted to try on a new outfit.  Hot off the press.  What do you think?"

"It's a little East-Central Asian for you, isn't it?" Stephen asked slowly.

"Nonsense," Tony declared, putting his hands on his hips.  "I can rock the East-Central Asian look as easily as the next guy." 

Stephen didn't move, didn't take his eyes off Tony, where a face very unlike Tony's usual now stared out at the world.  "What is it?"

"A photostatic veil," Tony said.  He pretended to tap himself thoughtfully on the chin.  "Or my bastardized version of one."

"Which is what, exactly?" 

"Ever seen the Mission Impossible movies?"

"No."

"Remember the masks they use?  The ones that allow Tom Cruise to slip into every improbable disguise you can imagine in ways that defy reality?  But the audience doesn't actually question it, because it's not as entertaining otherwise?"

"No."

"Yeah, it's basically that.  Only better, because it's mine."

"Technically -" FRIDAY started.

Tony waved a magnanimous hand.  "Credit where it's due.  It was FRIDAY's idea.  But my brain was what actually did the plagiarizing."

"You should be proud, boss."

"Like a peacock," Tony confirmed.  "We'll all have to wear them, but don't worry, Stephen: I promise you can have a say in how pretty I make you."

Stephen finally seemed to reconcile the incongruity of seeing a new face on Tony's body.  He blinked, refocusing.  "Wear them where?"

"The planet, of course.  Unless you're planning some kind of costume soiree up here I didn't know about.  In which case we're set.  These go like hot cakes at masquerade balls."

Stephen frowned.  "Since when are we going down to the planet?"  His cloak flared out excitedly before drooping, dejection in every line of its nonexistent spine.  "When we scanned it yesterday, FRIDAY indicated it was pre-industrial.  The probe she sent down corroborated that.  And I seem to recall you saying planet's without a certain level of technology didn't merit a visit."

Tony shrugged noncommittally.  "I may have implied technology was the only worthwhile measuring stick."

"Implied?" Stephen said wryly.

"I may have said technology was the only worthwhile measuring stick.  But I'm forced to recant my words, because of this."  At 'this', he threw out his hands dramatically, allowing a bubble of holographic light to enclose them, scattering in a sphere over their heads.

Stephen looked up, the deep blue of his eyes reflecting the holograms in a very distracting way.

"What is it?" Stephen asked, taking a step back for better perspective.

"An element," Tony said.  "A very rare one, actually.  It's one of two I'm missing."

Stephen zeroed in on Tony again, new curiosity bleeding through.  "The nanotech template?"   

"Yep.  It's in a different isotope than I'm used to, but that won't be a problem.  What is a problem is I can't find the source, at least not with the limited imaging FRIDAY's been able to gather.  Odds are we'll need to go scouting.  And Stark's Law says we'll run into trouble along the way, so we might as well be prepared."  He gestured at his own face and the disguise on it.  "Hence, photostatic veil."

Stephen twitched an eyebrow.  "Stark's Law?"

"Like Murphy's law, but with more me."

Stephen sighed loudly.  "Just once, I'd like to have something named after me.  Strange's Law.  Has a certain ring to it, don't you think?"

"No.  But if you want me to name something after you, I have a few more interesting ideas."

Stephen ignored him, reaching out to slowly run the tips of his fingers over Tony's cheek, the new contours and angles shifting beneath his touch like water.  He slowly tilted Tony's face from side to side to look at the veil from all angles.  Tony left him to it peacefully, more than familiar with the fascinating allure of technology.

"That's," Stephen said, hesitating, "very odd."

"Isn't it, though?"

"How does it work?" 

"Magic," Tony said promptly.

Stephen quirked a smile, still watching his fingers trace over the mask.  Tony nipped at them playfully when they passed over his mouth; the sorcerer slanted him a narrow look.  "Unlikely.  I'm not sure I've ever met someone with as little magical aptitude as you."

"How do you explain it, then?"

The gentle touch turned to a firm, sliding grip that yanked him forward for closer inspection. Tony blinked through the heat spreading like honey beneath his skin. 

"Something akin to genius, I suppose," Stephen murmured.

"Akin," Tony repeated, insulted.

"Well," Stephen demurred, "I wouldn't want to speak out of turn."  He leaned in to brush his lips lightly over Tony's cheek, and then his lips.  Tony kissed him back until Stephen broke away, blinking.

"That's really very awkward," Stephen admitted, rubbing absently at his mouth.  "Kissing you while you wear someone else's face."

"Technically this face doesn't belong to anyone else.  It just has a collection of East-Asian characteristics combined into a generic facade."

Tony blinked at the sound of the bridge doors sliding open, the distinctly cheerful step of their third crew member coming into range.  Stephen let his fingers fall away.

"Okay, I'm back," Peter called.  "Sorry I took so - whoa!"

Tony looked over to see Peter skidding to a stop, arrested by the scattershot display of blue.  The kid craned his neck, eagerly taking everything in.

"What's going on?" Peter asked.  He hopped on a wall to scale up one side of the bridge, bright eyes merrily absorbing the cascade of light decorating the air.  "What is this?"

Tony gave Stephen a brief smirk, putting one finger to his mouth for silence.  "Oh that?  Just a little something I cooked up in a lab somewhere."

"Mr. Stark?"  Peter glanced up briefly before being reabsorbed back into the holographic display.  "You're here?"

"No, this is my life-model decoy," Tony said.  "Where've you been?  You're late.  You missed my dramatic reveal."

"I got distracted," Peter said absently.  He reached out, plucking one magnified blue electron out of the air to pull and expand in his hands, like holographic taffy.

Tony smiled, charmed almost again his will.  Peter's youthful curiosity was so easily satisfied.  "Hey kid, what do you think of my new outfit?"

"What outfit?" Peter jumped quickly onto one of the consoles, tossing the blue orb back into the air so he could watch it reattach to the projection seamlessly.  He turned to hop closer.  "Did you finally fix the clothes you were -"

Peter stumbled to a halt mid-jump, the result of which was an entertaining aerial tuck and slide that ended up with Peter hanging sideways off a girder, staring.  He raised both hands defensively.

"Who are you?" Peter demanded.

"Who do you think?" Tony replied, watching with glee as the spider crashed to the floor, shock written in every slack-jawed muscle of his face.

"What," Peter said, stuttering on a string of half-formed words, until finally he managed: "How?"

"Well, that's a bit of a story, really.  It involves me desperately plagiarizing technology not my own, if you can believe that."

Peter looked simultaneously fascinated and repelled.  He slowly got back to his feet, brushing himself off.  "That's so weird.  You sound like you, but you don't look like you.  Dude, that's insane."

"You think this is something?  Wait until you don't look like you."

Peter didn't quite seem to hear him.  "What?"

"I brought you one to try on, too," Tony explained patiently, heroically enduring the adoring stares. 

"What?"  Peter reengaged suddenly, like someone had flipped a switch.  "I get one too?"

"If you're planning to come down to the planet, you get one," Tony confirmed.

Peter's whole face lit up.  "We're going?  I thought you said we weren't?"

"Changed my mind.  Captain's prerogative."

"Yes!" Peter punched a hand into the air triumphantly.

Tony sighed.  "So eager to meet new aliens.  It's like you've somehow blocked out all our previous extraterrestrial encounters.  Teenagers have such short memories."  He turned to Stephen.  "Do we really want him coming down to the surface with us?  Maybe we should leave him up here."

"I'm coming with you if I have to ride down in a shipping container," Peter insisted.  "This is going to be great.  But, uh, seriously, what's with the -" he gestured wildly in a manner that seemed to partially indicate Tony's face and mostly indicate the kid's bewildered confusion.

"When in Rome, dress like the Romans do, Peter.  We're going incognito this time."

"Like spies?" Peter asked eagerly.  "Like James Bond?"

Tony nodded agreeably.  "Complete with spy gadgets."

"Plagiarized spy gadgets," Stephen reminded.

"Alright, tell the world why don't you?"  Tony sniffed with wounded dignity.  "The only reason someone else came up with it is because I didn't have time to think of it first."

Stephen raised both eyebrows.  "I'm no legal expert, but I'm reasonably certain that attitude is exactly why patent legislation exists."

"Yeah," Tony admitted, "we really are in serious breach right now.  Shh, don't tell the enforcement corporation.  Or my attorneys.  Or Pepper."

"Is it a hologram?" Peter asked.  Tony looked up and took a step back when he found the kid an inch away, carefully scrutinizing the mask from upside down.  "It looks too solid to be exclusively holographic.  The light diffraction is too complex."

"Good call.  It's a combination of holography and nanotechnology, structured into a physical mesh.  It can mimic any facial feature I program into it."

"Interesting," Stephen said.  "I assume you had to draw the bots for it from your housing unit?"

"Yep.  Supply's getting low.  But I should still be able to run the suit if I'm careful."

"I've seen you use this before," Stephen said.  "But usually not outside of dire circumstances.  Did FRIDAY find something here we should worry about?"

"Not yet," Tony admitted.

"Then why all the cloak and dagger?"

Tony shrugged defensively.  "We haven't found anything concerning so far, but that's not to say we won't.  We've only been watching them for a day.  If someone watched New York for one day, they might think Central Park at night and rush hour gridlock was the worst the city had to offer."

Stephen looked at him, hearing something in the words Tony hadn't intended for him to hear.  Seeing something Tony hadn't intended for him to see.  "But why now?"

"Why not now?"

"Tony."

"Look," Tony said roughly, "you don't think it's a good idea to maybe get a better lay of the land before we go revealing who we are to aliens all over the galaxy?  If we'd had eyes on Zet before we straight up told him who we were, last planet's imprisonment could've been entirely avoided."

"Zet wasn't your fault, Tony," Stephen said quietly, while Peter quietly alighted on one of the consoles, rightly sensing some rather large landmines hidden in this conversation.  "He was mine.  It was my error."

Tony grimaced, feeling the phantom edge of an alien touch bleeding him.  "Not assigning blame.  Just saying, we got caught with our pants around our ankles on that planet, and we should probably avoid doing that again.  Besides, you do realize we're on a super secret Thanos-killing mission, probably not aided by the whole universe being able to identify us by the shape of our beards.  Right?"

"Really?"  Stephen looked terribly amused.  "That's what you're going with?  Mr. I-Am-Iron-Man?"

"Well, I was young then.  Impulsive.  Inexperienced in the ways of superheroing."

"And you'd probably still do it exactly the same today."

"Probably."

"I concede your point," Stephen admitted.  "There's safety in anonymity.  I suppose I'm just not used to you being prudent."  He gestured at Tony's face, the unfamiliar features there.  "But why this particular disguise?"

"FRIDAY built a composite scan of the people on the planet.  Improbable as it seems, they look almost indistinguishable from humans.  Humans of Asiatic descent."

"They look like us?" Peter asked with breathless excitement.

"Sort of.  They actually look like they walked right out of Ming dynasty China, or Thailand.  Maybe Mongolia.  Needless to say, three white men walking around on the planet will raise more than a few eyebrows."

Stephen's stiffened, a light of realization suddenly brightening his eyes.  "Mongolian, you said?"

"Possibly," Tony drawled, giving him a narrow look.  "Why?"

Stephen ignored him, tipping his head back thoughtfully.  "Did FRIDAY take any images of the city structures?" He didn't bother waiting for Tony to answer, instead turning to ask the air: "FRIDAY?"

"Yes, Stephen, I did.  However, I would not describe their residential arrangements as cities.  Most of the people on this world appear to live in tents or small nomadic communities."

Stephen pressed his lips together, but something in his face was dancing with a sudden flare of laughter.  "Did you happen to find any pillars or structures carved with runes, scattered around inhabited areas?"

FRIDAY projected an image into the air in front of them, red so it'd be visible in the dapple of the blue element hologram.  The dim picture was of an elongated square pillar standing in the middle of a field.  It looked almost like a support column, tiered as if to hold something up, but there was nothing atop it.

"I discovered a large number of these crowded into open areas, but I was unable to discern their purpose," FRIDAY said.

"Maybe you could tell her," Tony suggested to Stephen mildly.

The sorcerer's amusement had bloomed into a full, genuine smile.  "Oh?  How could I do that?"

"Please.  You look like the cat who ate an entire family of canaries and then made a feather pillow or three out of the remains.  You obviously know who these people are.  Spill."

"I think not," Stephen said, openly chuckling now.  "I'll leave you to discover this one on your own."

"But you'd tell us if there was something to worry about," Peter said, not quite confidently.  "Wouldn't you?"

Tony studied the sorcerer's infuriating grin suspiciously.  "I'd ask friend or foe, but from that smile I have to assume the former."

"A fair assumption," Stephen agreed.  "The veil is a good idea, though.  They won't take kindly to aliens, but they're an inclusive community.  If we present ourselves as travellers or merchants, like them but from distant lands, they'll welcome us quickly enough."

"But now I'm tempted not to give you your veil," Tony complained, curiosity burning.  "Or to hold it over your head until you spill.  What the hell do we find on this planet that's so amusing?"

"Oh, nothing."

"That nothing doesn't sound like a nothing, it sounds like a something.  But what kind of something?"

"Well," Stephen drawled.  "I suppose you'll have to give me the mask and head down there to find out."

"Anyone ever tell you you're an annoying pain in the ass, doc?"

"Rarely to my face."

"But," Peter said slyly.  "We're going to have different faces soon."

"Kid's got a point," Tony noted.  "Speaking of."  He walked back to the bridge entrance, picking up one of the cases.  "Before I present you with Exhibit A, I have here Exhibit B for inspection."

"Exhibit B?" Stephen asked.

Tony ignored him, ambling back over to stand in front of Peter.  The kid tentatively accepted the case Tony gave him, a question in his eyes.

"I present to you," Tony said, "Project Geek."

Peter stared at him with wide eyes, finally flipping the case around to open with cautious fingers.  Tony could tell from the look on his face he wasn't quite sure what to make of the unexpected array of vials and containers stacked inside.

"I've been working on this one for a while," Tony said.  "FRIDAY and I had a close look at the chemical composition of your webbing.  I know after that gigantic spider-dragnet you used on the planet, you can't have much web formula left.  This has everything in it you might need to make more, and a few things besides.  In case you want to try a little experimentation."

Peter looked up with wide, wondering eyes.  "You made me a chemistry set?"

"Something like that," Tony agreed.  "Now, do me a favor and try not to blow us all up with it.  Okay?"

Peter grinned with genuine awe and delight.  "Really?  It's - for me, really?"

"All for you," Tony said.  "Though, fair warning: we didn't have the exact same ones you used, so you'll have to improvise a bit.  Also, I didn't have enough solvent variety, so had a bit of trouble with one or two of the extraction procedures.  Distillation mostly took care of that, but you'll want to keep it in mind before you start mixing things together.  FRIDAY had a look to make sure they're all as pure as can be given onboard conditions."

Peter clutched the case to his chest and waved one hand in excited mania.  "Oh, wow.  I don't even, this is - wow!  I always had to use school supplies before, like, in secret.  This is amazing."

"If you run out of anything, let me know.  More where all that came from."

"I will."

"Also," Tony said sternly.  "I'd appreciate it if you only use it in the cargo section closest to engineering.  That bay has a hatch leading into space and a protected ceiling duct you can hide in if a reaction gets out of control.  I doubt you'll actually manage to make anything explode, but a little fire might not be beyond your capabilities."

"No, I'll be careful, I will!" Peter insisted earnestly.  "I want to - can I?"

"Go on, have a look," Tony said indulgently.  "No experimenting today, though; I want to be underway in an hour, two at most."

"Thanks," Peter said dazedly.  "I'm just going to.  I'll just.  Yeah."

Peter stumbled into a corner of the bridge, the case clutched reverently close to his chest.

"Was that wise?" Stephen asked under his breath, watching as the kid began to excitedly sort through it all.

"Probably not," Tony said.  "But neither is a lot of things I do, and this one was more wise than leaving a very smart teenager to wander aimlessly through a giant flying doughnut without the ability to make his self-soothing army of hammocks.  FRIDAY will keep an eye on him, anyway, make sure he doesn't throw anything together that would poison him.  Or, you know: Us."

"How reassuring."

"Are you feeling neglected, Stephen?  Don't.  I brought you something too."  He proffered the second case.  "Exhibit A."

Stephen opened it and extracted one of the gauzy, flexible veils, transparent and flickering with light in its inert state.  The sorcerer balanced it between his hands for a moment, examining the iridescent surface intently.

"You've let me use them before," Stephen said.  "But I forgot what it felt like to touch.  Insubstantial; like a film of cobwebs.  I lose so many details when I wake from each timeline."

Tony eyed him, hearing something oddly melancholic in his voice.  "You were the one who told me to live in the moment and not lose myself in the future.  Maybe you should take your own advice."

Stephen sighed, letting the veil pool in one hand to rub the other over his eyes tiredly.  "It's not that simple for me.  The future is a web of possibilities strung together by fate and circumstance.  I have to tease each strand apart to keep us safe."

"Hey."  Tony plucked the veil away and caught hold of his loyal cloak to tug him closer.  It curled briefly around his hand in welcome.  "Some crazy guy I know gave me this lecture about not doing things alone.  I can't really remember it all, he's kind of an arrogant shit sometimes, but the bottom line was something about us being in this together."

"You're going to lecture me about arrogance," Stephen said, pressing at the bridge of his nose, squinting.

Tony ignored that.  "Something wrong with your eyes?"

The sorcerer looked up, a scowl creasing his brow.  "No.  I have a headache."

"You seem to get a lot of those.  Something I should worry about?"

"I'm not worried about it."

Tony frowned.  "Which - neatly dodges the question.  Stephen, is this something I should worry about?"

"Is there anything you don't worry about?" Stephen asked wryly.  "You have a remarkable number of mother hen qualities for a self-involved billionaire."

"Stephen."

The sorcerer shrugged.  "I'm still working on an answer.  Ask me another time."

Tony stared at him, searching.  "When a guy asks if he should worry, and the answer isn't immediately 'no', you know what that means, right?" 

"In this case it means have patience."

"I'm bad at patience."

"No," Stephen said.  "You?  Surely not."

"Don't even start.  At least tell me if whatever it is might result in my having to carry you again like a damsel in distress."

"It won't.  And that never happened."

"My photographic evidence says otherwise."

Stephen gestured at the veil, forgotten in Tony's hands.  "Give me that.  Might as well start as we mean to go on.  I seem to remember it has to calibrate first?"

"Yep.  It'll conform automatically once you fit it to your face.  Just press on either side at the temple so it can start mapping topographic markers."  Tony paused, watching the mask flicker as it went through its start-up process.  "Can't do anything about our hair color.  Of course, I hear you might have some options when it comes to hair color.  Gray hair removal, for example."

"I only said that to annoy you," Stephen admitted.

"Can you do it though?"

"Of course."

"Playing dress-up with you is going to be the highlight of this whole trip," Tony said.  "I can tell.  Okay, leave it on for ten minutes, minimum, and it should be good to go from there.  Remember, the mask only hides your face.  It won't disguise any superhuman feats of daring-do.  So no magic and no wall-crawling for either of you once we hit the planet."

"No Stark tech," Stephen added.  Rather pointedly, Tony thought.

"Oh, sorry, did you not want a mask?"

"That's not Stark tech," Stephen heartlessly reminded him.  "Someone else came up with it first."

Tony pointedly started to stalk away.  "If you're done insulting me, I'll leave you to try and dig Peter out of his chemistry set.  When you're finished, I recommend you both scatter and pack for a few days camping planet-side.  I'll meet you in the cargo bay in an hour."

"And here I thought you hated camping."

"Careful Stephen," Tony said as he walked off the bridge with dignity.  "That veil responds to my every whim.  Don't make me give you a deformity.  Or an unfortunate facial tick."

Stephen muttered some kind of answer, undoubtedly snarky, but it was lost when the doors slid shut between them.

"Boss," FRIDAY said a few moments later, her voice tinny as it filtered through the housing unit. 

"Yes, dear?"

"Are you sure about this?  Visiting another planet so soon seems ill-advised.  We have not finished cataloguing the gains from our last encounter.  Nor do I believe your injuries have fully healed."

Tony licked his lip, remembering the sharp sting of a wound he'd rather not think about.  "I'm fine, FRI."

"I disagree.  I have reviewed the uplink recordings.  Your treatment at the hands of Chancellor Zet leaves much to be desired."

"I'm not bleeding and everything's on its way to recovery.  Can't ask for more than that."

"And the unseen wounds?" FRIDAY asked, almost gently.  "Boss, my last record of uninterrupted sleep for you is almost -"

"FRI, no.  We can't languish in space just because I'm having issues.  If we did that, we'd never leave the ship again.  You may've noticed, but my issues don't really go away with time.  They just get worse."

"Perhaps if you would consider speaking to someone about the difficulty.  Stephen might -"

"He's not that kind of doctor.  Besides, that's not the point.  I bet you never thought you'd hear me say this, but the point is: It's not about me."

"Of course it is," FRIDAY insisted.

"Really isn't."

"Boss," FRIDAY said firmly.  "For me, everything is about you."

"FRI, I had no idea you were such a flatterer."

She had a few more choice words for him while he packed up supplies, but after a solid thirty minutes she seemed to accept the futility of the argument and limited herself to the occasional barbed comment.  Tony met back up with the other two exactly an hour later, everyone packed and ready to go.  Which set them up nicely to start their journey ever onward, but then also left them with one remaining all-important question -

"Wait a minute," Peter said, the crinkle of a frown appearing between his eyes.  Eyes which were now elongated and dark, in a face which was now far more Asian than it had been before. "We're not bringing the ship into the atmosphere?"

"Gold star," Tony said.

"But then how are we getting down there?"  There was a look of resignation creeping onto the kid's face.  "You're going to carry me again, aren't you?"

