If anything had ever annoyed Stephen more than medically inaccurate television dramas, it would probably be Tony Stark. And Wong would be a close second along with the Cloak of Annoyance.
When Stark said he had questions, he wasn’t joking.
Following the invitation to the Sanctum, he walked through the doors like he owned the place and didn’t shut up for a minute before he left.
“What do you do with this? Cook soup in it?” he casually stared down into the Cauldron of Cosmos.
“How fast can the Cloak move?”
“Why is all the magicky stuff this color?”
“So what can you do besides pouring me infinite glasses of whiskey? … Did you just teleport us to another room?! Cool. How about Bahamas next?”
“What happens when I open this big red ‘do not ever enter’ door?”
“Can you make the Statue of Liberty disappear, like Copperfield? What about other people…like Clint. Could you make Clint disappear?”
“Where do you shop for these clothes…Costco?”
Didn’t matter what he answered or even if he bothered to answer at all. Stark was having the time of his goddamn life and Wong – the traitor – was indulging him by explaining everything he asked about magic.
Even when he clearly stated that he didn’t believe it’s magic and that he’s going to explain it with science eventually, instead of ripping his head off, Wong smirked and wished him good luck with that challenge.
The Cloak being all touchy with the engineer wasn’t helping at all either. Stark talking to it like it’s a living person or something…that might have cracked through the annoyance a little, not that he’d admit it. It definitely made the grumpy Cloak go all soft on the man.
“You should come check out the Avenger’s Compound. Just finished decorating…hell, you should join the team! We could use some party tricks when the afternoons get all boring,” Stark offers on his third visit.
When he resolutely declines, ensuring that he’s explicitly clear about what he thinks about joining some wannabe superhero cult of a team, he realizes how much he’s overestimated the man’s nonchalance.
Stark laughs it off and jokes for the rest of the evening before taking off, but the damage had been done.
Stephen can see the hurt his statement caused…and still, being the asshole that he is, he adds more salt to the injury by quipping about ‘not being good with rejection, Stark?’ and ‘can’t imagine spending my afternoons any worse than in your ego and testosterone enhanced cult dungeon’. And Stark quips right back, laughs some more and jokes some more and it’s ugly, fake and disappointed.
He doesn’t visit again after that. Sends a text every now and then but even those are short…professional. Distant.
Wong glares at him for weeks and the Cloak trips him down the stairs every chance it gets. And Stephen lets them.
Among other things he would never admit to anyone is the fact that he might…possibly…sort of…miss the annoying genius. A little bit. Maybe.
Between protecting their dimension, training and studying the mystic arts, Stark’s visits were definitely the highlights. Annoying and obnoxious and…fun. He…enjoyed Stark. His borderline offensive quips and disregard for anything that’s got to do with magic. His admittedly brilliant brain that’s capable of keeping up with all of it…his rare, tiny smile he’d shoot at the Cloak when it did something nice. Hell, even when it was being mean.
Leave it to Stephen to successfully ruin it with a single sentence.
“I’m quite busy as is, being the Sorcerer Supreme and I most definitely don’t need to mingle with your superhero merry band. Or you for that matter.”
They’ve been going at it like this all the time. Always in good fun. Always in jest.
This time was different. Because this time, Stark was serious. And Stephen realized too late.
“He’s a busy man too, you know? I’m sure he’ll stop by soon,” Wong actually attempts something akin to comforting one evening after they’ve dealt with a weird possessed artifact down in Jersey.
Wong stares at him, rolling his eyes when Stephen doesn’t budge. “For someone so clever and talented in the mystic arts to be such a miserable piece of human existence is truly sad.”
“A miserab…really? Is that what you think of me? What does that make you then, mister I-serve-this-sorry-excuse-for–a-human?”
Wong waits till they’re back to the Sanctum and sighs, regarding Stephen with a curious look. “You have an attitude. It’s abrasive and I bet it helps you scare off people you don’t want to deal with. But you’re not like that. Not really.”
