There was a hole in his ceiling and his staircase.
This would be something of an annoyance on most days, but the cause of the structural damage was an Avenger whose first words were not the typical 'Who are you?' or 'Where am I?' but rather a foreboding, 'Thanos is coming'.
Unfortunately for Stephen Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts and Man Who Should Know Of All Beings That Are A Threat To Earth, the name was not one he actually knew.
He exchanged a look with Wong; apparently his fellow master and friend was just as clueless. That made him feel a smidge better. Looking back down at Bruce Banner, now looking less green than he did a moment ago, he asked, "Who?"
"Thanos!" Doctor Banner gasped, expression still wild. "The Mad Titan! He's coming for the Stones!"
He and Wong exchanged looks once more. The librarian of Kamar-Taj had only gone over what was known of the six Infinity Stones last week, the same day that Thor and Loki had just so happened to visit New York City. They— thankfully— left Earth a few minutes after he had pushed them through to Norway (leaving behind a suspiciously dark and strong magical aura as well as a pile of metallic shards, still under study, but that was another thing altogether).
The conversation concerning the Infinity Stones was spurred by his own actions, Stephen knew. It had taken some time for some of the other Masters to become comfortable with him as Master of the New York Sanctum, despite this being the last order from the Ancient One before her untimely demise; however, by the time spring was turning into summer, they had grown accustomed to his place amongst them, and sensed that the events surrounding the Ancient One's death had helped him grow as both a man and a sorcerer exponentially.
(Growth, indeed. The long-running spell practice with Dormammu was the very, very thin silver lining in an otherwise utterly horrific experience).
At the beginning of autumn, Stephen had started to sense an unusually powerful, unsettling force stirring within the universe that he could feel, but not put a name to. He spoke about it with the other Masters the next time they met and they agreed that they felt something was getting ready, but what it was remained unknown to them as well. And when he pointed out that it may be the portent of something as calamitous as the incident with the Dark Dimension and that the Eye may not be safe without someone constantly guarding it, he received much less protest when he volunteered himself as its guardian than he would have should these stirrings have occurred six months ago.
(Besides, the other two people who could also wield the Eye of Agamotto had died in the incident. Along with the Ancient One, he learned belatedly that the late Master of the London Sanctum, Sol Rama, had the same capabilities with the Eye. He was a heavy favorite to take on the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme should the Ancient One pass on.
To this day, the position remained unfilled.)
Stephen had proceeded from there to wear the Eye of Agamotto constantly. His first act upon claiming it after six months of no use was to place a simple and all-but-unbreakable spell to keep it sealed to everyone but him. He increased his hours of meditation and surveillance as an uneasy aura grew about the Sanctums and hummed within their universe.
And now, with only a few weeks passing since taking up the role of the Eye's keeper, and not even a week after Loki— a former wielder of two Infinity Stones— had visited Earth, someone was coming for them. At this rate, he really shouldn't be surprised that this news was delivered in the form of a shape-shifting Avenger crashing through the Sanctum's ceiling.
Speaking of said Avenger.
Stephen looked back down at Doctor Banner as he struggled to sit up. "We can discuss this shortly, but first: are you hurt anywhere?" He seemed uninjured, but best to ask.
"No, no, the Big Guy doesn't get hurt— this really can't wait!" He pushed himself into a seated position and started to gather the extra fabric of his now overly large pants. "I need to find Tony Stark!"
Of course he did. "We'll find him," he reassured. "But you have time to put on a change of clothes." He looked over at Wong, who had long since dropped the shields on his hands. "I'm going to get him some clothing; could you help him out, show him to the bathroom?" Banner was completely covered in sawdust. "But use the one near the kitchen; the bathroom beside the study has some mold that just grew eyes last night. Haven't quite figured out what it is yet."
"That's a recurring problem in that bathroom," Wong answered as Stephen levitated over the hole to get up the staircase. As he made his way to his room to find Banner some clothing, he heard him say to Wong, "Did he just fly up the stairs?"
