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Hopscotch and Red Rover

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“I’m an ordinary man, living an ordinary life.”

There was a long moment of silence. “Right,” Darcy said at last.

Harris gave her a look. “That didn’t sound sincere.”

“I mean, I managed not to laugh,” Darcy pointed out, picking up a tray from the stack. “I think I deserve credit for not laughing.”

“She does deserve credit for that,” Drew said, his tray braced on one hip. He took a sip of his soda, his eyes wide over his pursed lips. “And I deserve credit for not snorting soda out my nose.”

“Good job,” Harris said, deadpan, and Drew nodded, taking that as his due.

“Thank you,” he said. “Seriously, though, Harris, you’re a lot of things. ‘Ordinary’ doesn’t really cover it.” Mid-sentence, he held the cup of soda out to Shawn, who took a quick sip. Drew smiled at him. “You can have more.”

Shawn made a face. “I shouldn’t. Less sugar. New Year’s Resolution.” He held up his hands in front of him like a prize fighter ready to square off. “I can do this.”

“Yes.” Drew gave a slow nod. “Yes, you can.”

Shawn deflated. “You don’t think I can.”

“I am an emotionally supportive boyfriend who loves you and so I encourage you in any and all things you choose to do to come to terms with the hectic and unhealthy world we live in,” Drew said, his voice breezy. “But darling. I do know about the five pound bag of Rollos you’ve got shoved in the back of your sock drawer.”

“I threw those out,” Shawn said, as Darcy handed him a tray.

“No, you didn’t,” Drew said.

“No, I didn’t,” Shawn admitted.

“I would’ve disowned you if you had,” Darcy said. “Waste of chocolate. We would not have been able to be friends anymore.” They followed the flow of people into the cafeteria. She peered into the fridge case. “Oooh, there’s fruit cup today!.”

“Are we being healthy?” Harris asked her, only mildly curious. He considered the cups of carrot sticks and yogurt parfaits.

“We’re being healthy when it involves melon,” Darcy said. She straightened up, her head tipping towards the prep area behind the serving counter. “Benito! My man! I need a tiny favor, teeny-tiny, not even worth-”

Benito was already shaking his head. “We are dead center of the lunch rush,” he said, his knife a blur as he chopped. “Let’s cut to the chase.”

Darcy set the container of fruit cup delicately on the cafeteria counter. “I’m gonna need you to de-grape this,” she said. Benito looked up, his expression disbelieving, and Darcy grinned at him. “Grapes are nasty.” She nudged it with one fingertip. “Nasty.”

Benito looked at Harris. “What?” Harris asked. Benito gestured at Darcy with his knife. Harris shrugged. “Don’t look at me, man, I’m not de-graping her fruit salad either.”

“You’re going to end up eating her grapes,” Shawn said. Harris made a face, and Shawn patted him gently on the back. “They look okay. I’m going to hit the salad bar.”

“There’s artichoke hearts today,” Benito told him, wiping his hands on a towel.

“Thaaaaaank you,” Shawn said. He looked at Drew. “Want a salad?”

Drew took a long drink from his soda, his eyes narrowed in consideration. “No,” he said at last.

Shawn wrapped his arm around Drew’s shoulders. “Let me rephrase,” he said, bright and chipper. “Let’s get salads!”

Drew groaned. Shawn just grinned at him, waiting patiently for him to come to terms with the inevitable. Finally, Drew nodded. “Fine. But I want blue cheese dressing.”

Shawn marched him towards the salad bar. “We can negotiate!”

Harris watched them go, trying not to grin. Darcy, for her part, just leaned her chin on the top of the cafeteria case, looking sadly at the fruit cup. “Give it up,” Harris told her, poking through the ‘grab and go’ containers of sandwiches.

“That’s quitter talk,” Darcy said. “Literally.”

Benito’s shoulders were shaking, despite maintaining a straight face. He leaned over, digging through the refrigerator behind the sandwich station. “Here.” He came back up, holding a cup of fruit salad in one big hand. There was a piece of masking tape on the top, Darcy’s name hand printed across it. “I put some aside before we added the grapes.”

Darcy took it from him with a gleeful chortle. “Benito, you are a prince among men, you are a man of kindness and virtue, and your holiday bonus shall be obscene this year.”

“You gave me a bottle of rum last year,” Benito said.

Darcy pointed at him. “And this year? TWO bottles of rum.”

“I hope you’re looking forward to that.” Harris loaded his tray up with a sandwich and a cup of cut vegetables.

“Kind of am,” Benito admitted. He pointed at Darcy. “Get out of my kitchen.”

“You loooooooove me,” Darcy said, as agents in combat gear and crisp black suits moved around her. She didn’t seem to notice. Harris put a gentle hand in the middle of her back, nudging her towards the line at the register. “Wait, hey, I didn’t-”

Harris dropped a chicken salad sandwich on her tray. “Yeah, you did.” As they passed the burger station, he grabbed two cups of fries. She grinned at him. “What?” Harris asked. “My new year’s revolution had nothing to do with food.”