“Ahhh, okay. Thank you, Dr. Phil. You stared long and deep into my soul and figured out all its secrets!”
There. He does it again. Can he ever stop himself? He probably should…before even Wong decides he’s a lost cause and moves back to Kamar-Taj for good.
“I didn’t have to,” Wong chuckles. “I just happen to know someone exactly like that. And that someone happens to be a person I look up to in a sense. Because despite that fake front he built over the years, he’s in reality a man born of compassion, honor and duty. Man worth of every respect.”
“Oh plea - ”
“Just stop, Strange. You’re not fooling me, you’re just fooling yourself with all your bravado. Stark wasn’t fooled either. Him being all birds of a feather with you, I’d be really surprised if he was.”
“Well I congratulate you both then! You read me like an open book! If you have such a man-crush then go sort it out with him…leave me out of it,” he waves at the other sorcerer while stomping up the stairs.
“Respect. I respect him, for who he is and in many ways aspire to be like him. Even though I know I never could be,” Wong shrugs, portaling on top of the stairs to stand in his way. “I have many talents…mystic arts isn’t necessarily one of those talents though. I’m an average sorcerer at best and an average sorcerer can only do so much at the end of the day. All a man like me can do is assist someone who is capable of making a difference – achieving greater things than I could ever hope to achieve.”
Stephen frowns at the raw honesty in his voice, noting the slight annoyance that tainted it. Almost as if Wong felt he shouldn’t have to be explaining this in the first place.
“Someone like Tony Stark. Someone like you,” he adds, rolls his eyes and starts walking towards the doors to Kamar-Taj. “Do us all a favor and call the man, Sorcerer Supreme. Or you’re going to find out how annoying I really get when someone’s mean to my friends,” he threatens, leaving Stephen stunned on the staircase, alone.
The Cloak snaps him out of the haze with a well-aimed slap.
“Okay, okay! I’m…going to…do that,” he squints at the Cloak now curling up behind him, pulling them back down the stairs into the foyer. “Um…,” he reaches out for his phone through a portal and does what Wong suggested – calls Stark. “The hell am I supposed to say?!” he hisses at the Cloak, naturally receiving no helpful answer.
It wraps around him gently, no longer weighing him down on purpose as in the past few weeks so Stephen relaxes, raveling in the unspoken offer of comfort.
He will have to find some texts about the Cloak, see what the thing is really about.
“You have reached the voicemail of 1-800-7…,” the automated voice recites and Stephen curses.
Well, Wong was right. Stark is a busy man, it’s not like he’s sitting in his superhero lair all bored with a phone in hand waiting for asshole wizards to call him.
The beep goes off and for a second he considers just ending the call and trying later. Sometimes…later is too late. And he’s learnt his lesson.
“Hello…um…Doctor Stark, it’s…Doctor Strange. The uh…,” he sighs, stifling a groan, “…the weird wizard doctor from Hogwarts? I’m sure you remember, I mean how could anyone forget me? I’m sure you’re busy and all…world doesn’t save itself every day, right? Anyway, there are some matters I would lo-ike to discuss with you as soon as you find vacancy in your schedule? The Sanctum is always open so…drop by when you can. Um…okay. Have a good evening, Doctor Stark,” he quickly finishes the call before he can say something stupid and throws the phone on the sofa, all but collapsing next to it.
The Cloak flutters, its collar caressing his cheeks…like approval. A reward.
“You’re so…ugh! Strange!” he tells the Cloak, cringing. “There, you made me say it. I hope you’re happy!” he huffs, crossing his arms over his chest while the Cloak just continues to happily flail around him.
And now he’s talking to the Cloak as if it was a person as well. Great. He’s…well, he is Strange, too. Guess they’re perfect for each other after all.
