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Tiresome heart, forever living and dying

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A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

 

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

 

*

 

Stephen wasn’t sure what it was that had brought him back to this particular pond. Wasn’t sure what had caught his attention in the first place. His parents always said that he was too curious for his own good, and he often wandered much further from their home than any of the other cranes. He was scolded often these days, unable to return before he was missed since he had begun traveling to other continents, most recently North America. Stephen felt bad for causing his family so much worry, even driving his mother to tears once or twice. He’d tried sticking close by, and had managed for a couple of weeks even. But his wanderlust, his curiosity, his desire to know that itched beneath his skin and surged through his veins couldn’t keep him complacent for very long. The celestial fields might be fascinating to anyone who hadn’t grown up there, but Stephen found the earthly realm much more interesting.

 

He shook his head and dove beneath the surface of the pond. The glide through the water was a cool and refreshing break from the muggy summer heat that plagued the middle of the United States. Swimming usually cleared his unhappy thoughts, at least for a little while. He was only a child, after all, and he distracted himself easily by attempting to dart after the tiny fish that inhabited the water. Too small for him to eat, and anyway his feather robe was hidden on the shore; raw, squirming food was never as appealing when he was a naked, human boy.

 

Stephen yelped when something unexpectedly brushed against his bare skin, thrashing to the surface and coughing up the little bit of water he inhaled. His sputtering and hacking turned into laughter when a frog swam by, croaking grumpily. He might only be able to understand the speech of birds, but he could imagine what the amphibian was saying.

 

Something rustled in the undergrowth, and he stopped laughing abruptly, breath caught in his throat. His heart beat wildly. He shouldn’t have come back. Not after last time, when he’d felt like he was being watched. 

 

A rabbit darted from its hiding place. Stephen sighed in relief and sagged in the water, abruptly deciding that he’d stay just a bit longer before flying home. It was time he moved on, anyway. He’d find somewhere new to explore, where he didn’t jump at shadows.

 

Stephen dove back into the water, so young still that his nerves were easily washed away and forgotten. He only realized that the area around him had grown silent, birds no longer exchanging news, when he began to wade to shore. By then, it was too late. He saw the man standing there, watching him. Waiting for him. 

 

With a surge of terror Stephen couldn’t hide, he saw that the human held his robe of feathers in his hands. He froze, like prey before a predator.

 

“What’s your name, boy?”

 

He hesitated. “Stephen.” His gaze flickered up to the man’s face, but he couldn’t tear his attention away from his robe for more than an instant at a time.

 

“Come here, Stephen.”

 

Stephen obeyed, helpless to do otherwise. He shivered with cold and fear both, as he slowly made his way out of the pond. “That’s mine,” he murmured, fingers itching to grab his robe. This wasn’t happening. This didn’t happen, not to chicks. It was the adults that had to be careful, that sometimes got trapped without their feather skins. That’s how the tales go.

 

The man hummed, his only acknowledgment that he had spoken. “You’ll do. I’m Eugene Strange, and you will be my son.”

 

“No!” Stephen snapped and dove for his feathered robe, kicking and scratching when he was caught around the waist, screaming all the while. He wouldn’t! He wouldn’t let him!

 

“Enough!” the man shouted, giving him a shake.

 

Stephen twisted and bit the arm that held him, hissing when he was dropped to the ground. Before he could spring again he shrieked - in pain this time - and fell limp to the ground, gasping for breath and sobbing. It felt like his nerves were on fire.

 

He whimpered as he looked up at the man and saw the white feather pinched between thumb and forefinger. Stephen trembled. This Eugene Strange had plucked a healthy feather from his skin. That…that wasn’t allowed. Outside of molting it was forbidden to pluck healthy feathers from someone else’s skin. It was a deep-seated, agonizing pain Stephen had never felt before, and this human had just...just done it. And looked ready to do it again.

 

He went limp, wishing his mama or papa were here to protect him. 

 

The man hauled him back up to his feet with one hand and said, “Your name is Stephen Strange now.”

 

 

It starts like this. They finally defeat Thanos. The landscape is pockmarked and destroyed from battle. The universe is set to rights. The vanished have returned.

 

Now that the battle is over, Tony hugs Peter in the way he’d wanted to and had been unable to in the middle of the fighting. Peter clings back, shaking as he comes down from the adrenaline. As it registers that he’s okay. That they’re both okay, when the last memory that the kid had before reappearing in battle was his terrified pleading to stay as he faded to dust.

 

Then Tony looks up and over Peter’s shoulder, and his gaze lands on the blue and red figure of the wizard. Dr. Stephen Strange. The man who had set them on this path of agony and horror…of victory. In the beginning, he had spent weeks – months, maybe – hating him for what he’d done, obsessed with why he’d done it.

 

But his hatred has spent itself. Has given way to understanding, to curiosity. To intrigue. He’s angry still, and hurting, but he doesn’t blame Strange anymore.

 

He watches Strange, who doesn’t make eye contact with anyone. The wizard slips away as everyone around him celebrates and greets lost loved ones. Tony’s heart twists in his chest.

 

Peter’s arms loosen and Tony looks down at him.

 

“Aunt May,” the kid begins, blinking away tears.

 

“Have Karen call her,” says Tony. “Your aunt’s been worried sick.”

 

Peter’s expression brightens, even as he cringes at the thought of the scolding he will no doubt receive. He steps away to make the call.

 

Tony glances back to where he’d last seen the wizard, but he’s already disappeared.

 

He thinks, then, of that big empty museum in Greenwich Village. Really thinks, for the first time, freed from his desperate, single-minded focus, about watching more than 14 million failures, uglier and more violent than this one win. Thinks of the torture that came before, the fight on a dead planet after, and standing alone with bare, shaking hands against the might of a Titan and four Infinity Stones, knowing exactly how it must end. Thinks of that last indescribable look before the surrender to dust.

 

Rhodey slaps him on the back and throws an arm across his shoulders, jarring Tony from his contemplation.

 

But he doesn’t forget. It isn’t something he can let go.

 

Or maybe it starts earlier.

 

Jogging in the park, knowing he’s lying even as he promises normalcy and no more surprises. They’re both trying, he and Pepper, but the tentative wedding date keeps being pushed back, and plans are coming along so slowly. Even he knows it’s probably a bad idea, trying to use an engagement to salvage their relationship. God knows why Pepper goes along with it, but she can’t break away either.

 

Love was never the problem. But he thinks, sometimes, that they were never meant to push that far into a romantic relationship.

 

As if on cue, Tony’s empty promises are interrupted by a sparking, glowing portal. His breath catches, at either the man or his mode of transportation, he doesn’t know. Tall and slender, distinguished silver streaks at his temples, pronounced cheekbones, posture confident bordering on arrogant, and he shouldn’t look so…competent…powerful in those robes and that ridiculous cape.

 

Magic has never boded well for him, and he’s braced for an attack, muscles tense, heart beating too quick. If Bruce hadn’t come up behind the man – Dr. Stephen Strange; the name and face actually are a little familiar, but he can’t remember from where – Tony wonders if he would have forced him through the portal regardless.

 

He doesn’t like to think that he might have followed of his own free will, whether from curiosity or something else altogether.

 

Perhaps it starts on a ship hurtling through space.

 

Face to face, close enough to see the way the wizard’s eyes almost glow blue in the light of the stars, and Tony can’t look away from the sheer intensity of his gaze. Beautiful, flickers through his thoughts, too quickly for him to grasp.

 

Tony bites off a shout, grasping desperately for a façade of calm, or at least competence. He expects Strange to dismiss him. To insist on his own way.

 

Instead, he bends. He listens despite the fear and the stress and the pain he must be feeling, and he compromises. Makes his own position very clear.

 

Tony wrenches himself away from Strange’s orbit. He isn’t comfortable exposing his vulnerability. His emotions.

 

He fears that Strange can see right through him, and there is a secret part of himself that wants that.

 

 *

 

Stephen had been surprised to realize that the man had a wife. There had been an ember of hope, then – that she’d be kind, that she could free him or convince her husband to return his robe. But that ember had been quickly snuffed out. The wife, Beverly Strange, had been very quiet and timid. For a time, Stephen had thought maybe Eugene had taken and hidden her skin, too, and that was why she was so obedient. She acted a bit like Aunt Chunhua, who had only just found her stolen cloak and escaped her husband a few months before. Maybe they could help each other?

 

But, no. He learned quickly that no one would help him.

 

Stephen had to be good if he wanted his robe back, the man would say. He had to obey. There were a lot of rules to being human. And a lot more rules to living in the Stranges’ house.

 

He tried, but he always seemed to get into trouble, without ever meaning to. 

 

He had to say that Eugene and Beverly were his mother and father. He couldn’t tell people that he wasn’t human. He had to remember that he was seven years old. He couldn’t talk about eating frogs or insects, or about flying. He couldn’t get into fights with people who said ignorant things about Japanese culture, or Chinese culture, and he couldn’t say anything about living anywhere outside of the United States. He had to use a fork or a spoon, depending on the food, any foreign accent had to be suppressed, his culture and heritage were forbidden, and magic didn’t exist. 

 

There was so much he wasn’t allowed to say or do. So much he had to remember, and that wasn’t including school. On Stephen’s back, where people never saw, were scars from a belt. A few faint scars marked the backs of his hands that people did see, but were easily explained away. Most of them were from when he was caught trying to look for his robe. Otherwise, his ‘father’ was better about not leaving evidence.

 

One year after his robe had been stolen, his ‘parents’ had a daughter. Mostly, Stephen was relieved. They would pay less attention to him. Maybe, now that they had their own child, the man would let him go. 

 

He didn’t hold his breath.

 

He snuck out to the barn around 3:00 in the morning, once his ‘parents’ had woken to feed a crying Donna and then passed out again. It was the last room he had to scour before he would need to figure out how to check whether his robe had been buried somewhere.

 

He burrowed through hay, tapped on wood and listened for hollow spaces, examined every inch of the barn and found a small crawlspace in the roof. Nearly choking on hope, he lifted himself into the rafters and wriggled in, gaze darting around eagerly. His heart sank, tears welling in his eyes upon finding nothing but dirt and cobwebs. He clawed at all of the dark corners of the space where the moonlight didn’t reach, and received only splinters and filth-encrusted nails. 

 

Stephen collapsed on his back, overwhelmed with hopelessness for long minutes. Tears slid silently from the corners of his eyes and into his dark hair, white streaks faithfully dyed by his ‘mother’ at the command of his ‘father’. He wanted his mama and papa so badly it hurt. Desperately wanted his home, and his family, and regretted the curiosity and restlessness that had driven him away from them. Once he got back, he would never again leave their grounds, their flock. This was what he got for disobeying. For going alone and far away.