“Neither did mine,” she agreed, popping a fry in her mouth. “Mmmmm. Unhealthy.”

“We’re both getting a large so that when Drew steals half of them, we’ll still get some,” Harris said. He waited until her back was turned, then grabbed a brownie from the dessert case. If he was going unhealthy, he was going all the way. “And can we go back?”

“To the ‘ordinary’ thing?” Darcy asked, sidestepping a pack of agents in SHIELD branded sweatsuits. “No. No, Harris, we cannot, because-” She reached out, flicking the tip of Harris’ nose with the tip of one finger. “Many things you are, but ordinary? You are not.”

“Absolutely am,” Harris said, as firmly as he could manage. They joined the line for the register, and he did his best not to be distracted by the candy rack.

“He’s not letting this go, is he?” Drew stepped into line behind them. Harris looked down at his tray. Drew’s container of ‘salad’ appeared to be roughly two lettuce leaves and a cherry tomato, buried under a pile of croutons, chopped walnuts, crumbled bacon and a significant amount of blue cheese dressing. Harris looked at Drew, who grinned, unrepentant. “You are a truly curious specimen, Harris, and your life is one bizzare circumstance after another. The sooner you come to terms with this, the better off you’ll be.” He stole one of Harris’ fries. “And why are we suddenly focused on this?”

Harris made a face. “Just something Coulson said.”

“Well, that was your first mistake,” Darcy said, sliding her tray up the counter to the register. “Never listen to Coulson. At best it’s boring and at worst it’s terrifying.”

“He usually has a point, though,” Shawn said. Drew gave him a look, and Shawn shrugged. “Sorry. True, though.”

“Thanks a heap,” Harris told him.

“Well, if anyone knows about trying and failing to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times, it’d be Coulson,” Shawn pointed out as Harris reached the front of the line. “Also, attracting trouble.”

Harris glanced back at him. “I don’t attract trouble,” he said, digging his wallet out of his pocket.

Everyone went silent. Including the cashier. “What?” Harris asked her.

She shrugged. “We always know when you’re coming, because the number of roombas doubles.” She gave him a smile. “Six-fifty.”

“I don’t control the roombas,” Harris said, handing her a ten, and accepting his change. “You guys know that, right, Neena?”

“But you sure do attract them,” she said, shaking her head. “Like locusts, I swear.”

“I told him he should keep them. Pawn them. Make a mint,” Darcy said, scanning her phone to pay for her meal.

“I think that’s stealing government property,” Shawn said.

“Which is why I think he should do it, not me,” Darcy pointed out. “And you find trouble faster than anyone I know, Harris.”

“I don’t-”

“Remember when you went to pick up the pizzas for board game night and ended up foiling an armed robbery?” Darcy pointed out.

“I walked through the front door just in time for Sal to fling a pizza into the guy’s face,” Harris protested. “All I did was pick up the gun when the robber dropped it.”

“How about that time that drunk girl fell on the subway tracks?” Drew said, as his salad was weighed. He held up his empty cup.“And two sodas.”

Harris groaned. “Oh come on, half the people on the platform pulled her back up.”

“Yeah, but you were the only idiot who went down on the tracks after her,” Drew said. “Then there was the piano-”

“I don’t want to talk about the piano,” Harris said.

“Wait, the PIANO?” Neena asked.

“I wanna talk about the piano,” Darcy said. “How many people get to say to an insurance agent, ‘my car was hit by a runaway piano?’”

“Probably just me and Buster Keaton, but, again, I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Harris said. “And I felt worse for the philharmonic than I did for my insurance agent.”

“You’re friends with Tony Stark,” Shawn said.

“Tony Stark is friends with ME,” Harris said, his voice dire. “It is entirely one sided. He tried to friend me on Facebook and I clicked the ‘reject’ button.”

“You enjoyed that, didn’t you?” Darcy asked with a grin.

“In a nearly sexual way,” Harris admitted.

“There was that boardwalk collapse at the beach,” Drew mused.

“That just happened nearby,” Shawn said. “Sure, we helped, but we weren’t really involved. The explosion on the churro cart, though, that was-”

“I never got the chocolate sauce out of that shirt,” Darcy said. She snapped her fingers. “How about the guy having a heart attack at the movie theater?”

“You chose the location for that date, so I think that one’s on you,” Harris told her. “And we’re holding up the line.”

“I’ll tell you later,” Darcy stage-whispered to Neena.

“Thank you,” Neena mouthed back, and turned to ringing up the next person in line.

“So things happen around me, that just means I’m an ordinary man who is-” He didn’t know how to finish that sentence. “Very unlucky.”

“There’s unlucky, and then, there’s you,” Shawn said. “Because things usually go worse for the people around you then they do for you.” He paused. “That made more sense in my head.”