"Only if you ask me nicely," Tony said cheerfully.

Peter turned with a hopeful stare in Stephen's direction.  "Or maybe Doctor Strange could get us down with a portal.  Like when we pulled Mr. Stark out of the asteroid belt?"

Tony scowled.  "It's like you hate travelling in Stark style or something."  He raised both eyebrows, questioning.  "Well, Stephen?"

The sorcerer tilted his head side to side in consideration.  "From this high up?  It depends.  How close into the atmosphere can we descend before gravity forces us downward?"

"The engine on this ship has enough power to counteract the gravitational pull at any distance, really, but that's not the problem.  I want to avoid scaring the locals, but we also need to maintain radio contact with the ship.  Which means, given the planet's core and the size of the exosphere, FRIDAY will have to keep a minimum safe distance of at least two-hundred miles.  Three hundred would be more ideal."

"If we can break that down to a hundred and fifty and FRIDAY can provide me a specific location with imagery, I can probably do it," Stephen said.  "Sorcerer's use pre-programmed orbs to travel great distance, but the longest I saw anyone create a stable independent connection was just over a hundred miles."

Tony hummed skeptically.  "A hundred miles to a hundred-fifty.  That seems like a significant leap."

Stephen shrugged.  "I'm willing to try.  Portal physics mostly requires intent and strong visualization."

"Portal physics requires suspension of disbelief," Tony corrected, scowling when Stephen only smiled at him serenely.  He realized suddenly there was a flash of red missing from their motley crew.  "Where's your loyal St. Bernard?  I expected it to cling to your boot heels until the very last second.  Did you lock it in the storage closet so it couldn't give chase?"

"No.  That seemed far too obvious."  Stephen shrugged.  "So I had Peter lock it in."

"I felt really bad about it," Peter admitted.  "Like locking a puppy in the bathroom.  I swear I heard it scratching at the door."

"FRIDAY'll keep an eye on it," Tony reassured, then just about hurt himself rolling his eyes.  Like he needed to provide reassurance about the ridiculous cloak, which would of course be fine.  "We should probably get the ball rolling before the levitating menace stages a jailbreak.  We can descend to one-fifty, but not for long, and we'll have to be careful about the angle of entry.  FRIDAY, you know what to do."

"Sure do, boss."

When Tony walked out of the portal twenty minutes later, it was to find himself in a vibrant field of green and brown and gray, a massive sprawling forest surrounding them like an ocean of vegetation.  A film of frost decorated the entire thing with the glitter of ice, like diamonds.

"Wow," Peter said, speaking for them all.  "I've never seen so many trees.  Is this what Canada looks like?"

"Why Canada?" Tony asked.

Peter shrugged.  "I don't know.  People say Canada, this is what I think of.  Don't you?"

"Nope.  I hear Canada, I think igloo's, dog-sledding and Mounties.  Moose.  Beavers.  Maple syrup -"

"Clearly neither of you have ever been to Canada," Stephen said.

Tony squinted at him.  "What gave it away?"

Stephen ignored them both to start walking toward a section of trees.  Which was easy to do; the entire area was basically sections of trees.  Tony followed him, Peter close behind.

"FRIDAY, you there?" Tony tested, reaching up to activate the micro-transmitter.  "Planet XL8 something something calling FRIDAY.  Come in FRIDAY."

"Reading you loud and clear," FRIDAY said, quiet but smooth, no sign of static or interference.  Tony glanced up, seeing Stephen and Peter both reach for their transmitters with waves of acknowledgement.

"Excellent.  Wouldn't want to lose you this trip," Tony said.

"That's my goal too, boss."

"Alright."  He turned to face Stephen.  "Civilization is a few miles out.  Don't suppose we could send a drone ahead and have you hitch us a magic portal ride closer?"

"I thought you wanted to be discreet."

"Yeah, but I want to avoid walking even more."

"Walking's good for you," Stephen insisted.  "After spending months cooped up on a spaceship and then as prisoners beneath a dictator's thumb, we could all do with a bit of fresh air."

Tony eyed him shrewdly.  "And this planet's going to give us that, is it?"

"Can't hurt," Stephen deflected easily.

"Remind me to remind you to your face how annoying you are.  When I can actually see your face again.  You know you make a pretty ridiculously tall Asian man?  If this adventure winds up like Gulliver's Travels, don't blame me."

Stephen ignored him.  "Any sign of the element you're looking for?"

"More trace amounts.  Nothing substantial."

"Then I suppose we continue walking."

"Or you could just tell me where to find it, since you seem so knowledgeable about the neighbourhood."

"No, I think we'll continue walking," Stephen said, and matched actions to words.

Peter jogged a bit ahead to examine one of the tress.  "These look mostly coniferous.  Some deciduous."  He scaled halfway up to poke his head past the scraggly branches at the bottom.  "There's even some pinecones.  I mean, what are the odds of another planet having pinecones?"

Tony scowled and thought about throwing one of those pinecones at him, or possibly a missile.  "I said no wall-crawling on this trip.  Get down from there before I send you to bed without supper."

Peter dropped down fifteen feet, an armful of greenery in his arms.  "Right, yeah, sorry.  But what are the odds?"

"Probably similar to the odds of extraterrestrial life looking superficially identical to humans.  And why do you know anything about coniferous trees?  Better question, why would anyone want to know anything about coniferous trees?"

"I started Ecology with FRIDAY yesterday," Peter admitted, tossing three sticks behind him and shoving two pilfered pinecones into a carry sack, thankfully made of fabric and not webbing.  "All the images of this planet had trees, so."

Tony sighed.  "Well, at least we know it has rich oxygen content.  And the star in this system is a G-type, so no radiation protection needed beyond the obvious."

"FRIDAY's started me on astronomy too," Peter said excitedly.  "She said I should ask you for more advanced lessons, though."

"Space isn't my specialty," Tony admitted.  "But I can give it a try.  Might as well.  Apparently there's nothing else to do on this planet except enjoy nature, which, if I go crazy before we get back, you'll know why.  Where did you and FRIDAY leave off?"

"We were talking about planet classifications.  Element composition, gravity, um."  He looked sheepish.  "Something else I forgot.  She kind of goes on sometimes."

"I heard that," FRIDAY said. 

Peter flushed.  "Oops."

"Well, let's talk terrestrial planet conditions," Tony said.  "Since it bears on our galactic game of hide and seek.  We certainly won't be visiting any Jovian planets anytime soon."

"Solid versus gaseous planetoids?" Peter asked.

"Yep.  Let's use this planet as a reference point.  It's twenty-three percent oxygen, compared to Earth at twenty-one percent.  Nitrogen contents are similar -"

Stephen left them to talk science for a solid half an hour, about the length of time it took them to start coming across actual habitation, mostly the smell and sight of smoke from wood fires.  They slowed as they started to approach the tree line, taking in the distant hum of animals and people milling about.  It sounded very odd to Tony, almost unnatural, and he only realized he was listening for the sounds of industry and technology when it became obvious there wasn't any.

"When we're asked our purpose, destination and point of origin, keep the story simple and straightforward," Stephen said.  "We're traders coming from lands in the West.  We lost most of our gear and product when one of the rivers overflowed its bank.  We're looking for shelter and safety for a few nights.  That's it."

"And when they start asking us more personal questions about who we are and what we want?" Tony asked.

"Decline to answer.  It'll be considered rude, but better than the alternative.  They'll provide food and lodging, regardless.  This culture believes strongly in hospitality.  If they ask about your glasses, just tell them it's a magnifying instrument for sight."

"And if they ask about -"

"Maybe just let me do all the talking," Stephen interrupted.

Tony glared at him, insulted, but Peter was already nodding along.

"Here we go," Stephen said, just as they cleared the dense forest to find a valley at their feet, and a bustling village of people occupying it.  Large pavilion-type tents were set up in a crude residential area down one half of the valley, while an arrangement of barrels and cauldrons full of supplies, presumably food, occupied another area, protected from the elements by large overhangs.  The other half of the valley was full to the brim with animals, some foreign, but most of them shockingly familiar.

"Are those," Peter began incredulously.  "I mean, are they - horses?"

"Looks that way," Tony said with a frown.  He considered the highly unlikely scenario that they'd actually stumbled back to Earth, somehow, possibly in an earlier timeframe.  Because the idea of them running across a civilization made up of humans and pine trees and horses seemed truly bizarre.  The odds had to be astronomical.

A strange and familiar scent tickled Tony's nose and sank deep into the recesses of his hindbrain.  He blinked, freezing.

"Is that," he started, staring, sniffing in what was probably something embarrassingly reminiscent of a hunting dog, but Tony couldn't really be bothered to care.

"Yes," Stephen said smugly.

"It's really."

"Yes."

"What?" Peter asked, bewildered.

"Coffee," Tony breathed.

"Well, it's really more of a tea," Stephen murmured.

But Tony wasn't listening.  He was busy following his nose.

Chapter Text

"I seem to remember," Stephen murmured far too smugly, "someone saying tea was no man's coffee."

"Shut up."

"How the mighty have fallen."

"Stephen," Tony said, sipping reverently from his mug, "no one likes condescending assholes who say I told you so.  Believe me, I should know."

Stephen turned to Peter, something halfway mischievous in his face.  "Shall we wager on how badly the universe is doomed if Thanos comes armed with coffee?"

Peter snorted.  "Are you kidding?  If this is how he is with tea, I can't imagine him with coffee.  Sucker's bet."

Tony muttered something vulgar into his cup before taking another sip.  "I'm not that bad."

Stephen raised an eyebrow.  "No?"  He tapped a finger against the sturdy metallic kettle they'd been given to share.  "Then I suppose you won't mind if I keep the rest of this for myself?"

"Doc, you just better hand that over before someone loses a limb."

"The tea is my favorite, I admit," a feminine voice said slowly, "but I've never heard it inspire such fierce loyalty before."

They turned to see a young woman, one of their hosts, standing just visible around one of the cloth partitions.  There was a covered tray in her hands and a look of surprise on her face.

Stephen grinned, inviting her into the joke.  "That's only because you've never met Tony before."

"It only seems extreme until you realize I've been deprived of caffeine for more than four months now," Tony explained.

"Nope, still extreme," Peter said.  "Besides, you kind of deprived yourself."

"Semantics."

She blinked.  "I hadn't realized your journey was so long.  When you said your belongings were swept away, we assumed that was quite recent."

"Oh, it was," Tony assured her.  "Very recent.  That river was treacherous.  Snuck up on us like a cat stalking prey.  Pouncing, screaming, flailing; the works."

"It seems a strange thing," she mused.  "Most of the streams near here are shallow and peaceful and at this time of year still nearly frozen.  There must've been heavy snowmelt or rain to swell a river in such a way."

Tony winced.  "Right.  Well, whenever that last heavy rain was, then."

She looked shocked.  "But that was two cycles ago!  To have gone on for so long without supplies.  It's incredible."

"That's us, the Incredible Three.  Not to be mistaken for the Fantastic Four."  Tony smiled brightly.  "Our walk here didn't seem that long.  We must've been further off than I thought."

"Yes.  On the lee of the mountain we don't receive much rain, but our crops on the windward side do.  It's two days by horseback to reach them.  Of course, in winter very little grows on the mountain."

Tony looked with alarm down at his mug.  "I hope you're not short on your tea supply."

"No," she said, laughing, clearly having picked up on Tony's obsession.  "It is spring now, and besides, there is always tea.  "

"Oh, thank God."

A man came up behind her, ducking beneath the cloth screen so he could shuffle into the room, squinting.

"Esan, are you harassing our guests with questions again?" he asked, scolding.

"No, father," she said.  "I only came to offer them breakfast."

He took the tray from her hands, peering beneath the cloth cover.  "So you did."  He turned to them congenially.  "It is little enough.  We don't have much left after the cold season, but what we have we are glad to share, of course."

"Thank you, Verdun, but you really don't need to do that," Stephen said.  Tony theoretically agreed with him but couldn't help twitching toward the tray in protest.  (Maybe it had tea on it)

The alien shook his head, smiling.  "Of course we do.  We can’t leave you without provisions when we have the means to supply you.  That would be the height of dishonor.  Here."

He handed them the food, which turned out to be warm, breaded meat rolls, some kind of root vegetable, and a collection of soft squares covered in syrup.  Delicious as it looked, Tony felt a small part of his soul wither at the lack of more caffeine.  He surreptitiously pulled the kettle closer to him.

"How do you fair this morning?" Verdun asked cheerfully.  "You seemed overwhelmed yesterday.  I hope a night's rest has settled any difficulties."

"Not really," Tony said, "but you have caffeine, and that makes the whole world a better place."

"Your hospitality's been more than generous," Stephen said overtop of Tony.  "Unfortunately, we have little means to pay it back at this time."

Good humor dissolved into indignation.  "Payment is unnecessary!  We would never ask for such a thing."

"That's why we're offering."

The pretty words mellowed the man's face back into a smile.  At first, they hadn't seemed like much for smiling, these people; they not only appeared to have Asiatic ancestry, but possibly some of the traditional stoic mannerisms as well.  But it hadn't been long before curiosity wore down the strict etiquette between host and guest.  Apparently they received few visitors this far up the mountain.

"We have little to give but food and shelter," Verdun said.  "But you are welcome to both for as long as you need."

"We were late coming in before," Stephen said.  "We saw the spread of your camp, of course, but numbers were difficult to determine from the tree line.  How many of you are there?"

Verdun smiled with great pride.  "We started as a small caravan, just two or three families strong.  Now we are twelve families."

"A large community by all accounts."

Tony blinked incredulously.  "It is?"

But Verdun was nodding happily.  "Indeed.  We've begun to feel the stretch of supplies for so many.  It won't be long now, perhaps one or two more winters, before our young ones may wish to break from this camp and start their own."  He slipped an arm around his daughter and she leaned into him with an indulgent grin.  "My Esan will be full grown then, and will have her first chance to secure a place in the caravan."

"Father," Esan complained, aggrieved.  "I am full grown now."

He smiled indulgently.  "Of course, of course."

Peter looked at them in surprise.  "You'll leave?  But you look.  I mean.  You look younger than me."

"I don't think so," she said, scanning her eyes over Peter carefully.  The kid flushed scarlet and ducked away.  Tony shared a knowing look with Stephen.  "Your family left your camp to travel distant lands.  You must feel the call to find new places as I do."

"My family?"

Esan blinked at him, startled.  "Well, of course."  Then her eyes went wide, darting between Peter and Tony and Stephen rapidly.  "Unless - are you not related?"

Verdun stopped smiling at her question, a deep frown carving lines in his face.  Tony had the ominous feeling there was something cultural he was missing here and he froze, making the executive decision to sit on anything he might want to say in case it got him beheaded.

Stephen stepped in to rescue them.  "Peter and Tony share common ties.  I had no connection to either of them until quite recently."

Peter looked like he couldn't quite decide whether he should be protesting that or not.  Tony grinned, throwing an arm around his shoulders and stuffing one of the meat rolls in his mouth before the kid could say anything too cheeky.

Esan looked enchanted.  "Then you are two families who have joined as one.  How did you come to be together, the three of you?"

"Ah," Stephen said, smiling.  "Well, I was on a different path not so long ago.  But then Tony came along and swept me away."

Tony put on his most charming expression.  "I can be irresistibly persuasive sometimes."

"That's one way of putting it," Peter muttered around his roll.  Tony shoved another one at him to shut him up, the flaky crust reminding him to take one of his own.  He offered one to Stephen, who accepted absently.

"What inspired you to join them?" Esan asked Stephen, still curious.

"At first it was more Tony's idea than my own.  He didn't want to let me out of his sight."

"What did he offer you that enticed you to go with him?"

"Oh, well," Stephen said inscrutably.  "I think it's safe to say Tony basically ran off with me before I quite realized what was happening."

She brightened with youthful excitement.  "That's so romantic."

Peter promptly started to choke on his second roll.  Tony obligingly smacked him on the back a couple times.

"Are you well?" Verdun asked, leaning forward with concern.  "Is the food too dry?  Sometimes the pasty can be very flaky when it's fresh."

"No, it's," Peter gasped, hacking.  "It's fine."

Esan looked alarmed by all the fuss.  "Perhaps some tea will help."

"Tea helps everything," Tony agreed loyally.

Verdun poured a cup and Peter took a gulp to clear his throat.  He made a face at the taste.

"Sorry," the kid said when he could talk without coughing up a lung.  "It went down wrong, that's all.  It's actually really amazing food.  Awesome."

Verdun looked pleased by the praise.  "We are honored.  I will tell my wife of your enjoyment." 

Peter nodded vigorously.  "Seriously, it's the best thing I've eaten since Earth."

"Earth?" Verdun asked, reaching out to top up Tony and Stephen's tea as well.  Stephen blocked Tony's attempt to sneakily take both for his growing collection.

"Yeah," Peter said.  "Earth, that's -"

"Not a place at all, of course," Stephen interrupted.  Peter looked over in surprise, catching the sorcerer's stern warning glare.

"Oh," Peter said.  "We're not - that's, I mean.  Good old, uh, mother Earth.  No one quite does home cooking the same?  That's.  Obviously what I meant.  Because we're from the -" He fumbled, shooting a panicked look in Stephen's direction.  "- the west?  Here.  Right?  Yeah.  West of here."

Stephen rolled his eyes so hard it looked like it hurt.  Tony dubiously nudged his own mug of tea toward Peter.

"Here, I think you might need some more caffeine," he said.  "That was bad."

"It wouldn't help," Peter muttered.  "I've always been terrible at this."

Tony raised both eyebrows slowly.  "At what?"

"At -" Peter fumbled again, clearly searching for a safe way to phrase it before deciding there wasn't one.  "At talking."

"That, I believe," Tony said.

"I'm not sure you're in any position to judge," Stephen said.  "Verdun, we truly appreciate your offer of food and shelter.  After so long making our way alone, it's a kindness to take rest.  But now we've broken our fast, I wonder if we might borrow your knowledge of the land."

Verdun looked curious.  "Of course.  I don't know whether I'll have much to tell you, but you may ask."

"Tony's a craftsman," Stephen explained.  "A stonemason and metal-smith of a very unique variety.  Do you know of any areas of rock or stone nearby?"

"I have rarely seen stonework done before.  The bulk can be a difficult burden when the camp moves.  Do you not find it so?"

"We only take what we can carry, as you would.  If you know of any caves or quarries nearby, we mean to search them out today.  We're looking for a particular material."

Verdun frowned in consideration.  "There is a valley up north, not far from here, where you might find what you're looking for.  It's mostly bare rock from what I remember.  One of the flatlands."

"How far's not far?" Tony asked.

"Two hours at a brisk walk.  Perhaps three if you are very slow.  I would offer you the use of one of our horses, but we really can't spare them.  Spring is short lived on the mountain.  We must make preparations for it quickly."

"We understand, of course," Stephen said.  "A walk will do us no harm."

"Says you," Tony muttered.

Peter sighed wistfully, picking up another roll to eat.  "I've always wanted to try horseback riding."

"It's not as romantic as people make it out to be," Stephen said. 

"Your previous camp did not utilize horses?" Verdun asked skeptically.  "That is very strange."

"Oh," Peter said.  "Oh, no, obviously, they did.  Just.  There wasn't any for, um, personal use?"

"That is often the case," Verdun agreed.  "In the camp, there is often little time or resources to spare for things of personal use."

"Perhaps if there's time enough in our visit," Stephen suggested, "you and your family might show Peter some of the camp's daily tasks.  He's young, with much to learn, and new skills are always welcome when one is journeying far."

Peter looked like he had several choice words to say to that but was choking them all back because he was too polite.  Tony hid a laugh.

Verdun nodded happily.  "Of course.  We're always happy to have a helping pair of hands.  Perhaps while you examine the valley, your young one might stay behind."

Tony jolted out of the lazy amusement he'd fallen into.  "No."

Verdun blinked in surprise.  "No?"

"We stay together," Tony said, sitting up straight.  "No exceptions."

"He would be perfectly safe in the camp," Verdun insisted sharply.  "You needn't fear for him."

Stephen stepped in again to save the day.  "There's a history here you're not privy to.  You may have noticed we're a non-traditional unit to be travelling together."

"Yes, of course," Verdun said, mellowing.  "When you approached yesterday there was some concern you might be thieves or bandits."

"A reasonable doubt," Stephen agreed.  "Other camps are also doubtful.  This is not the first time we've approached a place only to find ourselves forcefully separated and imprisoned."

Verdun looked pained by this.  "Always there are those among us who are unscrupulous and ill-mannered.  I'm sorry you fell victim to such a thing."  He held out a hand in tentative offer.  "Clearly you escaped from your previous trouble.  Perhaps it is a story you would be willing to tell, sometime?  There will be a shared meal tomorrow evening in your honor.  We would've had it tonight, but preparations are needed in the camp now that spring has come."

"Oh, a party," Tony said.  "I love parties.  And being at the center of them."

"Then you will adore this," Verdun said amiably.  "Are you sure you wish to travel further this day?  You've had only an evening of rest after what sounds like a long journey.  Perhaps you should wait until tomorrow?"

"We're eager to know our prospects," Stephen said.  "We'll return before nightfall.  We don't have the supplies to camp on the mountain overnight."

"No, I imagine not.  The nights are still bitterly cold, even now.  I am frankly surprised you survived the winter without provisions."

"There we go again, the Incredible Three," Tony said.  "Surviving all the unsurvivable things.  Cats with nine lives, that's what we are."

"Ignore him," Stephen instructed.

Verdun drew the plate and its remaining breakfast foods closer to him, tipping it upside down so it lay on the cloth cover.  He tied it off into a rough sack, drawing a length of rope from a nearby drawer to thread it through, then held it out to them.

