Voodoo Child (The Return)
An Avengers fiction by Lywinis
Lord knows I'm a voodoo child baby
I want to say one more last thing
I didn't mean to take up all your sweet time
I'll give it right back to ya one of these days
If I don't meet you no more in this world then uh
I'll meet ya on the next one
And don't be late
Don't be late
- Jimi Hendrix, Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
The brownstone was weathered with age, but it wasn't anything special, which was why Tony gave Steve the side-eye as Happy pulled up. He was still a little groggy from being woken up before noon, and why he was being dragged along, he would never know, but Steve had insisted. So he put his sunglasses on and stepped out into the bright summer morning sunshine in the downtown Bronx.
"This is the place Bruce told us," Steve said, sounding a little defensive. "He said his friend here is an expert in the science beyond science."
"He means magic." Tony snorted.
Why Bruce believed in something as fantastical as magic when hard science was much more satisfying, he would never know. It was almost as funny as people still referring to Thor as a god. You walk past a dude every morning with half a pop-tart in his mouth and wearing nothing but a pair of boxers (under general protest from the rest of the mansion, before he wouldn't wear anything), and you really don't think of him in the divine sense.
"Yes, I suppose that is what he means. You know how Bruce is." Steve squinted up at the brownstone. "I don't know, something feels...off."
Tony set aside his thoughts for a moment, because when Steve said something was off, you paid attention to the man with peak senses. He squinted through his ray-bans at the apartment building, taking in the dilapidated, older look of the place. He could smell the cat pee from here. He frowned. This was really not where he wanted to be on the first free weekend since New York had been cleaned up.
"Let's just get it over with," he said, and started toward the building.
Steve fell into step with him, the tense set of his shoulders belying the calm expression on his face. Tony felt that same tension seep into his body, used to working off Steve's hunches now. They entered the building, the dark and musty entryway littered with leaves from last fall. Paint peeled from the walls and the banisters were chipped and cracked.
"This had better not be one of Bruce's jokes," Steve said, looking at the slip of paper in his hand.
"No, I think Bruce has a more well-developed sense of humor than to send us off chasing a tarot card reading," said Tony, stuffing his sunglasses in their case. He tucked the case in his pocket, looking up the creaky staircase. "At least it doesn't smell like cat pee."
"What?" Steve asked.
"Nothing. What floor is it on?" He hoped he wasn't climbing all these stairs today; the building didn't have an elevator, and he was still nursing a bit of a hangover.
"Third floor," said Steve, and they started up the stairs.
Tony creaked up every step, while Steve managed to ghost along, even as heavy with muscle as he was. Tony could never figure that out; Steve's reflexes were at the peak of human development, and he could walk across a room full of rocking chairs without ever pissing off a cat in sight. It was disgusting, really.
The doors bore scabby paint jobs, with faded numbers in burnished bronze held to them with rusty screws. Tony frowned, looking around them at the third floor. There was only one door on this floor, and he squinted at the battered number eight on the door.
"I feel like I need a tetanus shot just breathing the air," he said.
Steve frowned and raised his hand to knock. The knocker bounced as Steve's knuckles met the door, and the door sounded muffled, as though a mattress were on the other side to cut the noise.
"Doctor?" Steve called, raising his hand to knock again. "Doctor, are you in there?"
"Doctor?" Tony asked. What the hell kind of doctor would live here other than one who'd lost his medical license? He glanced around the hallway again, but all was silent save for their breathing.
"Yes," said Steve. "Says here we need to ask for Doctor Stephen Strange."
The name was familiar, but it was only allowed to percolate in Tony's mind for a moment before the deadbolt on the door slid back with a hollow chunk and the door creaked open a fraction. Silence reigned in the hall, and Tony looked at Steve.
"Do we...do we just go in?" he asked. Steve shrugged and pushed the door open, revealing a long entryway into a dim, grungy apartment. He stepped inside, and Tony, not wanting to be left behind, followed.
"Doctor?" Steve called, looking around. Tony could see the faded rosettes on the wallpaper, the dingy frames of photographs too filthy to make out the subjects, and frowned.
"Come on, no one lives here," he said. "I know Bruce recommended him to us, but –"
His words were cut short as the door slammed shut behind them and the deadbolt twisted shut with a clack. It went dark, and in an instant Tony was pressed against the warm length of Steve's back as the larger man shielded Tony with his bulkier frame. He shoved at Steve's back, but the man was just as solid as he looked.
"Don't move," Steve said, his voice a harsh whisper in the darkness.
"Look, it's nice you think you can manhandle me, but this is kind of ridiculous. Look, the lights are coming back on, relax." Tony shoved Steve's shoulder again, as the lights indeed came back on, a muted glow coming from the ceiling above them. Tony looked around, and caught his breath.
Well, this was different.