He didn’t expect an immediate reply. In fact, he kind of predicted Stark would make him wait, let him nervously check the phone every five minutes for a while…it’s a bit teenage drama of him, but Stephen would probably do the same. So he understood the silence.
Until it spread over three days.
Wong and him are called in to Kamar-Taj and then head off to Madagascar to solve some tribal magic ritual gone wrong for a few days and by the time he’s back to New York and checks his phone he thought he’d be met with a couple texts or at least a missed call.
There’s nothing though. Nothing at all.
A disturbing feeling settles in his chest, one he hasn’t felt in a long time. If ever.
Him not replying can only mean two things. Well…three things.
Either he’s too busy to even notice the voicemail, or Wong completely misread the man and Stark is actually angry with Stephen to a point he would just ignore the message.
Or…there’s something wrong. Meaning he can’t reply even if he wanted to.
He doesn’t really want to think about that last option too much. It’s ridiculous. Stark is Iron Man. And he’s got a team full of superpowered individuals standing behind him. So that last option really isn’t an option at all.
Which leaves him to option one…a likely scenario. And option two. He can only hope it isn’t option two.
Stephen keeps the phone in his pocket and decides to make himself busy again, trying not to think about all the implications this radio silence can have. He picks a book from the upstairs library on banishing disturbed spirits from objects – that one’s gotta be a prank – and dozes off in an armchair reading it.
He’s woken up by persistent ringing in his ears, rays of morning sunlight offending his eyes as soon as he blinks them open. He stretches his aching limbs and discards the ridiculous book on the table.
The ringing doesn’t stop though.
“Wh…the phone!” he realizes and fishes for the screaming device in his pocket, fumbling with it before finally managing to press the green pick-up icon and bring it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Hello,” a female voice greets him from the other end.
He quickly checks the caller ID – Tony Stark. That doesn’t make sense.
“Doctor Strange? Is that you?” the woman asks.
“Uhm…yes. Yes it is. Better question is who are you? And why are you calling me from Tony Stark’s phone?”
“I am FRIDAY. Boss might have mentioned me?”
Ah…the AI. He’s…he’s talking to an AI right now. Well that’s perfect. Stark doesn’t even bother dealing with him in person now it seems and just delegates the chore to his Siri. This is an option he didn’t expect.
“Of course. Hi. Is there any - ”
“Doctor Strange?” she asks again, but this time it doesn’t sound anything like before. It doesn’t sound like Siri either. Stephen can distinctly hear several emotions behind those words.
The one that clenches his stomach the most is fear. The AI is afraid. “Yes?”
“I…I had no one else to call. And…I don’t know what to do. Please, Doctor. I need your help.”
And that there was desperation. Stephen bolts up from the armchair faster than he thought possible, the Cloak straightening on his shoulders. “What happened? Is…is Stark alright?”
“For the moment. But he is in need of immediate medical attention and I was hoping that perhaps you could - ”
“Where is he?” he interrupts her, putting on the sling ring.
The hell is he doing in…whatever. Not important. “I need some kind of visualization of the place…you got Google Earth? Or a photo? Something?”
“I can send you an image…how soon can you get there, Doctor?”
“Few seconds. I won’t exactly be using standard forms of travelling. Now, I do believe time is of the essence so send me the image and I will be right there,” he prompts the AI, earning a moment of silence in return. “FRIDAY?”
“Will you help him, Doctor?”
It’s an odd question, considering that’s clearly the intention he has.
“Can I trust you not to hurt him any further?” she adds and the question snaps something in Stephen’s brain.
He knows FRIDAY only from the tales Stark had spun when he visited the Sanctum. The AI helps Stark operate the armor as well as executes security measures at the Compound and assists the engineer with his work in the labs.
Here she is now, calling somebody she doesn’t know. As a last resort. A desperate final attempt at helping her creator. Naturally the last thing she wants to do is allow more harm to come to him and since she doesn’t really know Stephen, she has no reason to trust him not to do that.