“No, no,” Darcy said, balancing her tray on one hand like a carhop. “He’s like, you know, a hurricane. Chaos on the edges, draws a bunch of trash into his general vicinity, but here in the center? The people who are snug right up against him?” She fluttered her eyes in Harris’ direction. “Peace in the eye of the storm.”

Harris sighed. “So a few things have happened in the last few years, that doesn’t mean-”

“My favorite news article was the one about the guy who stole the cookie money from those Girl Scouts,” Shawn started, and everyone else came to a stop, looking directly at them.

“I hate all of you,” Harris pointed out, and headed out of the cafeteria as quickly as possible without actually breaking into a run.

“We, at least, accept that our lives are out of our control and it’s best to roll with that,” Darcy said. “You seem to think that if you struggle hard enough, you’re going to wriggle through a hole in the net, but let me tell you, buster?” She dropped her tray onto an unoccupied table with a clatter. “You’re not going to. And talking about it is only going to make it worse.”

Harris stood there, his tray balanced between this hands. “How… Does talking about it make it worse?” he asked at last.

“Tempting fate,” Drew said, setting his tray down and grabbing his cup. “I’m going to go get a refill. Shawn? Want anything from the vending machine?”

“I’ll just have a cup of water,” Shawn said, snagging an empty chair from a nearby table and dragging it over. “I can-”

“You’re having a salad without dressing, and you’re washing it down with water?” Drew asked him.

“I put some oil and vinegar on there,” Shawn said. Drew made a face. “Okay, fine, I’ll get an unsweetened iced tea from the vending machine.”

“If I was born any further South, we’d be breaking up right now,” Drew said. He looked at Harris. “You want anything?”

“Can you grab me an iced tea, too?” Harris asked, digging for his wallet.

Drew waved him off. “I got it. Just don’t do anything stupid before we get back.”

“Right, I’ll… I’ll be very careful chewing,” Harris said.

“Just… Talk about some trashy reality show or something,” Shawn said. He gave Harris a thumbs up. “Safer. For everyone.”

“You’re all insane,” Harris said. “You. Are all nuts.”

“Right,” Darcy said, taking a delicate bite from one fry. Harris gave her a look as he unwrapped his sandwich, and she waved the rest of the fry at him. “Did you watch StarkSearch last night?”

“No.” Harris took a vicious bite of his sandwich. “And neither should you.”

“Engineering as edutainment!” Darcy said, spreading her hands in the air. “It’s great!”

“No,” Harris repeated. “I’m not discussing reality tv with you. Especially not anything involving s-t-a-r-k.”

“Are we spelling his name now?” Darcy asked. “Like we do in front of dogs and small children?”

Harris nudged a Roomba away with the side of one foot. “I swear these things are listening.”

Darcy considered that. “Probably. Still safer than-”

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Harris asked. “Seriously. If I stand up right now and say, ‘Hey, world, come and get me,’ what’s the worst thing that could happen?”

Darcy stared at him. “Well, that’s a choice you’ve made there,” she said, as every single person at all the tables around them stood as one and collected their trays.

 

“Are you kidding me right now?” Harris asked, his head falling back. “Really? Who knew SHIELD agents were this superstitious?”

Agent Sitwell piled his plates onto his tray. “Have you ever been cursed?” he asked, his tone conversational. “I have. I have been cursed. It was-” He gave Harris a stern look over the rims of his glasses. “It was not pleasant. It is not a situation I want to repeat.” He paused. “Ever.”

“Did you see-” Darcy started.

“StarkSearch?” Sitwell finished for her. “Travis was robbed.”

“What PJ did? Dick move,” Darcy agreed, and Harris stood up.

He held up his half-eaten sandwich like he was proposing a toast. “You’re all insane,” he said. “And you can stay here, being insane, and have a normal lunch. Because nothing. At all. Will happen.”

There was a strange, sharp popping noise. It was, in the split second that Harris had time to think, like the sound of an incredibly large piece of popcorn exploding into existence. It was not like a gunshot, or a firework, or a tire blowing out. It was something entirely different, and entirely unfamiliar.

He heard it, and knew, without even having time to think about it, that something had just gone very, very wrong.

But he didn’t have time to think, didn’t even have time to draw breath, before something large and solid slammed into him, lifting him off his feet, and slamming him into the table behind him. Harris made a desperate grab for the edge of the table and missed, his shoulder skimming into someone’s lunch, french fries and soda going in all directions.

He tumbled head over heels and around again, crashing over the table, and from there, to the floor.

Harris lay there, gasping for breath, one leg tangled in an upturned chair, his shoulder lying in an upturned bowl of tomato soup. His head spinning, his chest aching, he tried to push himself up. The thing that had hit him, human sized and human shaped, but red and silver and metal, was rolling now, across the floor, under a table, and it was better at this than he was, finding cover, finding its balance, and he had an instant to see the light gleaming across its surface, and then it was gone.

Harris blinked. And it was gone.