 

Once the tears stopped, he sat up, swiped an arm across his face, and carefully climbed back down to the ground. It wasn’t impossible yet. The birds were keeping an eye out, and they would tell him if they saw his robe, or if they saw his ‘father’ going anywhere regularly or somewhere unusual. He would find new places to search, could examine the land around the house for disturbed areas if the man had decided to bury his robe. It wasn’t over. It wouldn’t be, not until his robe was returned or – he shuddered – destroyed, and Stephen with it. 

 

He leaped lightly to the ground, and then stumbled back, heart racing in shock and panic. The dark, hulking shape waiting for him resolved itself into his ‘father’. They stared at each other in silence. No lie Stephen could scrape up would be believed, and he knew it.

 

Eugene Strange closed the distance and clipped the side of Stephen’s head hard enough that he stumbled again and his ears rang. “Get to bed,” he said dispassionately and turned his back to leave, expecting to be obeyed immediately. Without question.

 

Almost shaking with rage and fear, Stephen obeyed.

 

The next morning he woke to a stifling heat and the faint smell of smoke. A warbler outside his window trilled softly, “Careful, careful. Be careful, fledgling.”

 

“Too well. He hid too well,” its mate chirped. “We didn’t see.”

 

“We don’t know,” the first bird sang again. “Be wary.”

 

Stephen clenched his hands into fists and tried to push away the fear that constricted his throat. He sped through his morning routine, slowing down just before he reached the stairs, and managed to descend with something approximating normalcy.

 

Despite comfortable temperatures outside, Stephen noticed right away that a fire had been lit in the living room fireplace. That was an incidental detail, however. It was Eugene Strange who caught his full attention, sitting in his armchair.

 

And the feather robe in his lap.

 

Stephen couldn’t tear his gaze away, and it burned to give away this weakness, no matter how intimately his ‘father’ knew it. He wanted at least a façade of…not indifference. But not glaring, outright desire for this missing, vulnerable piece of himself.

 

Give it back, his entire body screamed. A part of Stephen hoped that this meant that he was letting him go. That he was too much trouble to keep. To train. That now that they had a child of their own flesh and blood, they no longer needed him.

 

But he knew better. He was young, a child still, but he wasn’t an idiot.

 

“Come here, son,” the man said blandly, as if he didn’t know that the appellation burned.

 

Stephen gritted his teeth and attempted to keep up a similar emotionless expression as he approached. He’d had quite a bit of practice, but he had no doubt that his ‘father’ saw right through it.

 

“I’m getting tired of your stubbornness,” he began. “I could understand your initial defiance, and appreciate how difficult the transition was, learning to become part of a more civilized household.”

 

Stephen choked and sucked in a breath to scream in fury as he shifted closer, barely holding himself back from just attacking, as ineffective as that had proved.

 

His ‘father’ held his robe out towards the blazing fire and Stephen froze, entire body shaking.

 

“But it’s been nearly a year, and I’ve had just about enough of your deceitful nature, boy. It’s about time you accepted your place and everything that comes with it. You are my son. My legacy. A reflection of me. Try to disobey me, to lie to me, to find ways around my expectations, and I will be forced to compel you.”

 

Those last two words were resonant with the power that bound Stephen to his robe, and Eugene Strange’s mastery over both entities. The child’s knees buckled and hit the ground hard.

 

“Continue to defy me, and there will be further consequences.”

 

He shifted the robe of feathers even closer to the fire, just close enough to singe feathers, and Stephen arched and fell forward in a futile attempt to escape the burning pain across his back. He moaned, tears slipping from eyes clenched shut.

 

“Alright,” he sobbed. “Alright.” The burning intensified, and he shrieked, “Father!”

 

The pain faded, reduced to a dull ache. The air was still and quiet, but for Stephen’s harsh panting. The wail of a baby – of Donna – seemed to bring the world back into focus.

 

“Don’t be late for school, Stephen,” his father ordered as he left with Stephen’s robe. “And clean yourself up.”

 

Stephen continued lying limp on the floor and listened to the truck pull out of the driveway.

 

“Sorry,” said every bird that he asked, every bird that tried to help. “Sorry. Don’t know. Couldn’t see. Sorry, fledgling”

 

*

 

Tony gives it a week before he shows up on the steps of the Sanctum. The doors swing open after a long moment, seemingly of their own accord. “Creepy,” he mutters, taking a hesitant step inside and wondering if this is a literal haunted house. Then he sees the sentient Cloak peek out at him from behind the door. “Hey, Red,” Tony says with a grin. 

 

The Cloak shuts the door behind him, and he wonders, “What do you do when it’s the delivery boy?”

 

The twist and ripple of red fabric could mean anything. It does perk up at the sound of booted steps on hardwood floors. Tony will deny doing the same as the two of them shift to face the approaching sorcerer.

 

Stephen’s purposeful stride falters on seeing who waits in his foyer. Some emotion cracks his detached facade. Confusion, maybe, or surprise. Something like that. Tony doesn’t know him well enough yet to say for certain, but he intends to. He intends to learn everything about this man. It will take effort and uncharacteristic patience, he knows that right off the bat. Something about Stephen Strange – the press of his lips, the sharpness in his pale eyes, the subtle tension in his stance – puts Tony in mind of a cornered animal. Distrusting, wary, and braced for hurt, ready to lash out, and balanced for either fight or flight.

 

But Tony is accustomed to getting his own way. Once he commits himself, he doesn’t back down. If patience is required then so be it.

 

“Stark,” the sorcerer greets. “Can I help you?”

 

“Call me Tony,” he says with a grin. “Battling side by side for the fate of the universe sort of renders formalities superfluous, don’t you think Stephen?”

 

The look on his face says that he very much doesn’t agree, but Tony continues before he can say anything. Stephen is only going to try his best to push him away. To put up insurmountable barriers and keep everyone at a distance while he locks himself away. Tony knows that song and dance. It’s like looking in a warped mirror, and he refuses to be scared off.

 

“You look like shit, Merlin,” he says, abruptly serious. There’s a long cut disappearing into his hairline that has just barely scabbed over. Streaks of dried blood and a smear of red on white hair make it look worse than it is, although Tony had nearly had a heart attack before realizing that. Stephen looks gaunt, cheekbones sharper than ever, with dark circles beneath his eyes that make them look bruised. Despite the robes hiding his figure, Tony can still tell that he’s lost weight he couldn’t afford to lose. Based on the way he holds himself, the inventor is willing to bet that there are more injuries than he can see.

 

Stephen glowers. “Don’t call me that. If you’re just here to pick a fight, then I suggest you return at a more convenient time. Say, never?”

 

Tony ignores him. “It’s only been a week since Thanos. What have you been doing to yourself?” He regrets his hasty words when his companion flinches, brilliant eyes going unfocused and hazy. He’s never had much practice with being gentle, but right now he wishes he did. Stephen probably wouldn’t accept it yet, but Tony thinks he needs gentleness. 

 

“Some of us have responsibilities,” the sorcerer snarls, and it’s Tony’s turn to flinch.

 

He bites back his sudden surge of anger. Tony is suffering too, hurting and haunted by nightmares of Thanos. Of everything he could have done better and everything he lost. But his fury wouldn’t serve anything right now, except to play right into Stephen’s hands.

 

They’re too similar in some ways, the sorcerer and the mechanic. A fight between them sparked by hurt and fed by bitterness would be like one of his old Jericho missiles. Destructive, triggering, and far too personal, with shrapnel that dug deep as the two of them bled out everywhere. Stephen is in no shape to withstand such an altercation right now, and Tony doesn’t think he is either.

 

So Tony claws for the calm that would have been impossible even a few years ago. Grits his teeth and breaths for a moment before sighing. He won’t let Stephen push him away, and he won’t let him isolate himself.

 

Stephen’s expression is always so hard to read. It might be Tony’s imagination, but he thinks he sees remorse flicker in iridescent eyes, and it’s enough to calm him further. 

 

“And by that you mean...” Tony says leadingly. 

 

Stephen frowns. “Thanos’ actions destabilized more than just this universe,” Stephen responds. But slowly, reluctantly, as though the information is being pulled from him. “And there are a number of beings across the dimensions more than willing to pounce on such weakness.”

 

“Jesus, Stephen,” Tony mutters. “You’ve just been to hell and back. Can’t you take a break and let someone else save the world?” If Pepper or Rhodey were here, they would probably be giving him those looks that practically scream their amazement that he doesn’t choke on his own hypocrisy. 

 

The sorcerer’s frown carries hints of that, but also of confusion. At his concern? At the notion that he deserves rest? That he should let others do the work? “My order was short-handed even before this latest mess with the Infinity Stones.” A flicker of morbid humor. “It is unlikely that I would have been instated as the Master of the New York Sanctum otherwise.”

 

“Yeah, no,” Tony decides abruptly. “I can’t just stand here yakking while you’re bleeding, asshole. Come on.” He grabs Stephen’s wrist – but gently – and tugs him along before realizing that he has no idea where the first aid kit is. “Uh. Show me where your band-aids are, Houdini.”

 

For a long moment, Stephen says nothing. Simply stands there, arm outstretched and wrist left passively in the shorter man’s grasp. Stares at him, and Tony can almost feel something intense roiling beneath that frozen expression. He gets the feeling that he’s surprised him, and he thinks again of this big, empty house. Is Stephen alone here? Who helps him?

 

Who does he let help him?

 

Wong, maybe, but it doesn’t seem like Wong is here right now.

 

The Cloak must be getting impatient, and maybe it’s as worried as Tony is, since it speeds behind its master and nudges him forward.

 

At least he has the Cloak, Tony thinks, as Stephen sighs, rolls his eyes, and leads the way. And maybe it’s childish, or at least, very obvious, but he doesn’t let go of Stephen’s wrist until he needs to grasp the first aid kit. He counts it as a win when Stephen doesn’t yank his hand away.


“It’s not just battling interdimensional battles, though, is it?” Tony breaks the silence once Stephen has relaxed a little and stopped watching his every move with suspicion. He’s just finished placing the last butterfly bandage on the cut on his temple and is eyeing him, trying to figure out if there are bloodstains anywhere else or tears in his robes.

 

Stephen barely twitches, but Tony can feel the sudden tension beneath his skin. He hums quietly in false inquiry. The sound seems to reverberate in his chest, and Tony wants to press his hands there, skin to skin, and feel the vibrations. 

 

He reels himself back in. Now is not the time.

 

“You think I, of all people, don’t recognize what crushing guilt looks like?” 

 

The sorcerer’s jaw clenches. 