"If you mean to go, then you had best do so now," he said.  "Do not dally.  Dark will be on you quicker than you imagine.  Return promptly, and safe, else I worry Esan will have no one to torment with questions in the coming days."

"Father," she said, scandalized.

"I must allow her to ask them," Verdun confessed conspiratorially.  "If I don't, she will simply ask them of me.  Then I will be forced to break the rules of etiquette myself to get the answers, and my wife will scold me terribly, and it will all go quite ill in the end, you see."

"I know exactly what you mean," Tony said.

"There, then.  You know why you must come back safely.  Take care you don't wander from the path.  The mountain can be unkind to reckless travellers."

"Reckless?" Tony protested automatically.  "Please.  Do I seem like -"

"Yes," Stephen and Peter said in concert.

Tony glared at them.  "Guess we'll just be going, then.  Verdun, you wouldn't happen to have a thermos for the - no, I guess not.  How about a portable tea kettle for the road?"

"But it will grow cold, even in the kettle."

"I'm not sure if you've ever heard of this thing called iced tea.  I wasn't a fan before this trip, but I got to say, the idea's starting to grow on me."

The journey to the valley took them a bit longer than anticipated.  Twice they lost the path and had to backtrack.  After the second roundabout, and a good deal of cursing, Tony dragged Stephen and Peter behind a sheltering thicket of trees where he could frown at the sorcerer severely.

"Okay, you know what?  I don't know about you two, but I'm cold enough I think I'm starting to get frostbite in places a guy really doesn't want to get frostbite.  How is this their spring weather?"

Stephen looked amused.  "This climate is warmer than other places on the planet we've touched down.  It's not even snowing, Tony."

"I feel like snow might be an improvement.  At least there'd be cloud cover.  Stephen, if you can't find a way to warm me up, pretty sure some rather delicate bits of me are going to freeze and fall off soon."

Stephen made a sympathetic face.  "That would be a tragedy."

"I've actually felt pretty comfortable," Peter said.

Tony rolled his eyes.  "That's because you have the metabolism of a hummingbird on speed."

Peter blinked.  "Is - that a thing?"

"It is now."  Tony turned wide, pathetic eyes in Stephen's direction.  "Hey, I remember it being advertised somewhere that you can do things.  Magic things, which would un-freeze important parts of me that, should they remain frozen, I'll be making all of you very unhappy about shortly."

"Well," Stephen demurred mildly.  "I'm not sure -"

Tony plucked out a hair, holding it out to Stephen magnanimously.  "Here, you can use this.  I don't mind, really.  Go right ahead."

"I can tell I won't stop hearing about this until I do."

"You were the one who said to ask.  I'm asking.  I'm going to keep asking, ad nauseam.  But, fortunately for you, there's an easy way to shut me up."

Stephen sighed dramatically, only the laughter in his eyes giving him away.  "If that's all it took to shut you up, I'd have employed this method long ago."  He took the hair offered, pinching it between two fingers so he could draw it into a long, blistering string that broke into three spirals, rotating counter clockwise to each other.  A row of runes sketched itself into place, completing the circle.  Stephen handed it to Tony, who barely waited for a nod of acquiescence before he closed the spell between two hands, dissolving it into sparks that flared and sank into his skin like pinpricks of fire.

"Much better," he said, slumping with relief.  "All my delicate bits thank you.  And other bits of me are pretty grateful too."

"Let it never be said I wasn't considerate of Tony Stark's delicate bits."  Stephen turned to face Peter, a questioning look on his face.

The kid shrugged, lifting one hand and then the other in weighty consideration.  "I'm okay, I think.  I'll pass."

"Suit yourself."  The sorcerer wasted no time arming himself with the same spell, blinking when the orange flickers of it melted away.

"Better?" Tony asked.

"Hmm.  I hadn't realized how cold I was."  Stephen flexed his hands, frowning. 

"Welcome to my world."

When they walked out of the tree line some thirty minutes later, it was to see a field of abandoned rock and stone and very little else.

"Wow," Peter said, blinking.  "It's like someone moved the forest."

Tony glanced behind them, at the sudden sharp contrast of peaceful green vegetation against the more barren landscape in front.  "Weird.  FRIDAY, scan ahead.  How far across does this valley stretch?"

FRIDAY came through, but for the first time Tony heard a fizzle of static across her line.  "I'm having some difficulty with full perspective, boss.  Scans are limited, but I'd estimate three miles long."

Tony crouched down, touching the ground and letting a few nanobots skitter off to start collecting mineralization data. 

"I wonder why no one's established more permanent city structure on this planet.  There's enough building material here to make the Brooklyn Bridge ten times over.  And pretty sure there's a whole forest of wood behind us."

"They've always been nomads," Stephen said quietly.  "It's their way.  And they never needed to change."

Tony raised an eyebrow.  "And no one's been innovative enough to suggest some progress?"

Stephen shook his head.  "To these people, progress is in the spread and expansion of family and culture.  Not industry.  They're mutually exclusive."

"Wow.  So what you're saying is, if I'd been born on this world I'd have been lynched long ago.  Maybe burned as a witch.  Still might be, if I'm not careful."

"They might have more tolerance of you than you think, but they still won't respond warmly to technology."

Tony scowled.  "How long have they lived on this planet that they're still in the camping and fire-pit stage of technology?"

"Tens of thousands of years."

"What?" Tony blurted incredulously.  "And they haven't moved past tents and horse-drawn carts?  They're basically still in the Iron Age.  Maybe Bronze Age."

"By choice," Stephen reminded.  "It's not for lack of time or opportunity.  They simply don't seek out expansion.  They're not looking for advancement."

"But why?"

Stephen shrugged.  "They're not interested in change."

"Tens of thousands of years."  Tony shook his head.  "You know, there's a point where lack of change becomes a slide toward stagnation."

Stephen said nothing for long, heavy moments, and something in his silence compelled Tony to look up.  He blinked at the intense stare Stephen directed at him, the slow smile that stretched the sorcerer's mouth and the unexpected heat that lit his eyes.

"Sometimes," Stephen said softly.  "I forget beneath the sarcasm, and the hyper-rationality, and the science that Tony Stark can be a very wise man when he wants to be."

"Well," Tony said, oddly wrong-footed.  "Every dog has his day.  Just don't tell anyone."

Stephen smiled so fondly it made something in Tony's chest hurt. 

"Earth moves exponentially toward change," Stephen explained quietly.  "In part because our need to understand is fueled by a lifespan limited to a hundred years.  As far as the universe is concerned, a mortal lifespan is an aberration and a curse, not the norm.  Most species outlive us, and usually not by years.  By centuries.  In some cases, millennia."

"Shit," Tony muttered.  "Who wants to live forever?"

"Someone told me once that death is what gives life meaning."

"Yeah, I've seen the never-dying movie before, and it never ends well."  Tony waved a hand dramatically.  "There can be only One!"

Stephen sighed.  "You're quoting Highlander.  Of course you are."

"You're talking about immortality.  Pretty sure there's no better quote I could've made -"

"Hey guys," Peter interrupted.  "I think you should come look at this."

Tony looked around, and then looked around again because the area immediately near them was flat and there was no sign of the kid anywhere.

"Look at what?" he asked.  "Where are you?"

"Over here."

'Over here' turned out to be back toward the tree line, where at first Tony was sure Peter had broken the wall-crawling rule again and scaled a tree.  A closer look showed it wasn't a tree; it was a large stone pillar, covered in moss and other evidence that nature had decided to reclaim it.

"Huh," Tony said, circling the thing thoughtfully while Peter made a show of actually climbing it, in the style of someone who had to look for hand and foot holds.  "Stephen, look, it's one of your mysterious structures.  Mazel Tov."

The sorcerer hummed in agreement, walking the opposite way around.

"So, go on, share with the class.  What is it?"

Stephen pretended not to hear him, reaching out to trace two fingers along the edge of a horizontal shelf.

"Stephen, don't make me come over there."

"Why not?  You're going to anyway."

Tony muttered something unflattering at him and proved him right by circling entirely around the thing to look at it from all angles, touching carefully.

"I mean, it looks like a stone pillar," Tony said.  "A pylon, maybe?  Or a support column.  The problem with that is there's no evidence of anything around here that might need a support column.  It's literally standing in the middle of a giant stone field."

"Technically," Peter said from the top of the pillar.  "It's on the edge of a giant stone field.  And it's not the only one. I can see three more from here."

"What?"  Tony demanded.  "Where?"

Peter shrugged, pointing vaguely across the valley.  "There.  And two over there."

Tony looked.  He could vaguely see several tall, green objects that had the wrong dimensions to be trees.  "Stephen, I thought you said these people were nomads."

"Yes," the sorcerer agreed.

"Then what the hell are these?  I don't have to be an engineer to tell you there's no chance in hell these would transport well.  Imagine if the Egyptians were nomads, moving their pyramids around with a horse and cart.  Not a pretty sight."

"Well, you know what they say about the pyramids."

"I didn't actually know people said anything about pyramids.  What's there to say?"

Tony felt his fingers catch over something and glanced down.  Beneath a thick layer of moss, dirt and grime, raised stone had been carved into a pattern.  It was difficult to see, but it had the shape of something that might be some kind of symbol.  Or letters.  Tony scowled at the concealing layers of green hiding most of the surface from sight.  "Ugh.  Nature.  Who needs it?"

"Most living beings in the universe," Stephen said.

"Not Starks.  We have a natural aversion to all things even remotely organic."  Tony scrabbled with his fingers at the pillar.  "Help me out here, doc."

Stephen circled around him, watching as Tony worked for a minute or two before saying mildly: "There are easier ways to go about that."

"Yeah, I'm tempted to laser it off," Tony agreed, "but I might take the whole thing down accidentally.  That might attract a bit more attention than we're looking for here."

"Back up a bit."

Tony eyed him suspiciously.  "Why?"

"Do you like getting your hands dirty?"

"Depends if that's a euphemism or not."  Tony examined his filthy hands.  "In this case I'm guessing not."  He took three dramatically large steps away.

Stephen pressed his hands together until the air started to ripple around him.  Tony watched with glee as his glasses, attuned now to Stephen's magic, picked up the swell of energy and translated it into a haloed afterimage around his form, most prominent near the hands.  A few seconds later the invisible bloom of magic solidified into three interlocking red bracelets around Stephen's wrists and forearms. 

"Don't tell anyone I said this," Tony whispered loudly, staring, "but now I know what I'm looking for, magic's pretty awesome."

"In every universe I share it with you, you eventually say that," Stephen admitted, smiling at him.  "Why do you think I offered to let you study it?"

Tony rolled his eyes.  "There you go cheating again."

Peter peered over the edge of the pillar, sitting down to watch the show with his legs dangling.  "You think anything you can't do is cheating."

"Because it is."

Stephen slid his hands apart and then past each other, sketching a flat, horizontal circle in the air.  The energy spiked phenomenally and Tony leaned forward without meaning to.

"Careful," Stephen murmured.

Tony couldn't bring himself to move.

Stephen glanced up the pillar at Peter.  "You might want to come down from there."

Peter flipped off, ruining the illusion he was an ordinary climber by plunging a solid twenty feet and landing lightly on his toes with a delicate skip.  Tony's joints twinged just to see it.

"Show off," he muttered out of the side of his mouth.

"Wonder where I got it from," Peter muttered back. 

Stephen ignored them both and flung his hands wide, releasing the pent up magic.  A wave of wind and a strange ozone scent flash-fired through the air like lightning and smoke.  Tony could feel his eyes water immediately.  He blinked the sensation away and when he could see clearly again, the pillar had lost all traces of nature's grip.  The stonework beneath was smooth and clean, years of grime scoured away in seconds.  Lingering vestiges of the magic settled with a faint glitter to give it all a merry little sparkle.

"Wow," Tony commented, examining the work critically.  "That was efficient.  Do you make house calls?  I have a mansion that could do with a scrubbing if you're so inclined."

"Dude," Peter exclaimed.  "You have a mansion?"

"It's possible I have many," Tony admitted.  "I can never remember how many holdings Stark Industries owns, let alone the ones I own." 

Tony reached out to trace a symbol on the pillar, faded and eroded after time had made its mark, but still plainly visible as a pattern chiselled into the stone. 

"That spell was insane," Peter said wistfully.  "Magic's so cool."

"Bad spider, no," Tony muttered, distracted.  "No biscuit for you.  Magic bad, science good."

Peter rolled his eyes.  "You just said magic was awesome.  Besides, magic is science, remember?  Science you can't understand."

"Science I can't understand yet."

Stephen hummed thoughtfully.  "This isn't quite beginner's magic, but the method of it is easy enough if you understand the basics.  Here, I'll show you."

"Busy," Tony said, distracted.  "Mysterious pillars now, magic later."

"I wasn't talking to you," Stephen said, tugging Peter away.  Peter went eagerly.

Tony whipped around to stare after them, incensed.  "Hey.  No discussing magical theory without me."

"This isn't theory.  It's practice."

"No casting magic without me either!"

"Go back to your pillar, Tony."

"Yeah, Mr. Stark," Peter said cheerfully.  "We'll go clear off the other ones across the way.  You can come have a look when you're done."

"Are you still calling him Mr. Stark?" Stephen asked, frowning.  "Tony."

"What?  He still calls you Doctor Strange."

"I keep asking him to call me Stephen.  Formality is so awkward.  Even the A.I calls me Stephen at this point."  The sorcerer winced.  "No offense, FRIDAY."

FRIDAY crackled slightly as she came through on the earpiece.  "None taken."

"What?"  Tony blinked.  "She does?  Since when?"

"Many weeks, boss," FRIDAY concurred.

"Where the hell was I?"

"Busy mouthing off to an alien overlord," Stephen said.

"Oh, right.  Kid, if the wizard convinced FRIDAY, you should probably just follow suit."

"It's weird, though," Peter muttered.  "I keep trying, but it doesn't come out right.  He's just Doctor Strange, you know?"

"You should just nickname everyone like I do.  Makes informality much easier.  You can practice by calling me Tony."

Peter looked absolutely scandalized.  "I can't do that!"

Tony frowned.  "Why not?"

"I just - I can't!"

"Well, I accept nicknames too, if you want to take that route. But I warn you, if you give me one I don't like I will retaliate in kind."

Peter flushed, a slow, mottled array of color, and his expression morphed into something halfway to bashful, or possibly mortified. 

Tony eyed him.  "What?"

"Nothing," Peter said, almost defiantly.  "I want.  I just.  I can't, okay?  I'm not ready to."  He took a breath and suddenly started to march away, almost jogging down across the valley.  "I'll meet you at the next pillar Doct- uh, Stephen."

"Wait," Tony called after him, bemused, but the kid didn't even slow.  He quirked an eyebrow at Stephen.

The sorcerer slanted him an amused look.  "Still haven't figured it out yet?"

"The pillar?"  Tony turned back.  "No, not yet.  I was busy being distracted by you two.  What the hell was all that about?"

Stephen only sighed, shaking his head.  He turned to follow Peter.

"What?" Tony called after the both of them, aggravated.  "Seriously.  Was it something I said?"

FRIDAY fuzzed into life in his ear.  "Boss."

"Yeah, FRI?"

"I have been studying forms of intelligence as they are understood by Earth's standards."

Tony listened warily.  "And?"

"And I am confused how someone can excel in one form of intelligence but fail to grasp basic principles of another.  Emotional intelligence, for example; something which seems to escape you."  She paused.  "Can you explain?"

"Very funny, FRIDAY.  See if I don't rewrite your humor algorithms when I get back up there."

Tony watched until Stephen and Peter had become indistinct blobs in the distance.  Then he allowed the mystery of the pillar to draw him back, with its knots of lines and decorative swirls.  There was something strangely familiar about it, maybe in the intricacy of the shape or its position; the presentation. 

"FRI, run it through all language databanks, including those from the ship."

"Sure thing.  I also have the preliminary mineralization analysis if you want it."

"Hit me."

Scans streamed over the glasses, most of them disappointingly marked off in red.  "Presence of elemental material is negligible.  I went three feet down over a radius of twenty feet across.  Trace amounts at best, boss."

"Dammit."  Tony took his eyes off the pillar long enough to frown around the valley.  "Thought for sure if we were going to find it anywhere, would've been in a rock field.  Maybe we need to be looking at cave systems."

"I recommend against it," FRIDAY said immediately.  "Your track record with caves has been abysmal to date."

"We've only encountered one on this trip so far.  They can't all come equipped with gigantic snakes."

"You don't know that."

"Don't be such a mother hen, FRIDAY."  He frowned sourly.  "Though God knows if you're worried you can just send Peter down after me again."

"I did not send him down.  He chose to go."

"Yeah, after you put the bug in his ear.  Admit it."

FRIDAY was silent, but the sound of her static was very guilty.

"Thought so.  We really need to talk about your protective instincts, FRI."

"My purpose in life is to ensure your survival and overall wellbeing," she said.  And though she might've been quoting off her programming parameters, she said it with a level of conviction Tony had only ever heard one A.I use before.

"Technically that was my job first, FRI.  Besides, that's a pretty big ask.  Who's to say how best you accomplish it?"

"Stephen," she said promptly.

"You're supposed to ask me."

"But boss, in almost seventy-two percent of cases, you've demonstrated impaired judgement about your own self-preservation.  Statistically, you are an inappropriate source to ask about such things."

"So ask me and then Stephen, FRIDAY," Tony said seriously.  "And always in that order.  I mean it.  My life is mine.  My choices are mine.  You don't have to like them, but you do have to let me make them."

She buzzed very unhappily in his ear.  "Yes, boss.  As long as others are allowed to make their own choices, too."

"Fair enough," Tony agreed.  "Okay, FRI, this persnickety pillar perusal is taking too long.  I want a full image render with a level four scan.  Save it to the ship's computer and I'll examine it later.  Meantime, let's have a look at the rest of the valley.  Could be other mineral deposits; maybe this was just a bad sample site.  Still can't pinpoint a location with external sensors?"

"Not for lack of trying, boss.  Whatever the source, it is extremely diffuse.  I'm unable to get any reliable lock except that there's a component of it somewhere on this mountain."

"Fantastic.  Well, we've seen about five percent of the mountain so far.  Just ninety-five more to go."

But half a day and an entire network of stray nanobots later, no treasure trove of rare elements appeared.  Tony did find some small supply of marble and copper deposits he excavated by hand to give some legitimacy to their claim of stonemasonry, but otherwise their little day trip seemed unfortunately fruitless.  And by the time Tony was done canvassing and caught up to Peter and Stephen the light had started to fade, and their little group was eager to hightail it back to camp.

They found Esan waiting eagerly for them at one of the overlooks.

"There you are!" she exclaimed, rushing forward in a youthful tangle of long limbs and excitement.  "I thought you might not return before dark!  The sun has already begun to set."

"Yeah, we noticed," Tony said as they all fell in for the final leg of the walk.

Esan jogged ahead of them eagerly.  "Did you find what you wanted in the valley?"

"No," Tony grumbled.  "A whole lot of nothing.  Although apparently your ancestors were more interested in stonework than you might think.  Any reason there's four colossal monstrosities of rock and moss surrounding that valley?"

"Colossal monstrosities?" she asked, frowning.  "I'm not sure what you mean."

"Stone pillars as high as a tree or higher.  They're hard to miss once you know they're there."

"Oh," she said with surprise.  "Do you mean the Lighthouses?"

Tony paused and ran that word rapidly through a number of permutations that might explain how a stone structure could act as a lighthouse.  He came up blank.  "I feel compelled to point out that they seem to lack both a house and a light."

She looked very confused, which told Tony something wasn't translating well; either the sarcasm or just the context.

"What are they for?" Tony asked.  "What do they do?"

"They are meant to guide," she said, shrugging.  "They are as beacons in the night.  In a sea of stars, the Lighthouse marks the path for those who use the Bridge."

Tony stared at her doubtfully.  "You have a bridge?  That seems unlikely.  Are you going to try and sell it to me next?"

"Why would I wish to sell you a bridge?"

Tony sighed and slowly mimed putting his hands over his ears, then his eyes, then his mouth.

Now it was her turn to stare at him.  "Are you alright?"

"The uncomplicated answer to that is no," Stephen said.

"He's just upset," Peter explained reasonably, "because he's got no one to play with who understands him.  Do you have any more tea?  I think that might help."

"Father always has a pot of tea boiling," she said earnestly.  "Come.  I will show you."

Tony allowed himself to be led back to the camp and into one of the many round, wide tents in evidence.  A number of people stopped to unashamedly stare as they went past.  As Verdun had said, few visitors came out this way, the result of which was they'd immediately acquired minor celebrity status as news of their presence spread.

"They're doing it again," Peter whispered.

Tony shrugged.  "Peter, you normally go around conquering the forces of evil by swinging through town in red and blue spandex.  You must be used to staring by now."

"But I'm not wearing the suit now!  I thought the whole idea of these masks was to blend in."

"Exactly.  First tip about learning to blend; stop flinching every time someone so much as blinks in your direction.  Pretend like you belong and most people will assume you do.  Take the tea, for instance.  It's a staple on this world, so obviously I'm going out of my way to enjoy it.  We might look suspicious if we didn't."

"Yes, of course," Stephen said.  "I can see how in your eyes everything can be made more authentic with caffeine."

"See, now you're starting to get me."

Esan eventually sat them in a set of chairs surrounding a small table.  Another tray of food was already set up, more meat rolls with an array of cheese, and it was only then that Tony realized how desperately hungry he was.  It'd been a long, disappointing day.  They started to devour the offered food while she brought them a set of earthenware mugs with a metal pot.  The smell of the tea was divine as she poured for each of them.

"Okay, but I really didn't mean you had to wait on us," Tony told her.  "There's a lot of things I can't do in this world, but pouring tea I could probably manage."

"Probably," Stephen said doubtfully.