It all happened so fast that the alarms didn’t even have time to start blaring until it was all over. For a split second, there was silence. Shocked, confused silence. And then the alarms went off, every one of them, all at once, nearly loud enough to drown out the sound of what was probably a hundred guns being drawn all at once.

“Why is everyone here ARMED?” Harris asked, because Darcy was there, her hands sliding over his face, pushing his hair back, her fingers cradling his head. “Everyone has a GUN.”

“Yes, we work for a paramilitary government organization,” Darcy said, her voice tight. “Look at me.”

Harris looked at her. “I don’t have a gun,” he pointed out. A Roomba was trying to collect the remains of his sandwich. He lifted his arm to give it better access and it beeped at him in an approving manner.

“Yes, neither do I, and that’s why we’re leaving,” Darcy said. “Does anything hurt? Did you hit your head? Does anything feel broken?”

Harris considered that. “I think I need another sandwich,” he said at last, holding up the crust of bread he’d managed to hold onto.

“Right, let’s get on that,” Darcy said, and Sitwell was there, and Sitwell had a gun, and that was strange, that was very strange.

Harris let them pull him to his feet. “Why do you have a gun?” he asked Sitwell.

“Because it ties the outfit together,” Sitwell said. “Take him to medical, have them look him over, you’re not going to be able to leave, we’ll be on lockdown until-”

Harris wasn’t really listening any more. He looked out across the cafeteria, and it was a sea of movement and noise and chaos and he didn’t understand what had happened. What had happened. What had that thing been, where had it come from? How did it end up here?

Where did it go?

A Roomba floated past him, wobbling through the air and stopped, halfway under a table, executing a slow, easy loop. It hovered there, swinging slowly back and forth, and then turned and moved a few feet away. Stopped. Rotated. Went back.

Harris stared, confused, as the Roomba rotated and floated right back where it had come from. Another bump, another rotation, and he realized, something, or someone was pushing it. Nudging it. The way he did. And the Roomba just kept going right back.

As if it could see something no one else could.

Harris’s mouth worked. “DJ?”

He didn’t know he was going to say it until he did. He didn’t know why he said it, until he had. Red metal. The Roomba. The chaos.

Harris tugged his arm out of Darcy’s grip, his voice rising. “DJ?”

And the thing popped into existence. Right in front of him, so close that he could touch it, so close that he could see his reflection in the smooth, dark surface of the metal. Harris bit back something like a scream, his heart in his throat, one hand flailing out.

There was a beat of silence, of stillness, and Harris knew, on some level, that every gun in the room was now pointed in his general direction. He took a breath, and another, and tried to ignore the pale, frightened face that he saw reflected in the smooth, featureless front of the helmet.

The metal melted away, peeling back in a silent rush, revealing a face that was almost, just almost, familiar.

“Oh.” DJ blinked at him, slow and careful, and he was older, he was not the small child Harris remembered any more, but that motion, the slow, precise way he blinked, that was familiar. “This isn’t… What I meant at all.”

*

-Previously, A few universes over-

“You’re still thinking about it?”

DJ looked up from his tablet, blinking hard to make his eyes focus. Steve was smiling down at him, and DJ tried to smile back. “Yes,” he said. He closed the invitation with a flick of his fingertip and set the tablet aside. He rocked forward in his seat, his hands braced on either side of his hips, his toes curling up tight. “It’s…” He made a face. “Confusing.”

“I know.” Steve set a plate of cookies down on the workbench before he took a seat across from DJ. “Do you want to talk about it?”

DJ shook his head, reaching for a cookie. “Just… Thinking.”

“I know.” Steve pushed some of the tools out of the way, clearing a spot for his arms. “This is-” He picked up a chunk of the armor, turning it over in his hands. He gave DJ a glance, one eyebrow arching. “Dad’s making improvements again, isn’t he?”

DJ grinned. “Always,” he said, and Steve laughed.

“Always,” he agreed. Steve reached out, his fingers gentle as he brushed DJ’s hair back from his forehead. “You know we’ll support you, no matter what you want to do, right?”

DJ reached for another cookie. Cookies were uncomplicated. “Yes,” he said, because Steve had that pinched, tight look on his face again, and he hated that face. The answer must’ve been the one that Steve had been hoping for, because his face relaxed. DJ smiled at him. “Figure it out.”

“I know you will,” Steve agreed, taking a cookie of his own. “You have class today?”

“I have class today,” DJ agreed. He looked at the clock that Jarvis kept running for him at all times. He should be getting ready. “Soon.”

“Do you need a ride?” Steve asked, popping the cookie into his mouth and reaching for another.

“Happy’s driving,” DJ said, picking up his hoodie, and shrugging into it. “He has to pick up dad.”

“So he’s dropping you off on the way?” Steve asked. DJ nodded. “Want me to pick you up? Or is Stephen sending you home?”

DJ made a face. “He can,” he said, drawing out the word.

