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The Deal

Chapter Text

Peter Parker never dreaded the arrival of summertime in Queens. In years past, when the moon shone as high and huge as the sun over the New York skyline, it served as the signal for everybody in his neighborhood to get out of their apartments for a welcome burst of fresh nighttime air. Bogged down by studying for his finals, Peter always had to be dragged out of his room by May for a trip to the Dairy Queen six blocks down. Once they had their large Blizzards in hand, they’d take their time walking back home, enjoying the breeze blowing across their faces as they talked about anything except schoolwork. That thirty-minute excursion always set Peter straight again; instead of going over chemical equations in his head for the thousandth time, he could let himself be distracted by one of his aunt’s rambling stories and remember that he’d soon have a whole three months off from all of his responsibilities.

But now, when he spent his nights swinging through the streets as Spider-Man, he found himself wishing for the first time in his life that it was still January instead of June.

“Karen, what happened to the DQ on 169th?” As Peter whooshed past the store front, a frown formed underneath his mask when he saw the rusted lock holding its dilapidated doors shut.

Looking up property records,” the AI responded in his ear. “This branch closed in 2020. Company internal memos cite reduced foot traffic in the Queens area as the reason for location shutdown.”

“Oh…” Peter’s boots scraped harshly against the gravel-coated rooftop of the next building; he barely managed to swoop around its stairwell access door before launching himself back into the air. “Did you know that the guy who owns it—"

Owned, I think you mean to say.”

Peter skidded to a stop on the wall outside his bedroom window, wincing as his ankle banged against the bricks. He knew he had let go of his web too fast on the dismount; his hands had started shaking as soon as Karen spoke again, and he’d have the bruise to show for it by morning.

Sitting down on the wall, Peter tilted his head up and sighed. During his last three patrols, it seemed as though everything he knew in Queens had been replaced. The bodega sign that had flickered since he was ten years old was fixed; the kids who played basketball on the public courts were now taller than him; the light poles, once covered with band posters, were still swamped with aged signs for missing people.

He’d decided to put an end to his rounds for the evening when he’d seen the new bouquets of flowers placed underneath the mural of Iron Man. And to top it all off, his Dairy Queen on 169th was closed.

You’re being unusually quiet. What’s on your mind?

“Blizzards.” Peter paused, gritting his teeth in a forced smile. “The guy who owned that DQ put both Oreos and Chips Ahoy in your Blizzard if his cat liked you. If anybody brought a dog in, he’d give them a small, no matter what they ordered.” He felt a rush of relief that his watering eyes were hidden from view. “I…I hope he still has the cat.”

Would you like directions to another nearby Dairy Queen, Peter? I can also place an order for you to pick up when you get there.

“No, thanks, Karen.” His back ached as he pushed himself onto his feet and eased the window open. “Go ahead and power down for the night.”

Not a problem. Don’t forget that your exams have been cancelled, and that you have two calls from Carol Danvers that still haven’t been answered—

His throat tightening, Peter slid inside his room and pulled off the mask before he could listen to any more of her reminders. “May, I’m back!”

Peter’s rasp went unanswered as the Rolling Stones blasted from the kitchen radio outside his closed door. Flinging the mask towards his huge stack of laundry, he walked to his closet in search of a clean pair of jeans; as he wiped his eyes, his nose wrinkled at the scent of burning meat. “You’re not trying to make pot roast again, are you? Mr. Ramirez said last time—”

Pain, somehow blazing hot and bitterly cold in the same second, shot through the base of Peter’s skull. Every muscle in his body seized instantly, as though he were being stretched on a rack. A sheen of clammy sweat broke out on his forehead and trickled down his snow-colored cheeks. He bit down on the inside of his lip, filling his mouth with the iron taste of blood.

Peter’s heart did not simply pound; it thrashed inside him, each frenzied beat screaming out in service to the command that his legs could not find the strength to obey: runrunrun runrunrunrunrunrunrun….getoutgetoutgetout GET OUT!

A question of the rhetorical variety for you, Peter Parker…

He turned slowly at the booming, arrogant voice that made his bones shake. A figure was perched on the edge of his bed, its face obscured from view. But in the darkness, Peter recognized the hair that stuck up on the ends, the strong chin, the dark goatee—

“T-Tony?”

When the figure crooked its head, Peter’s insides twisted violently. What should have been the skin on its face was instead an oily, undulating mass of obsidian shadows; its eyes were made of white fire; its reptilian smile was comprised of dagger-sharp incisors.

What if I could be?” A pale, forked tongue slithered over its bared teeth.

Peter was already too terrified to scream when the creature’s jet-black tentacles lunged for him.

Chapter Text

Sensing that his fourth attempt at deep meditation would soon end in failure, Doctor Stephen Strange was about to summon another cup of chamomile tea from the downstairs kitchen when the earthquake hit the Sanctum.

“Shit—!” Stephen’s levitation spell broke as the walls started shaking. He plunged towards the ground, slamming onto the library’s cherry-wood floor alongside the heavy tomes tumbling from the bookshelves. His grunt of discomfort was lost amid the shattering of glass coming from the Hall of Relics. The air around him suddenly tasted ashen, making it even more difficult to breathe with his sore ribcage.

Stephen tried to push himself up, his hands throbbing as he struggled to support his own weight against the wobbling earth. He heard a swish of fabric from just outside the door; before he could blink, the Cloak of Levitation settled itself on his shoulders and hoisted him back into the air.

“Thanks,” he coughed, palms glowing with orange light as he conjured defensive shields. “You couldn’t have come a bit sooner?”

The Cloak gave Stephen a quick swat on the ankles for his jab. At that moment, the tremor abruptly stopped, plunging the Sanctum back into stillness. He floated cautiously to the library door; the glare from his spell barely illuminated the gloomy, cavernous hallway.

“Wong, we’ve obviously got a problem,” he called out as he glided into the shadows. “Do you think it was an—?”

You’ve got to stop doing that. Nobody else is here.

Stephen’s shoulders slumped as he sank back to the ground. Wong had moved back to Kamar-Taj full-time last month, and here he was, still shouting for him across the Sanctum like they were college roommates. Solitude had never been a problem for Stephen before; when he first took charge of the New York residence all those years ago, he reveled in the time he had to himself, using the endless hours to practice his incantations and pour over the dusty scrolls hidden in the drawing room.

Nowadays, even when he wasn’t faced with a potential assailant, the Sanctum’s eternal silence left Stephen feeling on edge.

If Wong was able to do this on his own for five years, why is it so hard for—

“Is there a reason why you’re staring into the hallway, Strange? This one doesn’t even have any cursed paintings to investigate.”

Christ!” His pulse thudding in his throat, Stephen and the Cloak whirled into action. A burst of fire exploded from his fingertips, just missing Wong’s head as he strode through a newly opened portal in the wall. “The Sanctums are connected for a reason, you know!”

“True, but then again, I wasn’t expecting to be attacked by the Sorcerer Supreme.” Stephen recognized the steely, withering glint in Wong’s brown eyes; it was one he’d seen him give to students who returned books with creased page corners to the Kamar-Taj library. “I was under the impression that you would be using your skills to address the emergency at hand.”

The Cloak’s collar drooped in what could only be called embarrassment as the other Master inspected the smoking remnants of the gateway. Stephen gave the garment a slight nudge with his cheek, and it straightened before he spoke again. “You felt that earthquake as well?”

“All the Sanctums did. Somewhere on Earth, the border between realms has been broken."

“Then an entity of great power has entered our dimension.” Strange murmured. “Could it be Dormammu?”

Both men’s eyes flitted to the place on Stephen’s chest where the Eye of Agamotto should have been hanging. “The Cosmic Conqueror is not the most subtle of beings,” Wong said, shaking his head. “If he had arrived to take his revenge upon you—”

“Then I would already be dead.” Stephen shrugged. “Fair point. Glad we can cross him off the list. I’ll start on a tracking spell.”