I had no one else to call.
What the hell happened?! Where are all the Avengers at then?!
“I’m a doctor. I don’t hurt people. Unless they are a threat and I doubt Stark is a threat. You have my word that I will do anything in my power to help him,” he promises.
The phone beeps with an incoming message. “Please hurry.”
Stephen doesn’t need the extra encouragement. He studies the image FRIDAY sent for all of five seconds before raising his hands, opening a portal and jumping through it.
A swoosh of freezing air hits him on the other side, but it’s not the subzero temperature that chills him to the bone.
Sitting on the ground against a frosty, cracked stone wall is the collapsed form of Tony Stark. The Iron Man armor he’s in is mangled and cracked, not at all the invincible shell that it is supposed to be.
And there’s blood.
On his hands, his chest, his bruised face. The ground…bloody and burned.
The most disconcerting thing is the quiet though. No shuffling, no twitching…no loud breathing. The man is still, frozen…eyes closed.
“Stark?” he all but flies next to him, scanning the injuries and checking for vital signs. “Stark!”
There’s no reply, not even a hint that the engineer heard him.
Unresponsive…pulse slow…skin cold. Likely onset of hypothermia not to mention the steady bleeding from that chest wound and the number of colorful bumps on his head…this isn’t good.
“FRIDAY? You still there?” he puts the call on speakers, while his gloved fingers run over the crescent shaped hole spreading across the chestplate.
With Captain America’s signature shield laying just few feet away on the floor, it doesn’t take a genius detective to connect the facts here.
“Of course, Doctor.”
“How do I get him out of the armor?”
“On the right side just below the hip is an emergency latch. Pulling it will release the joints of the armor and allow easy extraction.”
Easy…there’s nothing easy in peeling layers of metal off a man, especially the layer currently edged in his chest. He releases the latch and removes the pieces of armor from around his legs and arms, hips and the helmet but ends up using a spell to completely disintegrate the chest piece to atoms so the torn metal doesn’t cause any more damage.
The Cloak slides off from his shoulders and without prompting, it drapes itself over the unmoving body. Good for warmth and keeping the wound from further exposure.
“Okay…give me a hand here, you weirdo,” he tells the Cloak, sliding a hand under Stark’s shoulder in order to pick him up.
Before the Cloak takes on most of the man’s weight, Stephen hauls up the disturbingly light body into his arms and momentarily sees red. It’s been a while since he felt such monstrous amount of fury bubble up inside him, keeping it pretty zen since becoming a sorcerer.
But this…this almost makes him want to summon a rift back to the Dark Dimension and go strangle Dormammu with his bare hands.
He carries Stark with the Cloak’s help through the portal back to the Sanctum, snapping into what used to be his favorite mode – the doctor mode.
Saving lives first, unleashing fury later.
“If you could possibly retrieve the shield and what remains of the armor later I - ” FRIDAY requests but before she finishes, Stephen sends the portal flying across the floor, sweeping the scattered metal and the shield into the Sanctum as well. “That is…handy. Scientifically questionable. But handy,” she comments.
Even Stark’s AI sounds like him. Go figure.
“I was able to observe the scene from the bunker’s security cameras…I can’t seem to pinpoint your current location however. Not even through the call’s signal,” she says, sounding concerned.
“The Sanctum is protected from any interference, mystical or technological. I can…take it down if you’d prefer and - ”
“No, Doctor. There is no need to compromise the safety of the place. The safer it is the better.”
He portals them to his room, laying the still awfully limp body on his bed, grabbing the medical kit he always keeps here, just in case. With Wong’s proclivity for clumsiness it is useful a lot.
“Do we have any more blankets in here?” he asks the Cloak and it shoots out of the room. That thing really does understand everything, doesn’t it? He has to read up on it later.