By the time Stephen came back downstairs, Banner was out of the hole and in the bathroom (the one without the eye-dotted mold) and Wong was in the kitchen. He knocked on the bathroom door, called, "Clothes are just outside the door," and left them in a folded pile there before joining his friend.
Wong had filled the strainer with jasmine and was just flicking on the electric kettle to boil. "Probably don't want to give Doctor Banner anything with too much caffeine. The stairs will be fine, but I'd rather not repair the relic room a third time this year."
"You barely helped the second time."
"I wasn't the one who thought it would be a bright idea to let Thor leave his hammer in the relic room."
He wasn't exactly thinking about the consequences with the hammer when he had Thor leave it there. Admittedly, at the time Stephen was thinking about how the lighting from the round window just across from the relic room would make a great dramatic backdrop; furthermore, the position would require him to levitate across the gap to get to Thor. It was a perfect display of his power without any threatening overtures, thus causing Thor to take him seriously, but not as an enemy.
The relic room's display cases were an unfortunate casualty, but overall, he was pleased with how the encounter had gone. The relics themselves were more than able to handle a bit of roughhousing and the glass cases had been damaged for a worthy cause (and repaired by the end of the day, so no harm, no foul).
The kettle flicked off a minute later and Wong took it to the teapot to pour the steaming water over the strainer. Stephen watched him for a moment, then walked over to the fridge and peered inside. Oh, right. They needed groceries, thus the whole sandwich debacle earlier. Hopefully Banner wasn't hungry from his journey from… wherever he came from.
"So. Thanos." He closed the fridge and straightened as Wong floated over three cups and the teapot to the table. "Did he say anything more about him?"
"Not yet. Our conversation pivoted to his introduction to the existence of the mystic arts. He took to the explanation surprisingly well, and much better than you did."
Stephen thought that he possibly caught the side of Wong's face twitching upward into a smile, but it could have easily been a trick of the light. "He was also relieved to hear that he was in New York, though he'll learn soon enough that travel will not be an issue."
"Lucky for him," he agreed. Stephen then folded his arms and stared at the teapot on the table. "How much of a threat are we expecting this guy to be?"
Wong shot him a brief look. "Anyone hunting down Infinity Stones is a threat."
"Yeah, but is this a threat on the scale of Dormammu, or more like that slug-thing that found itself in the sewers back in May?"
"I imagine we will discover which shortly. The water just stopped running." Wong lifted the teapot and poured out three cups.
Within a couple minutes footsteps echoed through the hall and Doctor Banner came to the entryway of the kitchen, peering in and about with uncertainty.
"Doctor Banner," Stephen greeted. "Please sit with us. Normally we would sit in the foyer, but the sawdust hasn't fully settled yet."
"Oh, uh, yeah… sorry about that," he answered, but did not step closer. He instead fidgeted and continued to look around.
"Don't worry about it," he quickly reassured. "Are you a tea drinker?"
"Uh, sometimes, but— look, I appreciate the clothes and all, but I really need to find Tony Stark. It's a bit of an emergency."
"We know," Wong answered this time. "That is why we need to talk with you."
"It will only take a few minutes," Stephen added as he saw Banner hesitate. "We will assist you in finding Tony Stark then." This seemed to push Banner into acquiescence. He stepped forward and took the nearest seat, and both Stephen and Wong followed suit.
"My name is Doctor Stephen Strange and this is my friend and colleague, Wong," he started once Banner had taken hold of his cup. "As Wong mentioned to you, we are Masters of the Mystic Arts. Part of our job involves keeping an eye out and defending our world from those who would threaten it."
Banner's brow furrowed. "Defending the world? Why— why haven't I heard of you guys? Are you new?"
"No," said Wong in his usual stoic matter. "Our order has existed for thousands of years. The type of threats we usually deal with are of the mystical rather than physical sort, and our work is done largely out of public view. However," and here he glanced at Stephen— or more precisely, the Eye of Agamotto— "someone searching for the Infinity Stones is well within our purview."