“That’s why I’m here.” Wong’s usual frown deepened as golden tendrils of crackling energy snaked around Stephen’s arms. “I already performed one. You aren’t going to like the origin source. It’s coming from an address on the new watchlist…”

“Let me guess,” Stephen snapped, extinguishing the fragments of his incantation with a forceful jerk of his fingers. “Avengers headquarters?”

“Queens.”  

Repressing a groan of frustration, Stephen leaned against the wall and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What would an interdimensional being of world-shaking power want with Spider-Man?”

“Perhaps he provoked it in some fashion—"

"Ten bucks says he tried to talk the thing to death.”

“You know the boy better than I do.” Wong said. “But to presume the motivation of a creature such as this one is…dangerous, Strange. The sooner we figure out what it wants—"

“I’m on my way now,” Stephen grabbed the sling ring off his belt. “Trust me, you’re better off staying as far away from this as possible. I know you think I’m too chatty; this kid is far more of a motormouth than I could ever hope to be.”

“Ah.” Wong’s brow furrowed in consideration. “Then I will volunteer to stay behind and guard the Sanctum in your absence…”

“Smart choice.” Pulling the ring on, he raised his hands to form the portal—

“…Unless you want me to come with you, Stephen.”

A silence far heavier than any lingering in the Sanctum erupted between the two men. “I’m perfectly able to do this on my own.”

Stephen wished Wong would sneer, yell, or raise just a single eyebrow in open rebellion; of course, the muscles in his face didn’t even twitch.  “As you say, Sorcerer Supreme.”

The Doctor tore a gateway open in one sweeping motion. “If anything happens, I’ll come directly to you. No fireballs this time, I swear.”

“Take care of yourself.” Wong paused as Stephen stepped into the Parker’s kitchen. “Please.”

***

Strange didn’t look back as he shut the portal, sending a flourish of sparks dancing through the air. “Spider-Man?”

Stephen winced as the opening beats of “Paint It Black” made a near-deafening assault on his eardrums. The Cloak bristled against his back before slipping off and flying over the island countertop; creating a small gust as it rushed across the kitchen, it caught two empty bowls and a bag of salad that threatened to topple over in its wake.

The wooden spoon in May Parker’s hand clattered to the floor. Her hazel eyes popped wide behind her wiry gold glasses as she watched the garment twist the radio’s volume dial down before returning to its owner. “What the f—"

“Your alfredo’s boiling over.”

Cursing under her breath, May spun back to the cramped stovetop and seized the handle of a small saucepan whose creamy, bubbling contents were slopping over its sides. The bangles on her thin, freckled wrists clacked together as she balanced the pan on an unused oven mitt.

“Don’t remind me…” She pulled her messy auburn bun tighter as she turned towards him. “Doctor Strange, Hogwarts professor?”

“Master of the Mystic Arts. Sorcerer Supreme.” His lips pursed; he still wasn’t used to saying his newest title out loud. “Stephen, on occasion.”

“Ever consider getting business cards?” The smirk on May’s face quickly faded. “You’ve got to admit, it’s a mouthful for the rest of us.”  

She shot Strange a stiff smile before opening one of the upper cabinets, obscuring her face from view as she rummaged through its shelves. “Is there something I can get you? Tea? A hanger for your cape?”

“I need to talk to your nephew.”

May swayed on her tiptoes. “You know what, I just remembered that I’m all out of tea.” The color drained from her fingers as they clenched the cabinet’s handles. “Maybe you should come back some other time.”

“It really can’t wait.” Irritation crept into Stephen’s voice. “He’s—"

“It sure as hell can!” An angry red flush ran up May’s neck; the cabinets creaked as she yanked them shut. “Why can’t any of you leave him alone? If Peter doesn’t want to be an Avenger, more power to him; he should be allowed to be a kid on his own terms. With all he just went through, doesn’t he deserve that chance?”

“Peter’s been avoiding the Avengers?” For a brief second, Stephen’s surprise banished all thoughts of imminent interdimensional invaders from his mind. “We’re discussing the same person, right?”

“Just stop it,” she hissed. “I have had too many superheroes show up on my doorstep over the last few weeks to make the same pitch; none of them succeeded. Not Captain Marvel; not Black Panther; not even Happy Hogan’s big speech could do it.

“But I never thought you’d have the nerve to come here, Stephen.” Scorn radiated from May’s eyes as she glared at Strange. “What could you possibly have to say to Peter, after what you let happen to Tony Stark?”

She defiantly crossed her arms in front of her chest; he drew his trembling hands into the Cloak’s folds. He had no idea how to respond to her, no idea how to stop the hollow ringing in his ears, no idea how to fill the unbearable, inescapable silence—

Whump. May and Stephen’s heads turned to the closed door across from the island at the same time. “Peter, you don’t have to listen in from the ceiling,” she sighed, “just come out already—”

Whump. The doorframe buckled; May’s eyebrows rose. “Baby, you doing okay in there?”

WHUMP. Stephen and the Cloak tensed; the air hummed as he formed a spell around his fists. “Get behind me. Now.

“Don’t overreact,” May said hesitantly. “I’m…I’m sure he’s just—"

With a metallic bang, the door blasted from its hinges and catapulted into the kitchen. Stephen grabbed May by the shoulder and pulled her down with him to the floor; frenziedly waving his free hand, he transfigured the plank of wood into an explosion of grey feathers. As the plumage fluttered around them, he stared with horror at the shimmering black portal that had once been Peter Parker’s bedroom.

“HOLY FUCKING SHIT!” May yelled, her fingernails scratching against the linoleum tiles as she scooted away from the creature oozing out of the empty doorframe.

“Stay with her!” The Cloak launched itself off Strange and hurtled towards May. As the being solidified itself into a humanoid shape, Stephen stood and cast his shields; the apartment’s foundations shook with the force of his invocation.

“You trespass in a reality protected by the Sorcerer Supreme, whose power is as great as yours,” Strange intoned. “Release the boy and return to your world before I—”

Stephen faltered when blazing, empty eyes met his own; a sinister laugh reverberated through the room.

In a flash, tentacles unfurled themselves from the monster’s back and crashed into Stephen’s defenses, sending sparks and bolts of pale lightning shooting around the apartment as they collided. Breathing heavily, the sorcerer summoned all of his focus to keep the enchantment alive; the shields brightened, pulsing with light, and he thought he saw the creature stumble—

But the diabolical eyes swiveled towards May. One of the long black limbs broke away from the others and shot towards her; she dived into the corner, but it was moving too fast, even for the Cloak to pull her out of the way—

No! Not her!” Stephen’s hands wavered; the spell’s glow flickered—

The beast’s vicious leer grew wider. The single tentacle halted and vanished.

Its remaining appendages whipped downwards once more, destroying the shields in a savage collective blow. Punishingly strong arms wrapped themselves around Strange’s torso; his feet dug into the ground, but he felt himself being hauled towards the entity, towards the portal—

“May, get out of here!” Pressing against the tentacles with all his might, Stephen stretched his palms and concentrated on the motions that would activate his sling ring. Pinpricks of fiery agony began shooting up his arms as the creature’s tendrils sped towards his fingers. He couldn’t tell if he wanted to scream in anguish or triumph when he saw the familiar green walls of the Sanctum appear behind May and the Cloak. “Find Wong—don’t come after me—!"

“Stephen!” May shouted, gripping the countertop as the Cloak tried to pull her to safety. “Promise me—” 

“I’ll—do it,” he choked as a limb tightened around his throat, “I’ll—find Peter—”

“Promise me you’ll bring him back alive.”