Steve did his best not to smile. He wasn’t entirely successful, but DJ appreciated that he tried. “Don’t like teleporting?”

“It’s…” DJ stopped, trying to find a way to explain the way he felt when the world disappeared around him, the way his stomach seemed to show up ten or so seconds after the rest of him when it finally reappeared. Or the way that, no matter how much he knew it wasn’t possible, he could swear that he could see things in the moments where he was neither here nor there.

“Disconcerting,” he said at last, each syllable picked out with careful precision.

Steve nodded. “I’ll come get you.” He tapped the plate with one finger. “Want the last one?”

DJ broke it in half and offered a piece to Steve. “Call?”

“You want me to call, or you’ll call when you’re done?” Steve asked, and DJ was always grateful for the way he tried to make things understandable for them both.

“I’ll call,” DJ said. He gave Steve a hopeful smile. “Bike?”

Laughing, Steve flipped DJ’s hood over his head. “On New York streets? Your father would kill us both.”

“Live dangerously,” DJ said, his voice stern. He peeked out from under the hood.

“I haven’t told him that you’re taking lessons from Doctor Strange, that’s dangerous enough for me,” Steve said. He stood, collecting the empty plate. “You’ll be home for dinner?”

DJ nodded. “Nat’s cooking.”

“Right, so we’d better be on time, or we’ll both be in trouble,” Steve said. “Take your backpack, okay? In case something happens, and I’m not home to get you-”

“I’ll call Happy,” DJ said. Steve opened his mouth, and DJ smiled, “I’ll bring my bag.”

“Thank you for humoring me.” He tossed the plate in the air and caught it, the movement smooth and easy. DJ tracked the arc, waiting for the plate to land safely in Steve’s hand. When it finally did, he exhaled, his shoulders relaxing.

He glanced at the clock. “Jarvis, update?”

“Happy is roughly ten minutes away,” Jarvis said. “And your shoes are in the playroom.”

“I know,” DJ said, hopping off of his stool. He grabbed his tablet, tucking it under his arm before he crossed to the cabinet where they kept his backpacket.

“He didn’t know,” Steve said to Jarvis.

“No, he didn’t,” Jarvis agreed.

“I DID,” DJ said, and it was mostly the truth. Well, it was close to the truth.

“Of course,” Jarvis said, his voice tart. “Then you won’t require my help in finding where they are in the playroom.”

“Nope.” DJ grabbed his bag. He would’ve taken it, even without Steve’s suggestion. The weight of it, hanging from his hand or his shoulder, was comforting. He shifted, settling it against his back, and wondered if this was how his father felt about the armor. “By the door.”

It was a guess, but apparently a good one. “Then off you go, Happy will meet you in the garage.”

“Going!” DJ said, stopping long enough to hug Steve. Laughing, Steve hugged him back, pressing a kiss to the top of DJ’s head.

“Love you, botboy,” Steve said. “Don’t be late.”

“Won’t!” Ten minutes would hopefully give him enough time to find his shoes. Because at this point, asking Jarvis for a hint was not an option.

*

“Think this is your stop.”

DJ looked out the window, squinting into the late afternoon sunlight. The Sanctum Sanctorum was a familiar sight by now, but he still wasn’t completely used to it. “Yes.” He grabbed his bag from the seat next to him, and leaned forward. “Thank you.” He tapped his knee, and Furbro, who had been peering out the back window, hopped onto his shoulder and scrambled down into DJ’s sweatshirt. He wriggled into place, his head peeking out over the top of his zipper. Grinning, DJ scratched him on the head, and the little lizard arched up into his touch.

Happy grinned at him in the rearview mirror, one hand resting easily on the steering wheel. “Sure. I’d wait here for you, but-”

“Need to get dad,” DJ finished for him. He tapped Furbro on the nose, and Furbro nipped playfully at his fingertip.

“Need to get dad,” Happy agreed. “And it’s been an all day meeting, so you know he’s going to be cranky.”

“Bring him a coffee?” DJ suggested.

“Not a bad idea,” Happy said. “It’s not much of a distraction, but even he has a problem yelling and drinking at the same time.”

“No, he doesn’t,” DJ said.

“No, he doesn’t,” Happy laughed. “But it’s funny to watch.”

“Yes, it is.” Grinning, DJ pushed the door open, slipping out of the car and dragging his bag after him and shifting it onto his shoulder. Furbro disappeared into his sweatshirt, curling up under the fabric. “Thank, Happy.”

“Anytime, kiddo.” He leaned back, studying the house. “I’ll wait until you get inside, okay?”

“Okay.” DJ shut the door, turning away from the car. His hands locked on the straps of his backpack, he took a deep breath.

The Sanctum Sanctorum loomed over the street, strangely outsized for the physical footprint of the brownstone building. To DJ, it seemed to fill every possible inch of space, pressing hard at the edges of the street, and the sky itself. Despite this, people moved past it, without giving it so much as a second look. Even those who glanced up at the house never looked long. Their eyes seemed to slide over the heavy facade and the gleaming central window, a stark, unblinking eye that stared back at them.