He looked surprised. "How do you know about the Infinity Stones?"
Stephen took a drink from his cup; tea would have to suffice for lunch, at least for the time being. "We have records of their existence going back thousands of years, and we are well aware of the Avengers and their recent activity with both the Space Stone and Mind Stone."
Banner looked between the two of them with wide eyes. Wong took up the narrative once more. "What can you tell us about this being who hunts the Stones?"
"Thanos," he muttered, looking down to his cup. "He's— he's bad. He already had one of the Stones when he attacked us."
"Who is 'us'? Where were you?" Stephen asked.
"With Thor, leaving with his people to come to Earth. Asgard— Asgard was destroyed. Ragnarok." He swallowed another mouthful of tea. "But that wasn't Thanos, that was his sister and some large hell-demon— I don't know, it's a bit complicated. But before I changed, I remember Thor shouting about Thanos, and he had a bright gem, just like Vision's, on a gauntlet." He took another quick drink. "And Loki and the Valkyrie and Heimdall, they were all trying to evacuate as many people as possible, but he was too strong, too powerful—" He cut himself off and shook his head.
Wong and Stephen exchanged another glance; even Wong's usual stoicness looked especially grim. "Do you know which stone Thanos possessed?" Stephen asked.
"I don't know all of them, but this one was purple and it seemed incredibly destructive."
"The Power Stone, then," Wong muttered.
"That's not all." Banner looked back up. "Loki— just before the Hulk came out, I heard Loki say something about the Space Stone, something that seemed to indicate that it was on the ship. I don't remember much from there. I do know that the Hulk fought Thanos and… and that he lost. I'm not… I don't think— I don't think Thor made it."
Stephen pressed his lips into a thin line and looked at Wong. "Then it is likely that this Thanos possesses both the Power Stone and Space Stone at this time, making him one of the most powerful beings in this universe," said the latter.
He exhaled softly at his friend's comment, then narrowed his eyes in thought and looked back at the physicist. "Did Thor say anything to you about the Reality Stone, or the Aether?"
Banner shook his head. "No, I don't— I don't recall anything about that."
"It is unlikely it remained on Asgard as the Space Stone was taken off the planet during its destruction," Wong said. "Perhaps the Stone was moved at an earlier time. It is considered unwise for two Infinity Stones to remain within close proximity of each other."
"What of the two here on Earth?" Stephen asked.
"They are not kept within the same vault as it likely would have been with those two on Asgard; the current proximity of those upon Earth is not an issue. Still, it is probable that this Thanos will make Earth his next target."
"Wait, wait," Banner said, looking at Stephen. "What do you mean two?"
The sorcerers exchanged glances once again, and after a brief moment of silent communication, Stephen said, "The Time Stone has been within the keeping of the Masters of the Mystic Arts for thousands of years."
"Seriously?" Banner ran a hand through his hair. "Where is it now?"
"In this kitchen."
A beat passed. Banner blinked at Stephen a couple times, then centered his gaze on the Eye of Agamotto. "In there?!"
"It is more secure than it appears, Doctor Banner; it is perhaps more secure than this Vision is."
The other doctor's eyes widened and he stood up. "Which is why I need to find Tony right now. The Avengers have to be warned."
Stephen glanced at Wong yet again; he wasn't going to be the one to tell Banner about the tiff between Stark and Rogers. And it seemed that Wong was in no hurry to break that news, either. Very well; he would find out eventually. Stephen finished his tea and rose, asking, "Where is Tony Stark most likely to be found?"
"I don't know; he could be anywhere. The tower is likely, but he could also be on a private jet to some private island. If he's actively working on something he's probably in his workshop in the tower, but I've been gone for two years!"