May finally let the Cloak take her into the Sanctum, staring at Stephen with a cold, unwavering gaze as she disappeared. The scars on his fingers stung as the sling ring was wrenched away from him; his vision blurred, his muscles went numb—

“You’ll fail her.” A smooth, rich voice whispered in delight as Stephen was dragged into darkness. “Just like all the others.”

Chapter Text

Groaning as his head rose from the silken pillows, a single groggy thought inched slowly into Peter’s mind:

Guess…guess I really do need that new suit jacket.

Despite his sore temples, Peter’s eyesight was beginning to sharpen again; when he glanced down at his arms, he saw that there was a good inch of space between the start of his wrists and the end of his coal-black sleeves. He ran a hand through his rumpled hair and sighed in resignation.

Fine, May. You were right after all.

May had tried to take him suit shopping once before the memorial, but he retreated to his room and climbed out the window before she could carry out her threat. When they finally made the long drive upstate, she used every stop light as an opportunity to yank the fabric pills off his shoulders.

“You’re old enough to do this yourself, you know,she’d grumbled, flicking lint from her nailbeds. “Tony wouldn’t have wanted you to show up looking like a hobo, Peter.

The anger he’d been fighting all morning boiled over before he could stop himself. “It’s not like I can ask him what to wear to his own wake, May. Didn’t this outfit work for the last funeral?”

They didn’t say another word to each other until the car pulled into the Stark cabin’s driveway.

Peter squirmed, his cheeks turning hot with regret at the memory. Had he ever apologized to May? I could make it up to her somehow…should I buy a new suit myself? How do I get a new suit? Maybe Happy can help, he’s always wearing a suit…Tony would know where to get a suit…

But why was he wearing his suit now? Hadn’t he been wearing his costume before—

Before he’d seen the figure perched on his bed—

Before the smoldering eyes had set themselves upon him—

Before the tentacles had smothered him—

“What if I could be?”

“No, no, no, no!” Peter flipped into the air and landed in a crouch on the ceiling. “Oh shit, that thing totally laid eggs in my chest, didn’t it—”

He stopped scratching at his collar when he looked down at the room beneath him. The bed he’d been lying on was covered by a glossy gold bedspread. A mahogany table next to the arched headboard held a glass decanter filled with wine. The intricate brass sconces jutting out of the black and ivory striped walls provided a haze of illumination; heavy satin curtains were draped across the windows.

 “So…Cthulhu jumped me for an all-expenses paid vacation?” He somersaulted back to the floor, touching down in front of the windows as he reached for the drapes.

“Ow!” Peter wrenched his scorched hand back from the fabric and stared at his reddening palm. Dread bubbled in his stomach; he suddenly wondered if he was actually locked inside a particularly swanky prison cell.

The hairs on Peter’s arms shot upwards when he heard a doorknob twist behind him, its heavy handle rattling as something tried to force its way inside.

“Nobody’s home!” He called out wildly. “Er, I mean, nobody worth eating or torturing or doing anything bad to is home—"  

“Peter, will you shut up about the aliens while I get you out of there?"

“Doctor Strange?” His hands curled into fists at the sound of the sardonic voice. “How do I know it’s you? You could be a shape-shifting alien that’s going to lay—”

He jumped backwards when a sizzling blade of energy sliced through the entrance’s hinges. The wine decanter crashed to the floor just after the door settled at his feet.

Strange retracted his saber, unfazed by the dumbfounded expression on Peter’s face as the weapon faded from existence. “Not another word about aliens. Understood?”

“An Alohomora would’ve worked,” the teen muttered, begrudgingly following the wizard out into the hallway. He jumped onto the ceiling again; the thick carpet was striped in the same pattern as the walls from the cell he’d just vacated, and he wanted to put as much distance between the suspicious flooring and himself as possible.

“You could stay on the ground while we talk.”

“The view’s better from here.” Peter savored the Doctor’s annoyance as he instead sat down and crossed his legs. “How’d you find me?”

“I heard you yelling from three rooms down.” Strange peered warily in both directions before turning to Peter again. “You’re fortunate that the creature didn’t come to finish you off.”

“Maybe it’s busy snacking on someone else; there’s a lot of rooms…” He trailed off as a horrifying realization solidified in his brain. “Oh God, what about my aunt? If she’s here too, I’ve gotta find her before—!"

“May’s safe. She’s in the Sanctum with Wong.”

“That’s…that’s good,” Peter breathed. “If that thing had—“ He stiffened as the meaning behind Strange’s words became gratingly apparent. “Wait, you were in my apartment? I didn’t give you permission to come over!”

Permission?” One of the sorcerer’s long eyebrows arched upwards. “Between the two of us, who’s responsible for defending reality from interdimensional threats? But no, I forgot about the strict rules of entry that you set down and told nobody else about. Guess I should have left you to fend for--"

“Did you do any better against it than me?” Peter pointed at Strange’s own trim ebony suit.

The two glowered at each other for a few seconds before the wizard took another step forward, his eyes simmering with frustration.

“I don’t care if you want to be angry at me, Peter.” The Doctor’s tone was carefully measured as he crossed his arms. “But you need to put the present situation ahead of your feelings. We aren’t going to get out of this if we spend our time sniping at each other."

“Who says we’re sniping at each other? I thought this was a—back up a second; did you say ‘interdimensional’?” Peter nearly fell from his perch out of shock when he considered the magnitude of that one word. “On any other day, that’d be the coolest thing I ever heard, but…is there a chance we’re not on Earth anymore?”

“I’d say it’s a near certainty. I’ve been trying to get a lock on our position within the multiverse, but my location spells are being blocked. Whatever brought us here wants to—”

“Stephen Strange. Peter Parker. Welcome to Hotel Inferno. Your presence is requested.”

The cool voice issued from the end of the hallway; Peter craned his neck around to see a pair of slick doors slide open to reveal an elevator cabin whose walls were covered in scarlet leather.

“…It wants us to go downstairs?”

“It’s created a construct based on our own reality,” the sorcerer exhaled, “but why this? By the Vishanti, it keeps on making less sense…”

“I’ve got no idea what a Vishanti is, but my money’s still on Cthulhu being the mastermind behind everything.” Even with his racing heart, Peter couldn’t resist the urge to shoot a sarcastic smirk at Strange as he crawled towards the open doors. “Or aliens, in my opinion. You coming with me to find out, Doc?”

***

Peter lost count of how many floors had passed before he decided that Doctor Strange just didn’t look right wearing anything but a tunic and cape.

As they stood on opposite sides of the rapidly descending elevator, he couldn’t stop himself from sneaking glances in the sorcerer’s direction. Peter struggled to pinpoint exactly what made the man so unsettling to him. It wasn’t his magic powers—having proof that wizards existed was amazing, no matter the circumstances—and in comparison to the talking raccoon he’d actually met, Strange’s ridiculously sharp cheekbones didn’t seem too out of the ordinary anymore.

But as the Doctor stared at the elevator doors with a frown on his face, Peter realized that he already knew the answer to his own question. He’d known it for three months, ever since the last time they’d been forced to be in the same place.

The water rippled as soon as Pepper pushed the bouquet out onto the lake. Wide circles stretched across the lustrous blue surface as the flowers sailed into the distance; the arc reactor’s dulled core sparkled in the center of the bunch when it caught the sunbeams streaming from above the silent mourners.

Peter’s chest shook as he tried to stifle a sob. How long were they all going to stand there and watch? If there had been a body, they could’ve just thrown dirt on the coffin and gone inside for cold cuts by now. At funerals, he understood that it was best to keep things moving; it gave him less time to think.