Fumbling with the scissors, he tries cutting the undersuit open, but the fiber seems to be armored as well and won’t give way so he rips it open with a quick spell. The damage doesn’t look as horrifying as it did at first. The armor thankfully took most of the blow and the bleeding gash spreading across Stark’s chest is fairly superficial.
He lets his fingers trace one of the many scars that form an entire web stemming from a circular shape in the middle of his chest. Where that glowy thing keeping him alive used to be.
If it was still there, it’d be broken to bits as the shield went straight through its counterpart in the armor. And Stephen wouldn’t be dealing with a patient, but a corpse.
As it is, the wounds aren’t the problem. Nothing a disinfectant, few stitches and a bandage won’t fix.
It’s the hypothermia and the multiple head trauma he’s worried about. A quick prod with his fingers against the ribs suggests at least a few cracks there, too.
What in Dark damn Dimension happened in there?!
“Is there anything you need, Doctor?” FRIDAY asks.
“No. Unless you have a fully-stocked hospital that you’d deem safe hidden somewhere,” he jokes but within seconds, the phone beeps with a message; an image of a sterile looking room stares at him from the screen. “Um…I was kidding, but I’ll take it,” he shrugs, picking up Stark again and portaling to the new location.
“Welcome to the Compound’s infirmary, Doctor. Anything here is at your disposal,” FRIDAY’s voice echoes from all around the room now, so Stephen clicks the phone off and discards it back into his pocket.
“Sweet,” he says, looking around the more than sufficiently equipped room. He places Stark on one of the beds, ignoring the Cloak bolting through the portal and dropping a couple blankets at his feet. They won’t be needed anymore with a thermo-blanket undoubtedly somewhere in here, but he still thanks the Cloak and closes the portal. “You wouldn’t happen to have an MRI as well?”
“If you give me a moment, Doctor, I shall provide you with a full-body scan myself.”
“That’s…handy,” he echoes her previous sentiment and starts cleaning the wound. “Ever thought about working at a hospital, FRIDAY?”
“I shall keep it in mind should I ever find myself without a job,” the AI quips back.
“Unlikely.” Not while Stark is alive.
His hands shake over the wound and it’s only partly due to his condition. He makes a grab for the monitors and hooks Stark up with them, the eerie silence now split with the high-pitched beeps simulating the man’s heartbeats.
A welcome sound.
With the wound clean, he weaves a thread through with a spell to seal it and puts a bandage on. It’s not as neat as it would be should he’d done it with his own hands back in the days…but it’s still miles away from what it would look like if he even attempted it with his hands as they are now.
A hologram pops up next to him, making him jump.
“Here is the scan, Doctor. According to my brief analysis, boss is suffering from light concussion, hypothermia and has two broken ribs,” FRIDAY elaborates.
Stephen nods, inspecting the 3D scan. “What about the arm?” he points at Stark’s left hand. “Looks like a sprain to me, cracked bone too.”
“That didn’t happen in this fight…and it was already in a sling.”
“It is difficult to wear a sling inside the armor.”
He rolls his eyes and searches for the thermo blanket. “Of course.”
With the blanket secured around the still cold man and set to a warming temperature, Stephen moves on to tend the cuts and bruises blossoming on his face, thoroughly cleaning them in silence.
The Cloak once again lays itself on Stark, despite it having no actual use anymore. No harm either, so he lets it be.
The question had been burning on the tip of his tongue ever since he stepped through the portal and witnessed the carnage. Now he’s almost unsure if he wants to ask. Almost. “What happened out there?”
“I…I am not sure if I’m at liberty to say, Doctor.”
“Let me rephrase that question then. Why is there a Captain America’s shield shaped hole in Stark’s chest? Because the last time I checked, they were both part of the same team.”
“I see you haven’t watched the news in some time, have you?”
No. No he didn’t. It’s not like the Sanctum has a TV and he wouldn’t have time anyway. “I’ve been busy.”
“There is…no team anymore. The Avengers have broken up.”