Even when the house was seen, no one saw it. DJ felt a kinship with it, for that very reason.

It was waiting for him; the moment he stepped towards the fence, the gate unlocked with an audible click. He pushed the iron gate open, slipping through the gap in the fence, and letting it swing shut behind him. As soon as the gate settled back into place, the fence seemed to absorb it, the metal curling into place like a vine. DJ headed up the short path, letting his toes drag through the fog that clung to the stones. No matter how warm it was, no matter what time of day, every step would kick up a thin film of mist.

The doorknob turned before he could even reach for it, the door swinging open, just an inch or two, before creaking to a stop. DJ peered through the crack of the door. “Hello?” he called. The single word echoed, rattling around the room in a way that made goosebumps break out along the length of his arms. DJ’s fingers slid across the wood of the door. It was strangely warm.

“Ah! Is it Thursday already?”

Strange plowed through the wall, leaving a trail of glittering sparks in his wake. The wall closed up behind him, shuddering back into place as soon as his cape was clear. “We’re having-” Strange ducked as the massive staircase shifted a foot to one side, the carpet hopping free of the wood for an instant. Strange gave it a stern look. “Stop that.” He flicked his fingers in that direction, and the staircase rattled back into place, the stairs rising and falling like piano keys. “You are an embarrassment.”

DJ gave the stairs a suspicious look. “Is the house-” He looked up, watching the ceiling flex. “Okay?”

“We have a small vermin problem at the moment,” Strange said, his voice brisk.

The ceiling collapsed in a rush, the wood and stone and plaster shattering to pieces as Clea fell through. She tumbled through the air, her hands throwing off a shower of sparks, and disappeared through the floor. The ceiling swirled back into place, leaving only a faint hint of dust in the air.

“We’re handling it,” Strange said, without even looking back in that direction.

DJ gave a slow, careful nod. “Are you?”

Strange gave him a bright smile. “Oh, quite definitely, nothing to worry about.” He took DJ by the elbow, steering him towards the stairs. “Let’s just head to the library, we’ll be able to-” One of the bannisters snapped up, the wood creaking like a branch in the wind. Heaving a put upon sigh, he gave it a sharp rap with his knuckles. “Worse than termites, I swear.”

“Oh. Is it Thursday?” Clea leaned out of a doorway on the third floor. “Hello, intern.”

“Apprentice,” Strange corrected.

“No one has apprentices any longer, love. Interns are for the modern world.”

DJ looked up at her. Then down at the first floor. “Didn’t you just-” He stopped, not sure how to verbalize ‘fall through the floor.’

“Probably.” Clea stepped onto the landing, a long parade of books bouncing along in her wake. “What good timing. I made a cake, I’ll fetch you a slice.”

“You’ll ruin his dinner, darling,” Strange said, ducking as the books whirled past them.

Clea paused. Held up a hand. Snapped her fingers. “Now it won’t!” she said, sounding very pleased with herself. A book bounced off the ceiling, and she reached out to catch it. “Now-”

The staircase flexed like an accordian, and Strange caught DJ by the elbow, lifting him away into the air before the stairs could collapse under them. The wood parted, creaking as it did, and Clea poked her head up from between the boards. “Drat,” she said, and disappeared again.

Clea on the third floor glanced down a the Clea in the stairs. “What did I think that would accomplish?” she asked, and went back to flipping through her book. The pages appeared to be on fire.

“I think you’re looking for the spores,” Strange said, lowering DJ’s feet down onto the landing.

“Well, that’s foolish of me.” A painting shifted on the wall, and without a beat of pause, Clea turned, hurling the book directly at it with the force of a major league pitcher. The book went right through the wall, taking the painting with it. Clea looked at the resulting hole, her head tipped to the side. “As was that.”

“Definitely effective in the short term,” Strange said. He gave DJ a gentle push towards the staircase. “Off you go, you know where the library is, I’ll be right behind you.” He leaned in, adding in a whisper, “Don’t eat the cake.”

DJ’s hands were locked on the straps of his backpack, his knuckles white with the force of his grip. “I can… I can just come back tomorrow,” he managed.

“Nonsense, we’ll have this sorted in just a moment.” Strange smiled at him, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “And the library has a number of protections on it. You know that. You’ll be safe there, I promise.”

DJ blinked at him. “I do not believe you,” he said.

“I’d be insulted, but you likely have a point,” Strange said. “And as an apprentice, a very valuable lesson to learn.”

“If I’ve learned something, I can go,” DJ pointed out.

“Good try. Off with you, I’ve left your books in the library, and-” Far below them, a bell started tolling, with a slow and measured tempo, and Strange stopped. He held up a hand. “Excuse me for a moment.”

DJ realized he was waiting for a reply. The bell seemed to be speeding up. “Okay,” he said.