But this was worse. Now, he had too much time to let the truths wash over him; Tony’s corpse was still too irradiated for a proper burial; it was a windless day, meaning the flowers could spin lazily across the lake for hours; his strength was breaking, he was going to cry any second now, and he didn’t know when it would stop—  

May’s hand eased tentatively onto his shoulder. “Do you need a minute?”

He desperately wanted to say no, but he nodded, nearly choking on his breath as she guided him down the dock, past the Avengers before the tears could start spilling—

Almost hidden behind Banner’s enormous shoulders, Doctor Strange stood still, his icy, far-away eyes unwavering as he held his head shamelessly high.

For a second time, the familiar fury rose in Peter. For a second time, the thought he’d left unspoken that day blazed across his brain:    

Try to look a little sorry for what you did, asshole.

“You’re giving Wong a run for his money, kid.”

“What?” Peter hadn’t expected Strange to be the first to speak. “How?”

“When he’s got an expression like yours on his face, it generally means the world’s on the verge of collapse. Should I be alarmed that you haven’t said anything for five minutes?”

“I can be quiet sometimes,” he said, rolling his eyes, “especially when, you know, we might get killed once we hit the ground floor.”

“If you say so.” The sorcerer tapped his index finger on his elbow. “But I thought you might have something else on your mind.”

Oh, no you don’t, Strange. You don’t get to play it like that.

“Maybe I do,” Peter said, “but why would I want to talk about it with you?”

The wizard’s shoulders tensed; to his surprise, Peter caught a glimpse of bags underneath his eyes as his head tilted downwards. “Look, I—"

“You have arrived. Prepare yourselves.”

The elevator finally came to a gentle stop. Strange squeezed his eyes shut as the doors opened; when his eyelids flew up again, they were filled with an intensity that made Peter shudder.

“Stay close to me.” The Doctor conjured bands of light around his limbs as he exited the lift. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Peter followed him into a wide atrium; their footsteps echoed on its marble floors as they approached a magnificently carved archway. Massive titian pillars towered above their heads.  From beyond the opulent entrance, he heard the tinkling of music, the jangling of coins, the sound of dice being shaken—

“Is that a casino?” He stopped in his tracks. “Am I even old enough to go in there—?”

“I’m going to pretend you never asked that.” Blushing fiercely, Peter caught up to Strange, leaving a few inches of space between the two of them.

He nearly gasped after they stepped inside; the surroundings reminded him of pictures of the Vatican he’d seen in his history books at school. Every shade of marble imaginable had been used to construct the vaulting walls; it only stopped at the massive glass ceiling, which revealed a starless black sky.

And as far as his eyes could see, stretching across the crowded floor, were heavy wooden gaming tables laden with cards, gleaming gold slot machines that rained down money, wheels that spun endlessly—

But the tempest of people pressing against them shuffled past the riches at their feet.

“Why isn’t anybody playing?” Peter wondered aloud, watching a woman near them gaze mournfully at a roulette wheel. “Is it, like, Aladdin rules? ‘Touch nothing but the lamp?’”

“You really need to spend less time watching movies.”

“I’m just trying to figure out what's happening! How am I supposed to do that without—"

A jolt of electricity coursed through his entire system when he saw the man hovering beside one of the card tables. Wearing an impeccably tailored silver blazer, he seemed more solid than any of the figures stumbling behind him.

 Adjusting his oversized black glasses as he stepped away from the bench, Tony Stark winked at the stupefied teen.

“Oh, my God.” Peter whispered, finding it hard to draw air into his lungs.

“That’s not possible,” Strange said, his hollow voice millions of miles away. “This is part of the construct; it has to be an illusion—”

No, he’s not. Hope swelled in Peter’s thoughts.This isn’t like last time—he’s standing right in front of me. He’s real.

Let him be real.

But Stark was disappearing down the hallway, his tawny head of hair getting lost amidst the swarms of people—

Tony!” He sprinted down the corridor. “Tony, wait—"

“Peter, don’t!"

He kept on running, thrilling in his disobedience. He could show Strange, he could prove him completely, irrevocably wrong; Tony’s life could be saved, Tony could live,and all Peter needed was this one chance, this one unseen possibility—

Hundreds of pairs of tired eyes suddenly fixed upon him. The crowd of silent souls abruptly converged on Peter, shambling towards him with outstretched palms.

“Wait—what the—no, stop, get off me!” As they reached him, they ripped at his clothes and tugged at his hair; they condemned him to watch as Tony vanished behind their growing masses.

No!” He panted, struggling against the unyielding mob. “He—he was right there—AGH!"

Peter collapsed to the ground as his senses went into overload. Every touch of the bony hands upon his skin felt like the jab of a syringe. Panic threatened to blind him, and every nerve in his body burned—  

“No one understood Tony Stark’s true potential like did.”

Bodies at the edge of the pile scrambled to the sides of the aisle as the voice rung across the entire casino floor. A pathway opened up at Peter’s feet; he tried to sit up, hoping he’d see—

He shot backwards, a shriek on the tip of his tongue as a monstrosity swaggered towards him. The creature’s crimson skin pulsated with flickers of orange flames; its fingers ended with charcoal-colored talons that it clicked together while it walked.

“All that capacity for avarice, governed by a truly divine ego…Such a shame he went and found a conscience to guide himself.” The endless, hungering white eyes sizzled once more as it drew closer. “Personal integrity is downright parasitical in you humans—”

“I don’t need to hear lectures on virtue from a demon.”

Doctor Strange soared above its head, the purple lightning crackling at his fingertips highlighting his ferocious expression. “Especially one who makes such cowardly attacks upon my world.”

Strange raised his hands to strike; the monster licked its lips in anticipation.

“If we were still in your world, wizard, I might have reason to pause…” As it raised one of its massive palms, the people grasping Peter’s arms doubled over, writhing as their mouths opened into soundless screams. Their skin began to boil in front of his eyes; their teeth sharpened and their bones snapped as jaws elongated into snouts and hands morphed into claws—

Throwing his wrists up in front of his face, Peter just managed to hold back the snarling dogs’ first onslaught; he cried out in fright as their fangs snapped inches away from his eyes. Hot, stinging drool trickled down his neck; blood dripped onto the floor from the scratches across his palms. He buckled as they bore down on him, and he wondered if he should shut his eyes, just so he didn’t have to watch himself get—

“…But I would hate to destroy either of you before we have the opportunity to talk. It would be such a crude conclusion to the proceedings.” The creature grinned wickedly at Peter before its gaze returned to the hovering sorcerer. “Especially if my hounds are forced to devour the boy in front of you, Stephen.”

Strange paused as he considered the warning. “You’ve made your point.”

 With a wave of their master’s hand, the dogs backed away as the Doctor descended to the ground. The lightning surrounding him disappeared as he crouched next to Peter.

“You alright?” Strange asked in a stern undertone. “This is why I told you—"

“M-mind saving it f-for later, man?” Peter couldn’t stop trembling as he seized the wizard’s wrists. “J-just don’t l-let me throw up in f-font of that thing…”

The creature snorted with contempt. “You made a righteous decision in delaying his death, Sorcerer Supreme. It’ll do you no credit here in hell.”

“Hell?” Peter croaked as Strange pulled him to his feet. “Does…Does that m-make you—"

“The devil?” The demon sneered. “Pathetic men in centuries past gave me that name, child. In my realm, I prefer to be known as Mephisto.”

Mephisto crooked one long finger at them before he continued down the hallway, leaving a trail of flames in his wake. “But I’ve had enough of the pleasantries. After all, wouldn’t you both like to see Mr. Stark again?”

Chapter Text

Unless.

The qualifier sliced through Stephen’s consciousness like a scalpel making its primary incision. He clenched his jaw tighter, hoping that the grinding of his teeth might succeed in diverting his attention. So far, nothing had been able to shake him out of his newfound stupor. He ignored Peter’s nervous footsteps and disregarded the low growls of the hounds encircling their legs; the musty odor of the smoking carpet ahead of him still couldn’t return his focus to his surroundings.

