Summary: Given how often Tony Stark's in Las Vegas, he knows there's no real magic there. …Except for that one mysterious behind-the-scenes genius. Who can't actually be a space alien. Because that would be…fantastic, actually. [or, the FrostIron Vegas AU nobody asked for]
Author's Note: Two people actually did ask for this story. You know who you are. Everyone and anyone else, if you've followed me over from "Nightfall", 1: I realize that this is not what you signed up for, which leads me to 2: I'm getting back to my beloved HTTYD universe, but 3: this is the kind of plot bunny that lurks in the corner until people feed it and it grows up into the Rabbit of Caerbannog.
given this story's setting, I think it is once again appropriate to say
ON WITH THE SHOW!
Chapter One: Domino
Picture this, then.
The brightest street on Earth, and perhaps the loudest, and almost the most famous. Millions upon millions of lights blinking, blazing, the smaller ones blotted out in patches by the hordes of people swarming, laughing, calling out to each other, pointing and staring. And maybe the lights in those eyes are delight, or maybe only the dazed reflections of the burning, burning street and the spotlight that roars out a welcome to the stars.
A castle; a pyramid; a tent bigger than towers; a building that curves like a billowing sail. A volcano. A ship that burns and sinks and rises again. Dancing, singing, profligate fountains, water spraying lavishly into the desert air. A city within a city, in grandiose miniature. A spindly, staggering tower, legs planted wide; a single spire, stabbing at the sky. Pieces of the world, picked up and jumbled together. A child's playset of a city, scrambled together with an ironic grin and a challenging glance.
The magician draws attention, when he cares to be seen. A tall man, slender, elegant, with a striking, sharp-cut face and keen eyes, trailing long dark hair with just a suggestion of curls, left uncut in an ongoing fit of spite. He wears a suit well, and he is with some amusement aware of it, although he misses the clothes he grew up with. He wears them still, when he can; he suspects that even in armor with soldiers at his heels, still there would be someone more out of place stumbling from a doorway nearby.
He has not yet cared to try this.
He accepts the looks, from sidelong glances to outright stares, as his due. Being seen has never bothered him; why should it? If he did not wish to be seen, he would not be.
There is something cold in those green eyes, though. Hundreds of years – not that long – ago, the people who gathered around the springs and the meadows they nurtured against the desert might have named him and known him well.
He cuts through the hordes as if none of them exist, untouched in the midst of chaos; a creature of true glamour and pure gold, he is indifferent to the glamor and gilt all around. The magician moves like a wolf, easy and graceful, balanced in the way of a dancer, or a fencer, aware of his body and his space.
But bright lights dazzle; in the truth of starlight, some might have said: coyote.
The coyote is clever, and he is reckless, and yet he survives long after the noble, the bold, the great and the powerful have withered and starved and been hunted to their bones. He will sit on the edge of the light and yowl scorn, and answer shouts and warnings with mocking laughter, bold and careless until the besieged man lifts a weapon to his shoulder and takes aim. And in that moment, the coyote is gone, as if he had never been.
Coyote is always getting himself into trouble, and everyone else along with him. He never, ever learns, and he never, ever stops.
The first people of the meadows would recognize Coyote, mad and irrepressible and cunning, charming even as he runs rabid.
The magician has coyote eyes, glittering with the lights of balked rage and ever-creative spite and deep-etched bitterness, and a mad coyote smile, showing just the edge of teeth.
But the coyote belongs in the desert that spills away to the horizon, beyond the glare of the lights, and the magician is very far from home.
It is a poor refuge, this place of glitter and glamor, illusion and deception and desperation. But illusion and deception are his weapons, and there is something…
…about the freedom to tell the absolute truth and have people believe it a jest and a pretty lie, although at times he wishes to roar, to cloak their streets in the guise of another world and have them know who and what he is in truth.
But there is no one the magician trusts to believe him, and this place is so much more complicated than his home.
The coyote may laugh at the gun, but he keeps to the shadows as he does.
He passes through the sliding doors into the tower like any other man, weaving unconsciously through the crowd, registering only the momentary glance of acknowledgement from the woman guarding her shining desk. Many of the people who work along the street know him by sight, perhaps believe him one of them, as they are meant to do. Someone who belongs, not one of the travelers who come to look and be deceived and submit gladly.