The faerie light in the ceiling illuminated the room, which seemed to stretch before them in an endless expanse to the north and south, bordered by a line of stone columns decorated with lit torches in sconces on the wall. The torches burned blue, a cold light radiating down onto the floor. There was a stone throne carved in elegant swirls and pictographs, upon which was seated a man, his head in his hand as though dozing.
Tony leaned over. "This looks like a dungeon. Just in case, the safe word is teacup."
"Tony," Steve hissed. Tony shrugged, and they stepped forward, toward the throne and the seated man.
He looked to be in his late thirties or early forties, with streaks of white in his dark hair at the temples that darkened to steel at the edges. His face was handsome, with hard lines and angles softened by the neat goatee he kept. He wore, at best, something that wouldn't look out of place in Thor's realm; high leather boots with trousers and a wide leather belt, a tunic in a dark blue with leather gauntlets trimmed in silver as well as a red cape with a high collar. It flowed across the chair behind him like water, or a living thing, shifting as he breathed.
Steve stepped forward. "Doctor Strange?"
There was no movement, but the air shifted. Something was coming, and Tony could feel it in his bones. He stepped back as the man's head snapped up to reveal blue eyes that narrowed before his nostrils flared with recognition. He leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers together.
"I am Doctor Stephen Strange, and I bid you welcome to my Sanctum Sanctorum." Strange had a rich tenor voice, amber whiskey and smoky cigars. He crossed one booted ankle over the other. "Doctor Banner has spoken highly of both of you, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers."
"Uh, thanks, I guess," said Tony, shifting from one foot to the other. Tony still had no real idea what they were doing here. "Steve needed to talk to you."
"I am aware of his need for an audience, and I have granted it." Strange nodded. "How can I aid Earth's 'mightiest heroes'?"
Tony flinched a little at that. It was a moniker handed them by the press, and he'd taken it and run with it. It was hardly deserved, but it was something the people of New York had needed it in the wake of Loki's attack.
"Sir, Doctor Banner mentioned you might have a way to...resurrect the dead." Steve's sentence had Tony doing a double-take. Steve "Under God, indivisible" Rogers, asking about a way to resurrect the dead? The man didn't even believe Thor was a god at first glance, much less after living with him for a few months. He was strictly into one life to live, wasn't he?
(To be fair, Thor was impressive, for an Asgardian, just not in the whole, y'know, fall on your face and worship sense. Good guy, but not obeisance material.)
"I have dabbled in the necromantic arts," Strange said, fixing Steve with a shrewd glance. "But what you ask is unconscionable, even for the Sorcerer Supreme. Your companion would be forever changed, possibly unable to reconcile his rebirth. There is also a sacrifice involved."
Steve glanced down, hurt in his eyes. "Whatever the price is, I can pay it."
"You are a brave man, Captain Rogers," said Strange. His face was not unkind, and he swept a hand out. "The price it would cost would be too high for you to pay."
"How much are we talking?" said Tony. "I can write a check."
"The price is not meted out in gold, Mister Stark, as you well know." Strange glared at him, and for the first time in his life, Tony Stark fell silent. "It is paid with flesh and blood, over and over again, and your companion has paid the toll before."
Tony glanced over to Steve, watching the frown grow between the larger man's brows. It occurred to him then that everyone that Steve knew was gone. It was the gaping chasm of reality that opened under Tony's feet whenever he had these realizations, such as when he forgot that Pepper was allergic to strawberries, or that Rhodey actually had a job besides keeping him out of Afghani POW camps. Steve didn't have anyone but the memories of his friends.
All of them were gone.
"I'll pay it," Tony said, clearing his throat.
Strange raised an eyebrow. "I don't think you understand."
"No, I understand. Give the man what he wants." Tony met Strange's eerie eyes with a level gaze. "If you can do it, do it. Take it from me, give him what he wants."
"Tony, no," said Steve, but something had struck the core of Tony's being, that need to do for others that was hidden so well by sarcasm and money and genius and a suit of gold-titanium alloy. He held up a hand, and Steve, to his surprise, let him speak.
"I don't have a lot to give anymore, and I'm pretty much a dead man walking without the reactor anyway. My debts are paid. If you can do it, do it."
"I cannot," said Strange, and Tony felt a sudden weight slip off his heart, even as his brows drew down in a scowl. "I can no longer draw upon the powers of the Octessence so freely. But I can summon the one to do as you wish."
"Then do it." Tony's voice was a growl.
Strange regarded him for a long moment, then inclined his head at Tony and snapped his fingers.
"Awfully rude of you to summon me without asking nicely."
Tony and Steve whirled around, catching sight of a man behind them, clad in an impeccable tailored suit and shined shoes. His face was rough with the beginnings of a beard, but there was something in air, that same indefinable power that surged around Strange before he awoke, and it made the hair on Tony's arms stand straight up. He was dark, swarthy, even, but his voice was a very English accent, something Tony didn't expect.
"Who are you?" he asked.
The creature smiled. "Name's Crowley, I run Hell."