Over time, Stephen had accepted the fact that a competent Master of the Mystic Arts needed to possess the ability to toss their worldly preconceptions out of a metaphorical window at a moment’s notice. If he had been unable to do so, his mind would have splintered the first time he set foot in a dimension where the forces of gravity didn’t exist. Because of his flexibility, he’d instead come to enjoy the one day per year he spent repairing temporal rifts in that particular realm, even if the Cloak of Levitation sulked for hours in a corner of the Sanctum after he touched down on Earth again.

Of course, there were a few threads of consistency holding the tangled skein of existence together. He ran through each truism in his head, repeating the familiar phrases like mantras during meditation: The multiverse is infinite. Thoughts shape reality. The soul stretches beyond the body.

But there is no coming back from death.

So, based on the universe’s rules, there’s no way that could have been Tony Stark.

Unless.

“I didn’t go to all this effort just to have you stare into the distance like a dullard, Strange. What would bring you back to us? Perhaps…”

The air around Stephen grew humid and heavy, like a thunderstorm was about to open over his head. Blinking furiously as a warm gust stung his face, he was greeted by the sight of the largest card table he’d ever laid eyes upon. The legs were thicker than his torso; its verdant top side was smooth and sleek, as though human hands had never made contact with it in decades. A crisp deck of cards was fanned into a perfect semi-circle in the center of the table.

Mephisto leaned back in the dealer’s seat, a smug grin stretched across his bony face as he beckoned towards two empty stools. “Am I worthy of your concentration now, Doctor?”

Stark isn’t here. Stay in the present.

“You might be if you call off the dogs.” A hellhound pressed against Stephen’s shin, its sandpapery skin tugging on his trouser leg. “If you’re going to try and intimidate me, be more creative.”  

“Then come and play as my guest.” The demon clenched his spindly fingers as Strange stepped forward. Before the dogs had the chance to whimper, the room echoed with grotesque squelching as their bodies decomposed to ash. Grainy particles whirled around Stephen before shooting towards their master’s outstretched hand. Zooming through the sweltering air, they grew dense and globular when they recombined with each other, creating a free-floating waterfall of scarlet liquid.    

His claws caressing a crystalline goblet as it caught the fresh, blood-red wine, Mephisto took a satisfied swig as Stephen sat before him. “You claim that we’re supposed to be equals, after all.”

“Okay…that’s a thing.” Turning his head over his shoulder, Strange saw that Peter’s face had gone a shade of white that he typically associated with sufferers of severe anemia. In observing his spasming breaths and fluttering eyelids, Stephen wasn’t entirely sure if the kid was on the verge of passing out or dashing a mile in the opposite direction. “Well, since you’re both busy, I’ll—"

“I haven’t forgotten you.” The host gestured towards the remaining empty seat. “Join us, Mr. Parker.” 

“Can I, um, choose not to?”

“If you’re willing to accept the consequences for being rude.”

“That’s…great.” The boy slunk towards the table, staring at the ground as he inched forward. “That’s, um, nice of you…cool cool cool, um, so…”

“See? A civil conversation between lesser forms is possible; I do enjoy the pliability of—"

“So, who else is gonna show up?” Twisting his hands together, Peter sucked in a large breath before daring to raise his head. “The Church Lady?”

Peter,” Stephen growled, “maybe now’s not the—"

 “—My aunt watches these really old SNL clips on YouTube all the time,” the teen talked over him as he hopped on to his seat, “ and I think you’d get a kick out of them, Mr. Devil, especially when Dana Carvey dresses up and is all like, ‘Saa-taaaan!’—”

Quiet, insect.” Mephisto scowled. “I desire to speak—”

“Then call me an arachnid, please.” A hint of color returned to Peter’s cheeks; the edges of his mouth upturned as bewilderment clouded the demon’s features. “Why do bad guys always have to call me a bug? It’s in the name: Spider-Man! Get it right, Satan.”

Massaging his temple, Mephisto let out a deep rumble of consternation. “You must be stronger than the rumors suggest, Strange, if you’re able to put up with this inane babbling.”

“I’m flattered, but it’s really as simple as learning how to tune it all out.”

 “Oh, thanks, Doc…” Peter huffed.

“Anytime, arachnid.” Stephen covered his mouth to hide his smirk before jumping back into the fray. “So, there’s already stories about me floating around? I’m surprised you’d deign to listen to them, Mephisto.”

“It’s no small matter to any being in the multiverse when a new Sorcerer Supreme arises. Frankly, it’s been centuries too long since I’ve had the pleasure of introducing myself to the title’s latest pretender.”

Mephisto shook his head, spilling his raven mane of hair over his shoulders. “I don’t mean to insult the memory of your predecessor; I enjoyed watching The Ancient One at work. She had an unscrupulous streak that I rather admired.” He scooped up the deck of cards, shuffling them carelessly as a wistful leer stole across his lips. “And I never met a more skilled poker player on any plane of existence.”

“Ugh, I’m starting to hate wizard titles,” Peter sighed. “Can someone explain the difference between an Ancient One and a Sorcerer Supreme? I thought you said she used to be the—”

“There was an Ancient One; she passed on her other mantle to the Doctor here after her life finally ended,” the demon drawled. “I think you could’ve figured that out yourself. Perhaps you should try listening to your superiors, Parker.”

Peter’s ears turned pink as he glared at the devil. “I’m smart enough to read between the lines. If we’ve got a new Sorcerer Supreme, something bad happened to the old one. Did you have anything to do with that, or do you just want to brag some more?”

Mephisto’s eyes glimmered with mirth as he snapped the cards together. “Tell our friend the story, Stephen. I’d be remiss to rely solely on the bizarre details I’ve heard. Is it true that she sacrificed herself to save you?” He pursed his lips. “Her choice makes a modicum of sense in hindsight, given everything that’s…recently transpired.”

Stephen inhaled, trying to keep the meager contents of his stomach from rising into his throat. Memories overcame him before he was prepared for their assault; he saw The Ancient One’s look of shock as Kaecilius’ dagger tore through her abdomen, he felt the dread course through his system when Thanos raised his makeshift dagger into Titan’s stagnant skies, he sensed the pressure rising in his chest as Stark reached out to take the Infinity Stones—

Stay in the present. He wants you to get trapped inside your own head—

“Don’t call me his friend.” Peter muttered, fury tinging his voice. “But congrats on the promotion, Strange.”

“My apologies for the confusion.” Mephisto simpered. His contented gaze flitted between the two quiet humans as he broke the deck of cards. “Shall we play a round in The Ancient One’s memory? Sorcerer Supreme, choose the game.”

Stephen balanced his chin on his knuckles, staring downwards as he tried to think coherently, tried not to let his hands fail him, tried not to waver against the ungoverned anger seething from Peter’s eyes—

It doesn’t matter what you think. I made the right choice. There was no other way, kid.

Unless… 

The wizard’s brows narrowed as he leaned over the table. “You get one hand of blackjack if you explain why we’re seeing visions of Tony Stark.”

Mephisto straightened and flicked two cards at Stephen. “You’re too literal for your own good.” The demon’s tongue brushed over his incisors. “He’s not a vision.”

Peter nearly dropped his cards right after picking them up. “Then he’s real? I told you—”

“A vision here doesn’t make up for a body on Earth.” Stephen interrupted, surprised at his own harshness. “There’s nobody in the entire universe that can bring people back."

“Spare me a lecture on what I can and can’t do, Strange!” With a venomous snarl, Mephisto flipped his first card over, revealing a singed Queen of Diamonds to the players. “You wizards are so disappointingly pessimistic; is it that hard to apply the logical conclusions to your order’s precious theories? If reality can be shaped by belief, it also has the capacity to be dominatable. That’s what makes it worthy paying attention to at all!”