“Thank you.” With a smile, Strange exploded in a swirl of gleaming sparks.

DJ looked at Clea, who was ripping pages out of a book. They hovered in midair, reforming themselves into what might have been a completely different book. “Will… Will he be okay?” DJ asked.

“It’s entirely possible,” Clea said with a bright smile. The pages ripped free of the spine with a sound like a scream. She tossed them cheerfully over her shoulder. “I’m rather hoping he’ll find Wong.”

DJ thought about that. And decided he didn’t want to think about it. “Me, too,” he said instead, and there was nothing here but bad choices. But the third floor landing looked remarkably intact, and the main foyer-

He looked down. It might’ve been liquid. It sure looked liquid. He was pretty sure it shouldn’t have been liquid. Or even semi-liquid.

“Library,” Clea said, her voice gentle, and DJ looked back at her. She smiled, and he felt his heartbeat slow down. “You’ll be just fine, DJ. I promise.”

He took a breath. The air tasted like almonds and vanilla. “Library,” he repeated.

“Library,” she agreed. “Off with you.” She yanked a page free, holding it up between her index finger and thumb. It twisted back and forth, rattling against itself. She released it, and it burst into flame.

DJ turned and headed straight towards the library at a pace just under a run. He made it to the door in record time, fumbling it open and then slamming it closed behind him. He leaned back against the door, his breathing ragged, braced for whatever the library had in store for him.

Which appeared to be a thick slice of chocolate cake, balanced precariously on top of a stack of his usual study books.

DJ gave it a suspicious look. The cake did not appear to be impressed.

He pried his fingers free of the doorknob, creeping forward. Furbro popped up, his front paws tugging on one of the strings from DJ’s hoodie. Gently, DJ pushed him back down. “Stay,” he said, ignoring the way Furbro tried to bite him.

The library was quiet and still, the rows and rows of bookshelves piled high with heavy old volumes and random piles of scrolls and tablets. Dust motes floated through the air, caught in the golden light of the lamps. The center of the library was dominated by a massive table, worn smooth by countless years of use, and stained by a variety of things that DJ did his absolute best not to think about.

Eating off of it seemed like a bad idea, somehow.

DJ took a seat at the table, wondering if there was a way to get to his practice books without touching the cake. Furbro kicked at his breastbone, and DJ lowered the zipper of his hoodie. Furbro’s head popped up, and he blinked up at DJ. “Don’t go far,” DJ told him, and Furbro chittered at him and settled down to chew on the teeth of his zipper.

He reached for a book, trying to wiggle it out of the middle of the stack. Analytical Magic, one of his favorites. It had a lot of numbers, and he got to use a graphing calculator. It wasn’t much to cling to, but at this point, he’d take what he could get.

DJ flipped the book open and turned the pages, trying to find where he’d left off. Not that it mattered all that much, there was nothing in here that he couldn’t bear to repeat a few times. Or a few dozen times. He huffed out a sigh, one finger rubbing Furbro’s head. He flipped through the pages, his eyes eyes skimming over the text, even as his fingertips struck sparks against the paper.

He was getting better at that. Small, almost controlled bursts of power. He could do little things, if he concentrated hard enough. Single words, with the full force of his voice behind them, could make small things happen. He raised his hand, and flicked his fingertips. “Turn.”

The book rotated in place.

DJ frowned at it. “No,” he told the book, trying to sound stern. He took a deep breath. “Turn.”

The pages rattled against each other, and settled back into place. DJ held up a hand. “Turn!”

The faint, almost invisible swirl of light played around his fingers, floating upwards like glowing, dissipating smoke. Frowning, DJ shook out his hand, scattering the last bits of power. “Not what-” The magic, freed from his control, continued floating upwards, swirling through through the air.

Curious, DJ watched it go, his head tipping back to follow its progress upwards. Up, above the bookshelves, through the tarnished metal of the light fixture, the light casting shadows across the ceiling.

DJ’s stomach bottomed out in an instant.

There was nothing there.

Where the ceiling should’ve been, there was simply…. Nothing. A void. A lack. As if whatever had been there had been consumed, been burned away, and there was nothing left, no dark or light, no sky, no sign of the building itself.

There was nothing there, and it was moving.

Something whipped through the air, a tendril of nothing lashing out, swallowing the last hint of DJ’s loosed power, and DJ scrambled back, his chair tipping as the back legs caught on the carpet. For an instant, he hung in midair, his hands up in front of him, trying to ward it off, trying to hold it back, and whatever he wanted to say caught in his throat.

The nothing spread, enveloping books, shelves, swallowing the light whole, the light flickering out as it disappeared. It was moving, bubbling, thick and viscous, crawling through the air, threads tangling against wood, against walls.

He screamed, and it was a word. “Stop stop stop stopstopstopstopstop.” DJ lashed out with one hand, light pooling between his fingers, licking along his skin, uncontrolled and uneven. He stared up into the roiling, twisting nothing, knowing that whatever small power he had, whatever he could summon, that was not anything that could stop the thing that was coming, that was already here. His fingers snapped together in a fist, closing around that small, brilliant light.