 

Tony startles him when he runs his hands through Stephen’s hair, gently feeling for contusions or other injuries, and directing those multi-colored eyes to meet his. And, okay, maybe it’s not solely an altruistic move on his part, but Tony has never claimed to be a saint.

 

“I know you aren’t going to believe me right now. You might not even want to hear it, but I’m going to say it anyway, because you need to try to believe me. You need to eventually believe it.”

 

He can feel Stephen relaxing minutely beneath his touch when his search for injuries becomes something more like petting. Something hot and satisfied, and possibly a touch possessive, pulses beneath his ribcage. Too early to hope, probably, but he thinks there’s a chance…

 

“It wasn’t your fault, Stephen.”

 

Stephen jerks his head back, and Tony lets his hands fall to his sides.

 

“How can you say that?” the too-slender man hisses. His eyes glare with blue fire. “I gave him the Stone.”

 

“Did you snap your fingers? Did you decimate more than half the universe?”

 

“I knew Thanos would, and I did it anyway. I am a doctor! I swore to do no harm, and I as good as killed them!”

 

“Half the universe was brought back because of you.”

 

“Because of you,” Stephen argues.

 

“You think I could have – the Avengers could have fixed it without you? Stephen, what would have happened if you hadn’t given Thanos the Time Stone, then? Huh?”

 

Stephen snarls.

 

“Let me guess,” Tony says. “We all die. Sooner if Thanos decided to kill us all on Titan, a little later if you ended up running. And no one returns. Half the universe gone. Permanently.

 

“I know you won’t believe me yet, no matter what logic says, but I’m telling you, it’s not your fault. Don’t kill yourself over this, please. And if it helps, if it’s something you need to hear, then…well, I forgive you, Stephen.”

 

He studies the sorcerer, who looks shaken. Uncertain. He sits there, head bowed and shoulders slumped as his Cloak wraps around him. Tony knows it’s not a problem so easily or quickly solved, and maybe he isn’t the one who can really help him. But he can’t stay silent and watch Stephen kill himself either.

 

He can’t leave Stephen alone, and he’s not so sure he should.

 

 *

 

Ever since that painful confrontation with Eugene Strange, Stephen dedicated himself to his father’s vision, molding himself in his father’s image. Failure was not an option. His photographic memory was a boon, and he threw himself into his schoolwork, striving for perfection, and losing what few friends he had made even as the weird social outcast. 

 

His culture, his language , and heritage, limited by a child’s understanding, was nearly forgotten before he realized. What little remained, he burned into his memory, though he never spoke of it and tried to avoid thinking about it except late at night, alone in his room. 

 

Stephen’s ability to understand birds, too, faded quickly. He bit back tears when he realized that he was truly alone with no one to help him. His father had no patience for crying, for softness, and especially not from his son. He became cold and hard instead. Embraced the emptiness caused by having a part of himself ripped away. Built walls of ice that thickened slowly but surely. And he learned to watch, without appearing to do so. The wariness learned as a crane in the wild bent to surviving as a human boy. He just needed one chance to steal back his robe, just one, and he would be free.

 

But his father was too careful. Stephen was almost sure that he didn’t keep it near him, or anywhere on his land. And he never retrieved it or seemed to feel a need to check on it, so far as he could tell. It was frustrating…agonizing. So different from the traditions and stories.

 

His only sliver of happiness came, surprisingly, in the form of his little sister. It was unexpected, especially considering her parentage, but she brought him the only joy he had known since his life had been stolen. Donna adored him, toddling along at his heels and following like a duckling ever since she learned to walk. Stephen ended up watching out and caring for her at least as much as their mother. By the time she had taken her first steps, he was left to babysit her unsupervised. He suspected that by then their father had decided that Stephen wouldn’t deliberately harm Donna. 

 

He felt sick at the thought of physically harming Donna – or anyone else for that matter. The thought of doing to others what had been done to him…or even worse…

 

He wasn’t so far gone as his father. Stephen refused to be, no matter how closely he modeled him.

 

Had he been like any other older brother, he would have quickly grown impatient with Donna’s constant presence. Would have come to resent her. Would have escaped her attentions, and perhaps run off with friends his age.

 

But Stephen wasn’t like other boys. Donna became the center of his world, the only person around him who actually cared about him. Who loved him, and touched him without hurting him, and didn’t want anything from him except his attention. Loving her was like a breath of fresh air as Stephen struggled not to drown in a dark maelstrom of anger and pain.

 

She was the only one he truly smiled at, the only one he could relax around. As Donna grew, he protected her and taught her, carefully nudging her from the nest so that she could thrive and fly in the way humans did. She was the exception to the greed and cruelty that defined humanity, and Stephen could only hope that that world wouldn’t crush her.

 

In his heart of hearts, Stephen hoped sometimes that she would be the one to free him. That when she was old enough, he would tell her the secret of his robe, and she, who wasn’t watched so closely or carefully, could find it.

 

Donna never grew old enough. Would never.

 

Their mother blamed him. Their father didn’t seem to, or Stephen would be dead with the destruction of his robe.

 

*

 

“So you guys have, like, a boss wizard, right?”

 

Wong pauses whatever he’s doing with the books – inventory, research, or something else, he hadn’t said – and turns to look at Tony. Stephen had just returned from another dimension barely an hour ago, exhausted and bleeding again, but apparently successful in securing the alliance, or treaty, or whatever the hell his mission had been, and is now passed out in his bedroom.

 

Okay, Tony’s disinterest and flippancy regarding Stephen’s whereabouts is a lie. He has an intense personal interest in ensuring that the man is as safe and healthy as possible. Which is not very, considering his general attitude towards his own well-being, as well as his reckless self-sacrificial tendencies that may, in fact, exceed Tony’s own. Regardless, Tony pays close attention to where he’s expected to be, what he’s expected to do, and then spends the time Stephen is away spamming his phone with random texts and occasionally bugging Wong for more information if he’s around. 

 

So now he’s hanging out with Wong in the library because no one trusts him alone around the relics. He could go back home, of course, but then he might be roped into doing SI paperwork or something. Plus, Stephen might wake up if he hangs around long enough.

 

“The position of Sorcerer Supreme has been empty since the death of the Ancient One,” Wong says, and then turns back to shelve the ancient tome in his hands.

 

Tony snorts at the name. “Sorcerer Supreme? Seriously? Who came up with that one?” Maybe it sounds better in the original language, but the English translation sounds like it was done by a D&D nerd who didn’t get out of the basement much. Or maybe one that was trolling the order. Unless the order was trolling outsiders? 

 

Wong chooses not to verbally respond, and glowers.

 

“How come no one’s been promoted, or whatever? And how does someone get the position? Do you guys have a Sorting Hat? Siege Perilous? Oh, I know, one ring to rule them all!” 

 

Tony smirks, and Wong’s expression, if anything, gets blander. He’s determined to make the librarian crack a smile one of these days, and Wong knows it. It’s probably why the man is so determinedly unimpressed whenever he’s around, and occasionally mumbles about stubborn assholes all being alike, bemoaning whatever he had done in a past life to deserve this.

 

“The energies of the Earth itself choose the Sorcerer Supreme, and make it known to those practitioners of the Mystic Arts.”

 

“Make it known how?” 

 

“There are signs if one knows how to look for them. Although, since the Time Stone has come into our keeping, the Eye of Agamotto is the relic that most obviously indicates the one chosen. When it is time for the new Sorcerer Supreme to take up the position, if the current one is still available, they will ceremoniously pass on those responsibilities to their successor. If the previous Sorcerer Supreme has been killed, as has usually been the case, the council of Masters will convene and approve the chosen sorcerer to take up the position.”

 

Tony’s gaze sharpens, body tensing as some of the suspicions he has been harboring for a while now are confirmed. He lines up a shelf of books so that the spines are flush with the edge, all of his attention on Wong in his peripheral vision, and says, “So this council disapproves of Stephen.”

 

Silence. Tony turns to look at Wong full-on, without pretense, as the librarian stands motionless.

 

“What is it?” Tony demands, voice harsh. “His lineage? That he wasn’t born into this, or raised into it, or hasn’t been part of your cult for more than a few years, linear time? That he’s an asshole, or that he bends the rules and doesn’t fall into the company line? 

 

“He’s saved this world so many times; he’s fucking died – ”

 

Stark.”

 

Tony falls silent. 

 

Wong’s flash of anger fades into something more tired, with Tony following suit, and he sighs. “It’s not like that,” he says wearily.

 

“Then what is it like? I’ve heard that you’re weaker without a Sorcerer Supreme, and I know – I can see that Stephen has been sent on the missions a leader would be, in addition to whatever his usual duties are, but without the power of a title. He’s doing the work without the authority, and it’s exhausting him. To me, it looks like you’re all taking advantage of him, and if that’s not what this is, then tell me what’s happening.” Tony is almost pleading by now. He knows Wong is Stephen’s friend, knows that he cares for him and he doesn’t really think Wong would let him be hurt like this. But he doesn’t know what other explanation there could be. Tony knows Stephen respects and cares for his order, and he can’t stand to think that isn’t reciprocated.

 

“Does Stephen know?”

 

Wong shrugs. “It’s hard to say. For someone so intelligent, he can be remarkably ignorant about some things. But if he does suspect, I believe that he would agree with our decision.”

 

Why?” 

 

“Because having no Sorcerer Supreme is better than having one with Stephen’s current…particular weakness.” Wong’s response is very careful and very vague, struggling to explain without compromising Stephen’s secrets.

 

Tony is about ready to rip out his hair, and maybe he looks like it, because Wong continues.

 

“If he can find what he’s looking for, then he can take up his mantle. But as things stand, he is…” He hesitates, wondering if he’s saying too much.

 

“He is compromised, Stark.”

 

“Point me at them,” Tony says, something dark and dangerous in his voice. “If Stephen’s compromised, I’ll find some way to fix it.”

 

Wong shakes his head. “There isn’t anyone, not yet. Not that Stephen’s told me, anyway. There might be someday, or there might never be. But until this is resolved, we cannot risk it.”

 

Tony makes to protest, beyond confused and trying to figure out what the hell the sorcerer is talking about.

 

“No,” he cuts the businessman off. “I’ve said too much already. Stephen will tell you if he wants you to know.”

 

Tony gives him a look. “Stephen doesn’t tell anyone shit about himself if he can help it. Especially if it’s to do with his well-being.”

 

“Well,” Wong says, returning to his books, “at least you realize that.”

 

 *

 

“There must be something else. A lockbox, a storage facility…something! Is a feather robe mentioned, somewhere? As a family heirloom, perhaps?”

 

Stephen had practically overturned the house, and gone through every one of his father’s papers at least twice, and still nothing. Only possibilities, and now he was desperate enough to approach the attorney that had been named the executor of the will.