Esan ducked her head.  "It's no trouble, of course.  You must be cold.  I can bring you more food, too, if you like.  Would you prefer anything particular?"  She glanced up through her eyelashes at them.  No, Tony realized.  At Peter.

Tony stifled a grin and caught Stephen doing the same.  Peter didn't answer, shyly picking at his sleeves with clumsy fingers.

"I think this should be enough," Stephen said, taking pity on him.  "We're guests here, and we have no wish to be a burden."

"You're not," she insisted loyally.  "Father wanted to know when you returned.  He's out back with the animals, I think.  I'll go tell him."

She scurried off.

"Oh, my," Tony drawled.  "And all that talk about the younger camp members striking out on their own pilgrimage soon.  Looks like you might receive an invitation, Peter."

Peter's pink face turned dark red.  "I don't, um.  I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Sure you don't."  Tony took a reverent sip of tea, sighing contentedly as the heat and caffeinated flavor of it seeped into his bones.  "Oh, that's good.  Guys, I think I'm having a religious experience here.  What do you think the odds are they'd let me steal a tea plant?"

Stephen shrugged.  "Good.  If you ask them nicely and give something back in return."

"Done and done.  What will they accept?  Hyperbolic gratitude?  My first born child?  Someone's hand in marriage?"  He paused, eyeing Peter thoughtfully.  The kid didn't notice.

Stephen slanted him an admonishing look.  "Working conditions are difficult this far southeast, with the cold.  Extra hands are always welcome."

"What about extra mouths?" Tony asked.

"If we were intending to stay here, we'd have to earn our keep.  We'll have a few days grace and then the rules of hospitality will be work against us, not for us."

Peter glanced over his shoulder, deeper into the tent.

"Shouldn't we be helping out anyway?" the kid asked, frowning.  "I mean, these people aren't exactly rolling in it.  They don't have much to spare, but they didn't even hesitate."

"You might've noticed," Tony said, "that we don't have much to spare either."

Peter made a face.  "Yeah, but.  There must be something."

"Not like we're not going to be busy the next few days.  I really need to find the source of that element signature, not to mention the mysterious stone towers are going to drive me insane.  Of course, maybe if someone could be convinced to share their toys with the rest of the class."

Tony glared at Stephen leadingly.  The sorcerer took a long, calm drink of his tea.

"You'll figure it out soon enough," Stephen said peacefully.  "Today or tomorrow.  Or on the third day, in futures where you're feeling particularly slow."

"Does it have anything to do with the symbols?" Peter asked.  "Is it a language?"

"No idea," Tony admitted.  "FRIDAY's still searching the database.  I doubt it, though.  All the pillars had them, but they looked mostly decorative from what I could tell.  They were pretty rudimentary, really."

"Not all of them.  The ones at the top were kind of intricate, I thought?"

"The who what now?" Tony asked.

"At the top."  Peter stared at him, frowning.  "You saw the ones on the top, didn't you?  Right on top of the pillar, I mean.  Not around it."

"No, I did not see the ones on top of the pillar." Tony scowled.  "Unlike some, I wasn't busy breaking our human-abilities-only rule."

"I didn't see you complaining about that when you asked about the heating spell," Stephen said.

Tony sighed.  "Well, that's because it worked in my favor then.  Peter, why didn't you say something sooner?"

"I thought you knew!" the kid protested.  "You took, like, an hour looking at it.  How was I supposed to know you weren't looking at all the angles?"

"I thought I was."  Tony reached for the nanotech, aborting at the last second as reality reasserted it.  "Shit, we're going to be limited to graphite and paper down here, aren't we?"

Stephen grinned.  "I think they've advanced to at least the use of ink."

"Fuck my life."  Tony checked around quickly for witnesses, then pulled a length of nanobots out until they formed something that almost resembled a pen.  "Here.  It won't be ink, but close enough to be indistinguishable to the naked eye."  He handed Peter the cloth from their lunch, pulling the fabric until it stretched flat.  "Sketch out what you saw at the top."

"But I don't remember all of it -"

"Whatever you do remember," Tony said impatiently.

Peter frowned, eyeing the nano-pen thoughtfully.  "Maybe we could do something like this for them.  Give them pens, I mean.  Do they have pens of their own?"

"Not that I know of," Stephen said.  "And they wouldn't thank you for them, regardless.  As I said, this culture's remained as is for many thousands of years.  They don't want progress."

"But there's got to be something we can do for them."

Stephen watched as Peter started to slowly mark out a few shaky lines.  "They might accept new designs, if you can think of any.  They're an artistic people."

"Artsy people who hate industry," Tony muttered.  "This whole place was designed to be my worst nightmare."

Stephen ignored him.  "More than even art, these people love stories.  That's certainly something they'd appreciate having from us.  Granted, we'd have to be careful not to make mention of where we come from or who we are, but we could make it work."

Tony grinned.  "Not a bad idea.  I feel like Peter'd make a pretty spectacular Scheherazade, don't you, Stephen?"

Peter glanced up, blinking.  "A what?"

Stephen smiled, amused.  "Fitting, perhaps.  Apart from his not waiting for morning execution.  Or being the wife of a sultan."

Peter looked shocked.  "What?"

"He'd make such a pretty bride," Tony said thoughtfully.  "How much you want to bet he'd sweep this whole village off its feet?"

"No bet," Stephen said dryly. 

"Yeah, I suppose he's already snared one of our hosts.  Guess that bird's flown.  Can't be too hard from there."

Peter flushed puce.  "I have not."

Tony took another sip of tea.  "Have."

"Haven't."

"Have."

"What are you, five?" Peter asked.  "Haven't."

"Excuse you, I'm at least six, if not seven.  Have."

"Children," Stephen drawled.  "Don't make me turn this whole expedition around."

"Yeah, kid," Tony said.  "Back to work."

"You," Peter started to say, pointing the pen at him.

Stephen cut him off.  "Peter, stop antagonizing him."

"What?" the spiderling protested.  "Why me?  He started it!"

"Because I can rely on you to be an adult about things.  And you know what he's like."

Tony flicked at him with one finger.  "Not nice, Stephen.  Just for that, I'm taking your tea too."

"Well, I wouldn't want to lose a limb getting it back," Stephen said.  "Keep it."

Approaching footsteps had them all looking up.  The bemused look on Verdun's face said he'd caught at least some of that last part.

"Esan tried to explain to me this morning that you are quite serious about your tea," their host said slowly, smiling like someone not quite sure whether or not he'd heard the tail end of a joke.  "I had thought the tale of possible dismemberment pure exaggeration.  Apparently that's not the case."

"It's a low risk, I suppose," Stephen said.  "But a risk, nonetheless."

"Yeah, he's having an experience," Peter put in.  He'd gone back to sketching. 

Verdun caught sight of the pen and blinked in surprise.  "I have not seen such a thing before.  What is that?"

"A small item that holds ink inside and automatically dispenses it at the tip," Stephen said.  "We call it a pen."

"Hmm."  The man turned away, obviously losing interest.  "What a strange notion."

Tony opened his mouth to say something indignant and probably very unwise, but fortunately Stephen got there first.

"Verdun, you and your family have been more than generous.  Even just the food we're eating must be taxing your stores.  Have you considered what we might do in return for all your help?  As I said before, we have no money and no supplies from which to pay you."

"And as I said before," Verdun said with a thunderous frown, "no payment is necessary."

"Please.  I'm sure there's much we could do to help.  An extra set of hands can be a blessing, especially in the spring."

"Yes, that's true," Verdun said hesitantly.  He wasn't obvious about it, but Tony could see him look at Stephen's hands, scarred and obviously unfit for the kind of labor likely to be needed in a nomadic community.

Stephen caught it too, but he made effort to remove his hands from sight.  The look on his face said he'd anticipated this topic.

"An accident in our former camp.  A transport overturned with me inside it."  He shrugged, turning so his palms were visible, as was the tremor when he extended his fingers.  "Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make a full recovery."

Tony nudged a tea mug closer to Stephen.  He slid his hand out of sight and over the sorcerer's knee, squeezing gently.  Stephen blinked, wrapping his fingers automatically around the hot mug.  The natural tremor eased.

"You were not able to obtain healing?" Verdun asked sympathetically, watching the byplay without comment.

"I was, but not in time to be effective."

"You have our sympathy."

"I wouldn't offer too much of that," Tony said, tracing small circles with his thumb.  "He managed to land on his feet well enough."

"Yeah," Peter agreed.  "Went from being a crazy, kick-ass neurosurgeon, to a crazy, kick-ass -"

Stephen cleared his throat warningly.

"- um.  Crazy, kick-ass - scholar?" Peter finished weakly.

"Wow, you really are bad at talking," Tony marvelled.  "I got the worst of that on our last stop.  Guess it's your turn, kid."

"Oh, no," Peter said, all sincerity.  "I couldn't.  I'm nothing compared to you."

"I swear, you've gotten so disrespectful since I stole you away from good old mother Earth."

Stephen kicked them both, dropping his free hand over Tony's to interlace their fingers out of sight. 

Verdun looked amused.  "I do enjoy watching these little chats of yours.  I had hoped to speak with you longer this evening, but you arrived back quite late.  I sent Esan to bed when she came to find me, and I too must turn in shortly.  I suggest you do the same.  As you know, the camp stirs early."

"Yeah," Tony said sourly, remembering waking wide-eyed and shocked at the cacophony of noise a nomad camp produced in the small hours of the morning.  It'd been as loud as New York in the height of rush hour, complete with people shouting incomprehensible things at each other that may or may not have been curse words.  "We remember."

Verdun was silently laughing at them.  "You've been journeying long and clearly have forgotten the rhythms of camp life.  You may need to learn them again."

"I don't believe we'll be here long enough for that to be necessary," Stephen said.

Verdun made a sorrowful sound.  "A shame.  As I said, visitors are often a blessing, if only for their stories."

"Those, we're pleased to offer.  Understanding, of course, that some tales are not for outside ears."

"Of course," Verdun said.  "All families have this.  Did you find what you needed in the valley?"

"Not even close," Tony said with a scowl.  "There's a particular element we're looking for.  It was rare in our previous home.  Here I seem to find traces of it everywhere, but none of any real use.  Any idea where else we could look?"

"I'm not sure what element you mean," Verdun admitted.  "Do you have any remaining?  Can you show it to me?"

Which was the crux of the matter, really.  Tony could show it to him, sure.  But the sight of the nanotech housing unit and the glow of the arc power source might be a little bit startling to someone who had to rub sticks and stones together to make fire.

"No, I really can't," Tony said.

"Then I'm uncertain how to help you.  If you're looking for new minerals and didn't find them in the valley, there are few other options."  Verdun gestured in a wide, exaggerated circle, smiling.  "As you can see, most of the resources we have in our camp come from the forest, or from our animals."

"Nature, ugh," Tony muttered.  "Who needs it."

"I suppose it might seem treacherous when it was responsible for washing your livelihood away," Verdun said sympathetically.  "Journeying without livelihood can be tantamount to death." 

"Preaching to the choir."

Verdun looked very puzzled by that. 

Stephen broke in to wave him away gratefully.  "Don't let us keep you up, please.  We'll finish here and then sleep, as you suggested."

"Yes, of course.  I realize yesterday must've been uncomfortably cramped, but today I've arranged for you to stay overnight in one of the unused dwellings.  It's larger than our den, at least. If you gather the remains of your meal, I'll show it to you now."

Tony reluctantly allowed Peter to stop sketching long enough for them to use the cloth as another makeshift sack, scooping up stray cutlery to shove inside.  Peter picked up the food tray as Verdun gestured them on.

"Come."

They followed, passing beyond the cloth boundary of the tent and back into the heart of the small community.

"This section of the camp is set aside for my family's craftwork," Verdun explained as they walked.  "Unfortunately, we do not have an extra domicile to hand.  The family who has offered one works to nurture some of the few spice plants which can survive the mountain's winter.  They are out now, tending them.  I will introduce you tomorrow."

"Right, speaking of tomorrow," Tony began to say.

"Mr. Stark!" Peter whispered urgently.

"Kid, I told you to call me -"

"Look!"

Tony followed Peter's pointing finger, jolting when he noticed what it was pointing at.

Verdun had also turned at the exclamation and hummed his appreciation.  "The Lighthouse?  But you must have seen them before, of course.  Did you not have one near your former camp?"

"No," Tony said, staring.  It was hard to believe he hadn't seen it yesterday when they'd come in, or this morning when they'd left, but the pillar itself was mostly concealed by the slope of the land, and like the others in the valley, it was situated off to the side.  Unlike the ones in the valley, though, this one was relatively clear of any dirt or debris and seemed to be well-tended.

"See?" Peter said, gesturing upward.  "At this angle you can almost see some of the design at the top."  He balanced the food tray easily on one arm, tugging at the sack Tony carried until he could turn it so the half-sketched pattern showed.  Tony glanced down at it once and then again, recognition blazing through him like a shock of fire.  He stared.

"Mr. Stark?" Peter asked, puzzled.

"That man," Tony said slowly, ponderously, "has no regard for lawn maintenance."

Peter stared at him.  "What?"

"FRIDAY," Tony said, recklessly ignoring Verdun close behind them.  "Tell me I'm not imagining things.  Is that -"

She came through clearly in his ear, the static from before gone.  "I'm not sure what you mean, boss."

Tony turned dazedly back to squint at the pillar again.  "Do you build them where you set up camp?" he asked slowly.  "And then move and create another wherever you go?"

"Create them?" Verdun sounded shocked.  "Of course not!  Well.  I should say that at one point we did, of course, but that was many thousands of years ago.  Now we simply camp near them for safety and protection, but there are so many we needn't make more."  He looked quizzically amongst the three of them.  "What a strange place your former camp must've been.  You seem to be lacking much of our people's history."

"There is a reason we journeyed far," Stephen said, misleadingly.  "Not all camps are as knowledgeable of the past as yours.  Some choose to forget.  I've encountered a few of them." 

Verdun nodded, looking very sorry on their behalf.

"To shelter without the protection of a Lighthouse.  How very sad."

"What kind of protection does it offer?" Tony asked, starting to drift toward it.  His mind immediately jumped to the obvious level of technology these people clearly didn't have.

"Well, the protection of the Bridge, of course.  It's mostly symbolic.  Though I understand just a few years ago that many of our brothers and sisters on other mountains were ravaged by marauders from a far away place.  Fortunately, our camp did not encounter these beings.  Nevertheless, it only reinforces that camps should always be established with a Lighthouse near, lest we need to call on the Gods to help us."

"The Gods," Tony repeated numbly.  "The Bridge.  Of course."

"Of course."  Verdun frowned fiercely.  "You do know of the Gods, do you not?  Surely your camp taught at least those stories."

"Yes," Stephen said.  He'd come up behind Tony and now laid a steadying hand on his shoulder.  Tony felt his touch as if through a haze while his mind tried to cycle through the improbable facts he was being given.  "We know about them.  Odin.  Thor."

"Oh, yes," Verdun said happily, while beside them Peter gasped with realization.  "Have you heard the tale of Odin's runes?  It is an older one, but I quite enjoy it."

"Nope," Tony said.  "Haven't."

"Perhaps you will have the chance to hear it before you go," Verdun was cheerfully.  "Come, there is no time to linger.  Night is setting in and we must be abed."

Tony stumbled along after him as the man moved away, conscious of Stephen close against his shoulder and Peter moving quizzically beside him.

"Did you say Thor?" Peter asked Stephen.

"He said Thor," Tony confirmed numbly.  He glanced at Verdun, slowing to allow some distance to build between them, enough so they wouldn't be overheard.  "The design you saw.  I've seen something like it before.  It's an aftereffect of something called the Bifrost Bridge.  Thor was pretty tight-lipped about it, but it's basically a machine that can create an Einstein-Rosen wormhole connecting two points in space for near-instantaneous travel."

Peter lit up with curiosity.  "Really?  One that people can pass through?"

"Yeah."

"But how do they stabilize it?  I thought the Einstein-Rosen bridge was theoretically unstable."

"Some kind of exotic manner.  Hard to say, really.  Thor was always a wet blanket when it came to Asgardian technology."

"But they've been here before then, obviously?  The Asgardians?"

"Yes, but in what capacity?  These people are clearly nowhere near the same technological level.  What could Asgard want with them?"

"What could Asgard want with Earth?" Stephen asked pointedly.

"True enough.  I always used to wonder if -" Tony stopped, turning to Stephen suddenly.  "Wait a second.  You knew." 

Stephen smiled.  "I did, of course."

Tony stared at him, an ember of anger trying to work its way slowly into his worldview.  "And you couldn't say anything, why?  Do you enjoy seeing me squirm for answers?"

Stephen was unbothered by his irritation.  "I enjoy seeing your brilliance at work, yes."

Tony struggled not to let the obvious flattery smooth his ruffled feathers.  "This is obviously a friendly world.  There's no danger here, no overriding concern I might take the wrong left turn and get hit by the bus.  So why the song and dance?"

"We've discussed this.  Whatever answers you come to need to be on your own merits.  I will only interfere in dire need."  Stephen's smile sharpened pointedly.  "You life and your choices are your own, or so FRIDAY says."

And while Tony digested the fact that apparently Stephen and FRIDAY were best friends forever who couldn't go a day without talking, the sorcerer looked ahead and whatever he saw made him laugh.  "Fortunately for all of us, you're a self-proclaimed genius.  The future is never hidden from you for long.  But you sometimes need particular displays to inspire you."

"Displays?"

Stephen gestured with his chin.  Tony followed it, coming to a dead stop when he saw their host had paused to help one of his neighbours.  Verdun was knelt next to a cart, replacing a wheel with three broken spokes, while a tiny Asian woman who probably didn't even come up to Tony's nose was levering the cart up above him with one hand.  The whole thing probably weighed three or four hundred pounds.  Maybe more.

"Congratulations," Stephen commented.  "This is the fastest I think I've ever seen you work it out."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Tony insisted, staring.

"Won't it?"

"Whoa," Peter said, watching the tiny woman pick up and move the cart entirely when Verdun indicated she should test it.  "Well, at least I won't be out of place here if I forget about my strength?"

"Just so long as you don't start climbing the walls," Tony muttered.

"They might not be as startled by that as you think," Stephen admitted.  "Thor flies, after all.  Still, best to keep up appearances as much as possible."

"Right.  Last thing we need is to be considered on par with the Asgardians."

"No one could ever be considered on par with the Asgardians," Stephen said quietly.  "But as their cousins, the Vanir might be the closest we'll ever encounter.  Welcome to Vanaheim."

Chapter Text

Peter Parker was born to be a hero, and Tony'd never doubted that. 

The kid's steadfast belief in truth and justice would've given him away, even if he hadn't started running around New York thwarting bike thieves and rescuing cats out of burning buildings and helping little old ladies cross the road.  Peter had a natural faith in the decency of people and all the trimmings of a classic knight in shining armor, sword and shield notwithstanding.  The phenomenal strength and the wall crawling were just details; window dressing on an otherwise already solid construct.

In a universe where Tony doubted almost everyone and everything, he'd never doubted the potential in Peter.  Or that one day Peter would become one of the very best young superheroes ever to swing his way around Earth.

Still; some heroes were born for the shadows and some for the limelight.  Tony had never been sure exactly where Peter fell in that spectrum.  Until now.

"I need to get that kid started on an acting career," Tony said. 

Stephen huffed, his eyes on the small clearing the Vanir had marked off at the center of the camp; a stage.  Peter was busy gesturing dramatically from inside it.  "Yes, I can just imagine him trying to juggle celebrity status and a secret identity.  His first interview would end the charade rather spectacularly."

"He can be one of those press-shy artists," Tony insisted.  "We'll build him a PR department and script all his answers.  It's what most of the celebrity industry does anyway."

"I've seen some of your interviews," Stephen said, sounding anything but impressed.  "I can only assume your PR department quit in protest some time ago.  And that any new one you put together will revolt in a similar fashion."

Tony frowned, annoyed.  "Creative differences, they said.  I threw enough money at them to fund a small country, but apparently no amount could be worth dealing with my many and varied public scandals."

They sat in silence for a while as Peter went on animating his story, soaring his hands through the air in a complicated maneuver that made the youngest of the children watching gasp and shriek with delight.  The adults hushed them, trying and failing not to look as captivated as their offspring. 

"He really is Scheherazade," Tony marvelled.  He and Stephen were sat some distance away.  Close enough to hear, if they strained, far enough that the mix of firelight and shadows would cast them as nondescript silhouettes to an unwary observer.  The slope of the hill gave them a decent birds-eye view of the whole thing. 

Stephen hummed an affirmation.  "He's a surprisingly good showman, all things considered."

"Shocking, isn't it?  Kid trips over his words so often, you'd never peg him for a master storyteller."

"Though, unlike Scheherazade, I suspect he'll manage to avoid an arranged marriage under threat of death."

Tony glanced at the people crowded close.  Among them he could see Esan and a small group of others her age, all of whom looked completely and utterly enchanted.  "Not if he keeps going on like this, he won't."

Peter swooped down to pick up one of the many props he'd made to enhance his new occupation as a professional bard.  He'd started off small.  An unassuming stick here, a farming implement there; nothing fancy.  But while Tony'd spent the last week examining every square inch of the mountain as a monument to science, Peter had occupied himself with different pursuits.

Tony had to give the kid credit.  The latest prop was a more than decent replica; the color scheme and the shape were just about perfect.

"But the proportions are all wrong," Tony muttered.  "Cap's shield’s at least an eighth of an inch wider across the diameter."

Stephen snorted, amused.  "Is that petulance I hear?  Now, Tony.  There's no need to be jealous just because he hasn't made an Iron Man mask in your honor."

"Jealous?  Who said anything about jealous.  I'm just out for scientific accuracy, here.  An eighth of an inch matters when considering the aerodynamics of a vibranium shield."

