If there's weird wording or some details that don't quite add up it's because I'm literally so tired I'm forgetting things I thought five minutes ago.
Christine was clutching her backpack to her chest, staring up at the massive house and checking for the fifteenth time that she had the right place. After seeing portals and a floating cloak and Stephen wearing an amulet and apologizing for his behavior she thorough she would have been prepared for anything.
But no, it was still hard to swallow that Stephen lived here.
She chewed her lip. "Okay..." she muttered, giving a brisk knock.
A few moments later, an Asian man answered the door. "Yes?"
"I—uhm..." she ran a hand through her hair self-consciously. "I'm looking for Stephen...Strange?"
"You're Christine," he said, eyeing her for a moment before nodding. "Come in, he's in the library." He stepped back to allow her entry and she glanced at him as she went, soon very distracted by how huge and rich looking the house was.
"Okay, oh boy," she said, feeling a little overwhelmed. The man who'd answered the door went past her and up the stairs, and she trotted to follow. He was wearing clothing that was similar enough to Stephen's odd blue robes that she figured he must be part of the same not-cult.
He led her through several grandiose rooms and halls, most of which had glass display cases showing off heaven knows what. One hall was completely hung with weapons. Finally, her silent guide stopped and gestured into a great room full of windows and books and one massive fireplace. "He will meet you here," he said. "Eventually."
She turned quickly around when he shut the door, still clutching her backpack. "Why does everything have to be so cryptic. Not a cult, my a-"
"Christine, you came!"
She jumped, covering her mouth to prevent yet another squeak from escaping. "Stephen!" she exclaimed, frowning at him. "You're out of your body...again."
He floated towards her and then seemed to think better of it and sort of landed—still 'standing' a few inches off the wooden floor. "Yes, well, I got impatient waiting for you and after everything I figured I probably shouldn't move my body around much until I had a chance to get a second opinion."
"So why not just go to sleep like a normal person?" she asked, gesturing at his ghostly shape. "This can't be—I mean, you're not-"
He raised an eyebrow, amusement sparking on his face. "Can't be...? Christine, surely you're not going to say something like 'real'. Not after everything."
"No, of course I've accepted that either this is real or I've lost it completely and either way this is the reality I live in now so-" she threw her hand up, her backpack tucked under the other. "What I was going to say is something like 'healthy."
"To be fair, after getting through everything I did sleep. For almost sixteen hours. Apparently my cloak was getting concerned because I woke up to Wong checking for signs of life." He side-eyed his cloak, which she only just realized was floating near a bookshelf full of very strange looking tomes.
"Wong?" she asked, following as he began to 'walk' towards the other end of the room.
"My colleague. I think he saw you up here?"
"Ah. Right." She stopped walking, planting her feet and wrapping both arms around the backpack again. "Stephen?"
He paused, turning around to look at her.
"Why am I here? Honestly?"
"I told you, I could use a second opinion."
"And you couldn't go to someone else?" she asked, feeling the conflict that surrounded her relationship with this very complicated man bleed into her voice. "Anyone else?"
He looked down, seemed to fidget for a moment. "Well, I didn't think it was wise for me to move any more than I had to, after injuring my pericardium and then getting hit in the chest multiple times in the hours after. I spent some time examining my own body when I woke up, both while inside and out of it, but-" he sighed, and the next words seemed difficult. "I'm not sure what injuries are really there, and which ones are just...lingering." He sucked a breath, raising his head and giving her a tight smile. "Besides, I didn't want to be left out of the consult and I don't have the patience to condition another doctor to talk with and actually listen to me like this."
Her brow furrowed. "Hold on, what do you mean you don't know what injuries are really there? If this is something to do with your-" she squeezed her eyes shut "powers, then I am not going to be able to help you."
"It does and it doesn't," he amended, and then he drew closer. He twitched, as though wanting to take her hand but knowing it wouldn't really work. "Please, Christine? Just—just come see my body, tell me what's physically wrong so I can work on healing."
His eyes were pleading and she couldn't refuse such a vulnerable request. She had never been able to.
"All right," she sighed, gesturing with one hand. "Show me where you left your body. Again."
She could see the relief in his eyes and he gestured. "Come on, my bedroom is only just down the hall."
His bedroom, though full of books, robes, candles, herbs and sigils, was about equal to half of Christine's entire apartment. She barely took any of it in, only really noting the grand bed and Stephen's body laying on its back in the middle of it. Stephen swept around the side and through the bed, drawing his legs up to float a few inches above with his legs crossed. He beckoned her over.
"I had equipment delivered, figured it might be a little easier for you to use a more conventional means of looking inside." He pointed at an ultrasound machine that had been set up on the bedside table.
"Well, let's start traditional, and we will work our way up. You said you got hit in the chest—did the stitches hold?"
He grimaced. "Sort of. There's a few new ones but the surface wound doesn't worry me. At least, I don't think it does."