 

Eleanor Blakeley was a severe, middle-aged woman in a professional black pantsuit, her dark hair cut short and her only jewelry a simple silver necklace and a matching watch. She thumbed through the papers on her desk and said, “There’s nothing mentioned specifically about any sort of heirloom. As for some sort of storage, there are a few possibilities – ”

 

“Great, where – ”

 

“But they have not been willed to you.”

 

He froze, his heart in his throat. “But I’m the last, so it should all default to me.”

 

“Unless explicitly stated otherwise in the most recently updated will,” Blakeley corrected with a cold smile. “And it is.”

 

“Who?” Stephen demanded.

 

“I cannot say. Client information is private.”

 

“It is mine!” Stephen thundered, unable to bear coming this close, believing himself to soon be free at last, and being blocked again. It felt like a collar around his throat, choking him. His heart beat so hard against his ribcage, he felt sick. “That…heirloom belongs to me!”

 

There was disgust in Blakeley’s eyes, though her expression remained neutral. He knew what she was thinking. A father recently dead, and his son caring only for what he could gain from it. Stephen didn’t care. Didn’t care what this stranger thought, except that she would not be moved to make exceptions or concessions with that opinion of him. He didn’t even know what he thought of his father’s death. He didn’t feel happy or upset. Didn’t feel free. Didn’t feel anything when he thought of his father buried in the ground, just a few years after his mother.

 

“Unless you have some sort of proof of your claim, such as papers proving ownership, then there is nothing that I can do.”

 

Stephen clenched his jaw, and forced out the question despite everything in him screaming at the thought of doing so with witnesses, “If by wearing it I could prove my claim?”

 

She shook her head. “Even if that did somehow prove it, we would need just cause to search through the various assets that might hold that particular item.”

 

Stephen left the office not long after, feeling dazed and lightheaded. His steady, surgeon’s hands trembled. He stumbled into the single-stall bathroom and locked the door, gripping the sides of the sink to still his hands. The man staring out of the mirror looked lost, and Stephen automatically narrowed his eyes. 

 

There. That looked more normal. More like his father. Weakness hidden. Failure unacceptable. The white streaks of hair at his temple, another sign of what he was, still dyed black to match the rest. Always.

 

Stephen was a neurosurgeon rather than the businessman his father would have preferred. But he’d never quite gotten the hang of money, and at least a doctor fit the respected, upper-class, money-making caste his father demanded. Far better to become a renowned doctor than a mediocre businessman. Stephen’s success and reputation would still reflect more than favorably on his father, to the older man’s great advantage.

 

Stephen straightened and adjusted his tie. Steady hands smoothed down the coat of his expensive suit. He was a rising star in the medical field, quickly gaining attention and fame. All the better.

 

If he kept the spotlight on him, he wouldn’t be stolen away. He would be noticed and valued. He would be safe.

 

Maybe someday he would manage to track down his robe. But at least it was no longer in the hands of a person who still believed in magic in this day and age. A man who could and would use it against him.

 

*

 

Despite Stephen’s well-earned reputation as a man far more interested in his career than in people, he isn’t, and has never been, a completely sexless creature.

 

Puberty and its subsequent hormonal warfare had been its own special kind of hell. Especially for someone who had only barely settled into his humanity. It wasn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that his life had depended on his control, and as desperately as he clung to routine and control, he was still a teenager.

 

Even as the weird outcast, there had been a few girls interested in Stephen. Partly out of curiosity, partly to somehow steady his surging hormones, he had gone on a few dates and fooled around with them.

 

He had been careful, of course. Cranes mate for life, and there was absolutely no one he knew that he was even tempted to bond with in such a way. He had found most of his classmates repugnant. The problem was, Stephen had been taken so young that he didn’t know what constituted as mated.

 

He still doesn’t, actually. It isn’t and has never been a priority, so he hasn’t gone looking. He’s pretty sure it isn’t just sex. It probably isn’t having children, either. Stephen’s memories are hazy, and he had been far too young to understand at the time, but he’s fairly sure that none of the cranewives who had returned from being taken were mated to their kidnappers.

 

In any case, not long after he’d started dating, he had looked around his father’s house and realized – this was what his father wanted for him. What his father would demand of him. A trophy wife to make Stephen – and in turn, Eugene – look good. His father would decide who was acceptable. His father would make it happen.

 

Stephen didn’t want it.

 

That didn’t matter.

 

Eugene would use his feather robe, would Compel him, and Stephen might not ever know. Wouldn’t ever know whether or not the choice was his. He might even believe it had been his own choice, depending on how he was Compelled.

 

Stephen wouldn’t know. Wouldn’t ever truly know if he had consented freely.

 

As all the implications struck him like a hammer to the head, he’d stumbled to the toilet and been sick. Shaky and weak, he hadn’t been able to avoid every horrible implication that crashed through his brilliant mind, should he ever seriously go out with a girl. Sleep with her. Get someone pregnant?

 

He couldn’t. He couldn’t. And dating might give his father ideas.

 

Boys were safe. With boys, Stephen knew that whoever he experimented with, it was his choice. His father would never stand for it. But that was a danger as well. He was forced to be constantly alert, to be absolutely certain that his father would never even suspect that he was in any way sexual with a male. If he had suspected, Stephen had no doubt that he would have been forced together with an appropriate girl as soon as possible, and he could barely stomach the thought.

 

Even after his father’s death, with his hagoromo still missing, Stephen found himself reluctant and skittish when it came to dating or hookups. No gender was safe anymore if some unknown held his feather robe. He had no idea if his consent was his consent in truth.

 

Christine had been his longest relationship, and she had deserved so much better. Not just because of his arrogant and selfish attitude, but also because of his constant tension and hesitation that made any sexual encounters sporadic, and Christine herself concerned and confused. He simply hadn’t been what she needed, and so much less than she deserved. It had honestly been a relief when they’d broken up and decided to remain friends.

 

As a result of his past, Stephen is inexperienced and rather bad at relationships. So when Tony kisses him, Stephen freezes. This, he didn’t see coming. He is unprepared. He doesn’t know what to say, and he should, because he doesn’t do…this. It’s just…well, most people are put off by his personality, and anyone blunt enough to discard the hinting that will only go over Stephen’s head, he turns down just as bluntly.

 

But this is different.

 

Tony kisses him and Stephen’s mind goes blank. For one long, blissful moment he forgets that he cannot have this and relaxes unconsciously into the press of lips on lips. It’s been so long…he follows Tony’s lead and melts against him, soaking in the heat of the shorter man’s more compact body. Stephen hadn’t realized just how lonely he has been, how much he wants someone to hold him, to – he can barely think it even to himself – to love him.

 

Then Tony gently disengages, eyes shining, and reality crashes down on Stephen. He backs away and hides his hands in the folds of his Cloak.

 

“I can’t,” he says tightly, voice breaking.

 

Oh, gods, Tony is such a powerful, public figure. So many people want a piece of him or some sort of power over him. A relationship with Stephen, whose feather robe is still missing, would give someone exactly the power they desire. Tony is one of the least safe people for Stephen to give in to. He refuses to betray Tony, who has suffered so many unspeakable betrayals in his life. For both their sakes, he says again, trying to hide his fear and despair, “I can’t.”

 

For a moment the other man looks devastated. Then he collects himself enough to ask a little roughly, “Can’t or won’t?”

 

Stephen is nearly shaking. Everything is too much. He hates being emotional, and almost resents Tony’s current poise. “Both,” he chokes.

 

“Stephen,” Tony murmurs, brows furrowed. He steps closer, and Stephen refuses to flinch away or back down. Strong hands come up to grip his upper arms near his shoulders, and he concentrates on that contact, lets it anchor him. “Can you tell me why?”

 

Stephen bites his lip. He can’t. He can’t. Those secrets can’t get out. He can’t quite remember why right now, but, “I can’t.”

 

“All right. That’s alright.” Tony lightly squeezes his arm, and Stephen relaxes into his hold. A bit of the hurt in Tony’s dark eyes fades away. “Is it me? It’s okay if you don’t feel that way about me, you know.”

 

“No – yes. Maybe?” Stephen doesn’t know. How can he know if it’s him or something the owner of his hagoromo wants?

 

“We’re friends, Stephen. Whatever happens.”

 

Tony is looking at him intently, and he looks back, confused. Nods, and wonders where this is going.

 

“Good,” Tony says. “That’s good.”

 

Stephen is beginning to come back to himself. He can tell because he’s starting to find the way Tony is handling him – as if he’s a skittish, wild animal – annoying. It doesn’t matter how true the analogy might be.

 

Maybe Tony can tell, because he lets his hands slide down his arms, until he has Stephen’s trembling hands resting atop his own. “Is there anything I can do to help you decide?”

 

Stephen wants to be annoyed. At how well Tony understands him. At how something inside of him perks up in hope. There’s only one way he can make a final decision one way or another, and Tony is perhaps the nosiest person he’s ever met, with technical genius to back him up. Stephen has spent years failing to find his feather robe, but if Tony with all of his resources takes up the search…

 

For a moment, he pictures Tony finding his robe. Pictures Tony possessing it, and he feels ill all over again. It’s one thing for a stranger to steal him and render him helpless. But if that betrayal comes from a friend? Is it worth it to put his well-being in another’s hands? To give someone he cares for the opportunity to control him?

 

Stephen shakes his head to rid himself of the images, but Tony must misunderstand. He lets him go, moves away. And in an instant, Stephen reaches out and grabs his wrist.

 

“I can’t guarantee anything. That I will…feel for you the way you feel for me. That I will want to be in a relationship. But if you want a definite answer, then you’ll have to find an old heirloom of mine and return it to me.”

 

Tony listens eagerly, completely focused as Stephen describes his hagoromo and where he had last seen it. What had happened to it. He doesn’t tell him what it really is, of course, but he gives him everything he can. And he doesn’t lie. That would just be counterproductive.

 

“I’ll understand,” Stephen says. “If you don’t want to wait. If it’s too much to ask for. You can quit at any time.” It might break his heart, but he won’t hold Tony to a nearly impossible task with no promise of romance afterward.

 

Tony gives him a look. “I thought you knew me, Doc. I don’t give up that easily. And even if it’s as a friend, I’m not going to just half-ass something that’s so important to you.”

 

He grins abruptly. “Not going to leave you alone, either. Face it. You’re stuck with me.”

 

Stephen manages a faint chuckle despite the ache in his chest. “The horror.”