"I'd wager nothing scientific matters when considering the aerodynamics of a vibranium shield," Stephen said.  "I've seen the footage.  It doesn't obey the laws of physics."

"Well, neither do you," Tony retorted.  "That doesn't mean we just toss away one eighth of an inch of you."  He glared at the offending thing as Peter mimed throwing and catching it to excited murmurs from his audience.  The kid was in the middle of some weird, stilted dialogue about detention and scripted warnings and something about gym class.  He sounded like an infomercial.  "I bet you that shield doesn't fly half as well as its Cap-approved counterpart."

"In fairness, this one's made of wood."

"Yeah, well.  Who said anything about fairness, either?"

Stephen made soft, soothing noises that did little to disguise the fact he was just barely holding in his laughter.  "I'm sure the next story he tells will feature a daring rescue by the heroic Iron Man."

Tony glowered. "At least we swore him to secrecy about the ship.  Don't get me wrong, it's a great story, and you make a really awesome damsel in distress, but in that one I'd be the villain."

Stephen held out a hand and tipped it side to side.  "Could go either way.  Your kidnapping technically came after the rescue.  But I doubt you have much cause for concern.  There's no version of any story Peter might tell where you come out the villain."

"I think you underestimate how villainous I can be," Tony said.  "And also how horrified he looked when I took away his spider suit that one time.  It was like I kicked his puppy.  And then several other puppies, just because."

"I think you underestimate his willingness to forgive you any fault."

"No, I don't.  I just think some things are harder to forgive than others."

They watched as Peter dramatically swash-buckled his way through a fight with several invisible foes.  He was obviously improvising in certain places where Spider-Man's natural inclination's would've taken him into aerial combat, but the stories were meant to be embellished.  Peter was disguising Earth's superhero escapades as mere legends and fairy tales.

"Look at that," Tony said with admiration.  "He's got them eating out of his hands.  You'd think these people'd never heard an adventure story before."

Stephen made a considering noise.  "They've never heard these adventure stories before.  The same recycled legends have been circulating on this world for tens of thousands of years.  Peter's a charismatic young man excited to share new things on a world starved for innovation.  Of course they love him."

"Thought you said they'd resist change?"

"That doesn't mean they're not starving for it.  See how they hang on his every word?  Peter could start reading them a list of his educational subjects and they'd be just as enthralled."

"Yeah," Tony drawled.  "Think I'll suggest that for tomorrow's encore performance."

Traditionally, Verdun had explained, the camp shared most of their evening meals together, but they entertained only once every nine days, which on this planet coincided with the full moon in its lunar cycle.  But with Tony, Stephen and Peter visiting, the camp had made an exception.  For five nights, now, they'd cheered Peter on as the kid wobbled through his first story, picked up steam with his second, and amazed with every consecutive one that followed.  They'd originally meant for all of them to share the stage, but Tony and Stephen had (politely) abstained.  Peter had been surprisingly happy to fill the void.

"Why did you decline?" Stephen asked.  Tony blinked at him.  "If you were willing to speak you might achieve a celebrity status here to rival yours on Earth."

Tony made a disgusted face.  "Been there, done far too much of that.  There's something to be said for obscurity."  Tony waved a hand at Peter's antics, grinning with reflected glory.  "Besides, knew after that first night the kid could benefit from some time in the spotlight.  Look at him go."

"Is that why we're still here?"

Tony paused.  "Sorry?"

"Give me some credit.  I may not recall all the details of the future, but I remember enough to guess you'll have finished your examination of the mountain two or three days ago."

"Stephen, I'm flattered and slightly appalled by your faith in my genius."

"Tony," Stephen said softly, mildly.  "Why are we still here?"

Tony sat back until the shadows started to swallow him, but he suspected no amount of cover would do him any favors with the sorcerer. 

"Why ask a question you already know the answer to?" Tony muttered.

Stephen smiled at him, far too fondly.  "To hear you admit it."

It was the smile, really, that did Tony in.  He found as time went on that he was becoming rather more vulnerable to Stephen's smiles than was probably wise to admit.  "Alright, fine.  And it was four days ago I found the element, thank you very much.  Only took me that long because this entire planet is ridiculous."

"It is a bit, isn't it?" Stephen asked, chuckling.  "All of the Nine Realms defy logical understanding, but some of them are truly maddening."

Tony rolled his eyes.  "The sorcerer criticizing other worlds for disobeying scientific law.  That's rich."

"I wasn't criticizing.  Just admiring your unusual forbearance in remaining on such a world.  It's clearly not to your tastes."

"You're like a dog with a bone, you know that?  Obviously we're not here on my account."  Tony glared at everything around him, gesturing at the land, the people, the animals; the world at large.  "Good old fashioned country living on a backdrop of science so indistinguishable from nature the only word for it is magic?  It's like someone made a special place in hell just for me."

Stephen ducked his head, but his shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter.  "Well, don't hold back now.  Tell me how you really feel."

"It's only been a week and I already want to throw myself in one of the fire pits," Tony said flatly.  "Send me back to lizard world.  I'd rather deal with the fascist dictator."

Suppressed laughter gave way to real laughter and Stephen had to stifle it with a cough when the few people near them looked back in admonishment.

On a roll now, Tony continued with a barely hidden laugh of his own.  "Seriously, I could go years cooped up in a lab with only the occasional glimpse of sunlight to prove the outside world still existed."  He shrugged.  "But Peter needs more than that.  FRIDAY's watching the system for trouble and we're under no threat here.  There was no better time for the kid to let off some steam." 

Stephen looked quietly triumphant.  "So what it comes down to is: In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Tony Stark has a heart after all."

Tony waved his hands in protest.  "You make it sound so sentimental.  It was common sense.  Very smart teenager wandering aimlessly through giant flying donut with no release valve; not awesome, remember?"

"Common sense and sentiment aren't mutually exclusive," Stephen said.  "Love is common enough.  Though it doesn't always make sense."

Tony hesitated, because that was skirting close to some very dangerous territory.  "Most people would agree that love and Tony Stark in the same sentence doesn't make sense.  Common or otherwise."

"That's because they don't know you."

Tony fumbled for a glib response to that, hesitating over the first six things that immediately sprang to mind before he went utterly blank.  Around them, people obliviously went on with the show in front of them, ignorant to the drama playing out behind. 

"If you want to continue spouting the same PR you sell to the press, I can't stop you," Stephen continued into the prickly silence.  "But let's not pretend you're going to convince me.  You love deeply and sincerely, and not always wisely.  And I've never met anyone so calculating or rational who has so much trouble separating his heart and his mind."

"Right," Tony said, a strange constriction in his throat lending weight to his words.  "Well.  Part of my charm."

"Yes, it is," Stephen agreed.  "And you are charming, Tony.  Even when you're being foolish."

"I'm glad you think so, because that last bit's true basically ninety percent of the time, and the rest of the time I'm sleeping."  Tony cleared his throat uncomfortably.  "Since when are you such a paragon of emotional insight?  Have you and FRIDAY been gossiping again?"

Tony waited for FRIDAY, ever-present and always monitoring, to hop over the transmitter with an appropriately witty comment.  But she was unusually silent, proving she had a better grasp of relationship dynamics than probably Tony ever would.

"Something I've been working on in my spare time," Stephen said.  "Perhaps you'd like a few lessons."

Tony gave him a weak but lecherous grin.  "You can feel free to give me a lesson on anything, any time, doc."

Tony had more to say, impudent things that called for a grin and maybe an obnoxious wink or two that might salve his rapidly fading dignity.  But someone was walking toward them, detaching from the crowd to step lightly up the hill, and Tony had to swallow it back. 

The unknown figure quickly resolved into a familiar form. 

"Hello," Verdun said brightly as he approached.  "It's been a busy week, hasn't it?  And some time since I last saw you.  How do you fare this evening?"

"Fair to middling," Tony punned promptly, earning himself a bemused look. 

Tony couldn't see Stephen roll his eyes, but he could feel it.  "We're well, Verdun, thank you.  And you?"

Verdun smiled.  "Oh, wonderful.  These nightly stories have been invigorating.  An excellent treat in the transition from winter to spring."

"Doesn't feel like much of a transition," Tony said, who rather thought he'd have frozen to death on this planet by now if not for the subtle art of magical warming spells. 

"You only say that because you haven't seen what winter here looks like," Stephen muttered at him.

Tony ignored that, zeroing in suddenly on a tray in Verdun's hands.  "Oh, hey.  Is that tea?"

Verdun grinned, probably at the hope Tony couldn't quite quash from his voice.  The Vanir knelt to place the tray on the ground so they could see it did indeed hold a tea kettle, as well as four mugs.

"I've not known you long," Verdun said as he started to pour each of them a fragrant beverage.  "But already I understand the key to any successful encounter with you requires tea.  Fortunately, that's no hardship.  I quite enjoy tea."

"You and I are going to be great friends.  I can just tell."

Verdun handed him a mug, then Stephen, then took one for himself.  "I certainly hope so.  I have brought extra so that when the performance is over, you may share the kettle with your young one."

Stephen laughed.  "That's kind of you, Verdun, but the tea won't survive that long."

Tony dragged the tray protectively closer.  "It might.  But, I mean, best to drink it before it gets cold, that's what I always say.  Look, already it's not scalding my mouth anymore.  Drink up, quick."

Verdun sipped from his mug, frowning.  "I thought you enjoyed cold tea.  Iced tea, as you called it."

"I wouldn't say enjoyed.  Tolerated, maybe."

"I tried it," Verdun admitted.  "It didn't seem tolerable to me."

"Verdun, how would you compare our stories with those normally shared?" Stephen interrupted before Tony could say anything in defense of all things caffeine.  "Very different, I'd imagine."

"Oh, we have never heard the like," Verdun said, setting his mug down.  "They are all so unique.”

"It's our pleasure to share them, of course.  Though, technically, I suppose it's Peter's pleasure."

Verdun looked delighted, glancing down at the performance below.  "Yes, your Peter has an impressive theatrical talent.  We've basked in it at length this week."

"Well, that's what he was known for, back home," Tony said brightly.  "His theatrics.  Even had a costume I made up for him.  Kid loves his spandex.  Big step up from the onesie."

"Spandex?"

"A type of form-fitting fabric that adds elasticity but tends to remove insulation from clothing," Stephen explained.  "I doubt you'd find it useful here in the mountains."

Verdun made a moue of distaste.  "No, that sounds rather counterproductive.  Here we must add layers, not take them away."  He turned to Tony eagerly.  "What process did you use to create this spandex?  I understood you were a stonemason, not a tailor."

Tony shrugged.  "I'm a bit of anything that requires design work.  Afraid I can't disclose the incredible secret of spandex, though.  Mostly because it might be impossible to explain."

"I’ve never heard of such a secret," Verdun said earnestly.  "I would like to learn it.  Perhaps I can add the technique to my repertoire if the camp should ever relocate to warmer climate."

Tony eyed him.  "Your repertoire?"

Verdun held up something in his hands, the first time Tony'd realized he was carrying anything aside from tea.  It was a small contraption, square and flat, banded by multiple cords of string trailing like tassels.  As Tony watched, Verdun set it at an angle in his lap and began using a long instrument to interlace new material into the mix.

"You're a tailor?"

"A weaver," Verdun corrected.  "Our family works with many textiles, but always the loom has been my specialty.  I started a new work upon your arrival.  I will finish it in time for your departure."

"You don't have to do that," Stephen said, looking on with curiosity as Verdun began to swiftly knot and neaten new lines.  "We require no gifts."

"Gifts are never required.  That is why they are gifts."

"We may not be able to stay long enough for you to complete your project," Stephen said.  From the look on Stephen's face, he wasn't quite sure what to do with this offer.

Verdun shook his head.  "Don't fear.  It will be done." 

His fingers danced over the curtain of strings.  Tony wasn't sure how he could even see well enough in the firelight to weave, but the man's expertise was obvious.  His hands moved as quickly as striking snakes, as quickly as Tony's hands might move with his machines, or Stephen's with his magic, or Peter's with his webbing.

Verdun hummed in consideration.  "May I ask a question?"

"You just did," Tony said, at the same time Stephen said: "Of course."

"If Tony is a craftsman of no single trade, and Peter is a student of theatrics, what was your specialty, Stephen?  You speak very well, and have done since your arrival.  Have you always been a man of great words?  Were you a statesman?" 

Stephen scowled.  "I'm not a politician, if that's what you're asking."  His tone made it obvious exactly what he thought of that.  "I've just learned to use words wisely."

Tony turned helpless laughter into a coughing fit that only worsened when the sorcerer glared at him.

"Often great wisdom is born of great loss," Verdun said, his eyes on his work.  "What loss did you see, I wonder, that you hope to prevent by being wise?"

Stephen stiffened, and for the first time on this planet, Tony saw his biorhythm sensor spike out of range.  Tony sat up straight, all amusement quickly vanishing.

Stephen studied Verdun warily.  "I'm not sure what you mean?"

Verdun looked at them, blinking to see their serious expressions.  "You needn't tell me of it.  I only wondered.  You've shared before some of the strife in your journey.  It sounds like a harrowing experience.  A harrowing life."

"It's had parts both good and ill," Stephen admitted.  "And more to come, I'm certain."

"And you're sure you can't stay for longer?" Verdun asked, hands still moving with grace.  "Sometimes refuge is needed from great adventure."

Stephen looked away.  "Your offer is tempting.  But I think we must decline."

Verdun hesitated, troubled.  "Should you need shelter - this camp, this place is always open to you.  You may return any time you wish.  You will always have a place of safety here."

"That's a difficult promise," Stephen said, softly.  "I don't think you fully understand what it means to offer it."

"Don't I?"  Verdun rested the loom on his knees.  "My Esan longs to go with you, but that is not the path for her.  If all goes well, it's likely she will lead the next caravan, and it will go far from here."  He looked down at where Esan sat rapt with the rest of her peers.  There was something very sad and knowing in his eyes.  "Farther than most, I think.  I know it is the way of things that children must grow and find their own way.  But already I miss her, and she has not even gone yet."

Tony squirmed, the genuine emotion in that voice making him very uncomfortable.  He glanced down too, focusing on Peter, who was currently gliding along with his arms held out to either side of himself.  Apparently the spider had turned into an airplane.  "She'll come visit, I'm sure.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that."

Verdun focused on him curiously.  "What a strange thing to say.  What does that mean?  I've never heard the like before."

"Oh, well."  Tony tried to backpedal.  "Not speaking from experience, here, but basically what it says on the tin.  Absence, fondness; you know."

"I don't know.  How are these two things related?"

"Look, I don't make up the quotes, I just repeat them," Tony insisted.

Verdun was bemused.  "I notice you have been absent from the camp for long hours this week.  Is this an effort to inspire fondness?"

"Okay, know what?  Forget I said anything.  Absence does not make the heart grow fonder, and I get the feeling I should absent myself from this conversation before I accidentally violate the prime directive."

Now Verdun looked surprised.  "I hope I haven't caused any offense.  If I have, it was unintentional.  What is the prime directive?"

"Stephen," Tony said plaintively.

The sorcerer had been peacefully watching Tony go down in flames a second ago, but he stepped in at that.  "No apologies required, Verdun.  Tony's been absent this week looking for elemental sources.  There's nothing more significant to it than that."

"Ah," Verdun said.  "Have you found what you were looking for, then?  The mineral?"

"I did," Tony confirmed, eager to jump on this change of subject.  "Kind of grows in abundance on this world.  And I do mean that literally."

When Verdun glanced sideways at him, Tony scouted along the ground until he found what he was looking for a few steps away.  He tossed it in Verdun's direction.  The man caught it, turning it over questioningly.

Tony shrugged an explanation.  "It looked different where we come from.  But here, in your camp, this shit actually grows on trees."

Stephen smiled very knowingly.  "Nature, right?  Who needs it?"

"Shut up, Stephen."

"This is what you were looking for?" Verdun asked, astonished, looking at the pinecone in his hands.

"Apparently," Tony said.  "Not that I can explain it.  It doesn't appear anywhere else.  Not in the sap or the bark or the roots.  It's just the cones.  I have no idea why."

Verdun looked completely bewildered.  "But this is not an element at all!  It is only a Seed."

"Maybe for you it's a seed," Tony said, shrugging.  "For me, it's an element."

"You use Seeds in your craftwork?" 

"Definitely."

Verdun couldn't seem to wrap his head around that.  "If I’d known what you looked for, I could’ve advised you much better.  Though it hardly seems likely to require advice.  Seeds are everywhere.  I thought you sought a mineral."

"Well, so did I."

Verdun hardly seemed to hear him.  "Seeds in stonemasonry.  But how?  This form isn't suitable to that task."  He turned the pinecone from side to side, like looking at it from different angles might offer some supplemental explanation.  "And yet other forms are far less stable.  They were cultivated like this for a reason.  By all camps, I thought."

His surprise was acute enough to almost spark some of Tony's former paranoia awake.  "Cultivated?  It used to appear naturally in other forms?"

"Of course it did," Verdun insisted, distressed at this new example of Tony's ignorance.  "I cannot think what camp you must be from, to not have Seeds.  How is such a thing possible?"

"I think there's much that's different between this camp and ours," Stephen said, giving Tony a warning look.

"No Lighthouse, no Seeds," Verdun said, almost to himself.  "What a dark place you must have lived in.  It's no wonder you chose to leave it."

"Wasn't all that bad," Tony objected.  "It had coffee.  That's like tea, but better."

Verdun look down at the tea kettle with a suspicious frown.  "Is that - possible?"

"I like this one," Tony told Stephen brightly.  "Can we keep him?"

Stephen sighed.  "I'm afraid not.  Your caffeine addiction notwithstanding."  He leaned over to touch Verdun's forgotten loom carefully, clearly aiming for a distraction.  "Verdun, tell me more of this.  I haven't met a weaver before.  Is the loom your design?"

Distracted, Verdun leaned back, looking almost dazedly at his forgotten tapestry.  He set down the pinecone beside him and Tony discreetly pocketed it.

"It is my mother's grandfather's design," Verdun said, picking apart one of the knots to show Stephen some of the mysterious inner workings of the thing.  "She gave it to me.  And I will give it to Esan."

"It's something that passes from parent to child, then?"

"Yes.  As far back as memory serves, we have always been weavers.  There is a tapestry in our tent wide enough to cover the room from end to end.  Every generation adds a layer to it.  It is a great legacy from my family." 

"Perhaps you could show us sometime," Stephen suggested.

Verdun nodded slowly, seriously.  "Yes, I think I must.  Tomorrow, perhaps, or the day after.  I will send Esan for you.  She is very proud of her part in it."  He looked back toward the performance below and smiled, suddenly.  "Though I think perhaps she may be considering more theatrical pursuits these days."

Tony looked down, having almost forgotten there was a production going on.  He was surprised to see Peter's story had expanded to include two of his audience members; one was Esan, and the other was an enormous bear of a man, standing more than a foot taller than Peter on stage.  The circular shield with its improper dimensions lay off to the side, glittering in the firelight.

"Looks like Peter roped her in," Tony agreed, watching.  Both the youths were circling the larger man, who'd clearly been advised he was a prop in this little play; he was flailing at them slowly, ponderously, and something about it woke up a niggling, prickly thing in Tony's hindbrain.  "Or she roped him in.  One way or the other."

Verdun leaned forward in great fascination, almost dipping his loom into one of the mugs.  Tony hastily rescued it before any tea could be ruined.

"Oh, wonderful, they've recruited Jesik," Verdun said.  "He's a shy man in spite of his imposing size.  Almost a recluse.  Your Peter must be very charming if he could convince Jesik to assist."

"Peter can be cunning and persuasive," Stephen murmured. "He gets it from Tony.  And from using it on Tony."

"Does not," Tony muttered.  "And that still doesn't explain how he convinced Esan.  Last I checked, kid still hadn't managed to more than blush in her general direction."

Verdun hummed in agreement.  "He has a quiet nature, your Peter.  Esan has always been exuberant with those she likes."  He sighed.  "She wears her heart for all to see, and always has."

"Well, young love," Tony said, wincing in anticipation of some pointed questions.  "There one day, gone the next.  You know how it is."

"No, thankfully I do not," Verdun mused.  "I met and married my wife long ago.  It's been nearly a millennia since my last brush with such things, and even that was fleeting."

Tony paused, narrowing his eyes.  He opened his mouth and then closed it again.  He nudged Stephen for help, but the sorcerer was studiously looking away, innocence stamped all over his face.

"A millennia," Tony repeated, finally.  "That's impressive.  I mean, you don't look a day over six centuries."

"Youth and longevity runs in my family," the man agreed.

A sudden thought occurred to Tony and he glanced down again, squinting at Esan with thoughtful eyes.  "In all your family?"

Verdun followed his gaze, smiling.  "As I said, she is not quite grown yet.  She has yet to see her three hundredth year.  Soon, though.  Your Peter is somewhat older, I imagine, but his behavior is gentlemanly enough.  I cannot imagine he has any improper intentions toward her?"

That last was obviously a question.  Tony felt a prickle of protective panic skitter up his spine and he kicked Stephen sharply with his toe.  Tony saw the sorcerer cover up a smile.

"He tells such fantastical tales,” Verdun continued, marvelling.  “About feats equal or greater than those of the old Gods.  His confidence is so great it’s as though he’s experienced them for himself.  It is a strange thing.  Wondrous, but strange."

He drawled the words almost too cheerfully.  Tony wondered if he was imagining a glaring note of skepticism there.

"Well," Tony said, ignoring it, "it's true.  We do travel with Strange."

Beside him, Stephen huffed a sound that wasn't quite a laugh.  "How long have you been waiting to use that one?"

Tony affected a look of surprise.  "Oh, are you weighing in on this conversation now?  That's nice.  Good to hear from you."