“And what force could allow, let’s say, any random interdimensional demon worth his salt, to possess that control?” Stephen winced, pain cutting through his fingers as he raised his cards.

“It’s the people, isn’t it?” Peter slowly peered over his shoulder, his lips growing pale as he watched the hordes of shadowy figures on their ceaseless march through the casino. “They belong to you. That’s why you were able to…change them, right? They made—”

“Deals.” Mephisto nodded triumphantly. “All those you see here longed for trifles, in the tiny scheme of your lifespans. Riches. Stocks. Jewels. Land. And I was the only being willing to be there when they called from the halls of power, from the tenements, from the desert, from the pale moonlight. I made fantasies come true. For a time.” He surveyed his miserable subordinates with pride. “In taking my offers, they pledged themselves to my will; they are the dirt on which I forged my realm.”

“But you didn’t get to Stark in time.” Stephen was glad to see the demon twitch with visible irritation. “How could he be here?”

“That’s my one regret in the last century; he turned away from my path when he was getting intriguing. But I’m just strong enough to bring individuals in any state to me when they serve a purpose. Obviously.”

Mephisto raised a perfectly steady hand in front of Strange’s face. Thousands of shadowy grey beams snaked between his fingers and stretched down into the ground like a tree’s roots; they spread to the casino floor, each one connecting to a spectral figure. “See, my power allows me to tether my subjects between life and death. And should I will it, I can send any of these souls in either direction…provided that I receive recompense for their loss.”

Even as he edged away from Mephisto’s glowing palms, Peter’s face ignited with heart-aching hope. “…You’d bring Tony back?”

“Maybe you aren’t entirely brainless.” The strands of light surrounding the demon curdled into blackness. “Then I’ll be honest with you, Parker. Two souls would fill the void nicely.”

All three of them went deathly silent. Mephisto drummed his nails on the table; Peter frantically tore his fingers through his hair, his eyes widening by the second. Stephen kept his expression passive, even though his blood was rushing through his veins so fast that he felt dizzy.

Stop. Stop. STOP. Get a fucking grip on yourself. “Well…” He attempted to exhale. “Thank you, Mephisto.”

“For what?”

Stephen’s patience unraveled the instant Mephisto arched his eyebrow at him. “For confirming that you’re full of bullshit.”

At the same moment, every slot machine in the distance stopped spitting coins. The ground vibrated under Strange’s feet as each person on the casino floor behind him ground to a halt. Countless heads swiveled towards the game table; thousands of dead eyes, each pupil glistening with animalistic cruelty, trained in tandem upon the wizard.

“You had to go and tell him how you really feel…” Peter whispered in his ear. “Now, Mr. Devil here is going to get all smitey on our butts—"

“I hoped you would choose to play blackjack, Doctor Strange.” Mephisto spoke with an unnerving amount of calmness.

“What a surprise.” Stephen deadpanned. “You like games where the odds stay in the dealer’s favor.”

“Blackjack players are the most challenging individuals to go against. A good one recognizes the dealer is in control while knowing the percentages behind the cards; if they so desire, they can cheat those balances. Thus, they’re always convinced that they’re the smartest person in whatever room they occupy. Those are dangerous kinds of people, the ones who have blind certainty in their power.”

Mephisto flexed his shoulder muscles before continuing. “But you actually possess that level of ability…and I have to compliment you for it, because you’re living up to your most treacherous potential. You bring destruction to every world you visit—”

Strange tensed. “You said you’d only heard stories, not truths—"

 “—And your enemies have truly met the worst of ends at your hands: the zealot, Kaecilius? Willingly condemned to eternal torture in the Dark Dimension. The children of Thanos? Not merely defeated in battle, but razed to the ground on which they walked…”

“Stop talking.” Stephen knew what was coming, but this time, there was no promise of keeping it contained in his mind. “Don’t say another—"

 “…And you weren’t even Sorcerer Supreme before you managed to kill not one, but two bearers of the Infinity Stones.” 

His throat went completely dry.

It doesn’t matter what you think.

His hands quaked.

I made the right choice.

His eyes stung.

There was no other way.

The familiar excuses had never sounded so useless to Stephen before.

“You think I’m a demon. But I’m here to help.” Mephisto reached out and raised Strange’s head, his talon digging roughly into the underside of the sorcerer’s chin. “I’ve bestowed a gift upon you, wizard: wouldn’t you like to use your power to do something good, for once in your selfish life—”

The spell shot up Strange’s arm with a swiftness that frightened him; Mephisto howled as he was thrown backwards by a concussive blast of red energy. Peter shouted, leaping to safety as the table exploded into shards. Pieces of ripped cards floated in the air; the room stank with the musk of charred wood.

 “I know I killed Tony Stark,” Stephen panted, struggling against waves of exhaustion and nausea. “But you don’t have the power to change that fact. Nobody does.”

“It’s to be a challenge, then…” Caressing his crooked jaw, Mephisto laughed as he lounged amid the rubble. “You thrill me, Stephen.”

He raised his free hand into the air. Shade descended upon the whole casino; Mephisto’s eyes glowed red before he disappeared into the twilight. As the light vanished, the atmosphere began churning with new sounds, the gentle tinkling of the machines replaced by ominous crunching, inhuman growls, and the snapping of sharpened teeth.

His heart filling with alarm, Stephen formed a mandala of illumination in the darkness. The pelts of the new swarm of hellhounds shimmered like an oil slick upon the sea at midnight.

“Hey, Doc…” Peter called as the army charged. “What happened to not doing anything stupid?”

Chapter Text

From the beginning of his crime-fighting career, Peter’s least favorite part about stakeouts had always been the German Shepherds. Whether he happened to be tracking tech thieves, drug smugglers, or, on one extremely odd occasion, the ringmaster of a traveling circus, it seemed to him that there was some sort of unspoken law that required all criminals in the Tri-State area to guard their bases with a squad of the trained dogs.

If these people kept any other type of canines, Peter wouldn’t have had a problem with confronting their hounds; he firmly considered himself to be a dog person, especially after he’d spent the majority of fifth grade begging for a puppy. May had refused—the apartment they lived in at the time was far too small—but Ben took him uptown to a dog park every Saturday for a month to make it up to him. While there, he’d gotten the opportunity to meet nearly every type of dog imaginable; a few of their owners had even let him play with their pets while they got coffee. Now, he couldn’t pass a pit bull on the street without smiling at the memory of Ben lying flat on his back in the tall grass as a young grey pup enthusiastically slobbered all over his face.

But Peter had never warmed up to German Shepherds. When he encountered one on a leash in daylight, he still instinctively attempted to find the closest possible crosswalk. He knew it was a completely irrational fear, especially to someone who leapt off skyscrapers every night of the week. However, he would swear in court that Shepherds could sense him sneaking past them; whenever he had to swing or crawl over their heads, they always stood at eerily prescient attention, their pointy ears twitching at his slightest movement.

He always breathed a huge sigh of relief after he successfully crept past a pack of the dogs, both to calm himself down and to fight off the inevitable lightheadedness he experienced after forgetting to inhale for an extended period of time. Fortunately, he had yet to get into an actual fight with any German Shepherd; a few hours ago, he would have said that he would prefer to never get into an actual fight with a German Shepherd.

Crying out as his back slammed into a terribly solid marble pillar, Peter decided that he would willingly jump into a pit full of hungry German Shepherds if it meant that he would never have to stare into the maw of a snarling hellhound again.

“Stay—back, Fluffy!” His head swam as he caught one of the beasts with an outstretched hand; he managed to push it back into the horde biting at his shredded pant legs just as another dog’s claws started tearing at his waist. “Wait your turn, Pongo, you’re going down, too—!”