 

And their interactions don’t change, not really. Over time Tony, who has always been a tactile person, grows even closer to him, insinuating himself into Stephen’s life and slipping past walls. It’s only fair, he thinks, since Stephen has done the same with him. The touches increase as Stephen becomes accustomed to his presence, though always short of anything sexual. He won’t cross that line until Stephen invites him to. Until he’s welcomed. Until he’s fulfilled Stephen’s one condition, and he’s so close. He knows it. Perhaps it’s a bad idea to get his hopes up when Stephen can’t or won’t make any guarantees about what comes after, but Tony can’t help it when his witch doctor reacts so well to him. He just hopes he won’t get his heart broken.

 

*

 

By the time Stephen had made his mark as a world-renowned neurosurgeon with a perfect record, he no longer actively thought of his feather robe. It sat quietly in the back of his mind, and old wounds had scarred over. Anyone could become accustomed to discomfort if they lived with it long enough. And he was hardly the only one hollow inside, judging by the look in the eyes of celebrities, politicians, doctors, and other important attendees of the galas he frequented. It seemed a uniquely human condition.

 

Or so he assumed. The last time Stephen had been among his kind, he was far too young to understand whether they tended towards emptiness as well.

 

It hardly mattered. He was important. Successful. At the top of his game, and he had no time or care for anyone else. Almost anyone else.

 

His relationship with Christine might not have worked out, but he cared enough to remain friends. She cared more than enough that it was the one semi-successful relationship in his life, currently. Like Donna, she was the exception that proved the rule, lacking the greed and cruelty that defined the world they lived in. It was, Stephen thought, the only reason he made a true effort when he’d long stopped caring about anyone else.

 

So of course, when his life was going too well, his world would drop out from under him once again.

 

It was a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario. His link with his missing cloak flared, and he wondered if his crushed hands had damaged his flight feathers, or if the sudden, distracting agony of damage done to his flight feathers had sent him hurtling off a cliff and crushed his hands. Either way, Stephen couldn’t deny his carelessness to himself, though he vociferously blamed anyone else. He’d built a life around denial, why stop when his life had ended once again?

 

There were reasons that he had not become a businessman. Money slipped like water through his grasp as he desperately attempted to fix what had been broken. He should have known better, of course. He’d never had much luck when it came to fixing himself, but his hands and his career were all he had left. 

 

Stephen didn’t know what had made Pangborn take pity on him , but Kamar-Taj was the last glimmer of hope for a dying man.

 

It said quite a lot about who he had become, that he would need unequivocal proof of magic before ever considering the claims to be true.

 

 *

 

Tony knows what his friends think. Why Pepper and Rhodey look concerned when he mentions Stephen, the cautious way they try to broach the subject of his…not-quite-relationship. They think he’s stringing Tony along; that Stephen is taking advantage of Tony, that Tony’s feelings are one-sided.

 

Stephen thinks that he’s taking advantage, too. He doesn’t seem to understand why Tony keeps coming back. Even if the sorcerer hadn’t stated it outright, even if the way he looks at Tony isn’t shadowed with guilt and fear, he tells Tony again and again that he can guarantee nothing. And that, even if Tony succeeds in finding this heirloom, there is no guarantee that he can or will say yes to a relationship. That he cannot guarantee that he will want one with him. 

 

Stephen is as honest and transparent as he can be, without explaining why Tony is looking for some sort of feather shawl, or what its importance is. He suspects that it is something to do with magic, but that doesn’t quite make sense when he knows that Stephen has only been practicing for a few years.

 

Tony appreciates the honesty. He appreciates his friends’ concerns, although he wishes they could know Stephen the way he does. Well, maybe not quite the same way, but he wishes they could know just how selfless and good he is at his core. Stephen is worth waiting for. He is worth the uncertainty and struggle, worth defending, and bickering with, and fighting alongside. Stephen is worth treating with kindness and gentleness, with care that he doesn’t quite seem to comprehend or know what to do with. It breaks Tony’s heart to see his bewildered expression. 

 

It also sends a wash of rage flooding through him, whenever he thinks too long on why Stephen might be so unfamiliar with compassion.

 

Tony respects Stephen’s ultimatum – challenging as it is, he’s pretty sure he’s making headway – and his right to choose. But Tony is a businessman, an inventor, and a daredevil. He can’t help but push boundaries and attempt to gain favor. Never to Stephen’s detriment. Never in an attempt to circumvent Stephen’s conditions or force his consent. 

 

But if Tony can appeal to Stephen, so that when he fulfills his requirement – and he will – Stephen will be willing to go out with Tony, to be with him in every sense of the word…

 

Well, the point of dating is to get to know each other, to test compatibility, but you can still do all that without calling it dating. Tony might have more than platonic feelings, but his actions can still be considered platonic. More or less. And if Stephen is satisfied with their compatibility… But even if it doesn’t happen, Tony wouldn’t ever turn down being his friend. It would be enough. With time.

 

Tony spends his free time with Stephen. They mostly meet either at Stephen’s haunted house or in Tony’s lab, and they talk, or they work, or they spar. Sometimes they just exist quietly in the same space. Other times, they might wander outside and take a walk to Central Park. Or, if they’re feeling a need to go somewhere different, Stephen can portal them anywhere in an instant. It’s mindboggling if Tony thinks too hard about it, but also unbelievably convenient. 

 

Right now, the two of them are in a diner because Tony had been struck with a craving for burgers. Stephen goes uncharacteristically quiet. Tony knows him well enough by now to notice that he’s a bit twitchy, although to anyone else he wouldn’t appear any different. His poker face is just impressive. 

 

But then Stephen fumbles to extract his phone, and it’s so atypical – the sorcerer never uses his phone in public if he can help it – that Tony begins to glance around with some alarm, his gaze hidden by his tinted glasses. “What is it?” he murmurs.

 

“…Nothing,” Stephen says with a tense half-smile. His hands are shaking too much for him to navigate his phone very well, so he abandons whatever he had been trying to do on the internet and switches to the camera. The way he surreptitiously angles it so that he can see the peripheral and behind him does nothing to assuage Tony’s worries. “Just a sudden headache.” 

 

How is this related to his spying attempts, Tony wants to ask.

 

“Are we currently being recorded live in some way?” Stephen wonders just loud enough for Tony to hear under the din of other diners. “Social media, maybe?”

 

“Friday?”

 

“There are amateur clips, likely from a cell phone, being taken and uploaded onto twitter, boss. Shall I block them?”

 

Tony cocks an eyebrow at his companion.

 

Stephen shakes his head. “It’s fine,” he says, and then breaks off with an almost silent hiss. The flash of pain is subtle and fleeting, but his jaw remains clenched afterward.

 

“Stephen, what’s happening?” Tony demands, preparing to get up and do…something. Take Stephen and leave, if nothing else.

 

Stephen’s hand twitches toward him, as though to reach out and grab him, before he changes his mind and briefly hooks a leg around one of Tony’s calves to make him stay seated. “Stop. It’s fine. Let’s just finish our lunch like we normally would.”

 

Tony’s brain stutters a bit at the contact, especially when the younger man keeps his leg pressed to his, ankle to ankle. Ploy to keep him docile or not – considering how oblivious Stephen can be, Tony is leaning towards not – it’s remarkably effective. Especially on someone who once proudly boasted his playboy status.

 

The question his companion asks next sends extremely conflicting signals that do nothing to help him relax.

 

“Have you noticed anyone paying particular attention to us in a way that you wouldn’t classify as ‘fan-like’? Or even ‘paparazzi-like’, I suppose.”

 

Fuck’s sake, Stephen.

 

Tony pays close attention to the people in the diner, as well as the people wandering by the window, managing not to be obvious about it. “I don’t notice anything unusual.”

 

By the time his attention is back on his, let’s say, better half – hmm, he likes the implication, but he’s sure he can come up with a better phrase; he’ll have to be careful that endearments don’t slip into actual speech yet, or Stephen might retreat again – the pain appears to have faded away.

 

It keeps happening though. Not often, perhaps, but often enough, and always when he and Stephen are out in public. Tony isn’t an idiot. He might not know what the end goal is, but he suspects Stephen does. It is certainly something to do with him, and how desperately he tries to appear unaffected. Trying not to confirm something or whoever is testing him. 

 

Tony tries everything he can think of to trace whoever might be watching, sets Friday to monitor and follow whatever traces they can find, but he can’t even be certain they aren’t using magic to watch and avoid him. Stephen won’t talk, and Tony hates seeing the flinches of pain, the increased shaking of his hands, the subtle tightness in his expression. It might not occur often, but it shouldn’t be happening at all.


The worse is when at a gala celebrating the anniversary of Thanos’ defeat. It’s either painful enough unexpected enough for Stephen to stumble very obviously and let out a low oath. Tony grips his elbow tightly to steady him, heart in his throat. Both of them are on edge for the rest of the night, compounded by the fact that neither of them are exactly thrilled to be there, but nothing happens.

 

Nothing continues to happen. As far as Tony can tell, whoever it is doesn’t test Stephen further. It does nothing to relax him. Seemingly, whatever faceless enemy this is has whatever confirmation they’re looking for. 

Tony sticks closer to Stephen than ever as he waits for something to happen, and wishes that Stephen would just tell him what’s going on.

 

 *

 

Stephen searched feverishly through the library, tried spell after spell for tracking and summoning and anything he could think of. Had even dipped into blood magic, his very being crying out for the rest of his self now that he had a glimmer of hope once again. He had cracked the block had prevented him from conjuring magic and was desperate to become whole. To be free. Surely…surely after a lifetime of searching without magic, this would be the key to reuniting with his robe. Surely blood would overcome whatever had hidden it all these years.

 

Nothing. When his blood failed, Stephen knew that it wouldn’t be so easy. 

 

There were many kinds of magic, and they each had their own rules. Their own absolutes. There was some crossover, some overlap. Some could be overcome by another kind of magic, and some couldn’t.

 

Stephen’s feather robe was bound by the rules of Celestial magic. He, to some extent, was bound by it because he was – had been – a celestial being. It was the reason no family members had approached him since he had been trapped by Eugene Strange. Why, even after the death of his ‘father’, he had never returned to even the earthly home of his crane family. If his hagoromo was bound and hidden by iron, no magic would even register it. If his worst fears were realized, if it was hidden by certain wards or sutras specifically designed to trap celestial beings, no other magic would be able to find it. 

 

Oh gods, he thought, surrounded by his failures. Everything crashed down on him; conditional freedom was no longer enough when his accident had stripped away his apathy and denial. Ignoring the blinding pain that shot through his hands, he clutched at his hair in a fit of despair and panic. Oh gods, do not let me die a prisoner. 

 

(How naive, he thinks as he faces Dormammu again and again, his bond to his cloak of feathers wearing away ever so slightly with each reset of the time loop. Death is a kindness. A different freedom.)