He strode past Banner and out of the kitchen, gesturing for the doctor to follow him. Stephen heard both his and Wong's footsteps behind him as he made his way back to the foyer. "Let's start with the tower. If we don't find him there, we should find what I need there to locate him quickly." Stephen pivoted to face Banner once more. "Now I need you to visualize the interior of one of the tower rooms as clearly as you can."
"What? Why?" Banner squinted his eyes and frowned a little at him.
"To find Tony Stark," he answered somewhat impatiently. "If you would, Doctor Banner."
Banner exhaled shortly, then closed his eyes. "Now what?"
"Are you visualizing it?"
"Keep your eyes closed and remain on that thought until I tell you otherwise." Stephen drew a glyph in front of Banner's face, then made a quick gesture so it circled about his head, duplicating itself six times; from here, the copies of the glyph were meant to follow the path of the circle and meet at the point of origin, should the memory be detailed enough to resemble its counterpart in the real world.
However, as the first and second glyph met the third, the spell sputtered out and died, causing Stephen to frown. Banner opened his eyes at the noise and mirrored his expression. "What happened?"
"Your memory did not take. Either you're not imagining it with enough detail or the room has changed drastically, to the point that it little resembles what you remember."
Banner continued to frown. "How drastic is drastic? Tony was always moving new projects in there."
Stephen shook his head. "No, even more drastic. Are you sure you remember it well enough?"
The physicist made a face at the question. "I spent most of my time there, much more time there than in the common room; my lab and his workshop were all but one and the same by the time Ultron…" He trailed off and frowned at the ground.
Exchanging another glance with Wong, Stephen cleared his throat. "Let's try the common room. Can you close your eyes and imagine that for me?"
Banner did as requested, and he repeated the glyph and the gesture. Again, the glyph sputtered and died as two of the copies approached the third.
"The tower wasn't destroyed, was it?" he asked in alarm as he opened his eyes once more.
"No, no," Stephen waved away the concern. "I see it all the time. Just saw it a couple days ago, and if something had happened in the meantime I would have seen it in the newspaper at the least."
Wong, who had remained silent since entering the foyer, suddenly spoke up. "Oh, yes. I had forgotten."
Both doctors turned to him. "Don't tell me that it was destroyed," Stephen half-joked.
"No, but Stark Tower was sold last year. It is likely the new owners have completely repurposed both rooms."
"Sold?" Banner asked, brow furrowed. "But where are the Avengers now?"
What a loaded question. Before Stephen could even begin to figure out how to answer that, Wong said, "They took over an old Stark Industries facility further north." Apparently Wong was avoiding addressing the issue, too.
That's fine. Stark could answer all those uncomfortable questions.
Time to move on. "Is there any other place where Stark might be?" If worse came to worst, they could always Google search images of the Avengers Compound in upstate New York, but he really did not want to deal with the questions from whatever security they had around the facility. That in itself could be a miserable waste of time.
Banner rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, he had a penthouse in the city that he sometimes went to when he needed to get away from everyone. I was one of few people who knew about it. If he's really sold the tower, then he likely still has that place. I only went there a couple of times, but I think I remember it."
"We'll try that." He waved his hand at him. "If you would give it one more shot, Doctor Banner."
He closed his eyes and once more Stephen created the glyph, and again he sent it to encircle Banner's head and duplicate itself six times; this time, the copies of the glyph made it to the third glyph within the circle and continued about his head until it became just one again at the point of origin. Good; the memory was a place not heavily altered within the real world and vivid enough to use.
He unhooked his sling ring from his belt and willed the glyph towards him with a quick gesture. As it dissolved against his forehead, he saw the front room of a penthouse, filled with rich, sleek furniture and a handful of pieces of expensive art. It brought back memories; the only thing missing was a piano. "You can open your eyes now." Stephen raised the sling ring and began to rotate his other hand clockwise.
"Did it wor…" Banner trailed off as the portal began to spark in the air and his eyes widened to saucers as the interior of the penthouse came into view within its borders. "Is… is that…"
"Yes." Tony Stark wasn't visible and there were no other sounds coming from the room beyond the portal, so with that, Stephen stepped through to enter Iron Man's private residence.