"Hell?" Steve said, a jitter of a thread of fear through his voice. "As in...?"
"Hell. The abyss, Tartarus, Hades, Gehenna, Sheol, the lake of fire. Do I need to go on?" He raised an eyebrow at Steve, and Steve shook his head. "Good. As for what I specialize in, I'd figure you'd know, and that's why you summoned me."
He fixed each of them with a glance in turn, stopping last on Strange. "Ah, tag, you're it. I can smell it all over you, sorcerer."
Strange's lips quirked. "I can send you back just as easily, demon. Mind your tongue."
"Mind yours, before I cut it out." Crowley's eyes narrowed the barest inch, and Strange snapped his fingers again. A ring of script circling a pentagram appeared beneath the demon's feet, glowing with the same eerie blue luminescence as the torches, and he sighed. "Fine, play hardball. What can I do for you fine gentlemen?"
"Doctor Strange said you might be able to help us." Steve glanced at Strange, who watched the proceedings with an impassive gaze. "We're looking to raise the dead."
"The dead, you say?" Crowley's face animated in its interest. "Well now, we might be able to strike a deal."
"A deal?" Tony asked.
"Well, you don't suppose I go gadding about, handing out favors, now do you? You want something from me, you have something I want. It's simple enough. A trade."
"How much?" Tony asked.
Crowley fixed Strange with a look that read 'is he serious?' "I don't need your money, and frankly, I'm insulted. I could make more than you in a day, should the need arise. No, my price is infinitely more precious."
"Souls." Steve's voice was quiet, but Tony's blood iced over at his tone.
"On the nosey," said Crowley. "Good boy."
Steve cleared his throat. "So you can bring someone back?"
"Yes, on a one-to-one trade, no bargains, no coupons, and no exchanges." Crowley's lips quirked up into a grin. "The question is, who do you want to bring back? Yeltsin?"
Tony's breath stopped.
"Oh yes, Mister Stark, I know all about you." He turned to Steve, his eyes glittering cold in the blue light. "Maybe Peggy, or Bucky Barnes for you, Rogers? Would that assuage the constant ache in your chest? Poor Steve Rogers – all his friends are dead."
"Not all of them," Tony spat, moving between Steve and the demon. "He's made plenty of friends. So shut the hell up and do as you're told."
Crowley smiled. "Touchy, for someone who proclaims to be so callous. Well, Rogers, looks to be your call. Your deal, your soul."
"No, his deal, my soul." Tony didn't move.
"No dice, Stark," said Crowley. "Your soul is already three quarters mine, without me even trying. Turns out a boatload of guilt coupled with three decades of daddy issues means you have your own private suite with attendants with me already. His soul, however, is still up for grabs."
Steve swallowed. "All right."
"Excellent. Now all I need to know is who you want back. You get your ten years of life. Once that's done, your serum fades out and you come with me."
"Coulson?" Tony asked, flabbergasted. When he could have had anyone in the world back, he chose...Coulson?
Steve nodded. "We need him. Clint hasn't been the same since...well. And Natasha's gotten colder than ever."
Tony gaped at him. "And you're serious."
Steve met his eyes, and Tony had never noticed how tired he was. He must be feeling so alone, and so out of place. He should have gone a long time ago, but for the hand that fate dealt him. Tony looked away.
Steve looked at Crowley. "I want Phil Coulson back."
"Can't do it."
"What?" Tony's head snapped up. "Why not?"
"I can't bring back someone that isn't dead." Crowley's brows were drawn down into a scowl. "I swear, it's like dealing with those two idiots all over again. If you're going to ask for a favor, make sure they're dead."
Tony's knees felt like they were about to buckle. "He's alive."
"He's being debriefed by your Nick Fury now, if you hurry."
Tony and Steve glanced at each other, and turned for the door, Tony swearing a blue streak.
"I'm going to punch Fury in the face," Tony said. "Or, I could pay you to do it. You would hurt him more."
"I'll do it for free." Steve's voice was clipped, his eyes dark with anger. "Fury has a long list of things he's going to have to account for. Thank you for your help, Doctor."
Crowley and Strange's eyes met as the door closed behind the two, and the demon shrugged. "Can I go now? That was a bit of a convoluted scheme for you to reveal that their mate was alive."
"They needed to find out from someone they would believe," he said, and waved a hand. The trap faded from around Crowley's feet, and he nodded at the sorcerer. "Your help is appreciated, for the moment."
"Just call it a favor I'll cash in later," he said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some business to attend to."
"As you will." But Strange spoke to the empty air around him, as Crowley was already gone. He sighed and settled back into his chair, closing his eyes so that he could astral project once more.
A/N: I don't even know how Crowley got in there. I think it's my subconscious need to cast Mark Sheppard in everything. (This is not a bad thing.)
Anyway, hope you enjoyed, Constant Readers.
PS - I fucking love Doctor Strange. :D