 

*

 

Stephen is enjoying a quiet evening in, reading on a couch before a fire with his book propped up on the arm in deference to his hands. Wong is sorting through something down the hall, in the library.

 

Tony is sprawled across the same couch Stephen sits on, tablet on his chest and enjoying the rare position of resting his head in Stephen’s lap, which is why he notices right away when his sorcerer tenses in alarm. He sits up immediately, allowing Stephen to shoot to his feet as he twists his wrist, fingers carefully positioned. 

 

“Somebody’s in the Sanctum. Two people? Are in the foyer,” he says.

 

Tony leaps up, nanotech crawling across his shoulder and down his arm as a transparent turquoise butterfly darts for the library far faster than an actual insect is capable of. Iron Man delays suiting up fully until he has a better idea of the situation. If it becomes necessary to do so, one arm of the armor is enough to impede any attack for the few seconds needed to fully protect himself. 

 

Stephen refrains from running, instead taking long strides that bring him quickly to the top of the main stairs as he internally checks through all of the wards and defensive measures that have been built into the Sanctum. Everything seems to be working, alerting him to intruders of dubious intentions, but nothing tells him how they suddenly appeared in his foyer.

 

He touches Tony’s shoulder in warning, just before they come into view, and Tony suddenly finds himself teleported to the first floor, just outside the entryway to the left of the front door. It’s disconcerting, and he is definitely going to talk to Stephen about sufficient warning, and maybe actually using words or sharing his plans. But later. Right now he meets Wong’s gaze from where he stands opposite, and then slips a bit closer while the two men are distracted by Stephen, who chooses to levitate down from the second floor for the drama and intimidation factor, rather than just using the stairs.

 

To be fair, that’s what Tony would do if he had the option, too.

 

“Welcome to my Sanctum,” Stephen says sardonically as his boots touch the floor.

 

“Stephen Strange,” the taller of the trespassers says. There is something almost ageless about his face despite the few wrinkles that are etched deeply into his skin, and the gray that threads through his dark blond hair. He looks as though he has never seen sunlight, with skin an unhealthy gray stretched tight over bones, and shadows beneath his eyes that could easily be mistaken for bruises. He smiles, but his eyes are cold and flat. “You’ve grown.”

 

That nagging feeling of familiarity strengthens, as does Stephen’s alarm. His expression remains more or less impassive as he demands, “Who are you, and how did you get in?” He suspects the whys of it all will be spilled unprompted by the man’s companion. Dark hair cropped close to his skull in a buzz cut and nearly of the same height, his skin is positively brown in comparison. He looks bored, almost, impatient and ready to get through whatever they’ve come for.

 

“Call me Victor. And this is Jack,” the first man gestures to his companion. “As for the how…” He shrugs and lifts some sort of glowing, neon green vial from beneath his shirt, hanging from his neck by a silver chain.

 

They are being too accommodating. The hair on the back of Stephen’s neck stands on end as he shifts forward just enough to figure out what he’s looking at. He recoils back at once with a furious hiss. “A ghost’s core.” Dangerous and completely amoral, Stephen would go so far as to call the act required to obtain such a core evil. The equivalent of ripping out someone’s still-beating heart.

 

Victor tucks it back beneath his shirt, completely unaffected. Jack rolls his eyes and mutters, “Just get on with it.”

 

“We were…I suppose you could say, business associates, of your father.”

 

Stephen goes rigid, internally battling with himself as denial and realization clash. 

 

“I have to say, I’m rather surprised that you kept his surname after he died.” That damnable, meaningless smile is still present as Victor studies him. “Just out of curiosity, did he Compel you?” He hums, thoughtfully. “Well, I suppose you wouldn’t really know unless he told you or did it in front of you, and from what I vaguely remember of Eugene, he wasn’t exactly the communicative type. Cruel enough for the latter, though.”

 

Stephen isn’t looking at Tony. Isn’t looking away, and Tony knows him well enough to know that he’s frozen in horror, but he’s completely clueless as to why, and that just makes him angrier. Looking past the two intruders – enemies, he can assume by this point – he’s pretty sure that Wong has a clue, despite how hard the librarian is for him to read. The clenched fist and thunderous expression rather give him away.

 

Victor unfurls something white and feathery from…somewhere. Tony doesn’t catch where and Stephen doesn’t care at this point. His attention is centered on the feather robe, his entire being yearning towards it, though he hasn’t moved from where he stands.

 

Jack yanks it from his companion’s hands, pulling on several of the feathers as he does so, plucking one out altogether. Stephen chokes back a cry of pain at the sudden violence and stumbles. His Cloak catches him and keeps him upright.

 

“Always nice to get undisputed confirmation,” Jack says in satisfaction.

 

“Difficult to run a business without it. You know how it is,” he says turning to look at Tony.

 

Tony snarls, powering up his hand repulsor, the whine gaining everyone’s attention. 

 

“No!” Stephen shouts desperately at the same time as Wong erects a quick shield between Tony and their enemies and orders him to, “Stop.”

 

“What?” Tony demands, indignant, furious, and afraid. “What am I missing?” He glares at Jack’s low chuckle, eyeing the feathered mass that had been immediately shifted between them, as if that will protect the trespassers. But maybe it will, considering the two sorcerers’ reactions. Maybe it would have backfired explosively on him if he’d tried to attack, and that’s why they are so confident about intruding on the Sanctum and threatening them without any visible weapons.

 

Immediately visible weapons, he amends his thoughts. A small gun suddenly appears in Victor’s hands in response to Wong appearing at Tony’s side, one hand on his still outstretched arm. “This is Stephen’s fight,” he says grimly. “It’s not our place to interfere.”

 

Tony suppresses his immediate reaction, reluctantly standing down. But he’s tense and on a hair trigger, ready to intervene at the first sign that he might be needed. Like hell he’ll do nothing when his witch doctor is in danger and looking like…like that. Afraid and unbalanced and desperate beneath his stoic mask.

 

“You’re the ones who’ve been testing me,” Stephen rumbles, reminded of the pain that had struck unexpectedly for weeks. He must have given himself away despite his best efforts. 

 

He studies the pair’s expressions in brief interludes, but his feather robe is like a lodestone or a black hole. He can’t keep his attention off of it for long no matter how he tries. From where he stands, he can see the results of his accident reflected on his hagoromo, the ruin of his beautiful wings. “You weren’t sure I was who you thought I was. What you thought I was. You weren’t sure you had it right, but now you’re confident enough to approach. 

 

“And my father. He willed to you what wasn’t his to give away.” Stephen’s expression twists in a snarl.

 

“It would be more accurate to say that he returned what we gave him,” Victor corrects.

 

Jack interjects, “Not that it matters, considering that it’s in our possession and not yours.”

 

Stephen clenches his jaw. His hands automatically curl into fists, before the pain reminds him that that motion isn’t exactly an option anymore. He refuses to ask, but Victor just seems to want to monologue, to extol just how clever they are. How powerful.

 

“You’re supposed to be intelligent, Doctor. I could understand when you were a child, when you didn’t know better and took for granted that magic existed, and birds or seals or other animals could become people, and everyone knew it. But you grew up human, with a mundane family, in a mundane world. I’ve never even heard of any being separated from their skin for so long.” Victor might be lit up with scientific curiosity, might regard him as a specimen in an experiment at this moment, but he is no scientist. Nothing he has done has followed the scientific method. It’s casual cruelty and curiosity for a lesser creature, just another mark of his sadistic tendencies. Stephen fears what he might do now and to others who could be caught separate from their skins. 

 

“You learned soon enough that no one believes in magic. That very few know the legends. And yet it never occurred to you to wonder how your father knew what to do.”

 

Stephen freezes, blindsided by what he had never thought to ask. His Cloak gently winds around his hands, squeezing lightly in an attempt to ground and comfort him.

 

“I never understood why it was so important to Eugene, this legacy nonsense. Especially since you didn’t even go into business after all! But profit is profit, and it seemed like it would be an interesting exercise. I’d never heard of taking a child instead of a spouse in all those selkie and swan maiden tales, and what have you.”

 

“You basically sold me. You gave a man the ability to steal a child and enslave him without repercussion.” Stephen’s voice starts off low and grows uncharacteristically louder until he’s thundering, “I have spent nearly my entire life captive because you wanted money!”

 

Tony’s right hand is clenched so hard that the metal of his armor creaks. He’s trembling, from rage, or horror, or shock, he doesn’t know.

 

“No worse than a pet shop, really,” Jack says. “The creature doesn’t get a say in what master takes it home, so long as he or she can afford it.”

 

Tony staggers to the side, feeling sick to his stomach and more than willing to fucking destroy these two monsters. But he can’t, because they seem to have all the leverage, and Wong says that this is Stephen’s battle. Stephen shouldn’t have to fight battles. This shouldn’t even be a battle, shouldn’t be happening. Stephen needs to be protected. To be safe.

 

His mind is whirring, flailing in the face of all of this information, and he can barely register that Stephen isn’t completely human. There are more important things to consider. 

 

Like how to keep him safe.

 

Fuck, he can’t even imagine – can’t grasp… What would that be like? He knows what it feels like to be stolen by strangers. There had been a few kidnappings even when Tony was a child, and he wouldn’t wish that pain or terror on anyone. But to be kept? To be unable to escape or be rescued, to never know freedom almost his entire life? 

 

And Tony doesn’t understand how, exactly, it works, but he does know that even now Stephen is bound and captive because of these two and that feathery blanket. “So, what?” he demands. “You just go around selling kids to people?”

 

Jack shifts to look at him, Victor not even bothering to take his attention from Stephen. “Hardly,” he scoffs. “Too much trouble and not enough return. No, we specialize in magic items. Cloaks, sure, and skins, but also horn and teeth and the occasional cursed amulet.”

 

“You’re telling us that you’re fairy tale smugglers,” Tony deadpans through gritted teeth. Even after everything he’s experienced, this is stretching things. “Seriously?” 

 

The man shrugs. “There are many kinds of magic, and people will pay quite a lot for power.”

 

“And because it is not the mystic arts, your operation has thus far managed to avoid the attention of our order,” Stephen says quietly, sharing a look with Wong. “You’re taking quite a risk, bringing it to our attention now.”

 

But why, Stephen wonders. Why would they take the chance? Why not try harder to draw him out and away from any allies, rather than confronting him in his Sanctum, on his own ground?

 

And he remembers the truth he’s always known about humans, ever since one trapped him. Greed. Cruelty. The desire to see everything they have under the power gained by holding his robe hostage. Showing him that he isn’t safe even in his own home, that even within his domain he is under their influence. 