With his first full step into the room and before he really had time to take in his surroundings, a feminine voice with an Irish lilt broke through the area. "Who are you?"
Stephen paused and looked around, then up. "Uh… Doctor Stephen Strange." His eyes continued to dart about the room, but he saw no sign of the speaker. "Who am I speaking to?"
"I am F.R.I.D.A.Y., Mr Stark's artificial intelligence system. The front door has not opened and the windows remain locked and unbroken; how did you get in here?"
Explaining magic to people had its own challenges; he could not even begin to imagine how he would explain it to Tony Stark's overly-intuitive AI. "I won't be here long. We just need to talk with Tony Stark."
"I only sense one life form within this room."
Oh, right. "Doctor Banner?" he called through the portal. "Join me, please." Perhaps Stark's AI would be friendlier to someone who has visited the penthouse before.
Banner eyed the flying sparks of the portal warily, but after what seemed to be a brief, internal debate, made the decision to step through with an overly wide gait. Once he was beyond the portal, he called, albeit hesitantly, "F.R.I.D.A.Y.?"
"Doctor Banner!" The surprise was clear in her tone, and wasn't that a weird thing to consider. Maybe not as weird as the existence of magic would be to others, but A.I. with the ability to process emotion was… something else. And something to consider at a later time. "Mr Stark has been looking all over for you."
"Ah, yeah, I was not… wasn't here." He cleared his throat. "Do you run everything now?"
"I have taken over many of the functions my predecessor used to perform."
Banner looked a little unnerved by that answer, so Stephen brought the conversation back on topic before they delved further into that unknown. "Do you know where we can find Tony Stark? It is a matter of urgency."
The A.I. did not immediately answer, causing Stephen to frown. Banner spoke again, saying, "He can be trusted. Please, F.R.I.D.A.Y., I know you don't know me, but I wouldn't be bothering Tony like this if it was not extremely important."
It (she? he wondered) replied, "I know everything about you that Mr Stark knows, Doctor Banner. And I know you would not. However, he has turned off his communication with me at this time. He desired not to be disturbed while he was out in the park with Miss Potts."
"The park? Central Park?" Banner looked out the window and ran a hand through his hair. "The park's huge! Damn it, Tony, why would you disconnect yourself now of all times?"
"We can still find him," Stephen reassured him, before looking back up at the ceiling. "Where can I find his bedroom?"
The question seemed to cause the A.I. to pause, though whether it was in confusion or suspicion, he could not say. Banner, however, answered, "Just through there," and gestured to a door to the left. Stephen immediately headed to the room and he heard the other man follow. "What are you looking for?"
"His bathroom." That was easy enough to find, and it was not even a minute later that he had what he needed: Tony Stark's hair brush and the many strands within it. He plucked a few from the bristles and left the room as quickly as he came.
Banner watched and followed him in confusion. "You need his hair?"
"Nail clippings or shed skin also work, but hair is generally much easier to work with." Especially with his fingers, but there was no need to speak on that. He gestured to the still-open portal. "After you, doctor." Banner gave him a strange look, but went through without comment. Stephen went to step through, paused, and looked up at the ceiling. "Uh, thank you for your help, F.R.I.D.A.Y."
"You're welcome," the A.I. answered politely. "I wish to ask you a question, Doctor Strange."
He supposed it was the least he could do since she (it?) didn't call the building's security immediately upon him. "Yeah?"
"How did you and Doctor Banner enter Mr Stark's home? I sense only one living presence once more as well as a strange force of energy in the center of the living room."
Oh, what the hell. "Magic," he answered, and with that, he walked through the portal and let it shut behind him.
A few minutes later, Stephen stood beside an open portal that led back to the Sanctum as he watched Bruce Banner reunite with someone who was clearly a close friend. His eyes darted to the side as a small show of privacy to the three of them. Instead, he stared down a group of four teenagers openly staring at him and the portal. As one of them started bringing up her phone, he slowly shook his head. She dropped her hand.