He frowns, hands pausing the work on the bruises. “Broken up?! Like…what, Czechoslovakia?”
“More like Yugoslavia in such comparison. I’m afraid numerous conflicts followed the process, verbal as well as physical.”
“Are you telling me that the team that’s supposed to protect us from alien invasions and wannabe Earthly villains couldn’t even…protect itself from…itself?! Sorry but how do you go from a fearsome evil fighting dynamic team to fighting each other?!”
“There had been a disagreement on an important matter.”
“Dis…a disagreement. What kind of disagreement makes you beat your friend half to death and then leave him in the middle of nowhere fucking Siberia?!” he yells, clenching his shaking fingers into fists.
“It is complicated. I must admit…the reason is something I can’t quite explain. I don’t fully understand it. Perhaps boss will tell you…when he wakes up,” she adds hesitantly.
Stephen shifts his focus back on Stark, tending the rest of his wounds in silence.
“He is going to wake up, yes?”
Since when do AIs express so many emotions?! “His temperature is coming back to normal, the wounds aren’t infected…I’ll hook him up with some extra IV fluids to help out things but yes, he should wake up in no time,” he confirms, although it lacks his usual confidence.
Because if he doesn’t wake up in few hours, then…
“Very well. There is a refreshment area down the hall if you’re hungry or thirsty,” she offers.
“Thanks…is it…I mean,” he sighs, taking a look around the deserted area of the infirmary, “is the Compound safe?”
Not that he’s worried about having a face off with any member of the Avengers, but it would be good to know if he can walk around the place without being jumped at from the dark corners.
“I have locked out this area to any personnel currently present in the Compound. Also, none of the rogue Avengers have access to the complex as of this morning. Should any intrusions occur, I would take steps to prevent it and warn you of course.”
Stephen has no doubts that if somebody tried to intrude, FRIDAY would blast them off to space in seconds if the dead serious, bordering on intimidating tone of her voice is any indication.
He nods and works on administering the IV fluids before collapsing on a nearby metal stool. With eyes scanning Stark’s every movement, he brings up his phone again and dials Wong.
“What now?! Don’t tell me there are more possessed dolls. I’m sending a recruit with you if there are!”
“No. Listen, I need someone to watch over the Sanctum, at least until tomorrow. Preferably you…unless you’re otherwise engaged?”
He hears a portal opening from the other end of the call. “I can do that, but I thought we had the talk about going solo on dangerous assignments already.”
“It’s…not like that. I’m not - ”
“Wait, what?! Strange?!”
He winces, pulling the phone away from his ear a little. “What?”
“Why are there pieces of the Iron Man armor scattered all over the floor? If you’re naked with Stark somewhere right now, don’t answer! Or I swear I will - ”
“Wong! Just…protect the Sanctum. Please. I’ll explain when I get back,” he promises. No need to upset the man with any details for now. Especially since he doesn’t know many details himself.
“You better. Don’t worry about the Sanctum…I’ll try not to burn it down in the meantime,” he adds before hanging up on him.
He relaxes a little, knowing that the Sanctum is in good hands for the night. “I’ll take you up on the refreshments offer. A strong cup of tea wouldn’t go amiss right about now…can you monitor his condition while I’m gone? And let me know if anything – and I mean anything – changes?”
“Of course, Doctor,” FRIDAY replies immediately.
He looks down at the Cloak, still resting on the man like a giant blanket. “You too, weirdo. Stay vigilant,” he orders, receiving something that kinda looks like a thumbs-up from one of the Cloak’s hems.
After rummaging through the cafeteria, he finds it mostly stocked with a bunch of different coffees and only a few cheap, pre-packaged teas. He opts for the coffee in the end, having high standards for tea these days and makes a couple PB&J sandwiches before returning to the infirmary.
Seeing he has some time on his hands, with Stark still stubbornly unconscious, he connects to the wifi here and for the first time in a while, checks the news.
And slowly but surely, the fury returns.