And yet, there are whispers, the magician knows, that coyote grin sparking at the thought.
Time and restlessness and caution – and no little skill at unlocking doors thought securely closed – have given the magician a thorough knowledge of the elaborate buildings that line the blazing street, pacing out his chosen cage. There are hiding places and retreats beyond easy reach, built over and forgotten, abandoned as inconvenient or dangerous, architectural oddities dismissed and disregarded.
One such door, high in the rearing tower, clicks beneath his hand as long fingers brush over the electronic lock. Hush, the magician commands silently. I am permitted to be here. No one need be disturbed, and the tiny mind, barely even a spark, falls still without complaint.
As the door opens, he pauses, listening for the echoes of movement, the breath of the air, any indication that he is not alone. Closing his eyes, he asks the wind, who's there?
No one, no one, the wind sighs, tumbling from the pipes and hastening back again.
The passageway beyond boasts none of the effusiveness of the rest of the building. It is a practical, matter-of-fact place, built to work, not to display. It is a humble secret passage, and not even a secret, at that.
But it will serve, and the heavy door that he comes to beyond a trio of curves most of all.
Cool to the touch, it is locked, of course, and trained to wail if opened, but only to people without magic in their hands.
The cold desert wind tears at him, slamming the door closed and whipping the magician's long hair across his face as he ventures out onto one of the small ledges that winds around the tower's walls. Beneath him, the abyss and its millions of lights blaze, blotting out the stars. But the wind carries with it the smell of the desert, gaping and open, clean and brutal, shedding the heat of the day.
Surefooted, secure in the knowledge that no one can see him, the magician reaches for the ladder, taking the rungs in carelessly devouring strides. He makes his way across catwalks, along ledges, taking routes even the most daring climbers would hesitate to try without support and making running jumps no one would consider, twice clambering across surfaces never meant to be trodden. He walks the coiling, narrow line of a waiting, ice-cold track like a wide and sunny road.
The peak of the tower is a long way up, but the magician is not afraid to fall. He has run laughing and leapt blindly and fought for his life over greater depths, and he has fallen much, much further before.
The swaying, darkened rooftop is a space between, and thus a favorite of his, in a world he so often despises. Exile below, and home beyond. It is a parody of an escape, just a little way, but it helps him to bear this world a little longer.
The magician settles in the lee of the rail-thin spire, closing his eyes to the night and trading, for a stolen moment, one pretense for another.
It could be any height, any evening; any retreat from the raucous carousing and ruckus of another place, another time.
He misses the smell of the sea, but in all this backwater world there is perhaps no place he can blend in as easily as he does in this one.
So he waits, and he watches, and he dreams of bright skies.
The tower is the tallest in the city; from the regular platform, on a clear day, you would be able to see for hundreds of miles.
From the very top, on a clear night, with the smallest of illusions to dim the lights from below, you can almost see forever.
It's never, never far enough.
"You know," says Tony, grinning his fifth-best grin – the third-best is reserved for press conferences, the second-best for hot girls he intends to catch for a night and release, and the very best for when he really, really wants something and knows Pepper is going to try to fight him over it, and the mildly tipsy kid in the Goku shirt who's trying to glare at him over the scattered disarray of the billiards table is none of those – "the more you play with that thing, the harder it's going to get."
There's just enough laughter from the audience of bystanders and casino girls and waitresses and spectators and – whatshisname – probably-Elliott's two friends to put the kid off his stroke, but he's sober enough to stop before he plows the head of his pool cue into the green baize and misses his shot entirely.
"C'mon, man," he protests good-naturedly, "I'm not that easy."
A little bit of a real grin sneaks in around the corners of the fifth-best for distracting people one. He's beginning to like the trio's style, just a little bit, not that it's going to help their current sacrificial lambkin win the game. The stripy balls left on the table already outnumber the solid ones, and Tony likes pool. It's angles and math and vectors, with the neat solid click-click-click-chunk sound the balls make as they ricochet off each other and the edges of the table and go right where he wants them to.