“Hellhounds do not need names!” Doctor Strange yelled from the other side of the hallway; the sizzling gold spell-whip in his hands provided just enough light for Peter to see his eyes roll. “You better not be trying to adopt one of these damn things—"

“Contrary to popular belief—get off, Wishbone!—I’m not an idiot; none of these things are exactly up to Lassie’s standards!” He retorted. “I’m just trying not to get my throat torn out—”

“—And giving them names is how you’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen to either of us?” Strange swung his weapon, managing to clear a few dogs from his vicinity; more animals immediately jumped through the throng to take their places. “Fantastic, I feel safer already!”

“If you’ve got a plan to survive, Mister Genius-who-got-us-into-this-mess,” Peter growled, kicking out against another hellhound with enough force to send it flying uncontrollably, “I might consider listening!”

“You said you’re supposed to be an arachnid? Maybe try—rrgh!” The wizard stumbled as the soaring dog’s flailing talons grazed the side of his head before it tumbled back to the ground; falling to one knee, he barely managed form a shield before the hounds pounced. “Fuck!”

“Sorry!” Peter gasped. “That was an accident, I swear! I kick hard!”

Strange sent him a fiery glare from behind his crackling mandala and pointed at the towering column behind the teen. “…Maybe try going up and looking for a way out of here, Spider-Man?!

“That’s…actually, that’s not terrible!” Raising his palms above his head, Peter grabbed the edges of the pillar and swung his torso upwards. His sweat-drenched hair flopped in his eyes as he rolled into a crouch on the side of the colonnade; he then climbed skywards, savoring the taste of air that didn’t reek of drool. “You thinking of trying to get back upstairs? Maybe I can hotwire the Great Glass Elevator so that it won’t come down after we get out of here; it can’t be that different from a regular—"

Peter’s grip on the pillar slipped when he locked eyes on the vaulting archway through which they had entered the casino. “Um, hate to break it to you, Doc, but we’re not leaving the way we came in; they’ve got the exit covered…”

“With what?”

“…Reinforcements.” He gulped, jaw quivering as he stared at the relentless crush of hellhounds fighting their way through the entrance. The dogs remorselessly roared and chomped at each other’s limbs in their haste to storm the floor; they reminded him of starved hyenas eager to gorge upon a fresh carcass. He sensed the now-familiar terror expanding in his gut each second he watched the violent tumult. “Oh God, what do we do, what do we do, what do we—”

“If Mephisto says I’m capable of it…”

“Say what now?” Peter’s gaze swiveled back towards Strange. “You’re not going to blow up a roulette wheel this time, are you?”

“I’m going to cheat.” The sorcerer’s resolute eyes flitted towards the glass ceiling. “Watch your head...”

“Do you have to be so mysterious?!” Peter shouted as the Doctor rose to both his feet. “Why don’t you just tell me—"

Strange raised a splayed palm above his head; coils of electric blue energy exploded from his fingertips and shot towards the starless skies. The incandescent beams struck the casino roof and melted into the glass.

Peter heard brittle cracking before fractures erupted across the once-stainless surface; he covered his ears as the awning splintered into thousands of shining shards. For a moment, the debris hovered in the air, glowing like diamonds against the twilight; on the ground, the hellhounds recoiled, mewling as they edged away from the sorcerer at the center of the powerful spell.

His shoulders straining with effort, Strange pulled every floating fragment towards the ground, his fingers dancing as they tumbled through the air. As they came closer to the carpet, the pieces began to meld together once again; staggering as one last flash of energy flowed from his hands, he threw a jagged glass wall between himself and the cowering dogs.

“…Wow.” The whisper slipped out before Peter could close his mouth; he immediately felt upset for giving the wizard a semblance of praise. You can do something as amazing as that, but you couldn’t save—

“You were saying something about making an exit, kid?” Strange flew up to meet him on the side of the pillar, forming an iridescent orb around himself as he ascended. By the time he reached Peter, the circle was almost closed; there was just enough room for another person to jump inside.

“Not in that thing!” He exclaimed, drawing backwards as far as he could manage. “I’d rather—"

He was drowned out by a piercing crunch coming from the ground; the dogs’ bloodshot eyes were trained upon him and the Doctor as they hurled their lean bodies against the barrier. Their backs crested, pelts rupturing as bony, bat-like wings unwound and flapped—  

“Screw what I just said!” Peter hollered, springing into the confines of the ball. “Let’s move, Glinda!”

He struggled to get traction on the slippery, translucent surface underneath his feet as Strange sent them zooming towards the open roof. Dropping onto his hands and knees to fight the churning in his stomach, he watched helplessly as a swarm of hounds pelted after them, cutting through the air like bullets straight out of a shotgun’s barrel. His pulse hammered with fear as razor-sharp claws stretched towards him, and Peter instead tried to focus on the wreckage of the destroyed game table—

Far below the chase, holding his hands behind his back, Mephisto smiled gloatingly at Peter before slinking back into the shadows.

“Almost—there!” Strange grunted; the incandescence from the spell highlighted the haggard desperation on his features. “I can make it…”

The hellhounds nipped at the edge of the orb—

And Peter and the Doctor were floating together in the quiet night skies. Their feet hovered centimeters above the wiry remnants of the casino ceiling; beneath them, the hellhounds growled resentfully, their jet-black wings flapping at the edges of the net of thin white flames separating the hunters from their prey.  

“My suit!” Peter grinned, thrilled to see the tight sleeves of his threadbare jacket fade away, leaving him back in his familiar red-and-blue costume. “Does this mean we’re close to heading—"

His mouth ran dry when he gazed out over the desolate landscape beneath them. Crimson clouds gathered behind the range of coal-colored mountains looming on the horizon. Enormous, spindly buildings stood tall behind the peaks; their twisted spires punctured the fog like knives carving through flesh. The ground underneath the structures rotated in opposing loops to the earth under the bluffs, moving both terrains just fast enough for the skies in the farthest distance to blacken to a shade murkier than soot.

Peter was immediately certain he never wanted to approach that darkness.

“I suspect it means we’ve exchanged one circle of hell for another.” If Strange, now clad in his own midnight-blue tunic, felt any similar dread, he gave no sign of it as he squinted towards the mountain range. “Hold on, I think I see a cave…”

“Whatever you say, Doc…” With a tired moan, Peter flipped onto his back and squeezed his eyes shut as they sailed away from the brightly lit casino. “…But make sure it doesn’t have any German Shepherds hiding inside, okay?”

***

Somewhere in the cave, water dripped steadily and splashed into a still pond; to Peter, the trickling sounded as loud as chainsaws buzzing outside of his bedroom window. He buried his head in his chest, trying to remember if May’s far-too-cheerful yogi had said he was supposed to exhale through his nose or his mouth to find a calming breath. At the time, he’d found the whole experience of being trapped with his aunt in Thursday-night vinyasa to be hilarious; he and Ned spent most of the next day at school coming up with ridiculous names for yoga poses.

Six months later, when he found himself struggling to stand on a silent street corner without being overwhelmed by his newly sharpened hearing and vision and smell and touch, he wished he’d paid more attention when the teacher had been droning on about inhales and exhales.

Eventually, he’d learned how to fine-tune most of the overload, but he still felt embarrassed whenever his senses decided to leave him curled up in a shaking, wheezing huddle. He couldn’t bear it if anybody he cared about found him in this condition; Ned would start shooting off solutions from Google as fast as he could type them, and May would march him straight to the closest ER. He’d only told one other person about how bad the strain could get, and it had been one of the scariest moments of his life, waiting to hear what his idol would say about—  

“Hey, I get it, Pete.” Sparks whizzed across Tony’s stainless-steel workbench as he welded a new chip into one of the eyepieces on Peter’s mask. “The inside of my helmet drives me batshit crazy if I keep it on for too long; sometimes, I just start talking it out to whoever’s on the other line with me because it’s the only thing I can do.” He smirked. “Not gonna lie, kid, I kind of enjoy it more if that person happens to be an asshole. It means I have absolutely no regrets about giving them just as bad a headache as mine.”