"We have many new tales to offer," Stephen said to Verdun.  "You would be surprised the stories one gathers while travelling."

"Esan longs for new things," Verdun said, looking at her fondly, the love obvious on his face.  "For adventures like those your young one has shared with us.  That is why she looks to him, I think, your Peter.  He is different from others she knows.  But then, you are all different, is that not so?"

And Tony definitely wasn't imagining the broad hint buried there.  Stephen heard it too if the spike in his vitals was anything to go by. 

"Not so different," Stephen said quietly.  "We come from a camp unlike this one, but we're not so far apart.  We have much that's the same."

"Sameness, difference," Verdun said, eyes locked on the stage.  "Neither is good or bad.  They just are.  Oh, he’s recruited Adra and Kel to.  Excellent.”

Tony blinked, glancing down.  “Who?”

Verdun was practically vibrating with excitement.  "There, you see, just coming up and around.  What are those costumes they're wearing?  Is that a cape?"

Tony narrowed his eyes, watching two more people join Peter in the spotlight.  The one with the cape was done up in gunmetal gray and red, and the second was decked out in red and gold.  They started to rotate around the slow moving colossus in their midst, who flailed and swiped at them angrily.

It was then that Tony realized exactly which story Peter was telling.

"Huh," Tony heard himself say.  The word distorted, rippling away from him.  It almost sounded as though he'd suddenly been thrust under water. 

Verdun didn't hear him, captivated by other things, but Stephen did.  He looked over sharply, hearing something odd in Tony's response.  Probably the underwater phenomenon.  Maybe the sorcerer felt it too.

"Tony?”

Tony didn't answer, caught entirely off-guard.  He probably shouldn't have been; in retrospect, letting Peter tell stories about Earth's mightiest heroes was bound to wind up in a dramatic climax about the biggest fight the kid had ever been in, the superhero battle royale of the century.  Peter probably didn't even realize how this story might open the door on things Tony would much rather leave buried.  Tony’d never told him the particulars, and the kid hadn't been there for the grand finale.  He'd been grounded, and then on a plane home to New York, the threat of Aunt May's wrath taking him away from one of the darkest times in Tony's very checkered life.

The world knew the Avengers had gone to war over the Accords; they didn't know why, and they certainly didn't know the why still.  The number of people that did know Tony could count on one hand; and that number didn't include Peter.

"Shit," Tony said, feeling the blood start to pound in his ears as the kid pantomimed his own injury at the German airport, falling to the ground.  It reminded Tony clearly of that visceral, heart-wrenching moment; finding Peter, still and unmoving, injured in a fight Tony'd dragged him into.

That whole mission had been full of heart-wrenching moments.  There'd been surprises that day that ripped Tony's whole world in two and blew up everything he thought he'd known about himself, about others.

On the stage, the faux-Vision in her long flowing cape went skipping after Esan, who Tony now realized was dressed head to toe in dark gray and who could be no one less than Rhodey -

FRIDAY cut in, the transmitter line opening without a sound.  "Boss, my scans indicate a change in your vitals.  Are you well?  Is something wrong?"

Her voice was a shock, familiar accented tones bringing back sharp reminders of other times, other losses -

"You can't beat him hand-to-hand."

- and the feel of his own rage bleeding everything around him into red, until he'd turned into someone he hadn't known how to recognize, someone who didn't care about common sense or love or anything else Stephen might've accused him of earlier.  He'd only cared about vengeance.

Tony felt himself unravelling.  He needed to get up and walk away.  Run away, really; why walk when you could run, why run when you could fly -

Stephen's hand came down on one of Tony's knees and squeezed once, sharply, jolting Tony back to the present.  He gasped in a labored sip of air, remembering how to breathe.

Stephen kept his voice too low to be heard by their fascinated companion just a foot away.  "Tony?"

"I need to not be here," Tony said, holding as still as he could.  He considered whether his hands, if he held them out, might shake like Stephen's.  What the sorcerer might think about that.  "I'm not here.  I'm going."

He levered himself to unsteady feet and expected Stephen to protest, demand to know why; it wouldn't have been an unusual ask, really, all things considered.  But Stephen surprised him, rising without a word.  Verdun didn't seem to notice as they moved off.

"What is it?" Stephen asked as they went, skirting around the furthest edges of the crowd.

"Old ghosts."  Tony stopped, bringing Stephen to a jarring halt when the sorcerer almost ran into him.  "Wait.  We can't go.  Who'll watch Peter?"

"The whole camp is watching Peter," Stephen said evenly.

"But -"

"FRIDAY will monitor him.  And he's in no way helpless, even if he weren't among friends.  He'll be fine."

"FRIDAY," Tony repeated.  "Right.  FRI?"

"Here," she said.  She didn't add anything else, in spite of the obvious opening.  Her silence was subdued.

"Keep an eye on our favorite wall-crawler, won't you?"

She rallied enough to sound almost offended.  "Yes, of course, boss.  Always."

They walked until they were well out of sight of the camp and its circle of onlookers.  Tony stopped when they reached the tree line, where only a faint murmur of sound could reach them.  It was bitterly cold; enough to reach through the spell and bite him.

"Are you going to tell me what that was?" Stephen asked when they came to a stop.

Tony glanced over his shoulder to see the firelight behind them, a glittering boat on an ocean of darkness.  "Don't suppose I could convince you I just wanted to take a nature walk?"

"You?  Certainly not," Stephen said, though the look on his face was softer than his stern response.  "Obviously something about the show triggered you.  But what and why?"

"Didn’t recognize Peter the Giant Slayer?" Tony asked. 

“No.  Should I?”

Tony blinked warily.  "I don’t know, shouldn’t you?  I just assumed you’d know, because you’re a rotten cheater that seems to know everything.”

”Apparently not everything,” Stephen said.

”Really?  All those futures and I never once mentioned Germany or -" Siberia "- anything that came after it?"

An intense look crossed Stephen's face, halfway realization and halfway frustration.  "You alluded to something on several occasions.  But I don't remember you telling me anything that would account for a panic attack."

Which, part of Tony was beyond relieved that was the case, because he felt raw and scoured with vulnerability, and the idea of Stephen knowing was almost beyond bearing.  But for him not to know, for Tony to have to explain -

No.  Impossible.

"It wasn't a panic attack," Tony said, though the memory of a car on a lonely road was almost enough to destroy his equilibrium again.  "Might've been easier if it was.  And let me just say that before running off into space with you, I never used to get those nearly as badly, either."

"If not that, then what?"

"Old ghosts," Tony repeated softly, trying to smile.  "Thought I'd dealt with them a while ago.  Guess sometimes they just need the right motivation to show their faces."

Stephen took a long, meditative breath, obviously schooling himself to patience.  "What does that mean?"

"Sorry," Tony said automatically, and saw both of the sorcerer's eyebrows dart up before beetling in a severe frown.  "I know.  I'm being cryptic and obnoxious and annoying.  For once I don't even mean to be.  Novel experience."

Stephen slid his fingers around Tony's wrist, and Tony grabbed him in turn, holding on tightly enough he could see Stephen's biorhythms spark with pain.  The sorcerer said nothing.

"One day I'll tell you," Tony said quietly.  "Not today."

"You always say that," Stephen ground out, a familiar irritation making a brief appearance before the sorcerer could shove it back down.  Tony grinned, taking solace in that.  Stephen tried hard these days to pretend he was a model fortune teller, calm and confident without fail, but occasionally his foul temper made an appearance.  Apparently this particular piece of history was a sore spot.

"I'm sure I always mean it, too," Tony said, and did.  "Have patience with me, doc.  I've never told anyone before.  It's my first time."

"Never?" Stephen asked, skeptically.

Tony smiled, and felt it crack him in half.  "There're three other people who know, but I didn't tell them.  They told me.  Three years ago."

"Three," Stephen repeated, and Tony could see him putting the timeline together for himself.

"Three," Tony confirmed.  "You wanted to know what happened with the Avengers?  I'll tell you.  But not today."

"I could find the answer for myself," Stephen said, but it wasn't a threat.  It was an offer.  Stephen was giving him an out, so Tony didn't have to say it out loud, whatever it was.

"Don't you dare.  There's cheating and then there's cheating, Stephen.”  Tony squinted at him suspiciously.  “And since when are you able to cheat again?  Have you been sipping green Kool-Aid behind my back?"

The look Stephen gave him was two parts exasperation and one part guilt.  "I can neither confirm nor deny."

"Are you fucking serious right now?" Tony asked flatly, a shadow of his usual ire making itself known.  "How?  Since when?"

"A while," Stephen said softly.  "Nothing near to the type of cheat you're thinking.  Basic experimentation only."

"Why?" Tony asked, feeling adrenaline quickly burning the cobwebs in his brain to ash.  "You remember why we put the emitter in place, don't you?  You know what happens if it stops working?  You die.  And not easily, either.  Stephen, what the hell?"

"I needed to keep us safe," Stephen said quietly, unrepentantly.  "Don't be hypocritical, Tony.  You've done more, to gain less.  I could only do the same."

"It's not the same," Tony snarled, wondering distantly if their raised voices might carry down the slope of the land and back to the camp.  He decided he couldn't care less if they did.

"It is.  I'm fine.  I can show you my progress when we get back to the ship."

"Manipulating again, Stephen?" Tony ground out, the betrayal burning brightly.

"I'm not," Stephen explained patiently.  He'd clearly anticipated having this discussion at some point.  He looked eerily calm.  "It was my secret, not yours.  I was always careful, and I never took it far enough to put my life in immediate jeopardy.  I wouldn't leave you to face this alone.  I never will, if I can help it."

Tony squeezed his hand convulsively without meaning to, easing up when Stephen winced.  "Absence of truth is still a lie."

"Then you're lying to me about Germany," Stephen said pointedly.  "You're lying to me about sleeping, and that nanotech bracer you think I haven't noticed you're still wearing, and every panic attack I never hear about.  All truths are shared in their own time, Tony.  Some things are harder to say out loud than others."

And Tony felt that sink beneath his skin with a sting of heavy rebuke, because -

Tony could remember how Rhodey and Pepper had raged at him after he'd been cured from dying, their hurt at his duplicity; how the fear in them had turned to anger that took months to pass.

And he could feel Thor's hand at his throat after Ultron, and the weight of disappointment from the others, how rage had turned to contempt and later to wary camaraderie but never quite trust.

And he could see, through the sick haze of betrayal, the look of agony on Steve's face when Tony found out the truth he'd known but never shared -

"Tony."

Tony blinked back to himself, wrung out and light-headed with the dim reminder there were some things in the world that were never so black and white as he might hope.

"You're kind of annoying when you're being reasonable," Tony said, finally.  "You know that, right?"

"I'm always reasonable."

"Please.  Pull the other one, it's got bells on."

"I'm usually reasonable," Stephen corrected.

"Remind me again how long you've been sipping the green Kool-Aid?"

"That's not unreasonable.  It's just dangerous."

Tony threw up his hands.  "How the hell am I on this side of the conversation?  I have so much more appreciation for Rhodey's patience through my formative years."

Before Stephen could answer Tony turned and shoved the sorcerer, hard, against one of the nearby trees.  Stephen let himself be pushed with a whoosh of air, making no protest when Tony crowded close, leaning heavily against him.

"Stephen, I need you to not be dead," Tony said in a voice like crushed glass.  "Can you please stop doing things that might result in that?"

"No," the sorcerer returned softly, as Tony had known he would.  "Can you?"

Tony growled with annoyance.  "No.  What if I promise to tell you when I do them?"

"Promise to try telling me before you do them," Stephen said dryly, "and I'll return the favor."

"Square deal," Tony said, and thunked his head down on Stephen's shoulder with a sigh.

Stephen took his weight easily, reaching up to frame Tony's shoulders with both of his hands.  Tony looked up from almost too close to see him properly, jarred by the sight of the sorcerer’s borrowed face.  Tony dropped his eyes to Stephen's lips, seeing a slip of pink tongue dart out to wet them.

"How determined are you to take this thing slowly?" Tony asked, watching him.

"I'm at least determined enough to wait until you stop calling it a 'thing'."

"Well, you know me and nicknames," Tony said reasonably.  “Could be a long journey ahead.  Should make a point of enjoying the scenery as we go.  Objections?"

"Only to the tree branch jabbing me in the back," Stephen muttered, and then shoved until Tony gave ground, letting the sorcerer walk him backward until he hit an obstacle.  Stephen laid his palms flat to either side of him, looming in a way that probably should've felt uncomfortable and didn't.   

There was very little transition.  One moment they were standing there, sharing space and air, and the next Stephen was kissing him slowly, leaning in to smooth one hand down the side of Tony's face.  Tony kissed him back, the previous adrenaline transforming into something just as intense, but far more pleasurable.

"You're a mess of contradictions, Tony Stark," Stephen murmured when they parted, breathing the words into his mouth. 

"Another part of my charm," Tony said.  He let Stephen tip his chin back, baring the vulnerable arch of his neck.  The wizard leaned in, nudging a leg between both of his so Tony could feel the hard heat of him pressed against his hip.  Apparently adrenaline did to Stephen exactly the same as it did to Tony.  He slid his hands down from Stephen's waist to his ass, rocking to grind slowly into him.

Stephen sagged like his strings had been cut, burying a moan in Tony's throat.  He bit sharply in retaliation and Tony sucked in a breath, rolling his head back further.

"Do that again," he hissed.

Stephen obliged, leaving sharp sparks of sensation in his wake as he nipped down one side of Tony's neck and up the other.

Tony punched out a shaky breath.  "Harder."

Stephen ignored that, sucking at a sensational spot just beneath an ear that made Tony weak in the knees.  "Not unless you want the whole camp knowing what we've been up to."

"Think you've mistaken me for someone that cares."

Stephen kissed him again, longer this time, until Tony's lips felt chafed with it, the prickle of a beard unfamiliar but not unwelcome against him.  Tony slipped his fingers just beneath the waistband of the sorcerer's pants, questioning.

Stephen smiled against him, closing his teeth over Tony's bottom lip with a punishing sting.  "No taking liberties."

"Liberties?" Tony asked incredulously, pulling back to lick at his tingling mouth.  The shadows made it difficult to see any detail, but it was impossible to miss how the sorcerer twitched abortively after him, yearning.  "What exactly do you call this, then?"

"First base."

Tony laughed.  "That's the kind of unrefined slang I thought you couldn't be reduced to.  Stephen, I'm almost proud."

Stephen kissed the laugh away, stealing it until they were both flushed and breathless.  Twice, Tony tried to sneak a hand down further and both times Stephen caught it and moved it away, the second time with a shudder.

"You make it very hard to maintain my conviction," Stephen muttered, leaning against him.

"I make a lot of things hard," Tony agreed, pressing close to demonstrate.

Stephen didn't answer, but he didn't move away either, in fact leaning closer to press his lips almost reverently against Tony's neck again.  Tony took pity, guiding the sorcerer's mouth back to his and gentling him with a slow, deep kiss.  When he pulled back, Stephen chased him, rolling forward into him instinctively before he caught himself. 

Tony grinned, waggling his eyebrows.  "Don't feel bad.  I'm like that box of chocolates you thought you could get away with opening for just one.  It's not your fault.  I could tempt a saint."

"To kiss you, or kill you?" Stephen asked dryly.

"Probably not mutually exclusive feelings in my case."

Stephen smiled at him, heat giving way to affection.  The arousal banked into a warm simmer and their next kiss was a peaceful, unhurried thing. 

They separated after a while, both of them pulling back by unspoken mutual agreement.  Tony ran a hand through his hair, refocusing until he could hear the distant sounds of the camp again.  Although it couldn't have been long since they'd left, it felt like ages, eons ago they'd slipped away.  The world had contracted for a moment until it was just the two of them, and it took Tony a solid minute before he could tune back in.

"Guess we should probably get back before someone notices we're gone and comes looking," Tony said.

Stephen snorted.  "I thought you said you didn't care."

"I don't.  Thought you might."

"Not me," Stephen said, tugging bunched clothing back into order.  "Peter may, however.  You realize you need to talk to him?"

Tony frowned, lustful thoughts snuffing out quickly.  He bent down, picking up a few pinecones from the forest floor to occupy his hands.  "Why me?  Emotional disclosure gives me hives."

"Because he looks up to you and needs to know he can talk to you about anything."

"He knows."

"No, he doesn't," Stephen said.  "Or he'd have approached you already.  You're not subtle."

"Stephen, this is me being subtle.  If you think otherwise, may I direct you to pretty much all of my society page press coverage."

Stephen speared him with a stern look.  "Just because it's not in print doesn't mean he hasn't seen it."

Tony sighed, tapping his fingers restlessly against the nanotech unit beneath his shirt.  "Sure you can't do it?"

"He needs to hear it from you."

Tony screwed up his face, cringing.  "That's going to end so badly."

"We'll see," Stephen said as they started to walk back.  "Of course, if you want to avoid speaking to him directly, you could always tell it in story format to our new friends."

"Speaking of ending badly," Tony said dryly.  "Do you want me to scar this civilization for life?  No celebrity interviews for me.  What about some stories of Doctor Strangely-Mysterious and his merry band of acolytes?" 

They were near enough to see the camp up close again.  Tony looked on warily, but Peter had finished with his previous tale.  The kid now seemed to be playing second fiddle to Esan on the stage.  She had a prop in her hands that looked like a horse with wings and did something dramatic with it that had the whole audience laughing.

"I don't have acolytes," Stephen said, recalling Tony to the conversation.  "I have Wong.  Or he has me.  After this long away from Earth, he'll have been appointed the new Master of the New York Sanctum.  If only because he was the only sorcerer in residence familiar with it."

"What exactly is a Sanctum?" Tony asked skeptically.  "No, I know, it's the latest school of witchcraft and wizardry, right?  So, can anyone go there to learn, or only special snowflakes like yourself?"

"Anyone with an aptitude for magic and a strong moral compass," Stephen said.  "Which rules you out."

"Ouch.  Doc, you're breaking my heart."

They arrived at their former seats to find Verdun still present, busily working.  He looked up at their approach.

"There you are," he said.  "I turned to find you'd gone very suddenly.  Is all well?"

Tony grinned.  "You could say that.  So what'd we miss?  Wait, don't tell me.  Our intrepid heroes defeated the giant.  News at eleven."

"With the help of many noble warriors, the giant was conquered," Verdun confirmed.  "It was a most interesting battle."

"Yeah, sure, interesting.  Iron Man finally shows up in one of these things and it's the battle he was basically useless in."

"Iron Man?"

"Never mind.”  Tony nodded down at the stage.  “I see she's still enjoying the spotlight."

"Ah, yes," Verdun said, glancing at his daughter fondly.  "There has been much entertainment from the young this week.  The moon shines brightest in two days time.  Perhaps when it does I will entertain, that you may all rest and enjoy one of our stories.  I think you’ll find it interesting."

It sounded like watching paint dry, to Tony, but he decided saying that out loud probably wouldn’t go over well.  Then again, what did he know; maybe watching paint dry was considered the height of style on this planet.

"Great," he said without enthusiasm.  “Looking forward to it."

Verdun seemed not to notice his tepid response.  "You’ve inspired me to remember an old legend.  As old as the forest around us; older perhaps.  It’s about a band of travellers who come from very far away, scaling the World Tree in secret to hide from Níðhǫggr’s sight."

"A story about someone climbing a tree," Tony sighed.  "Well, that sounds fun.  Can't wait."

"Yes," Verdun said, with an odd little smile.  "I’m quite looking forward to it.  Sometimes the story tells of two travellers.  But this one, I think, will feature three."

Chapter Text

Tony eyed the towering creature glaring at him from just behind Peter's shoulder. 

"You want me to what?" he asked, taking two dubious steps away.  The increased distance didn't help; the animal only seemed to loom larger and stare more menacingly.  Even as he watched, it grunted and snarled, tossing its head and thrusting its blunt nose aggressively in Tony's direction.

"Get on," Peter repeated cheerfully, patting his hand solidly against the thing's shoulder.

Tony made a show of looking around, searching for the object of this instruction.  "Get on what?"

The kid sighed at him.  "The horse."

"The horse?"  Tony widened his eyes exaggeratedly.  He raised both his hands, taking another two steps back.  "Yeah, no."

Peter looked deeply unimpressed.  "No?"

"Nope.  See, the only horsepower I believe in?  Comes with seat belts and a leather interior."

The horse looked terribly affronted by that.  Tony tried not to imagine it crushing him beneath its massive hooves.

"I don't think we're going to find many sports cars out here in space," Peter said.

"We don't need them in space," Tony said.  "You may've noticed, we have a space ship."

"And here on this planet they have horses," Peter said.  "Esan said we can use these two for a few hours.  Look, there's really nothing to worry about.  They're friendly.  See?"

Peter patted the massive beast again, and it laid its head down adoringly on his shoulder.  Meanwhile, it didn't take its eyes off Tony, swishing its tail twice in what Tony considered a very ominous fashion.

"Yeah, right, they look friendly," Tony drawled.  "But I'm going to pass.  No offense.  Like I said, I just prefer my rides to have more luxury settings.  And less limbs."

"He's never ridden before, Peter," Stephen said from somewhere inside the stables.  Tony turned to scowl at him.  "Don't hold it against him.  You know what he's like when things are out of his control."

Tony glared at him.  "As if you're any better, Nostradamus."

"You've never been on a horse before?" Peter asked, surprised. 

Tony shrugged.  "Not unless you count the plastic carousel ones."

"Here's your chance, then," Stephen pointed out, ducking back into the open with a brush and a rolled up bag in his hands.  "I assume you've picked up the basics, Peter?"

"Esan's been teaching me," Peter said.