Banner, Stark, and Miss Potts quietly conferred with each other for only a couple minutes before they came to some sort of resolution. Banner offered the woman a hug and Stark gave his fiance a kiss before they strode towards him. Stephen gestured towards the portal. "After you."
Tony Stark stared at the portal with a frown, but went with Doctor Banner without hesitation to enter the New York Sanctum. Stephen followed straight after and let the portal close with his passing, the sounds of Central Park cutting off with a soft fizz.
"We have to find Vision," Banner immediately started upon their arrival. "Thanos is coming for the Stones and he is—"
"Wait, wait," Stark interrupted as he stared at the spot the portal once was. "What exactly was that?" He gestured towards said spot and looked at Stephen with a frown.
"A portal," was his succinct answer. He glanced towards Wong, who leaned against the far wall behind Tony and watched the proceedings with his usual stoicness. He seemed content to remain silent instead of being useful and intervening. Lousy friend.
Stark rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I think I got that part. What sort of tech is that?"
Stephen inwardly sighed. He did not want to have this conversation. "It's magic. Could we get back to the topic on hand?"
"This is the topic on hand. So, what, are you some sort of alien? I suppose I can see it—"
He interrupted with, "Human. Homo sapiens." He let some of his annoyance leak into his tone.
Stark narrowed his eyes at him. "You sure?"
"Quite sure." Tony Stark was an asshole.
"Tony," Banner intervened, "while it's definitely a bit weird to think about magic on Earth and all, there's more important things to discuss."
"Right, right," Stark replied absentmindedly as he continued to study Stephen with narrowed eyes. "So you're some sort of wizard or something?"
"Or something," he replied dryly, loosely crossing his arms. He felt the cloak rustling behind him, probably sensing his agitation.
Stark saw the rustling, too. He raised his brows. "What's with the cape flapping in a nonexistent wind?"
"Cloak," he corrected. "And it likes to do that from time to time."
The mechanic paused, mouth hanging halfway open as if he were about to say something but the words somehow lost their way. He shut his mouth and instead turned to face Banner. "How did you even find this guy?"
"I landed here." He gestured with his chin towards the hole in the staircase. "Sent here, actually— Doctor Strange was kind enough to help me find you."
Stark looked at the hole as he asked, "And what are you supposed to be a doctor of, anyway? Magic? Do they give doctorates in wizardry?"
"Medicine, actually," he replied, shoving his growing antipathy for the man deep down.
"Huh." He watched the billionaire move his gaze from the ruined staircase and slowly spin in a circle to take a closer look at their surroundings. "Where are we, exactly? Hogwarts? I gotta say, I was expecting it to be a bit bigger."
"You are in the New York Sanctum Sanctorum," Wong said from the back wall, speaking for the first time since their return. Stark frowned and spun to face him. "In Greenwich Village, to be precise."
"And who're you?" he asked.
"I am Wong."
Stark's brow furrowed. "Wong? Just Wong? Like Cher?"
Stephen ignored the look Wong sent his way and focussed on the staircase. Banner finally lost his incredibly long-lasting patience with his friend.
"Tony, that's enough. We need to come up with a plan to keep Thanos from getting the Infinity Stones."
"Right, Infinity Stones…" Stark ran a hand through his hair as he walked across the room. He flopped down on a couch against the wall. "Thor mentioned them, just before he left— just after you had disappeared," he said to Banner. "Thought that it wasn't a coincidence that four of them had shown up in a few short years. They're clearly powerful, these Stones, but he wasn't clear on what they can do."
Wong stepped up. "I can fill in your missing pieces of information." He made his way to a clear part in the center of the foyer. Stephen stood across from him and watched as his friend made a couple quick gestures. He knew what his role in this demonstration would be; it was time to reveal the Eye.
"At the dawn of the universe, there was nothing…