Peter craned his neck towards the cave’s other occupant.

Yeah, I think he meets your qualifications, Tony.

“I gotta say, Strange…” Peter said, finally exhaling. “Traveling by bubble looked like a way better experience when it was in 2D and in Technicolor.”

“Then I wasn’t hearing things.” Leaning against the rocky wall, Strange winced as he gingerly touched the trio of furious red gashes above his right eyebrow. “You have seen at least one film made before 1977; I figured Star Wars had to be your cinematic cutoff point.”

“I…” The dripping ricocheted back in his ears. Aren’t I supposed to be the one annoying you?

The Doctor’s lip curled, creasing the line of dried blood streaked down his cheek. “Oh, did I find the off switch?”

“No, we’re not doing the Waldorf and Statler routine right now!” Peter snapped, jumping back to his feet in a fit of frustration. “I thought if we made it out, we’d be closer to Earth, not to…well, whatever that is out there.”

“Just because we escaped the casino doesn’t mean—” He pushed himself from his perch when a smile crept on to the teen’s face. “Hello? Earth to Peter?" 

“We’ve both got our gear, right? We can get back to our dimension in two seconds!” Peter exclaimed, feeling as though he’d just tossed a six-ton weight from his shoulders. “You can use your magic portal thingamabob—”

“The term you’re searching for is a sling ring.”

“You know what I mean!” He pressed in his unbridled, freeing excitement. “Now, we can hop through the door to Earth and go meet May and Wong in the Sanctum, right?”

“In theory. I…didn’t get my ring back. Mephisto knocked it off me when I was facing him in your apartment.” Strange refused to meet his gaze. “It’s probably still lying on your kitchen floor.”

Peter turned away from the Doctor in cold, deflated silence. “Can’t I get stranded somewhere cool, for once?” He grumbled under his breath. “Like, what about Mars? Mars could be fun—”

“Just as long as there aren’t Martians waiting to lay eggs in your chest, I suppose.”

“—But not only do I always get stuck with you, for some stupid reason, we end up in places where I’m getting my ribs punched in by purple alien megalomaniacs or tackled by the devil’s hellhounds! I—” He stopped when the wizard’s eyes widened, giving him the appearance of someone who’d just been rattled by a loud clap of thunder. “…I don’t like the look on your face, Doc.”  

"There’s one more way to open a portal.” Strange’s voice was hoarse. “I can’t believe I’m considering doing this...”

Peter’s brow furrowed in confusion as the sorcerer started pacing the cave. “You just said that we couldn’t without the ring."

“It’s not impossible; it just become extremely difficult to do.” Strange frowned, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Traveling between realms is not a simple magic at all; you’re tearing a literal hole in the fabric of time and space to get from point A to point B, which means—”

“That you’re expelling a massive amount of energy back into the universe; it’s Newton’s worst nightmare.” Peter nodded, relived to be crossing back somewhat into the world of science. “So, if I’m getting this right, a sling ring controls the output of force generated by the creation of the portal so that a Harry Potter wannabe doesn’t blow up a pocket dimension by accident.”

“Smartly put, save for the references.” The beginnings of a grin ghosted across the Doctor’s face before he reverted back to his typical, intimidating stoicism. “Of course, not every sorcerer has been open to letting their magic be contained; you can get yourself farther across the multiverse if you’re willing to ignore the laws of physics. Centuries ago, one of these nameless practitioners created a spell which allows the caster to manipulate temporal dimensional energy to manually open a portal themselves and bypass the sling ring entirely.”

“I’m assuming it didn’t end well for him?”

“Let’s just say he should’ve written down his name before trying to cast said spell.” Strange said darkly. “Nobody’s been idiotic enough to use it since because the incantation requires a vast amount of power to invoke correctly; you have to be in the place where the realm’s energies are at their absolute strongest levels to do it. So…” He trailed off, his fingers flexing around his wrists. “To generate a bridge between hell and Earth, we’d first have to travel through the remaining circles to get to Mephisto’s stronghold in—"

“The ninth circle of hell.” Peter finished; the blood seeped from his face as he thought back to the ominous, threatening shadows lingering beyond the edges of the city outside of the cave. 

“I understand if you don’t want to try it. But I don’t think we have another option open to us.”

Peter’s lips pinched together; he tried not to let the frenetic beating of his heart send his other senses into overdrive. “There’s always just one way with you, isn’t there?” 

“Giving out fair odds has never been any universe’s specialty, kid. The sooner you learn to deal with what you get, the better.” The wizard clenched his palms into fists, halting the start of another tremor in his fingers. “Any questions before we get started?”

“Well…to be honest, I have about seven million.” He glanced towards the entrance of the cave. “But since Mephisto could drop by at any minute, I think we should head out—”

Strange swooped in front of him before he could take a single step. “Not without getting a few rules straight.”

“Are you really pulling rank on me?” Peter’s cheeks reheated with indignation. “I knowI’m not the Sorcerer Supreme, but—"

“You’re not arguing with me on this. I promised your aunt that you’d come back alive.” The wizard hesitated, lips wavering for a split second. “I’m not breaking my word to her.”

“Okay, I get the picture.” Peter sighed. “But only because I know nobody should ever be on May’s bad side if they want to stay in one piece.”

“Trust me, I understand what you mean.” Peter could’ve sworn he saw the Sorcerer Supreme shiver as he spoke.

“My sympathies.” He smirked, hoping May had given Strange the treatment she usually reserved for Time Warner reps over the phone. “So, what’s rule one?”

“Rule one,” the Doctor continued, quickly regaining his composure, “if we’re in a fight and I tell you to leave me behind, you run. You keep running, even if I don’t follow. You do not try to be a hero on my behalf. I can handle what’s being thrown at me.”

“Understood; we gotta keep May happy. And point two?”

“You don’t take any deal from Mephisto on your own.”

“Not even if he can bring—"

The wizard’s eyebrows narrowed into threatening darts. “No matter what he tries to offer you.”

“But…” Peter stammered underneath his scrutiny. “…Er, that seems doable.”

“Good. Now, we can go—” He had barely turned when the teen seized him by the shoulder; his eyes flashed at the red-gloved palm holding him firmly in place. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I didn’t say yes, Strange.” Peter swallowed, glancing down at his boots. “And I’m not agreeing to your rules unless…unless you agree to one of mine.”

“…Which is?”

Peter summoned every ounce of courage he possessed before he raised his chin and stared levelly at Strange. “If we get the chance to bring Tony back home with us, we take it. Even if we have to fight Mephisto for him.”

Neither of them moved; the stream of water trickled in between the all-consuming stillness.

Fine.” Strange shrugged Peter’s hand off, his expression intractable as he stalked towards the front of the cave. “But just because I’m complying with your terms doesn’t mean you should get your hopes up.”

Peter remained frozen, feeling completely dazed in the wake of his victory. The dripping noise from the back of the grotto steadily became less overwhelming to him as one conviction sped through his brain:

I’m coming to get you, Tony.

I’m going to be the one to save you.

“Mind getting out here sometime today, Peter?”

He hurried outside after the wizard, considerably more eager to begin the upcoming journey. “Where to next? We don’t have to use the bubble, right?”

“No.” Strange pointed downwards at a rocky path that started at the foot of the mountain; it stretched in the direction of the city’s towering edifices. “We follow the yellow brick road.”