Tony raised his eyebrows.  "Oh, I'm sure she has.  But teaching you what, exactly -"

"I'm still not great at it," Peter interrupted hastily.  "But I'm getting better."

"Right.  So, a novice rider wanting to show two people who've never ridden how to do it.  In what world do we get out of this without some kind of fatal or humiliating injury?"

"I've ridden before," Stephen said, and Tony's entire thought process derailed at that.  He stared.  "Not for a long time, of course.  But I remember the basic instructions.  We'll be fine."

"You've ridden before?" Tony repeated incredulously.  "How?  When?  Carriage rides through central park don't count."

"My family had farm land in Nebraska," Stephen said, a shade defensively.  "I was born and raised in the city, but in the off season we used to visit my grandparents there."

"Nebraska?" Peter asked curiously.

Tony shook his head at him.  "A place only memorable for being smack dab in the middle of tornado alley.  So better off forgotten, really."

Stephen sighed.  "You're not wrong.  But my sister and I spent early summers there.  It wasn't all bad."

"You have a sister?" Tony asked, frowning.  He hadn't found any mention of a sister all those months ago when he'd had FRIDAY run a search on Stephen Strange.  In fact, there hadn't been any record of living relatives, except for a scattering of cousins across the west coast who hadn't been in contact with Stephen for more than ten years.

"I had a sister," Stephen said.

An awkward silence fell.  "Oh."

Stephen half shrugged, far enough removed from grief that it settled on him distantly.  "She died when we were both young.  It was part of the reason I chose to study medicine."

"So you didn't hatch from the womb fully armed with the knowledge of how to perform complex laminectomy procedures?"

"No, I'm afraid even I needed the odd bit of medical theory for that.  Fortunately for both of us, riding a horse doesn't require a PhD."

Peter perked up at that.  "So, does that mean you'll give it a try?"  He held out a set of reins to Stephen, accidentally pulling so the horse took a step forward, it's giant head coming over the kid entirely to rest almost on top of him.  Peter hugged it close affectionately. 

Stephen took the reins gingerly, putting one hand against the horse's shoulder and letting it inspect him with a curious nose when he stepped into its space.  Its ears pricked forward with interest, black eyes blinking slowly in the weak afternoon light.

"Mr. Stark?" Peter asked, offering him the second set of ties.  This horse was smaller than the one he'd handed off to Stephen, but seemed somehow proportionately much larger.  Tony was sure he could feel the thing plotting his demise.

"Nope," he said.  "I'm sitting this one out."

Peter choked on a laugh.  The horse added insult to injury by giving Tony a loud, snuffling snort, its nostrils flaring.

"Is it sniffing me?" Tony asked warily, taking another solid step back.  That gave him almost enough distance to maneuver if the thing attacked him.  "Why is it sniffing me?  It looks hungry.  Has it eaten?"

"I fed them thirty minutes ago," Peter said, turning his face into the horse's shoulder to hide a smile.  "They're herbivores.  They have a special blend of dry food they eat; hay and grain, some oats.  Or they like grass."

Tony looked down at his shoes, covered at this point in all manner of vegetation and natural refuse.  Considering they were standing in a paddock, by now he'd probably also stepped in a number of unmentionable horse things Tony didn't want to think about anywhere near his person.

He looked back up, glaring into liquid animal eyes threateningly.  "Don't even think about it, horse.  I like these shoes.  Get your own grass."

"She doesn't want your shoes," Peter explained patiently while the horse made a lie of that by tugging forward, lowering her nose to study the footwear in question.

Tony backpedaled quickly.  "Yeah, no.  I'm out.  You two kids enjoy yourselves.  Ya'll come back now, you hear?"

"It couldn't hurt you to learn this," Stephen pointed out while Tony shuffled rapidly away.

"Yes, it could," Tony insisted.  "Besides, there's only two horses.  And I need to finish gathering up a couple more bags of pinecones."

Stephen looked amused.  "That's something I'm sure you never thought you'd say."

Tony grimaced.  "Took the words right out of my mouth, doc."

"At least come meet them," Stephen said, and Tony could see he'd graduated from letting the horse inspect him and was now running his hands over its nose, petting it firmly.  The thing kept nudging him at the bottom of each long stroke, begging for more.  The animal looked extremely smug.

"Not a chance," Tony said, ducking underneath the paddock railing and making a break for freedom.  "You two try not to die now."

"No promises," Peter called after him.

Tony took off for the hills, eager to be away before one of the horses decided to give chase, or eat his shoes or his glasses or his nanotech.  Or sit on him.

He spent an hour collecting a cache of fallen pinecones.  It wasn't difficult.  They were abundant through the forest and no one else seemed to have much use for them, making them easy pickings.  So far, transportation had been the biggest hold-up; the only way to get them up to the ship was to fly them up himself or wait for Stephen to open a portal.

Though, at this point there was really no hurry; Tony'd managed to harvest enough for his needs two days ago.  Any excess now was only to assuage his paranoid survival instincts.

Tony held one of the cones up, watching scans filled mostly with red error messages filter over his glasses.

"FRI, you there?"

She came through crisp and clear over the transmitter.  "For you, boss?  Always."

"How's your analysis coming on these things?  Any luck breaking down the gene sequence?"

"Unfortunately, I've made limited progress," FRIDAY said.  "The genetic modification is extremely complex.  The level of sophistication required to achieve it seems in direct contradiction with the level of technology on this planet."

Tony sighed.  "You say that now, but we're talking about a species whose Asgardian cousins ran around the universe via Einstein-Rosen wormholes, waging war with what looked like bows and arrows.  Nothing is ever what it seems with these people.  Don't be fooled." 

"I understand, boss.  I'll continue all avenues of investigation," she promised.

"That's my girl." 

Another hour in and Tony could feel himself start to unravel at the seams.  Starks just weren't made for the great outdoors; every tree and rock he passed was starting to look familiar, and they all managed to loom in a way that made the whole forest feel claustrophobic.  Tony surveyed his two full bags with a critical eye, judging he now had enough element to last him a solid year of nanotech fabrication.

"Which is great, because if I never see another tree again after this, it'll be too soon," he muttered.  "Screw this nature thing.  I don't know how people do it without shedding a few marbles.  If I'm not careful I'll end up talking to myself."

"Boss?" FRIDAY asked.

"Not you, FRI."

On his way back to camp he caught sight of the Lighthouse and, after a brief hesitation, redirected his feet toward it.  Being located so near the village, opportunities to examine the pillar freely were few and far between.  But today was a busy one for the Vanir and he caught some luck; there was a bare handful of people nearby, and none of them gave him more than a cursory glance when he approached.

Unlike the pinecones, the scans here were frustratingly normal.  Even when they shouldn't have been.

"Guess that's strike two then," he commented, sighing.

"I'm sorry, boss," FRIDAY said, subdued.  "After thirteen attempts, I've still been unable to penetrate the pillar's surface." 

Which should've been impossible, really.  The bots had the ability to transform and synthesize countless molecular bonds, down to the atomic level.  There should've been no physical substance they couldn't interact with in some way, and burrowing through plain rock should've been the work of minutes, maybe seconds.  But apparently science on this world worked very differently here than it did on Earth.

"Not your fault, FRI," he said finally.  "It was worth a shot."

"But I've failed to complete the task you set me."

He frowned.  "Only because the entire planet cheats.  Try not to take it personally.  This place needs to come with some kind of instruction manual."

"It would make my analysis immeasurably easier," she agreed. 

"We could always create one," Tony said, squinting thoughtfully.  "Vanaheim: The Land of Trees That Aren't Trees.  Or, Vanaheim: Where Science Went to Die.  Scenery that's literally endless, for those that like that sort of thing.  Popular tourist location among superheroes, especially those of the spider variety.  We could make it into a best seller, really, if we wrote it as the science fiction it deserves to be, instead of the non-fiction it is -"

"Boss," FRIDAY cautioned, a proximity warning flashing over his glasses.  Tony turned to find Esan's familiar face staring at him.

"Well, hi," Tony said.  "Look kid, I'll be honest with you.  This is nowhere near the worst thing anyone's caught me doing before."

"Who were you talking to?" Esan asked, blinking.  "You were conversing with someone."

"What?  Who?" he asked, making a point of looking around slowly.  "There's just me, myself, and I here.  Now, I've had some great conversations with myself over the years, I'll admit, but there's usually alcohol involved."

"This is not the first time I've seen you speaking aloud with no one else present."

"Okay, sometimes I do it sober."

She stared at him with prickling intensity while Tony looked at the pillar to avoid her eyes. 

"Is it the Gods?" she asked finally, quietly.  "Do you speak to them?  It's not a shameful thing, nor unusual.  Many petition the Gods for guidance in times of need."

Tony frowned.  "Nope, no nattering to Gods.  Last time I spoke to one of them, he left graffiti all over my lawn.  I make it a point not to talk to people who graffiti my property."

"Graffiti?" she asked, confused.  "What is that?"

"In this case, it's the closed aperture of an artificial wormhole disguising itself as art deco."

Esan's wide, wondering eyes became a startled fraction wider. 

"Right, I made that last part up," Tony amended hastily.  "In retrospect, it makes much more sense for me to be talking to the Gods, so that's obviously what I was doing.  Fortunately for my sanity, they weren't talking back."

The wonder didn't vanish, but it tempered as she reached out to put a hand against the pillar.  She glanced around furtively before admitting in a low whisper: "I talk to them too, sometimes."

Tony nodded along, watching as FRIDAY silently showed him a comparative energy graph.  "Anyone ever answer?"

"Of course not," she said, amused.  "The Gods only respond in times of great need and they only listen to elders.  I'm too young to be calling, but I do it anyway.  It's a great comfort to me to think that my small prayers might reach them somehow."

Which made no sense to Tony, who would much rather seek out his own answers than wait for them to come from some ubiquitous false deity.

Tony frowned.  False deities or not, Asgard was gone, presumably taking all its vaunted power and protection with it.  The problem was: no one on Vanaheim knew that, and probably they'd continue on in blissful ignorance until necessity forced them to call for help one day.  At which time they'd swiftly realize help wasn't coming.

"Do you usually come here to talk to them?" he asked, gesturing at the pillar.  "Prayer by Lighthouse?"

She looked up and patted it with great fondness, tracing two fingers reverently over one of the spiral patterns.  Tony watched FRIDAY's slow scroll of scan results blossom with a new array of red and blue numbers.

"Not always," Esan said, "but often.  Many do.  It's convenient to have a Lighthouse at the heart of the camp."

Tony snorted.  Thor and his ilk had a lot of nerve, running around doing good deeds and inspiring religion wherever they went.  Then leaving Tony holding the prayer bag, wondering how he was supposed to explain to these people the difference between duty and divinity.  "Convenient, sure.  Like grocery shopping.  Pick up your meat and vegetables and maybe a futile heavenly blessing or two on the way home.  Easy."

She frowned at him.  "You don't believe in prayer?"

"I don't believe in relying on others to save me when I can save myself.  Have as much faith as you want.  But when the chips are down, don't assume the stars are going to align and send someone to deliver you from evil.  Even if your Gods are listening, they're busy people.  Help them out a bit and be prepared to deliver yourself."

She considered this for a long, thoughtful moment.  "That is a wise sentiment."

It was Tony's turn to frown.  "There's that word again.  Why do people keep calling me that lately?  Whatever you do, don't spread that around.  I have a reputation to maintain, you know."

"You do?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah.  Years in the making.  Oh, hey, there's something I've been wanting to try."  He leaned down, plunging a hand into his bag of goodies.  "Do me a favor.  Catch."

She did, fumbling the pinecone he tossed in her direction.  She looked down at it with a question in her eyes, while beside her the pillar exploded into a kaleidoscope of light that only Tony could see.

"What," Esan started, turning the thing in her hands.  "A Seed?"

Tony shrugged.  "Sure.  If that's what you want to call it."

She looked at him, taking in the two full bags at his feet.  "You are collecting them?  Why?"

"Why does anyone collect powerful material?  To use.  Fortunately, not for anything too nefarious.  Here, have a few more."

She caught the next three he threw at her with growing confusion.

"Now back up a couple steps."

She did, very slowly.  Tony silently watched the readings rapidly dropping back into null range.

"Okay.  We're going to try an experiment here.  Let's call it a magic trick."  Picking up four pinecones himself, Tony placed them equidistantly around the pillar.  "Now you.  Put your cones exactly where I've put them, base of the pillar."

She did, taking the time to arrange them in an off-center pattern.

"Now, put both your hands back on those weird little spirals."

"Here?" she asked, tentatively resting her fingers back against the pillar.  The readings spiked higher, the highest Tony'd seen them to date.

"See!" he spread his arms wide with a flourish.  "Voila, it's magic."

She looked up at the pillar, frowning.  "But I don't see anything."

"Oh."  He stared with exaggerated surprise.  "That's right.  This is a funny trick.  It's designed so only a Vanir can do it, but not alone.  You need a catalyst.  Don't ask me what you people normally use, but for now I've got just the thing."  He put his two hands against the pillar, overtop the third and forth spirals, and silently called up the nanotech, activating the repulsors.  "And - liftoff."

Everything Tony knew about physics told him the interaction of two repulsor beams in direct contact with a solid, immovable object should've had one of two results: serious damage to the structure (in this case, the pillar), or serious damage to the repulsor source (in this case, Tony).

That wasn't what happened.

What happened was that the energized particles surrounding the pillar accelerated into a visual wavelength, lit up the Lighthouse like a Christmas tree, and started to hum.

"Tada!" Tony said brightly.

Esan gasped in wordless shock and yanked herself away, pinwheeling backward until she tripped over her feet and landed in a pile of tangled limbs.  The pillar's glow immediately vanished, and Tony deactivated the repulsors before the energy feedback could do any damage, watching the readings flare and fade.  He glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed, but they were alone.

Tony pretended to dust off his hands, nodding.  "That's a pretty good magic trick.  Even if I do say so myself.  What do you think?"

Esan stared at the pillar, then looked at her own hands and back again.  "What was that?"

"Science so indistinguishable from nature the only word for it's magic."

She turned her wide eyes on him instead.  "What?"

"It's a lock," Tony explained.  "An extra-dimensional lock, capable of converting energy from one form to another.  And you're the key.  Well, the conductor, really.  But we'll go with key, for now."

"A lock and key?" she repeated, staring.  "But I don't understand.  The Lighthouse glowed.  I've never seen it do anything like that before.  How?"

"It's complicated.  But I think the takeaway message here is that you can finally see why it's called a Lighthouse."

Esan seemed hardly to hear him.  She got back to her feet and stepped forward to lay tentative hands against the pillar again.  An inch away from contact, she hesitated, eventually turning an anxious look in Tony's direction.

He nodded encouragingly.  "Go ahead.  Nothing'll happen.  Like I said, it needs a catalyst."

In spite of the explanation, she still seemed astonished when she touched it and nothing occurred. 

Visually, anyway.  Tony frowned at FRIDAY's new stream of readings.  "Huh.  That's interesting."

"What is?" she whispered, now standing on the tips of her toes to peer closely at the pillar's many runes, as if it were the first time she'd ever really seen them as anything more than just carved lines on stone.

Tony glared at the Lighthouse, outraged.  "Oh, nothing.  Just ridiculous planets being ridiculous.  Is your dad handy?"

"My father?" she asked, dazed, rocking back onto the balls of her feet like someone coming out of a dream.  "He's helping one of the families pack.  They'll be leaving soon for the mountain's windward side to harvest the winter crops and plant for summer."

"When will he be finished?" Tony persisted, gathering up the pinecones briskly.  "We need to talk."

She crouched on autopilot to help him.  "Not for some time.  Food and entertainment flow early during the full moon.  If you come to dinner, I'm certain you'll find him there."  She brightened with a sudden smile.  "He's to entertain tonight.  You'll enjoy it.  He's an excellent storyteller."

"Oh, yeah, really looking forward to it," Tony sighed.  "Stories about people climbing trees.  Sounds scintillating."

She touched him on the arm, light and insubstantial, and when Tony looked at her again there was something like fear in her face.

"But I still don't understand," she said, looking back at the Lighthouse, quiet and still once more.  "What was that, really?"

"It was just the Lighthouse working as intended, kid.  That's all."  Tony tilted his head from side to side, considering.  "Who told you the Gods only answer calls from an elder?  Your parents?"

She frowned intently.  "I don't know.  I suppose it must've been.  It's just a thing that's known.  The Lighthouse stands in our defense, but only an elder can use it to call."

"I'm guessing that's because the trick to it gets passed down to camp leaders only.  Any of you can do it if you have the right tools, but only a handful of you know what they are and how to use them."

"Then - we were speaking to the Gods?" she asked, hushed.  "They heard us?"

"Not in this case."

Theoretically, they could have.  But at this point, there was really no they left to hear anything.

"Guess we'll be seeing you tonight then," Tony said, new thought experiments already whirling through his head.  "Two of us might smell like horse, but we'll be there.  Bright and early."

"You do not care to ride?" she asked as he turned away.  "Peter has been eager to learn.  He has an aptitude for it."

"He has a lot of aptitudes," Tony said.  "Doesn't mean he'll use them all when we leave."

He'd said it perhaps more harshly than he could've, but aside from a small flinch, she didn't react.

"He might use some," was all she said.  "The future is ever changing."

Tony tried to envision a future where Peter spent a large majority of his time riding horseback and giving center-stage performances to enthralled audiences.  It was surprisingly easy to imagine.  The kid had fallen into superhero work early; that didn't mean it had to be his whole life.

"Maybe," Tony said, and left before he could get any more sticky emotions on him.

He found Stephen still in the paddock, lessons apparently concluded.  He could see Peter more faintly in the distance, riding his horse by standing up straight on its back, balancing on one foot and then the other with exultant yells.

"I don't think that's how they teach it in riding school," Tony said, staring after the kid narrowly.

"They might if all their students had hands and feet that could adhere to any surface," Stephen said.

"We're supposed to be keeping a low profile," Tony objected.

Stephen seemed entirely undisturbed by Tony's ire.  "It's comparatively still a low profile.  In a society of horse riders, he won't be the only one who's tried trick riding."

"What about upside-down, magical trick riding?" Tony asked, nodding in the kid's direction when Peter stepped on the side of the saddle, hanging so he was parallel to the ground with no obvious toehold anywhere.

"Well," Stephen said philosophically, "it could be worse.  He could be airborne."

"Not if I kill him first," Tony muttered.

Stephen snorted at him, or so Tony thought.  But a moment later a large, dark eye peered around the sorcerer curiously and Tony realized it hadn't been Stephen at all.

"Aren't you finished with that yet?"

"With that?" Stephen repeated with amusement.  "You really aren't much of an animal-lover, are you?"

Tony grimaced.  "Good guess.  I prefer my pets to be of the mechanical variety.  Less chance of them dying or eating me when I inevitably forget they exist."

Stephen held out a hand to him.  "Come here."

Tony eyed him warily and made no move to accept it.  "Why?"

Stephen beckoned impatiently.  Tony sighed and let himself be pulled, one eye on the gigantic creature pretending to chew placidly on something as Stephen dragged him unwillingly closer.

"Put both hands here, at the shoulder," Stephen instructed, laying one in demonstration against the horse's muscular chest. 

Tony tentatively mimicked him, snatching his hand back when he saw its tail swish from side to side impatiently.

"Why my hands?" he complained, folding his arms to tuck them away.  "I need my hands.  I can't live without them.  What about a foot?  I don't mind losing a foot.  If we're picking sacrificial limbs, that's the one I'd choose."

"No one's sacrificing any limbs," Stephen said patiently, waiting for Tony to let him tug a hand free again.  "Besides, if it decided to eat you, you'd have better things to worry about than a few lost fingers."

"Fingers!" Tony protested.  "I need those, too.  I have an eight finger and two thumb minimum requirement.  I know, it sounds insane and entitled, but I have to set the bar high somewhere."

Stephen gave him something, a leafy vegetable red in color.  "Give it that.  Flat on your palm, unless you've decided seven fingers will do."

"This seems like a very inefficient way of feeding," Tony said.  "Why don't I just put it on the ground and -"

"Tony, the horse doesn't have cooties.  Give it the carrot."

"It's not a carrot."

Stephen fixed him with a baleful look not unlike that of the horse in front of them.  Tony deflated, meekly holding out the vegetable on his hand, palm up.  The horse leaned in and took it delicately, the soft bristles of its snout tickling over Tony's hand, narrow ears flicking forward happily.

"Congratulations," Stephen said dryly.  "It was a dangerous mission, but to the surprise of no one, you survived with all your limbs and digits intact."

"You don't know that," Tony said.  "It's not over yet."

This time, when Stephen tugged him close enough to run his hands over the horse's powerful shoulder and flank, Tony didn't fight him.

Somewhere in the distance, Peter whooped and did a spiral flip in the air, landing in a handstand on the saddle of his steed.

"He fits here," Tony remarked, brushing careful hands over the horse's velvet skin and through its wiry mane of hair.  "Doesn't he?"

"He can," Stephen said.  "Peter's adaptable.  Someone who comes into power that young has to be." 

"I think I know how to send him home," Tony said.

He expected some exclamation of surprise, maybe some disbelief or skepticism; at least a strong word or two.  But that wasn't what he got, of course, because although this discovery felt cutting and new to him, it wasn't to Stephen.

"That's not your decision to make," the sorcerer said.

"Wasn't my decision to bring him with us against his will, either.  Didn't stop me then."

"It's stopping you now, or you wouldn't have told me about it.  If you've figured out how to activate the pillars you already know it'll be weeks or months before you can break down how to target a specific exit coordinate."

"Time well spent if it can get him back," Tony said.  "I've been running differential analyses all week, but I still wasn't sure I could do it until today.  Now I know.  I can get him back.  All it'll take me is time."

"I notice you make no offer to send me home," Stephen said dryly.