DJ’s eyes closed, and he focused on the burning sensation as it crawled up his arm. “STOP.”

The silence was sudden and absolute. DJ’s eyes flicked open, and found that the world around him had frozen in place, a tendril of nothingness hanging motionless in space right in front of him. The glow from his hand was stronger now, bright enough to throw shadows across the walls, across the bookshelves. Everything else was still. Frozen.

He had to get out of here.

“Where?”

The single word whispered through his head, the letters rattling against each other. DJ sucked in a breath, not sure when he’d last remembered to breathe.

“Where?”

Curious. Unconcerned. Almost amused. DJ glanced desperately over his shoulder, but he was alone. Just him, and the thing that was crawling across the ceiling, across the walls. The thing that was reaching for him.

“Where?”

Making deals with disembodied voices was not a good idea. DJ knew this. Things that couldn’t be seen couldn’t be trusted, and the voice was wrong. It was…

Wrong.

“Where?”

“Safe.” He exhaled, and his breath curled in front of him, like the air had gone cold in an instant. “Somewhere safe,” he said, and his fingers were burning, right down to the bone.

“Where?”

The tendril was moving, slowly, slowly, it was uncurling, as if whatever was holding it in place was failing. DJ stepped back, his heart in his throat. “Not HERE! As far away as I can-”

The tendril snapped straight at him, and he released the light that he’d been holding, coiled tight against his palm, and it went off like a firework. “As far away from here as I can get!” he yelled, and his hand latched onto the strap of his backpack.

Magic and tech responded almost simultaneously, the armor snapping out, reaching out to envelop him at the same moment that reality collapsed in on him. He twisted as he fell, a few inches at first, the carpet rushing up to meet him, and then, the carpet was gone. The floor was gone. The library was gone.

Everything was gone.

He held his breath as the armor slid into place, the metal smoothing around him like a liquid, settling into place even as he fell, as he fell through the nothing and into something else entirely.

DJ didn’t even have time to fire the repulsors. Before he even realized he was back in something resembling reality, he was already crashing into it. The next few seconds was chaos, as he hit, and bounced, and hit again, his arms flailing as he tried to slow himself down.

He skidded to a stop, the metal scraping across the tile floor, and lay there, gasping for breath. The HUD was going nuts in front of his face, throwing up data and warnings faster than his spinning head could take them in. The blare of the alarm inside the helmet mingled with the one outside the armor, and DJ managed to flop onto his back, halfway under a table.

Seek’s stealth capabilities had kicked in already, and he pushed himself back, hsi legs aching as he tried to maneuver himself under a nearby table. It wasn’t perfect, but at least no one would trip over him. Legs flashed by, right in his line of sight, and he frowned.

SHIELD.

DJ rolled over, ducking from one table to the next, trying to put some distance between him and his crash site. “Jarvis?”

The word echoed inside the helmet, and a cursor flashed on the HUD. No contact. DJ took a deep breath, and another. “No Jarvis.” The words were jittery, uneven. He nodded. “Scan. Find anything familiar, anything-” The table he was under jolted as someone bumped it, and DJ jerked sideways, drawing his legs up and out of the way. “Get me a network.”

He watched as people passed, and it sure looked like SHIELD. But if it was SHIELD, he should be able to reach Jarvis. There’s no way he’d lose the connection, not just across the length of New York City. He craned his head, trying to see if there was a window nearby. Maybe a SHIELD facility somewhere else in the world. Not the helicarrier, he didn’t think, he’d be able to feel the vibrations if it was-

Something bumped against the side of his head.

DJ bit back a scream, his hands coming up reflexively, ready to ward off the threat. What he found instead was a Roomba, swinging back and forth in midair. It beeped at him, rotating in place, and floated forward again, bouncing against the armor’s faceplate.

“Hi,” DJ said, placing a gentle hand on its casing and pushing it away. It wobbled away, tiny repulsor flickering, and then turned, bouncing back straight for DJ. DJ nudged it away again. “Why are you-”

The HUD beeped. DJ blinked as the network information scrolled in front of him, shoving the Roomba away again as it snuggled up against him. “Wait. Wait, are you-”

“DJ?”

The voice cut through the chaos, and DJ’s head snapped up, grazing the bottom of the table.

“DJ?”

He knew that voice. DJ scrambled to his feet, almost knocking the table aside in his haste, and Harris was right there, a few feet away, and Darcy was right next to him, holding onto his arm, and they looked just like he remembered them, just like he’d known them.

Safe. As far away as he possibly could get. But safe.

The armor’s stealth dropped away, and DJ retracted the helmet. Harris stared at him, his blue eyes wide and his face pale. Next to him, Darcy clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes huge. “Oh.” DJ blinked at them, not sure exactly what to say. “This isn’t… What I meant at all.”