Although Elliott, which might be his first name or his last, either/or, no big deal, whichever, is an MIT kid and a more recent one too, so he probably knows how vectors work. He squints at the purple-and-white ball like he knows where he wants it to go, and lines up the cue ball and his shot again.
He'd like to say he's mature enough to not sabotage the kid's game any further, but what fun would that be?
Also, Tony maintains that he's exactly mature enough to drink, and no more.
"At least they're the very best penalty shots," he comments almost nonchalantly enough to be real.
Elliott flinches – it's great whiskey, it burns like liquid ghost peppers, briefly but fiercely, and he's already had two of the tiny mini-shot glasses on top of whatever else he and his classmates were drinking before they ran into Tony and challenged to him a game, and before Tony raised the stakes by offering a wager they couldn't pass up.
Even if he did then make everything that much difficult by making it shot pool. Every game should either have shots or stripping at stake, as far as Tony's concerned, and while Tony's never been against the occasional walk on the wild side – what part of unapologetic total hedonist did you not understand? – three MIT boys probably avoiding the blackjack tables lest they be evicted for suspicion of card counting aren't high on the list of people he really wants to see naked tonight.
Now if it had been that waitress with the punk haircut and the purple tips – her fingernails are the same color and he's curious about what other tips she might have dyed – strip pool would definitely have been the plan, at least for however long the game lasted. Probably not long.
And even he probably isn't allowed to play strip pool in public, and this definitely qualifies. Tony can feel the eyes on him, tugging at him, shining at him like spotlights, and he basks in the attention and the admiration and the awe. He loves being the center of attention, loves not even needing to ask for it, or even do anything: people show up in the knowledge that he will do something, or just to say that they've seen him in person.
Yeah, he's that awesome. Damn right.
He should award himself vacations more often, Tony decides, feeling the heavy blanket of a week shut in his lab slip away, burned off by the lights and the hungry eyes. He'd locked himself in there to really get some work done, building himself a remote-operated precision manipulator that, if he could get all the bits moving in concert, would be able to check and repair missile components without having to take apart the missile first, because people get nervous when they have to take apart something that should have gone off bang but didn't.
The mounted magnifying glass he likes to use kept frying pieces of circuitry, and he'd finally switched, however reluctantly, to the zoom lens and lost himself in rewiring and creating welds so delicate they'd probably be invisible even to the magnifying glass, the tiny, mighty mini-welder flaring warm through his work gloves.
He's still not sure how long he was there. Long enough that when Pepper finally stepped in to make him eat something, he nearly fell off his stool and knocked three mostly-empty coffee mugs off the table.
Coffee is gross when it's old, why has no one invented better coffee that doesn't congeal into something that looks and tastes like it's going to sludge away into a black-and-white monster movie from the fifties and eat cars before being blown up by some ridiculously square-jawed hero? And why, if DUM-E can understand bringing coffee, can't the silly bot understand taking coffee away?
He thinks he'd threatened DUM-E with being turned into a parking meter, if he'd been using recognizable words at that point.
But he'd made the waldo work and it's going to make defusing misfires so much easier and safer.
Sure, it'd be better if they didn't misfire in the first place. Tony should probably be at the Oakland factory checking all their procedures and blowing some of their ordnance up himself. For quality testing purposes, of course.
Instead he'd slept for nineteen hours, eaten the first half-dozen things he'd found in the fridge, and taken off for Vegas in the Maserati before Pepper could catch him. Racing people who just couldn't resist trying to match the car – it's a very chaseable vehicle, as half the Highway Patrollers in California will attest – along the way until their engines gave out into clouds of dust and steam had been just a taste of the fun that roars up and down the Strip like an endless wave, and Tony is all too willing to throw himself in and surf it.
And now at last Tony feels like he's back on again, out of that darkness where he goes sometimes. He wants people around him again, wants the noise and the lights and the smells of hope and desperation – they both smell like alcohol and perfume. His tongue can practically taste the adrenaline that's soaked into the walls of even the newest casinos; his teeth can feel the humming that's like being wired right into the slot machine lights, racing with every pulse and breath, every roll of the dice and flip of the cards and spin of the wheel.
Pepper can find him if anything comes up that she can't handle, whatever that might be. Most of the casinos on the Strip know her; they'll keep her in the loop, if she calls. And she can always call him. On which note, he should actually check his phone at some point.