"Right, because obviously Thanos isn't watching Earth for even the smallest sign that the stone's returned.  Tell me half the planet doesn't immediately go up in flames when he comes after you."

"Not quite half."

Tony spread his hands, point made.

"You need to ask him what he wants, Tony.  Peter knows his own mind better than you might think and he has a right to make his choices.  Don't underestimate him."

Tony sighed, silently sketching his hands down the horse's neck.  He flinched when the thing bumped him, nuzzling affectionately closer, liquid black eyes entreating, soft nose questing.

"I don't have anything else for you to eat," Tony told it.  "Go bug Stephen.  He's the keeper of the carrots."

The horse turned its beseeching look from Tony to Stephen and back again.

The sorcerer provided more treats to the horse so it could happily crunch away, but Stephen never took his eyes off Tony.

"Ask him."

"He'll say no," Tony said.  "He's too loyal for anything else.  He'll say no, and I can't let him."

"He might," Stephen said.  "Or he might not.  But that's exactly my point.  Whatever he chooses, you may not think it's a wise decision, but it's his decision.  You need to let him make it, and more to the point, you need to hear why he makes it.  He might surprise you."

"Yeah," Tony said sourly.  "You guys do a lot of that, actually.  It's annoying."

But when the kid finally came riding in at Tony's request twenty minutes later, he couldn't quite bring himself to say it. 

"That was so cool," Peter said breathlessly when he swung down from horseback with the easy trust of someone who loved animals, and who absolutely believed they were loved in return.  "Did you see?"

"I saw," Tony said.  "And I'm sure I wasn't the only one."

Peter smiled, halfway proud and halfway guilty.  "No one was close enough to see I wasn't using a safety life."

"I was close enough."

"You don't count; you already know."

Tony sighed, feeling very put-upon.  "Go wash up.  Apparently dinner's being served early tonight and we can't miss it."

The thought of food was an exciting one.  The kid tossed him the reins, taking the paddock rail at a run and vaulting overtop it.

"Feet on the ground," Tony called after him, fumbling with the leather ties when the horse behemoth brushed up against him, happily searching for new treats and rewards now it's run in the field was over.  "Hey, Peter!"

The kid turned around, almost too far away to hear.  "Yeah?"

"It was pretty cool," Tony admitted, waving an admonishing finger after him.  "Don't do it again."

Far enough away he could barely hear; but near enough for Tony to see his brilliant smile.

Stephen came up behind him, leaning warmly into his shoulder.  "Going soft in your old age, Tony?"

"You're one to talk."

"Will you tell him?"

Tony rolled his eyes.  "Do I have a choice?"

"You did before you told me," Stephen said.  "But then, that's exactly why you told me.  Isn't it?"

Tony scowled, dropped the extra reins into Stephen's hands, and stalked away.

Chapter Text

"At the heart of all the cosmos and the Nine great Realms," Verdun said in a clear, ringing voice, "lies the World Tree, Yggdrasill." 

The words, sudden as they were, sent a cascade of surprised silence rippling over the camp.  The last rays of sunlight had vanished beyond the horizon; the full moon in its ghostly glory was at its peak.  Verdun was standing high on a hill side, a silhouette in a world of shadows, and he waited politely until the hush had reached even the youngest of the Vanir before sweeping dramatically past them and down to the center of the camp’s makeshift stage.

"Well," Tony said, watching him stalk by in a costume of dramatic blacks and purples and blues, "I’ll say one thing for him.  Guy knows how to make an entrance."

Stephen hummed agreeably.  The three humans were seated at one of the communal eating tables, a bit removed from the rest of the camp.  "He certainly does.  And yet, on a scale of one to full diva, I'm still not sure he can match you."

"Yeah, me neither," Tony admitted.

"Shh," Peter admonished them, leaning forward.  "He’s starting."

Verdun whirled toward the crowd.  "We all know the story of the Tree, of course.  Yggdrasill is all.  She holds in her roots and leaves and branches all the features necessary to this world.  To any world."  He threw up an arm, his hand pointing to the velvet sky above him.  "There are many out there.  As many as all the lights we see in the sky and more besides.  Millions upon billions.  But in all the places beyond us, all the worlds spinning through the void, Yggdrasill deigned to carry only Nine."  He paused, turning in profile so his captive audience could see him smile.  "Can anyone tell me why?"

"Because only the Nine were worthy!" one of the children shouted with innocent glee.

"To unite the home worlds," a man said.  "For Convergence."

"To bring Balance," Esan said, stepping forward from her own collection of shadows.

Tony felt Peter start.  The camp hushed while father and daughter locked eyes across an expanse wider than the ground beneath them.

"To bring Balance," she repeated softly.

"Yes," Verdun said, speaking chiefly to her.  It was clear they’d shared this story before.  "All those reasons have merit, but in the beginning, in the time of the Ginnungagap, first came Balance.  A world of light; a world of dark.  One of fire; one of ice.  One of life; one of death.  And three more at the heart of the Tree, these three blessed with unparalleled beauty and power and unique among all other realms and worlds ever to exist.  Midgard, Asgard, and Vanaheim."

A hearty cheer rose over the camp and Verdun watched it from on high, a conductor leading the swell of an orchestra.  He went on before the noise could get too loud.  "Of course, the creation of these realms was not without effort.  Many different elements were needed to create the right conditions.  Yggdrasill gave six of her roots to feed the new life on her branches, each becoming an essential aspect of existence.  Six elements of infinity."

Tony jackknifed upright in his seat, instinctively clamping a hand down on Stephen's wrist in the darkness.  The sorcerer grimaced, probably at his bones grinding unexpectedly together, but he gave Tony a split second nod just barely visible in the shadowy twilight.  Through the hard pound of his heart, Tony didn't think it was his imagination that in the expectant silence he could feel the weight of Verdun's eyes coming to rest on them.

"The creation of such strong elements drew attention to Yggdrasill," Verdun continued, thankfully moving the laser-sight of his attention away.  "Great beings from other parts of the cosmos came, eager to share in the void that now carried life.  The giant eagle and its small hawk companion, Veðrfölnir.  The four grand stags, among them Dvalinn and Dáinn.  Ratatoskr the squirrel, carrying its messages up and down the Tree.  And of course, the great dragon Níðhǫggr." 

The Vanir gasped.  Verdun whirled, the coat tails of his costume glimmering in the moon to highlight his entire person in silver.

The sight put Tony's immediate concerns on the backburner, in spite of the adrenaline flooding his veins.  He couldn't resist leaning over to nudge Peter with his knee, whispering: "Hey.  How come none of your costumes looked like that?"

Peter huffed, whispering back: "Because someone wouldn't let me use the suit."

"Níðhǫggr was immense," Verdun said.  "No larger, perhaps, than one of the great stags, but filled with a ravenous hunger that made sharp his claws and teeth as he came to the Tree.  So sharp were his talons, in fact, and so vast his hunger, that he began to dig furrows into Yggdrasill's awesome trunk, consuming it, jealous of her power and coveting it for himself."

A low murmur of distress took over the crowd.  Verdun waved his hands for quiet.

"It was a very dark time, of course.  Yggdrasill, life giving and sacred, had never faced such a terrible adversary before.  But she rallied; she regrew her bark stronger, her branches thicker, her leaves fuller.  She repelled his attacks swiftly and, with a swipe of her heavy boughs, she entangled and dragged him down into the depths of the void, away from the life sheltering beneath her canopy.  And there Níðhǫggr stayed, trapped beneath the weight of Yggdrasill's roots, biting and chewing and howling for the dominion he was denied.  Vanquished."

Reassured by the more triumphant turn of the tale, the audience sighed with new pleasure.  But Verdun was in no way finished.  He paced again up and down the periphery of the stage, intense concentration on his face.  When he turned suddenly to face them, Tony could hear someone squeak with fright. 

"But Níðhǫggr is sneaky," Verdun proclaimed.  "For many years he listened while rattling the bars of his cage, hearing the occasional word from the stags as they bounded from branch to branch.  Or speaking to Ratatoskr who, after all, hungered in his own small way as he scurried up and down Yggdrasill's trunk.  And eventually Níðhǫggr's patience was rewarded: he heard tell of the powerful infinity elements, scattered across Yggdrasill's branches and out into the void.  He listened for many years, too many to count, more than the lifetime of many Vanir.  And eventually, when he'd learned all he could and railed until he could rail no more, Níðhǫggr slunk away, back into the cosmos, and for a time it was thought he'd given up his great quest for power.  But it was not so.  His hunger had only changed; not vanished."

Verdun sighed, looking genuinely troubled.  "Eventually, many ages later, Yggdrasill felt Níðhǫggr's great appetite encroaching on her again and she braced, confident she would win any battle that followed.  But this time was different.  Where before he'd been a sharp-toothed worm gnawing at her branches, now there was a new power in Níðhǫggr.  He had been patient, he'd been sly, and in his patience he’d discovered at last one of the things he'd set out searching for: one of Yggdrasill's life-giving infinity elements."

Verdun paused again, a master of drama, and Tony took the opportunity to lean casually back into Peter and Stephen, the younger hunched forward with excitement and the older hunched backward with apprehension.  He realized he still had an unbreakable hold on Stephen's wrist and loosened his fingers with an apologetic squeeze.

"I take it you haven't heard this story before?" Tony asked softly, just beneath the din of other noise.

"Not in any timeline to date," Stephen said just as quietly.  "The Vanir are always mysterious, but this is unlike anything I've ever encountered.  We can only assume Verdun has his reasons for telling us this tale."

"Right.  And hope those reasons don't result in us gnawing at the bars of some tree-cage, somewhere."

"They won't," Stephen said.

Tony cut a look at Peter, but the kid was fully absorbed into the nuances of the story and the energy of the crowd.

"Over the ages he'd been gone, Yggdrasill had felt Níðhǫggr moving through the void, of course," Verdun said, drawing them all back into the story.  "She'd sensed him doing terrible mischief.  But always he'd skirted just out of reach; always he'd avoided her grasp.  And with the power of infinity in his claws, at last, he could fly close enough to her branches to swipe at the Tree without fear of being trapped again.  So, free at last from reprisal and drunk with the power of his success, Níðhǫggr cradled close the power of infinity and set out to find more."

Verdun sighed, bowing beneath some invisible weight to give gravity to the scenario.  At his feet Tony watched two young children scuttle backward into the legs of their parents, reaching up for comfort.

"And he did.  He found many more.  And so Níðhǫggr's power grew and grew, until his shadow had started to spread so far it could blot out Yggdrasill's life-giving light.  And from that shadow came ruin and madness and death -"

"Father," Esan scolded softly, and Verdun looked up from his dramatic retelling, blinking to see the fearful eyes of his audience, adults and children both.

"Ah," he said guiltily, and his dismay was so tragically complete that, like a soap bubble popping, Tony felt the tension vanish.  More than one person giggled with relieved laughter, setting off a few more, and then a few more, until the entire camp seemed to feel the wave of humor ebbing and flowing among them.

Verdun waited until it died down before he gave them all a sheepish grin.  "Well, it's a story about infinity, after all.  What epic wouldn't be complete without a villain who has the power to face the Gods?"

The camp nodded in eager agreement.  A story; yes, of course.  It was only a story.

"But you see!" Verdun exclaimed happily.  "You needn't fear.  Because this is where things go awry for Níðhǫggr.  He searched and plotted and swept his shadow from one side of the cosmos to the other.  And he came near to his victory, very near, and in some stories perhaps he even achieved it.  But not this one!"

He swooped in, snatching one of the youngest children up and soaring her over his head so first she shouted in alarm and then in glee.  The rest of the children laughed, leaping to their feet with their own shouts.

"Not this one," Verdun repeated, putting her down and crouching to stare at her from an inch away.  "You see, while Níðhǫggr gloated and boasted the inevitability of his victory, warriors from many different realms came together to fight him, realms no one had even heard of before.  Some that had been hidden; some that had been forgotten.  Even some who'd been enemies drew together to fight.  And these warriors, men and women and creatures and beings and Gods from far and wide, they opposed Níðhǫggr.  The resistance was astonishing.  And do you know what happened?"

"They won!" the child said excitedly, with the simple confidence of someone who knew good must always triumph over evil.

"No," Esan said, gently, and the audience turned to her, dismay in every line of them.  "They lost."

"Now you choose to be dramatic," Verdun complained good-naturedly, which set everyone to laughing again.  "Yes, they lost, trying to match might against might with a being of great power, and greater cunning and malice.  But they didn't lose everything; they saved much, and if it wasn't all?  Well, there’s courage to be found even in just the attempt.  And their loss was not in vain, because do you know what happened then?  And not another word out of you!"

That last he'd directed with a stern finger at Esan, who stepped back with a hand to her heart in wounded protest.  The children at her feet giggled again, swarming around her.  She dropped to her knees, grinning, and tugged two of them close.

"No, what happened then," Verdun continued merrily, "was among the heroes, a small few snuck in behind Níðhǫggr, where he'd sent minions to do his work.  And while the great beast's maw was turned away and blind, they stole the very greatest of the treasures Níðhǫggr searched for, the most powerful light in all infinity, so great it could still the hand of time itself.  And with it they snuck away and vanished into the cosmic void."

Beside him, Tony felt Peter jerk, and something clamped down hard on his elbow.  He looked over to see the kid pale with shock in the moonlight, a question in his eyes.  Tony nodded at him shortly.  He glanced at Stephen but the sorcerer was too preoccupied to look back, eyes locked on the stage.  He had one hand resting on his chest and Tony didn't have to see it to know it was clamped grimly, compulsively over the Eye.

"Into the void?" a man asked, confused.  "They ran?  But won't he find them?"

"Perhaps one day he will.  But they're cunning and wily, these travellers.  They -"

"Travellers?" someone else interrupted.

Verdun put a hand to his mouth in imaginary surprise.  "Oh, did I forget to say?  The heroes were exposed, of course, and as is the way of many heroes, they were obliged to disguise themselves for the safety of all.  They donned the masks of nameless travellers, flying through the void, scaling up and down Yggdrasill's trunk more swiftly than the eagle, more skillfully than Ratatoskr."

"But how were they so fast?" one of the children asked, and the adults nodded thoughtfully.  "Faster than a dragon!"

Verdun widened his eyes in shared wonder.  "There's a strange thing about Níðhǫggr I'll share with you that isn't often told.  A great beast he may be, but!  Do you know, in many of the old stories he isn't always a dragon.  He's a sly one, always changing, and sometimes he's a giant serpent, circling Yggdrasill like rope, and other times he's one of the forgotten titans, descended from a line of Gods born before even the Nine were created."  He lowered his voice, as if imparting a great secret.  "And in my very favorite tales, he's not a dragon or an animal or a God at all.  He's just a man."  He smiled fiercely.  "And men can be defeated by warriors and Gods, but mostly?  Mostly they're defeated by their own greed and malice, their own avarice turned against them."

"That doesn't explain how our travellers managed to escape from Níðhǫggr," Esan pointed out dryly, clearly familiar with her father losing himself to the narrative of the story.

Verdun smiled.  "Yes, that's true.  How does one stay ahead of a creature whose eye is everywhere, and whose reach is as long as the cosmos are wide?  And the stories never quite agree on this point.  Most believe they managed it with the aid of a powerful ally, a spirit of great wings faster than light.  It is always a great blessing to have the ear and loyalty of spirits.  But there are some who insist it must've been Odin himself who flew to their rescue; or, that if it was trickery, it could only have been Loki who took them away.  But all agree that, in the end, for anyone to escape from Níðhǫggr they must’ve had the luck of the Norns."

Something rippled over the camp then, something Tony didn't understand.  He frowned, reaching warily for the nanotech.  But far from dismayed and confused, the audience seemed eager.  Thrilled, even.

"Well, I can see you know the story of them," Verdun said, grinning, and the animated burble of sound spread further.  "And if our travellers have their luck and perhaps even their blessing, can anyone guess how many there must be?"

"Three!" one of the youths said excitedly.  "One blessed by each."

Verdun nodded sagely.  "Yes, in this story there are three.  I'm sure some of you heard it told with one, or two, or perhaps rarely four.  But in this tale our travellers number three.  The blessed of Urðr was how they escaped, for that one was clever, as her chosen so often are."  Verdun wiggled his fingers, apparently to demonstrate cleverness.  The children giggled.  "And the blessed of Skuld was powerful, as hers so often are.  Powerful enough to use the light of infinity they'd stolen, casting many shadows in the wake of their escape to keep them safe."

"Will they run forever?" one of the children asked boldly.  "Won't they get tired?"

"I'm sure they will and have," Verdun said, nodding.  "But I like to think they sometimes find a bit of sanctuary on their journey, a small island of calm in otherwise uncertain lands.  Perhaps, dare I say it, they might even someday wander here, to sup the peace and plenty of our lands."

"Here?" one of the men asked, thoughtfully.

"You like to think?" Esan asked at the same time, abruptly enough that the thrall of Verdun's story waned beneath her sudden surprise.  "What do you mean, think?  Don't you know?"

Verdun smiled, full of mystery.  "No.  No one knows the end to this tale, and even the middle is sometimes hazy.  That's what makes this story so interesting, you see.  It hasn't been finished yet."

A disbelieving silence settled on the camp.  Tony shouldered back into Peter and Stephen, ready.  They sat as a tense ball, not sure what might happen next, not sure they were going to like it.

"And Verðandi's chosen?" Esan asked, suddenly, like a shock of lightning in the quiet.  Her voice was brittle with something not quite sadness.  "What did he - what did this traveller bring to the triad?"

"Verðandi's?" Verdun asked with surprise.  "But that's obvious.  She chooses always someone rich with the joy of life.  Skuld is the inevitable future, and Urðr is nebulous fate.  But Verðandi is grounded in the fleeting moment, the present.  All three are needed for Balance, for what is one without the others?"

Esan looked away.  "So these three, they'll weave through Yggdrasill's branches until they choose to surrender their stolen treasure, which they never will, hiding until Níðhǫggr gives up his terrible quest, which he never will.  And where does it stop?  Where will they stop?  Travellers can't travel forever."

"They'll go as long as is needed."  Verdun held out two hands, tipping them up and down to bow them beneath the weight of a scale.  "They must, daughter.  If they fail, then we all fail.  The fortunes of many rest with them."

"But all journeys end," she insisted.  "Nothing is forever.  Where does it end for these three?"

Verdun shrugged, reaching halfway out to Esan before letting his arms fall.  "As I said, their final destination is never told.  It's tied too closely to Yggdrasill's fate to be seen.  Not by the Gods, not by any gatekeeper, not by any weaver."  He smiled.  "Certainly not a weaver like me; mediocre at best, plodding at worst."

The camp laughed, released from the strange tension winding tight through father and daughter in an unspoken battle of wills. 

Esan didn't laugh.  She turned and walked away.  Tony felt Peter's fingers tighten fractionally further where he was still gripping Tony's elbow.

Verdun looked after her a long moment, the night casting deep shadows in his face.  Then he turned, clapping his hands together suddenly, briskly.  "So, you see.  Every traveller who comes is as these three; welcome and valued and cherished.  And we must always treat them with respect, because one day we might encounter a traveller who comes bearing an elemental power, and we wouldn't want to offend or deter them."  He leaned in to stare with mock severity at the children again, putting his hands on his hips so they giggled at him.  "Would we?"

"No," they chorused.

"No," he agreed.  "So the rules of etiquette were made and passed down through the ages.  And this is how we know all our children who leave our side to pilgrimage will be welcome in any camp, wherever they may go.  Because on this world, one of Yggdrasill's Nine, we offer sanctuary.  Vanaheim is a refuge for weary souls, and all are safe and welcome among us, isn't that so?"

"It is," the children agreed.

"And do you know what else is true of Vanaheim?" he asked, widening his eyes.

"What?" they gasped.

"That our children go to bed early when the moon is full," Verdun said sternly, laughing when they all cried immediate objections.  "No, no, it's off to bed with you.  Your parents are done eating and must be abed soon too.  And I've spoken such a very long tale and answered so many of your questions I've almost gone hoarse.  A weaver, going hoarse, unable to tell tales!  Can you imagine?"

They shook their unhappy heads while behind them their family hid smiles behind polite hands.  A few among them looked like they wanted to join the children, disappointed the thrilling tale had come to an end.

Verdun nodded at them decisively, holding a hand delicately at his throat to ward off any further hoarseness.  "So away with you now to sleep.  Off you go.  Tomorrow comes early."

Those on child-minding duty started gathering the glum children up in droves, walking with them to tents Tony could hardly see in the dark. 

And it was about that time, freed at last from the spell of Verdun's tale, that Tony realized there was something he had to do.

He stood up abruptly, almost sending Stephen toppling away from the table before Tony could catch him.  He pulled Peter up too.  Not ten feet away, he could see Verdun look at them with glittering eyes, a knowing light in his opaque face.

"Come with me," he told Peter and Stephen tensely, walking away from the light, from the camp, back to the tree line.  He almost expected to be stopped, for loud shouting and cries of protest to rise behind them, but no voice called out after them.  Not even Verdun's.

"Am I crazy or was that whole story about us?"  Peter asked urgently as they went.  He kept glancing behind him, like perhaps they were being hunted.  "I mean, I only understood maybe half of it.  But like, I'm not crazy, right?  That was about us?"

"And about Thanos," Tony confirmed, still motoring them away at speed.  "And about how Thanos is hunting us from one side of the known galaxy to the other, which comes as no surprise, but which I now resent a hell of a lot more somehow.  This must be what Frodo felt like, carrying the One Ring across half of Middle Earth."

"I always thought it was weird they didn't use the eagles to do it," Peter commented.

"Oh, for the love of all things Tolkien, thank you.  Someone else who asked the question."

"It's a fantasy epic," Stephen said.  "It's going to require some suspension