She frowned at his answer and fished her stethoscope out of her bag, fitting the pieces in her ears and pulling Stephen's robes apart so she could get to his chest. She listened carefully at several different points. When she was done she rest the instrument aside and shook her head. "If there's anything wrong it's not making any kind of abnormal noise. Your chest sounds clear, your heart strong. It was very clear and steady."
" Probably because I'm projecting and part of that is meditation, but thank you for the assurances."
"Are you worried about bleeding somewhere else internal? Is that why you got the ultrasound?"
His hands clenched and un clenched once where they rest on his knees and he avoided looking at her for a few moments. "I don't know."
"Stephen, I can't help if you don't give me something to go on." He seemed like he was warring with himself so she rubbed at her forehead and tried a different tactic. "Can you please at least come back to your body and turn yourself onto your left side? I don't feel like wrangling you into position and if there really is something wrong with your heart I would rather have a clear echo."
He gave her an amused look like he was thinking something he probably shouldn't say, but he did as asked and vanished. Moments later, he stirred on the bed, opening his eyes and blinking up at the ceiling for a few moments before trying to move. He let out a pained cry and clutched at his chest, hissing through his teeth as he turned carefully over. Everything hurt.
"What happened to you?" Christine asked, mildly horrified. "You look like you've been thrown all over the place.'
"Well—that's not inaccurate."
She switched on the echo and picked up the gel, giving him an exasperated look tinted with concern. "Stephen, you can't ask me to make a house call like this and then continue to be cryptic."
He didn't answer at first, going quiet as he lay on his side to make it easier for the ultrasound machine to find and record his heart. He lay quietly as Christine smeared the gel over his chest and then probed gently with the wand, adjusting the view screen and the tool until an image began to form and the underwater sounding pulse echoed from the speakers. He gazed at the screen, watching his own heart chambers and aortic valve as they worked to keep him alive.
"I died," he said at last, his voice subdued, his eyes locked on that image of his heart though his thoughts were far away.
Christine's brow furrowed as she glanced at him and shifted the wand, getting a different view as she watched carefully for signs that the pericardium was still breached. "Well, if you want to call it that but your heart only stopped for a few seconds, and despite you being a complete idiot about that defibrillator I haven't found any signs of lasting damage. You know death isn't real until the brain stops."
"No, Christine, I died," he said, and his voice was so subdued that she paused and furrowed her brow, looking at him. He wouldn't look back.
"What do you mean?"
He swallowed thickly, the tendons in his neck standing out as he tensed up and tried to relax again. "I needed you to look at me because I feel like I don't remember what's real. I tried to examine myself and I found a shard of black stone suddenly jutting from my chest. I tried to calm the shaking in my hands and realized that my veins were burning because I was choking on poison. The sorcerer I told you about, the dark dimension that threatened everything—I sent them away. But first I captured this being in an endless loop of time, a loop he used to kill me over and over. Sometimes he made it quick in his rage. Others..." he grew quiet again, squeezing his eyes shut. "I know this is a different reality, that Dormamu is gone and I'm alive but everything aches and I found blood on my robes and I seriously didn't have the presence of mind to understand if I was truly bleeding or not."
Christine listened with mounting horror, her mouth going dry. Like half of the things he'd said to her since dropping back out of the ether this seemed completely crazy—but the look in his eyes, the thickness of his voice convinced her it wasn't. And that made it all the worse.
"You remember all those deaths?" she whispered. "Even though they didn't technically happen?"
"Oh, they happened. And yes. I do."
She swallowed, focusing on the echo because at least that she understood. "Your heart is clear. The chambers are clean, the muscle is a healthy thickness, and the valves show no signs of leaking. And I got a clear picture all around. Your pericardium seems to be healing." She put the equipment to the side and wiped the gel from his chest with a tissue, throwing it away before moving to lace his robes back up. He caught her hand in his, and she knew the trembling wasn't because of nerve damage alone this time. Slowly, he folded both of his hands over her one and let it rest against his chest.
"Thank you, Christine," he said softly. "I was having a hard time finding my way back alone."
"Stephen," she said, hesitant but wanting not to care, wanting not to fight still loving him anymore. By the time she got to the end of his name she was at a loss for words.
"It's okay," he said finally, reading it in her eyes. "Thank you. Again," he amended.
She smiled sadly and cupped his cheek, carding his hair back and looking long at his eyes. She brushed by his mouth with her thumb. "I like this, you should keep it."
He smiled and even huffed a tiny laugh. "I intend to, but it's nice to have your stamp of approval."
"You know what else you should keep, Stephen?"
He raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"
She gripped his shoulder. "Your. Body." She stared him down, eyebrows raised. "You can't just keep hopping out and leaving it laying around like it's an old coat!"
"Technically-" she planted a finger across his lips.
"No! You can't. Keep it on more often, please. It's weird."
He smiled against her finger and quirked an eyebrow. "Too strange for you?" he said, voice muffled around her hand.
She snorted and dropped her hand. "No, Stephen. It's just wrong. When you were dying, I get it, but out of body is not supposed to be as common as 'out on a walk'."
His eyes crinkled with amusement and she stared him down for a few seconds longer, letting out an exasperated sigh. "You're not going to stop, are you?"