 

“A calculated risk,” Victor says. He is far too confident. Arrogant. But he has reason to be in this instance. Stephen can admit it, as his soul screams to be reunited with his feather robe. To keep it safe and regain what is his, whatever it takes. “We are willing to return this to you, of course.” He gestures carelessly at the hagoromo on his companion’s arm. “But for a price.”

 

“Why now?” Tony demands, unable to keep silent. “If you had it all this time, why would you decide to give it up all of a sudden?”

 

Tony must have been getting close to finding his hagoromo, Stephen thinks with a hint of warmth, quickly chased away by the current predicament. He must have frightened these smugglers into action, or at least prompted them to move more quickly.

 

“Because a neurosurgeon – no matter how skilled or well-off – isn’t all that unusual and there wasn’t really anything unique that I could do for you. Anything you could leverage from me, you could get from someone else,” Stephen answers for them, eyes narrowed as his sharp intelligence picks up clues. “It would only be useful if someone desperately needed my skills and I had refused the patient.

 

“But a Master of the Mystic Arts? The Master of New York? Well, that’s a different story.”

 

“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Doctor,” Victor responds with a sharp grin. “You’re more than just the Master of the New York Sanctum, aren’t you?”

 

Stephen raises an eyebrow. “Not to the best of my knowledge.”

 

Jack snorts. “Your group might be dragging their feet about it, but whether they like it or not, it’s not hard to tell that you’re going to be the next Sorcerer Supreme.”

 

“If that were true,” is all Stephen concedes, “then what is it you hope to gain from the future Sorcerer Supreme? And why would you think to extort me in front of my colleagues?”

 

“Just a few favors,” Victor says casually.

 

“A handful or two,” Jack contributes. “To get us out of some tight spots and the like. Helping, you know. Beginning with a bit of memory modification.”

 

“Like hell – ” Tony begins, almost spitting with fury.

 

Victor ignores him to continue, “And then we’ll return your skin to you when we’re done. No muss, no fuss.”

 

“If you think for one minute – ”

 

Stephen cuts Iron Man off with a sharp, “Tony.” 

 

He stops talking with obvious reluctance, every muscle in his body strung tight with stress and loathing. He’ll concede for the moment to Stephen’s expertise and greater claim.

 

Stephen studies the pair standing before him, gaze always flicking back to his feather robe. They obviously take note of this, further bolstering their confidence. Because it is expected, because he must cover his bases, he asks. “And what if I simply took back what was mine? If, as you say, I am powerful enough to be the Sorcerer Supreme.”

 

Jack digs his filthy hands into his feather robe, and Stephen grits his teeth against the pain. The Cloak of Levitation squeezes him in an attempt at comfort, even as it quivers in frustration at being thwarted in its need to protect him.

 

“You can try,” the villain grins. “I don’t think you’re fast enough to manage before the pain overwhelms you.”

 

Stephen has some doubts. Tony makes an incoherent sound of rage as the sorcerer ponders. Pain isn’t anything new and he’s tempted to try, especially with Wong and Tony backing him up. But he’s also been unconscious for the most serious damage that was ever inflicted on his hagoromo, though then it had been his own foolishness in driving as he did. And he suspects that they’ve made preparations should Stephen attempt to retrieve it. This isn’t the first time that they’ve held something valuable as hostage. Probably not even the first time doing it with a creature’s skin.

 

He imagines another crane, or a selkie, or a tennyo, desperate for this essential piece of themselves, and forced to do whatever was asked of them in the hopes of having it returned. What wouldn’t they do in order to return to their world…their family…themselves

 

Would they even have survived being used up? Stephen suspects not.

 

But he is different. They had even said it. No one has ever heard of a crane or a similar being separated so long from their skin. At this point, Stephen barely remembers his early life as a crane, and his native culture had been superseded by Eugene Strange’s idea of a perfect family life. 

 

All that might still be moot – the bond to his feather robe is undeniable – had Stephen never learned the mystic arts. Had he never confronted Dormammu in the Dark Dimension and utilized the Eye of Agamotto against him. A lifetime away from an essential piece of himself might have dulled the ache, but lifetimes spent dying over and over again had frayed that bond. 

 

Desperation does the rest. 

 

It is still essential. It is still a part of him. But Stephen knows that this is only the illusion of a choice they offer. He can agree to their terms and obey, or they will force him to obey. And whatever Jack and Victor may claim, they will never let him go, no more than his father did. There will always be one more time, one more request. He wants to scream. He wants to be ill. He’s trapped again. Still. An animal in a trap, a bird in a cage.

 

He will never be free.

 

“A handful of favors?” he says, struggling to keep his voice steady. From the corner of his eye he can see Wong frown, holding back Tony who looks horrified and steps forward to protest.

 

“Or two,” Victor confirms, triumph kindling in his expression.

 

“And then you’ll free me,” Stephen almost breathes.

 

“Stephen, no!” Tony shouts. “Don’t. Don’t be stupid, you know they won’t – ”

 

“Shut up, Stark,” Jack snaps. “You have nothing to do with this.”

 

“You don’t understand, Tony,” Stephen says, tilting his head to look at him. To imprint his face in his memory. “To be free.” His voice cracks. He swallows harshly. “There’s very little I wouldn’t do to be free. At this point.”

 

Tony snarls, bringing up a hand as the whine of his repulsor cuts through the air. It’s in vain, of course, as Jack holds up the hagoromo so that he can’t hit either of them. Not without doing serious damage to Stephen. He pulls back immediately.

 

Stephen strikes.

 

It is so unfathomable for a shapeshifter, that neither villain had ever even considered that he might put his feather robe at risk, much less destroy it. And Jack has made it such an easy target.

 

Magic explodes, engulfing the feather robe in something that looks like flames. Jack and Victor shout, letting go and scrambling away immediately. Wong freezes and Tony is struck dumb, barely managing to see the flicker of terrible triumph in Stephen’s hard, desperate gaze. 

 

And then Stephen screams.

 

It’s terrible and inhuman, and for a long moment none of them can look away as he throws his head back, convulsing in agony. Veins protrude as every muscle tenses and contracts. The only reason he is still vaguely upright is because the Cloak levitates him above the floor. Tony thinks it is his imagination at first, when Stephen begins to emit a flickering glow that matches the magic eating away at his feather robe. 

 

Wong at last has the presence of mind to violently incapacitate Victor the moment the man begins scrambling for an escape. Tony looks away from Stephen only long enough to shoot Jack twice before he makes it to the front door. The momentum slams the bastard against the wood hard enough to snap bone. Possibly his neck. He doesn’t give a shit. 

 

Stephen’s glow brightens noticeably even in that brief glance away. He’s still screaming and positively ablaze, particularly his eyes. Tony can’t even see his irises; it’s like looking directly into a lightbulb, and he blinks away spots from his watering eyes.

 

“Stephen,” he sobs, not sure whether to run to the man or the crumpled pile of feathers that are curling and flaking away. He has no idea what to do, barely realizes that Wong is forcefully keeping him back from getting too close as his body strains for the creature in such agonizing pain.

 

The man he loves.

 

It seems like an eternity before the light goes out. All that’s left of the hagoromo is just a streak of black on the floor. 

 

Stephen collapses like a marionette with its strings cut, unnaturally limp in the Cloak of Levitation’s embrace.

 

*

 

“You’ve been searching for so long,” she said. Her voice was gentle, and she met his bitter gaze with sympathy. “But have you considered what you will do should you find it again?”

 

Stephen scoffed. Of course he…

 

Oh.

 

It felt as though the air had been punched out of him. As though the Ancient One had once again struck his soul from his body. Stephen had spent years – decades – looking for his cloak, or moderating his behavior so that he might one day get it back. He’d spent so much longer trapped in human form than he’d ever spent free, and his obsession may not have waned, but his circumstances had changed, again and again. He had thought only of regaining his autonomy. His will. His freedom. But he’d been a child the last time he had truly considered what he would do once his cloak was his again.

 

Stephen looked down at his mutilated hands, the physical evidence that he would never be able to fly again. That his flight feathers, wherever they were, were damaged. His wings clipped. He let himself acknowledge that even with his photographic memory, he could not clearly recall what his birth parents looked like. What their names were. He was not even sure he would recognize their voices, should he ever hear them again.

 

The Ancient One caught him when his legs gave out, guiding him gently to the floor as he doubled over, hands held protectively against his stomach. She knelt next to him, her hand on his shoulder all that Stephen could stand as he realized, finally, that he could never go home again. Not to the past. Not to his childhood memories. He needed to find his cloak, could never stop searching, but whatever happened after, his child dream was long dead.

 

Stephen cried, at last. Cried as he hadn’t in decades.

 

 *

 

It ends like this. A hagoromo, a robe of feathers, belonging to a crane, who was trapped as a boy, and grew into a man, became a healer, broke, pieced himself together as a Master of the Mystic Arts, might have taken up the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme…

 

hagoromo is set ablaze. A crane-man-sorcerer sets it ablaze, and sets himself ablaze with it.

 

It begins like this. Stephen destroys the missing piece of himself and burns with it.

 

Something ends, something begins, and perhaps there are no true beginnings or endings, just a circle, a wheel, an ouroboros. 

 

A phoenix.

 

Stephen groans as he claws his way to consciousness with a stubborn determination. He isn’t dead. He knows what death feels like, and it isn’t this full body ache, so now he must determine what went wrong and what new trouble he is in. Pain is an old friend, after all.

 

There are voices. Both worried, both familiar.

 

He forces his eyes open, and they begin to water as he squints against the light. He moves a hand and feels the fabric of a comforter, just begins to recognize his own bed, when that hand cramps. He hisses, jerking and trying to curl up around it, tries to bring his other hand to massage the pain away despite knowing that he doesn’t have the hand strength or dexterity for it. 

 

Stephen swallows hard and wishes he hadn’t. His throat is dry, and it feels like he’s swallowed broken glass.

 

It takes a minute before he realizes that his Cloak has stabilized his wrists, and a familiar, callused hands are gently massaging his afflicted one. He tilts his head to blink up at Tony, meeting that concerned gaze with confusion. “What – ” he tries to speak, but he only manages a wheezing sort of croak before he coughs, and it’s agony on his throat.

 

“Stubborn idiot,” Wong mutters as he brings over a cup of tea. “Drink.”

 

The Cloak helps him upright into more of a sitting position, and since Tony has his badly shaking hands occupied, Wong gently tips the mug so that he can sip. Stephen’s face burns, and he would probably snap at all of them if he had the energy. As it is, he lets it happen with a glower, pride set aside for necessity this time.

 

“The men…” he says after the first couple of mouthfuls, his words more intelligible his time. He almost gets a nose full of tea when Wong abruptly brings the mug back up, matching his glare.

 

“Finish drinking,” he demands. “Business can wait.”