Or maybe he should just get himself on TV and then she and JARVIS can track him down by the footage.
MIT Boy Elliott changes his mind and finally makes his move, launching the cue ball to hit the 13; elastic collisions, check. The orange-and-white ball ricochets across the table, brushing against the 6 and the 14 but not hard enough to really get them going, and hovers over the lip of the corner pocket next to Tony's fingers – he has finally learned to keep them off the table, no matter how drunk he is – before finally deciding it does want to obey gravity after all.
Physics is working tonight. Excellent.
Elliott and his friends cheer and slap palms, and Tony happily accepts a mini-glass of top shelf whiskey from the intriguingly purple waitress, one of five standing around with trays of tiny penalty drinks, wedged in between the luckier bystanders.
"To balls!" he proposes a toast, and tosses it back to applause and catcalls.
Damn, but he loves Las Vegas!
"It's actually a really interesting project," MIT Boy #2, whatever his name is, maybe Griffith or Griffin or something like that, assures Tony.
"And nothing to do with blackjack, I'm sure," Tony volleys back: the deal is that if the MIT boys win the game, Tony has to look over and critique their project for this semester's class on electrical engineering.
On the other hand, if he wins, Elliott and co. have to reprogram all the phone lines at MIT, including the public address system, to make everyone sound like either Darth Vader or C-3PO.
They groan more or less in unison, which is pretty impressive. "Oh, like we've never heard that before," says MIT Boy #3, who's so very much a central-casting Brian that Tony's half convinced he's actually a Brianoid or Brianotron constructed in some lab that Tony wants in on, by the way. The Brianomatic has been equipped with some very lifelike eye-rolling action.
"Kid, you're the one in an MIT shirt in a Vegas casino." Tony chalks up the tip of his cue and saunters around the table to take aim at where the errant white ball has wobbled off to. "Check Urban Dictionary, you're going to find your picture next to asking for it."
Besides, he really doesn't have anything better to do right now than trawl Las Vegas in search of something intriguing, something new. He doesn't have the first idea what their project is about, agreed to critique it without even knowing the topic – because they picked him out of the crowd, easy enough, but then they worked up the nerve to corner him and ask. He doesn't bite much, unless someone's into that, but the undergrads clearly have balls that aren't on the table being knocked around. So maybe it'll be groundbreaking and he'll hire the lot of them.
If Tony's life is about anything, if he was the kind of person to generalize and philosophize and do various other things ending in -ize, it's about the Next Big Thing.
Cutting-edge is for suckers; he lives his life on the bleeding edge of the razor, carving out new frontiers. Tony wants to take possible and turn it upside down and shake it for the potential that falls out of its pockets like coins of a bright new world.
Worst-case scenario, their stuff is boring, and he'll pass it back to them with sarcastic comments all over it, and then he'll have to sit through another Board of Directors meeting with only the irritation of knowing that Justin Hammer is ripping off more of his stuff to distract him.
Obnoxious little lickspittle. They're not even good rip-offs. Tony and some of his lab techs have been getting good mileage out of blowing them up in interesting ways, and they have video evidence that the satellite model crashed and burned after they all glared at it really menacingly. The camera gets frightened, what the hell?
If he didn't know who'd rebuilt it, he'd almost be impressed with the level of artificial intelligence that displayed. Hammer's invented artificial stupidity! By accident!
Anyway, it's the principle of the thing.
Tony's got principles. He's got tons of principles, just not when it comes to women or sarcasm or not making an ass of himself in public.
Don't take my stuff is a principle.
Still, as Obie says, that's what lawyers are for, and they've got to pay those guys for something.
Tony narrows his eyes at the 6 ball and traces the ballistics in his head in between the lazy dopamine fireworks going off in distant corners of his skull.
All the possible paths go spooling out across the table like the holograms in his lab, lines of possibility and potential, probabilities whose waveforms haven't yet collapsed. The 6 is a straightforward shot, the cue ball's in an ideal position, but if he taps it hard enough so it'll come off the opposite bumper at what he'll eyeball as a 24-degree angle then it'll get the 2 going as well, and although it'll probably sideswipe Elliott's 15 as it travels, it should have enough kinetic energy to keep going and hit the left-hand side pocket, plus if he gives the 6 enough of a kick in the first place, the 15 will hit the 5, which has been lurking in an awkward sort of up-against-the-wall-and-not-in-a-fun-way limbo since the initial break…
He's more than a little drunk already, and part of him that he apparently listens too far too often has taken a good long look at the available ladies in very low-cut, tight-cut dresses crowding around the table, and someone has just spun a slot machine into ringing all its bells and whistles, and all around he can hear side bets being placed on each shot and calls for more drinks and napkins while they're at it, someone's elbow must have gotten jostled too hard, but it wasn't his…
…and the math, the math is pure, it's clean, and it's always there, and it's never steered him wrong.
Propping the cue on the knuckles of his left hand, Tony leans over the table and ignores his favorite red-tinted glasses slipping down off the top of his head. Wow, he's getting old, he'd forgotten he'd left those there. Guess there's nothing left to do but go out in glorious flames that will leave people asking "How did he do that?" for decades.
Or, at the very least, send the cue ball skipping across the baize fast enough and hard enough to pocket the 6 and still get things moving just as he'd predicted. The 2 and the 15 and the wallflower of a 5 ball go caroming away; the 2 disappears into a corner pocket with a satisfying little click.
Tony manages to stop himself from saying "Who da man!" so he's definitely not drunk enough to matter yet.
The audience whoops and settles their side bets. Someone's got a camera flashing. Tony pulls out the fourth-best grin and aims it back at camera guy.
"Does he have to drink two of those now?" someone in the audience asks, at which Elliott looks slightly queasy.
The rest of the audience goes "Ooh!" with the air of a Colosseum that's just been informed that the lions are coming, hurrah, hurrah.
"I have it on good authority that hurling on the table ruins the rest of the game, so let's go with no on that one," Tony declares, waving the hand that isn't holding a pool cue magnanimously. Those things are deadly weapons in the wrong hands. Or drunk ones.
He's feeling the buzz himself, actually – the MIT boys weren't the only ones who got a head start. The free drinks that so many of the casinos offer on their gaming floors are everywhere, and the servers make sure he gets the good stuff, maybe because they know him, or maybe because the third-best grin is for cocktail waitresses too, or maybe because he tips well. It's fine. He's fine.
He's not even sure which casino this is. It might be the MGM Grand or the Hilton or New York squared; it's probably not the Luxor or Excalibur, which are both consistently themed to a rather obnoxious degree, and it's definitely not Circus Circus, which is even more so.
It's all fine. Tony's just going to let it ride until it stops or he falls over or the sun comes up or Pepper fetches him out of an actual pool with real water and possibly topless pretty people at some point. That's what Las Vegas is for.
Even for him, there's just so much Las Vegas, so brightly lit, at such a high volume; the edge has to come off somehow.
He'll go outside and get some fresh air after this game.
Or maybe the next one.
If he can find the door by then.
The casinos on the Strip are like a maze, carefully engineered to keep people in. No clocks on the walls, that golden glow instead of even a hint of natural lighting, new attractions and new temptations – hello, cutie! – at every turn. Impossible not to stop and watch. A flashing, laughing, shouting, alluring maze, with distractions, and free drinks.
Who needs a minotaur when you've got free drinks? Daedalus had overthought things. Moving floors and trapdoors – mooving floors, hah! Probability of being drunk with greater than point-oh-five significance, rising – forget 'em; the Ancient Greeks should have just piped in a constant supply of that wine-dark…wine…and put a padlock on the door.
Had the Greeks invented padlocks?
He likes the way his hands are still reverberating with the impact of the shot, plus a spontaneous high-five from one overenthusiastic lady who is definitely not a cocktail waitress, her eyes that bizarre Vegas mixture of glazed over and glittering. Pool's such a real game, more so than craps or poker or blackjack. Nature itself works on pool rules, angles and mathematics and ballistics.
Right now there are trillions and trillions of hydrogen atoms rebounding off each other, random-walking their way out of the depths of the sun, ricocheting this way and that in the biggest mosh pit in the solar system, dark and hot and fervent, hip-checking each other in three dimensions until a few of them burst out into the light, burst out to become light, flung away and free to streak 150 million kilometers faster than anything else in the universe only to plow straight into Earth's atmosphere eight minutes later, heating the atmosphere into motion, spinning it out of lifeless balance to kick-start the wind that pushes around clouds until they burst, emptying into the Colorado to race downhill through the Rockies off towards the Gulf, slowing only a little to confront the massive bulk of the Hoover Dam, turning those turbines and grinding out electricity – a whole chain, a whole conga line of excited atoms kicking each other in the ass until the very last one in the line is kicked right out of some cleverly angled mood lighting rigs that almost give this area the feeling of a proper dive bar, only with much less likelihood that someone will be leaving on their teeth.
Just so Tony Stark – and assorted other people who don't get his spotlight, but can have the reflection if they're interesting enough – can hit some balls with a stick.
The Brianoid joggles Elliott's elbow and starts hissing anxiously in his ear, pointing at the table, and Tony watches with amusement as the almost painfully clean-cut kid nearly gets sideswiped with the pool cue for his pains. But something must have gotten through, because after that Elliott starts playing defensively, not trying to maneuver his striped pool balls around so much as spoil all Tony's best shots, and the game stalls for a bit as they snipe at each other and sober up, tossing one-liners mostly borrowed from movies across the table. Tony's slightly proud of the way the 12 ricochets three and a half times between the bumpers, going absolutely nowhere as every head around the table bobs back and forth to follow it.
As trick shots go, it's spectacularly useless, but it does end up in the no-man's-land almost exactly in the middle, snarled behind other balls from every direction.
"Hey," approximately-Griffith chips in at one point while Elliott sidles around the table and some angel in only slightly more than a glittering bikini (there are pants involved somewhere) starts serving up snacks, delicate little confections that could almost be bar food if they weren't so delicious, rich, and smooth, "if you were working on anything involving solid or opaque holograms, would you be able to tell us about them? I mean, if it's proprietary, of course not, but this dope here was really spooked earlier. Do us all a favor and tell him it was just a really good trick?"
Tony says something rather like "Mmph," through a mouthful of miniature sandwich and jabs the toothpick at him. "Sort of. Depends on what you mean by holograms. I've got some in my workshop, some of the Stark Industries labs use holographic work surfaces. Mostly depth projections and schematics, wire models and exploded diagrams. Why? Are we talking about a holodeck here?"
They're really good sandwich-kebabs. Griffith takes two, one for each hand, and starts eating them a piece at a time like a complete weirdo. "Nah, no one's got that yet, right?"
"If they did," Tony assures him, not without a hint of longing, because every good little nerd wants a holodeck someday, "either they'd be making billions in the entertainment industry, and I'd know about it, or they'd have sold it to the military and, three guesses, first two don't count, I'd know about that too. And I'd have tried to buy it off them. Nope. Nothing doing. But if you find one, call me."
To his credit, Griffith pulls his phone from his pocket, flips it open, and says with a straight face, "Hi, Mr. Stark? I think I saw a holodeck earlier today."
"If you don't take that shot sometime this year, kid, I'm going to give your turn to the first volunteer," Tony threatens the stalling Elliott, who glares at him a bit tipsily and then at the crowd as a dozen hands shoot up.
Someone actually says, "Ooh! Me! Pick me!"
"We were just at this magic show up the road," Griffith goes on. "Totally ridiculous. It was about the kind of mad scientist with Einstein hair and a Frankenstein accent who blows up his eyebrows –"
Tony can't help but interrupt. "Hey, I've done that. Don't laugh," he adds, just a second too late.
"You have?" the Brianotron asks, eyes wide with the sort of hero worship only extended to people who blow shit up real good. It might be a guy thing, although Tony has a number of women on staff at the main campus alone who are really into explosions.
"Yeah." If he sounds rueful, it's not at the memory – it's at what happened immediately afterwards. "Pepper – my PA, she's amazing, nothing fazes her, the sky could fall in and she'd sigh very slightly and go about coordinating the press coverage – showed up the secondmy bots put all the fires out, which took way longer than it should have, with what she called an eyebrow pencil at the ready to draw them back on."
As Elliott finally sends the cue ball off to its date with destiny and the red-and-white 11, Tony adds, "So then I found where she'd put it away, and I gave myself Spock eyebrows."
A section of the crowd whoops and applauds and punches the air; some of them are wearing Star Trek shirts. Now that Tony gets a good look at them, as the people immediately around them duck and recoil from their enthusiasm, some of the shirts look so new they might be right off the rack, with creases still running across the fabric. This is probably the Hilton, then.
The 12 sinks into a corner pocket, and a few people cheer Elliott on general principles.
"Took two days before she noticed. I almost got to go to some sort of arts opening thing with them, it would have been great. I still think I would have gotten away with it, if I hadn't found an old set of pointy ears to go with them."
Pepper had caught him trying to get the cheap old latex props to stay in place in the bathroom mirror. She'd folded her arms and simply said "No," in that tone that laid down the law and staple-gunned it into place, ker-chunk, ker-chunk, and had refused to move until he took them off and put his eyebrows back the way they were supposed to be.
No sense of humor, Pepper Potts. None at all.
Which isn't at all true, but it's Pepper's job to keep heads on straight and Tony's to turn them; it works out.
Amidst another wave of laughter, Griffith goes on. "Anyway, his last trick was duplicating a member of the audience, and Brian here –" He flicks the empty toothpick at the Brianoid. "– volunteered, like an idiot, you should never volunteer for anything."
Griffith might be ex- or upcoming-military, Tony notes; Rhodey used to say that in a tone so cynical even Tony could pick up on it.
He's not always good at emotional cues, but he is dead-on on sarcasm.
"Well, go on," Griffith nudges his friend, "tell him."
"Hold that thought," Tony points at him, and accepts a mini-glass from a waitress. Downing his penalty shot in a single gulp, he snaps the cue ball at the first likely-looking trajectory and doesn't stop to see where it goes. "Ball's back in your court, I think the phrase is."
Elliott mutters furiously to himself, watching the balls rebound. Their audience is starting to drift away, moving on to higher-stakes tables and faster-moving cards, which is fine. There are always more.
"Man, I could not tell the difference," enthuses Brian. "It looked just like me. An instant tri-dee copy, not transparent or see-through at all. I can't believe my hair looks like that from the back! I'm going to shave it all off."
Tony's no judge of hair, but Brian's can only get better.
"And it moved like me! How did it know? Unbelievable." He shakes his head, raising one hand and reaching out in unconscious recollection. "I couldn't quite touch it, but it didn't even flicker when I waved my hand through it – to prove it wasn't a guy in a costume, you see. And my hand went all tingly, like there was an active electromagnetic field! Totally creepy."
Now, that…that is interesting, just a whiff of something newly possible. It's quite possible that the MIT boy band have been taken in by some clever application of smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand; that's what magic shows do so that even if you know how the trick works, your eyes still lie to you. Tony had taught himself a couple of magic tricks as a kid, coin fades and palming objects, before getting sidetracked into lock-picking and never going back.
A high-resolution screen, some good cameras, a mirror or film too thin to be seen and 360 degrees of projectors to populate it with images, that would do the trick. Glass and mirrors have been showing people ghosts for literally centuries, you can do it with the right angles and good lighting and no electronics at all… But how had the Brianoid put his hand through it, then?
It's certainly something Tony would want to pursue. He's always looking for ways to upgrade his own basement lab at home, and the weapons programs would eat up working holograms like ice cream.
The spoofing applications would be endless! It'd be a quantum leap up from throwing aluminum chaff out of bombers, that's for sure. Invisible planes with built-in cloaking devices…he can practically hear Obie breaking out the champagne as the Air Force starts storming the phone lines.
And if anyone can make something out of a Vegas sleight-of-hand trick, Tony is one hundred percent certain it's going to be Tony Stark, genius.
…okay, sure, he's got a few worlds he'd like to build in a holodeck someday, although his is going to have better doors and some sensible safewords.
"That actually sounds really cool," Tony admits, after condemning Elliott to another shot glass of finest whiskey. "So where can I find that guy?"
The kid's slurring his words; Tony's mildly impressed that he's still managing to play pool. "No'so fas', gotta get tha' stinkin' blackbody," he insists.
"Maybe we could make that the wager instead?" Griffith offers, resigned to losing.
"I think you're just scared that Dr. Russell's going to catch you wiring up her phone. Is she still there?"
"Oh yeah," both mostly-sober undergrads grimace.
"Scariest woman ever, am I right?"
Brian admits, "Nobel Peace Prize for important work in terrifying undergrads."
"Okay, I'll tell you what. Stand aside, kiddo." He nudges Elliott gently enough, props him up on the end of his pool cue before he hurts himself or anyone else with it, and sets to work on the remaining solid-color balls.
Click and click and click, and the black eight ball makes an end of it.
The original crowd has mostly dispersed by then, probably gone off in search of James Bond dreams, and been replaced by an even more mixed crowd of bystanders. Griffith and the Brianoid relieve the remaining waitresses of the leftover shot glasses – no student ever, in Tony's experience, passes up free booze.
"How about," Brian offers, wheezing through the burn, "we tell you where to find the guy with the holograms, and we wire a voice converter into the phones some day when Dr. Russell isn't on campus?"
Tony snatches the last shot glass for himself; it's on his tab, after all. "Okay, I'll let you off the hook that much. It's a deal."
He can practically see them sag with relief. Tony never has nightmares about being unable to find his high school locker while naked – he terrified a series of tutors until he could terrorize MIT instead, and he's yet to be embarrassed about being naked – but his few school-related nightmares feature Dr. Russell more often than anything else.
He fumbles through his pockets, which have acquired the usual array of junk since he last checked. Eventually, an old business card emerges, along with half of a golf pencil, and Tony puts extra-special care into writing legibly. His handwriting's bad enough on the best days. Give him a keyboard or voice recognition any day. "I'm going to expect video, though. Here's my email. Or an email anyway. Somebody's email that might reach me at some point."
Griffith seems the least drunk, so Griffith gets the card.
"And if you happen to accidentally send me the specs of your project," Tony adds, "I'll look at it if I get a chance."
He might as well have announced that they've won the Nobel Prize themselves, the way they cheer and slap each other on the back.
"Jeez, you're embarrassing me. Wait, nope – never happens. I know, I know, I'm awesome. Dude, if you hug me, I will swap your project for a remedial city college worksheet and publish it online under your names."
The Brianotron manages to turn the half-formed gesture into a spirited imitation of a cheerleader, only with fewer pom-poms and, mercifully, more clothes.
"Name and location of that magician now, and then you can go pour your friend into bed," Tony suggests, smirking. "They won't let him sleep on the table."
"You know that personally?" Griffith asks, doing his best to match the smirk. It's not as good.
The original crowd is long gone, drifting off and reforming elsewhere, changing places with the people who have drifted into orbit around Tony and the MIT kids, and other players are moving in on their table despite the college kid starting to drool on it. His breathing is thick but steady, his complexion clear; tomorrow's hangover is going to feel like Alderaan after the Death Star came to call, but how many undergraduates get to play pool with one of the richest geniuses in the world on a Friday night just because they were in the right place at the right time?
The young men heave their friend to his stumbling feet, and Tony laughs. "You," he says, "are not old enough to hear that story."
He finds his way out of the casino on the third try, after being briefly distracted by the Star Trek Experience and a pack of Elvis statueimpersonators camped out next to the real one. Well, the real statue, at least.
Once he's out in the world Tony purrs to have eyes on him, like a petted cat in a sunbeam, well-fed and content, master of all he surveys. It's all attention; for now, it's all good.
And he's okay. There will always be other crowds. Other eyes to light him up and keep him in the spotlight, reminding him why he works so hard to shine. He needs those eyes to lure him out of his cave, to show off the wonders he's brought into being while he walled himself away from them all.
Because that's where the magic happens, in the things that can be understood if he's just clever and creative enough.
That's better than magic. That's science. That's engineering at its best.
Tony Stark has yet to see anything sufficiently advanced to be even close to indistinguishable from magic. And he doesn't expect to find it, not really.
But there are worse places to look for something that doesn't exist, on the off chance it might be that next best thing, on a warm summer night in 2005. He's on top of the world with nowhere to go but straight up, and there are a thousand, thousand ways to strike lucky in Las Vegas.
Even if there's still no such thing as magic.
To be continued.