 

Stephen tries to protest, but the ceramic is in the way. He gives in sulkily. But he’s alive when he really shouldn’t be, and if there was trouble then Tony and Wong wouldn’t be waiting at his bedside.

 

His eyelids droop as he finishes the last of his tea. Distracted from the pain, he realizes how exhausted he is. His Cloak lowers him back onto the bed and then covers him as Wong leaves. Ostensibly to put away supplies, but more likely to give the two of them some privacy.

 

“Sleep,” Tony says, hesitantly bringing one of his hands up to run through Stephen’s hair. 

 

He fights the comfort, the pull of sleep. He needs to know.

 

“Stubborn asshole,” his companion murmurs fondly. “You’ll feel better with more rest.” His tone becomes abruptly dark, and he says, “Those two men were taken care of. You won’t have to worry about them. And I’ve got Friday working on finding the entire operation, so soon you won’t have to worry about any of it anymore.”

 

Stephen sighs, relaxing at the reassurance. He trusts Tony, he realizes, as consciousness drifts away. He has for quite some time now.

 

Stephen drops off too quickly to see Tony’s composure break completely. The cracked mask of calm that he’d desperately clung to in the days since seeing Stephen alight, shatters. He chokes on a sob, muffling it in the mattress while one hand grasps tightly at the sorcerer’s sleep shirt. The warmth of his skin bleeds through the thin cloth, and provides some measure of comfort at this evidence of life. He shudders.

 

The Cloak reaches out a hem to pat perfunctorily at the side of his head. Tony flinches at the unexpected touch, and turns his head to face the Cloak and Master, panting slightly now that he is no longer suffocating. “Yeah, alright,” he mumbles, not sure what to say. He swipes at his watering eyes.

 

It goes back to ignoring him and settles more snugly around Stephen.

 

Tony falls asleep by the time Wong returns, hunched over uncomfortably on the bedside. He’s barely slept since watching Stephen almost kill himself. Hadn’t really tried. Every time he drifted off the nightmares would wake him.

 

When Tony wakes up again, he reminds himself to thank Wong. He is sprawled out in a recliner that definitely hadn’t existed before, and while his neck and back are a bit sore, it’s not so debilitating as it would have been had Wong left him slumped at the side of the bed. He sits upright and stretches, blinking the sleep from his eyes. Not enough sleep, of course, but more than he’s gotten recently.

 

He looks over at Stephen and jolts, panicking when he realizes that there are tears streaming down his narrow face. “Stephen,” he whispers, almost lunging towards him in his haste. Is something wrong? Is it a nightmare? Pain?

 

Dark, damp eyelashes flutter open to meet his worried gaze. Pale eyes are more aware than they had been the first time he regained consciousness. They’re red and watery, and Stephen is completely silent as he cries.

 

“What is it? What do you need?” Tony asks, hands fluttering in agitation. He wants to touch, but he isn’t so sure that he should.

 

Stephen’s head moves side to side once, pressed to his pillow. His hands reach up to clasp at his heart. “Tony,” he says, voice wavering in a way that the inventor has never heard before. “I didn’t…realize…I’d forgotten…what it feels like.” He trails off, overcome.

 

“What what feels like?” Tony murmurs, reaching out to run a hand through one of Stephen’s white streaks, before gently urging him to look at him once again.

 

“What it feels like to be whole,” Stephen says almost soundlessly. “What it feels like to not be missing an essential part of myself.”

 

Tony’s free hand clenches into a fist. He doesn’t think he’s ever wanted to hurt someone so badly as he does those two men who orchestrated Stephen’s imprisonment since childhood. He wants them to hurt the way Stephen’s been hurt. He has to remind himself that it isn’t something Stephen would want. That he can’t sink to that level. Can’t afford to, because that’s the sort of thing that would snowball into an avalanche of bad ideas and bad choices.

 

Instead, he pushes those thoughts away and concentrates on how Stephen is feeling now. On being happy for Stephen.

 

“But what happened?” Stephen asks. “My hagoromo – feather robe, was destroyed. I know it was. I felt it. I was destroyed, I think.”

 

Tony tenses involuntarily, before forcing himself to relax. Stephen clumsily brings his hand up to cover Tony’s right, still pressed to his cheek.

 

“Wong has a theory,” Tony says.

 

Stephen looks at him expectantly, but the other man doesn’t elaborate. “Yes?” he prods.

 

“I don’t know if I should say, yet. Not just because I didn’t fully understand it, but also, you’re probably going to try to test it, and you’re not in any shape to do so.”

 

The sorcerer glares. “I wouldn’t.”

 

Tony raises his eyebrows. He knows exactly what he would be doing in this situation, and the pair are far too alike in some ways for their own good.

 

“Fine, I would,” Stephen capitulates. “But I promise I won’t until I feel more up to it.”

 

He thinks about holding out until Wong can be pestered, but decides that’s probably the best he’s going to get. So he sighs and meets Stephen’s expectant gaze. “He said something about how frayed your bond was with your robes. That you’d spent most of your life separate from it, and that…that each death – ” his voice cracks, right hand sliding down until he can feel the pulse in Stephen’s throat, “and you’re going to tell me about that later – and resurrection further damaged that bond. You were already almost detached from that part of yourself. So when you destroyed it, it didn’t kill you. And both…all parts of you were already sort of…primed? For resurrection, or something, and I didn’t really catch what he said about different magicks, but instead of dying you were reborn as a…a phoenix.”

 

Stephen’s eyes widen and he brings his hands up automatically to cast a spell, although he isn’t sure which.

 

“Whoa, hold it.” Tony gently grasps his wrists. “You promised.”

 

Stephen winces, chagrined. “Right. Sorry.” He pauses. “Do I…look the same?”

 

“Still as hot as ever, no changes there,” the other man says with a playful leer.

 

He suppresses a blush and immediately regrets rolling his eyes when that motion makes them ache. He looks around instead as he asks, “Was there a hagoromo?” 

 

“No, there wasn’t anything.”

 

He hadn’t thought so. That feeling of wholeness was different from what he remembered, especially considering he is still in human form. So how would he…?

 

“Oh, no,” Tony interrupts his thought process. “No.”

 

“What?” Stephen says, confused.

 

“You think I don’t recognize the look on your face? You’re not doing anything until you’re better, Stephen.”

 

“I didn’t intend to actually do anything,” he sulks.

 

Tony huffs a laugh, and begins to stroke his hair again. Stephen relaxes, nuzzling into it a bit. “You’re not going to make anything easy, are you? So high maintenance.”

 

The not-quite-human sorcerer grumbles as he drifts off.

 

What has changed, he wonders in the back of his mind, now that he’s somehow transformed from a creature of longevity, of near-immortality, into one of true immortality? Living as a human had negated that; he is far more familiar with mortality than any being has a right to be. 

 

Has that changed, as he has?

 

And the most important questions, one Stephen still doesn’t have a chance to consider. 

 

What does he want?

 

It is a question he asks himself as he recovers. As he adjusts to freedom. As he carries this new fire inside of his soul, and bursts into flames when he transforms into an elegant creature with warm colors better suited to the day, rather than his former, starker colors that brought to mind moonlight and starlight on snow. He’s forgotten what it means to grow feathers and sing, although even this transformation does not heal the wounds to his flight feathers – his hands. In time, perhaps, should he choose a phoenix’s eternity. 

 

For now, he adjusts to this new, unfettered power. Leans on Tony. Ponders what he wants, aside from continuing more or less as he has been, as Master of New York.

 

Wong is away at a meeting in Kamar-Taj. One Stephen has not been invited to, though he thinks he can guess the subject. He is experimenting with a newfound power over flames, watching as embers spark at his fingertips while Tony looks on, a hint of worry and remembered fear lingering in his dark brown eyes. Stronger, though, is a question. One that colors every look since Stephen had awoken in pain, recovering from his impromptu resurrection.

 

He lets the sparks die, and focuses his attention on Tony.

 

“How are you feeling?” Tony asks, sliding closer along the couch and sitting sideways so that he can face him, knee pressing against Stephen’s thigh. It is a question, but not the one that hovers in the background of Tony’s every expression.

 

The sorcerer relaxes slightly at the touch and considers. “Less like a stranger in my own skin. More…settled. I’m still trying to understand what I can do and what’s changed, but it isn’t so different from my first few months at Kamar-Taj.”

 

“You’re free,” Tony says softly, reaching out to place his hand on Stephen’s knee.

 

“Sometimes it still doesn’t feel real,” Stephen whispers. “It’s not like my routine or daily life is going to change. I broke my father’s conditioning years ago. On the surface, nothing’s changed, really.”

 

Tony hums.

 

“I think it will be a long time of reminding myself that I don’t have to be afraid. That I can stop searching.”

 

Tony leans his head against his shoulder, squeezes his knee.

 

Stephen hasn’t gone to look for his birth family. He isn’t entirely sure he could, even if he wants to. He is free, but he is no longer a crane. And a fenghuang or houou might be able to find their way to the celestial plains of the cranes, but Stephen is a phoenix now. Their magic and creation originate in the West rather than the East, the Mediterranean rather than eastern Asia. Further proof, he supposes, of just how very American he has become.

 

He cannot even picture his birth parents’ faces or their voices. Doesn’t know if they remember him or know who he is. He can’t go home again, and isn’t sure he is strong enough to try. Isn’t sure if he wants to. Stephen has a life here, with his order and his friends.

 

With Tony.

 

Stephen looks at Tony as his heart beats a little faster. Traces the lines of his face and thinks about these months that they have spent together.

 

Suddenly, the question that Tony hasn’t been asking is very obvious.

 

Do you want me now? Still?

 

Can we be together?

 

Stephen hadn’t been able to say yes when Tony first asked him. Not when consent was so uncertain, when even his thoughts might be coerced without his knowing. But now he is free to say yay or nay. He can know his mind is his own, and know his own mind.

 

Tony knows he isn’t human. Knows who he is, and still he stays close. Still he asks without putting pressure on him.

 

The answer is so easy, now. Even if it’s likely that nothing else will be. He doesn’t even know how to bond, and doesn’t know if a phoenix, like a crane, mates for life. If they mate at all. Or if Tony will even want that, eventually. But Stephen has never really chosen the easy path, has he? He resists even when powerless. He hopes even when there is none.

 

Stephen’s feelings haven’t changed, after all. If anything, they no longer need be restrained. That uncertainty and ever-pervasive fear of coercion have lifted

 

So he reaches out to cradle Tony’s face with his broken hands. Tony’s brown eyes flare with hope as Stephen draws close with a half-smile.

 

“I love you,” says the phoenix, says the once-crane. Says the man.

 

And Stephen kisses him.

 

*

 

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

 

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

 

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

-Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird”