Stephen knew the Time Stone had many abilities. It could stop time, reverse time, loop time, and most importantly in that moment, it could go forward in time. He drew in a deep calming breath, clearing his mind and engaging with the Eye of Agamoto to free the stone. Since the battle to come came with the fate of the universe in its hand, it was his duty to find any possible outcome where Thanos somehow lost. With four Infinity Stones, he was unstoppable already, but the stone he possessed could hopefully show him some way their brains couldn't conjure. The bickering of Stark and the Guardians faded as the Time Stone threw him into possible futures.
If only he could have known what he was about to see. Perhaps he would have at least hesitated a second longer.
Possible Future #1
Stephen met Thanos' eye, forcing himself to remain calm and composed in the face of one of the biggest threats the universe had ever seen. Stephen had faced Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, though, so Thanos was like a lamb compared to that. When that calculating gaze fell to the Eye, Stephen stood. His cloak fluttered and snapped as if disturbed by a dramatic wind.
“Doctor Stephen Strange. Master of the Mystic Arts. You are definitely more of a Thanos.” He wasn't too sure, but he thought Thanos smirked at him.
“You seem fond of titles, Stonekeeper. I, myself, am more of a man of action. A man of accomplishments and seeing his plans through to the end.” Stephen took a step down the staircase, closer to Thanos. Any minute now, Stark would come flying out and deliver a flurry of iron kicks and the battle could begin. That was their plan. Then the Spider kid, Drax, Matis, and Star-Lord would go for the gauntlet while Stephen would help Stark keep Thanos distracted.
He just had to keep the titan talking.
“My titles are badges of my accomplishments. 'Doctor' and 'Master'. They are hefty titles, are they not?” Thanos chuckled.
“Perhaps on your world they are, but they mean almost nothing here. I have known many wielders of magic and healers of injured. You would not rank highly among them.” Well, okay, that kind of stung. But he brushed it off, knowing Thanos was trying to ruffle him; trying to knock him off guard so he could make a go for the Time Stone. That was his priority above all.
“You haven't even seen what I can do, yet. I'm quite sure in your years of conquest you have learned to never underestimate an opponent?” The titan hummed in response, gazing at the gauntlet.
“I have learned much, Stonekeeper. I have learned of great triumph and great pain. Great suffering. You would perhaps understand my mission better if you too knew.” Stephen gestured around.
“Let me guess; it started here. On your home planet?” Thanos employed the Reality Stone, the dead orange world springing to life once more. Stephen glanced around.
“Titan was a wonderful planet. Thriving. But like most planets, there were too many mouths to feed and not enough resources. I tried to appeal to them, make them see what they had to do to ensure our survival, but they refused.” The glorious world faded back to dust. “Just as I predicted, my home died. Fallen to their own reluctance to make a sacrifice for the greater good.” Stephen scoffed.
“You sound like a prophet.” Thanos shook his head.
“I only wanted to save them. I had the answer.”
“Right- genocide.” Thanos' gaze hardened and his fist clenched. The fading sunlight glinted off the gold gauntlet.
“I would have saved our kind. We could have remained a thriving planet. That mistake won't happen again. The universe can find balance with my help.”
“By murdering trillions.” Stephen couldn't swallow down the bile in his voice. Thanos only sighed.
“They will simply fade from existence, Doctor. I call that mercy. It isn't an easy choice by any means. I do not want to separate children from their mothers, but someone needs to make the difficult choices. I know I can do it.” He held up the Soul Stone, something almost like grief clouding his gaze. “I already had to.” Something flew out of nowhere and knocked Thanos in the back of the head, startling Stephen and Thanos alike.
“You...monster! You killed her!” Thanos turned to face a furious Star-Lord.
“Ah, the boyfriend. Nice to see you again.” Star-Lord attempted to shoot the Titan, but with the help of the Reality Stone and the Power Stone, he was able to turn it around without much effort. Stephen summoned the magic energy discs and rushed at Thanos.
“Attack now!” The plan was officially screwed, the surprise element destroyed thanks to a hot-headed moron who couldn't control himself for five more seconds. Stark was literally going to come crashing down on them. He hurtled into the air in an attempt to keep Stark from crushing the fighters below.
“Doc?! What are you doing up here?” Thankfully, Stark seemed to understand him being there meant there was a large problem and opened his faceplate so Stephen could speak to him directly and clearly. He seemed confused and worst of all, fearful.
“Mister Star-Lord attacked too early and ruined the plan. If this hits the ground, you chance killing the rest of the team.” That seemed to sink in quickly, Tony pulling back and shooting the rock into dust. The fighters battling Thanos shrieked, unable to hold up against the Infinity Stones. Stark made a choked sound next to him.
“He's...they're going to die. All of them.” Stephen felt his heart sink as Mantis was thrown into a rusted battleship, a sickening thud ringing out before her body fell to the ground with a thump. Stephen quickly hid the Time Stone and turned to Stark.
“We need to get down there and fight.” Wide brown eyes met his, shimmering in fear.
“Do you really think we have a chance?” There was a trace of hope in his voice, but Stephen knew better. There was no chance against the stones. Stephen just had to hope he could hold off Thanos getting the Time Stone.
“No. But we have to try. I have to try. My oath to the Time Stone-” Stark nodded, jaw tightening and brows furrowing.
“Then we die fighting.” Together, they landed before Thanos, who tossed aside the limp body of Drax. He sighed and shook his head.
“So many pointless deaths today. So much bloodshed. But it will be worth it when the universe is once again in balance and I can rest.” Tony pointed a gun at him, a bluish-white light flickering to life as it powered up. Stephen channeled as much dimensional energy as he could, knowing he was going to fall but willing to fight regardless.
“We aren't going to make that easy for you.” Stark snorted.
“Think of us as the iron gates between our world and you.” He glanced at Stephen. “Iron gates reinforced with Voodoo Priest, here.” Stephen grimaced, though he refused to let Thanos out of his sight.
“Tony Stark. It's an honor.” Both of them blinked.
“You know me?” Now Thanos definitely smirked.
“Well of course. New York. The Avengers. I know you well. It's a shame you'll be nothing more than blood in the dust of Titan, but I do hope after I take care of your planet that they remember you.” Stephen and Stark split apart, hoping to take him off guard in some way. It worked for about five precious seconds, enough for Stephen to get the cloak around his gauntlet and bind his wrist so Stark and the cloak could attempt the removal. Unfortunately, without the rest of the team, they were overpowered easily. Stephen gasped as he was thrown against a massive hunk of rock and could only watch breathlessly as Stark battled Thanos alone.
Despite the clear indication the battle was lost, that Stark and Stephen were going to be killed where they stood, Stark fought. Even against the Power Stone he stood strong. It was only when, out of nowhere, Spider kid swung in and tried to protect Stark that the iron man stumbled in his strength. Stephen grunted, trying to get up, finish the fight with them, but he was badly hurt and unable to catch his breath.
“No!” Stephen jerked his head up, ignoring the dull ache in his side to see what happened. Thanos tossed the Spider kid's limp body a few feet away, Stark scrambling after him desperately.
“It is time, Stonekeeper. Admit your loss and I might spare your life.” Stephen struggled to sit up and glared at Thanos.
“You'll have to... take it from my... dead hands.” The titan shook his head, almost sadly.
“If I must..” The stones began to glow, directed right where Stephen sat. He refused to close his eyes, defiant to the bitter end, but blinked when Thanos groaned in pain.
“I'm going to turn your purple Barney ass into dust for what you've done!” Stark knocked Thanos off his feet, giving Stephen the chance to rise and join him. Together, they seemed so close to victory, Thanos pinned down by magic and machine, but in the end, even the Master Mage and the Technology Titan were no match for the Infinity Stones.
“You have shown great fight today. I will mention this to your friends on Earth.” He slammed Stark into a wall, gauntlet wrapped around his throat, and squeezed until the life left Stark's eyes. Once he dumped the body on the ground, he turned to face Stephen, who was nursing a broken arm and trying to close off the gushing wound left behind when his hand was taken.
“The Stone. Give it to me.” Blood was running down his face, his breath came short and fast, and he was certain there was something wrong internally, but he still tried to stand and fight.
“Never” But it was for naught.
Possible Future #590
Many of the futures after that first one were nearly identical. Someone, usually Star-Lord, disrupted the plan and lead to their deaths. So when Stephen blinked into this new future, he was wary already of the cocky smirk and idiotic babbling.
This time, the plan was altered. Spider kid would be the one Thanos met first since he was the least threatening (at least in appearance) of any of them. Stephen would allow his cloak to rest with the kid, to offer some protection, and would hide nearby if anything went awry. Star-Lord would throw a few smoke bombs out so Stark and Drax could drop on Thanos (through portals Stephen would open) without him being able to see. Mantis shared her abilities to soothe beings with her empathic abilities, so Stephen suggested she get in there too and knock him out. Then he and Spider kid would stabilize him so Stark could pull the gauntlet off.
Drax offered to cut off the arm, so there was that if Stark couldn't.
Before they broke up into their places, Stephen sensing the time was approaching, Stark pulled him aside. This was also new.
“Listen. I know I've never seen Thanos, let alone fought him, before, but I know him. If we're going to pull this out, we need to all work together.” Stephen felt this was something that could probably be shared with the whole team, but rather than bring that up, he nodded. Tony shook his head, reaching to grab Stephen's arm.
“I mean it. We have to watch out for one another, protect each other, and keep that stone of yours out of his hands.” Stephen nodded again, this time holding the Eye out for Stark to see.
“It's not here. Not physically. Don't worry. Just focus on your part of the plan.” Stark cracked his neck and hurried to his hiding spot.
This plan worked somewhat better than the others, Stephen making sure Thanos didn't reveal whatever it was about the Soul Stone that upset Star-Lord. Which, of course, was thwarted by a blue woman who seemed to be made mostly of machine.
“Gamora. He went to Vormir and returned with the Soul Stone. But Gamora didn't.” And once again, Thanos gained the upper-hand. With the Space Stone, he sent Drax and Mantis away, shooting Stark into dust as he tried to protect Stephen and the Spider kid. Star-Lord was forced to watch a green girl die thanks to the Reality Stone before Thanos killed him.
“Doctor Strange, I'm sorry.” Spider Kid too was killed, his blood pooling around Stephen's boots.
“Sorcerer, give me the stone.” He faced the titan with a fit of burning anger unlike one he'd felt before. Fighting side-by-side with these brave men, women, and teenager over five hundred times and watching them die was starting to get to him. They were powerful in their own ways, and it wasn't right they continuously failed.
“As long as I draw breath, you will not touch that stone. For those fallen today, I fight.” And fight he did.
Possible Future 3,005,004
Stephen was growing tired of the deaths at this point. He couldn't scrub the blood from his mind, seeing it everywhere he looked. The first thousand possibilities seemed quite merciful compared to what he had seen thus far. Limbs ripped from sockets, brain matter splattered across rocks and dirt, exploding bodies that rained down blood and muscle on the fighters. Stephen was not ready to give up searching, though, so he cautiously stepped out once again onto the red soil.
After three million possible futures, Stephen sought drastically different ways to go about getting the gauntlet off Thanos. From trapping him in the ground to blinding him, nothing seemed to work. Stephen felt dread crawl up his spine, but he forced himself to ignore it in favor of listening to Quill and Stark argue. This never changed, in any future thus far, and it was becoming more obnoxious by the minute. He wished the stone would skip the pre-battle antics and just show him what he came for – a win or a loss.
“Hey, Strange!” He glanced up, surprised. No one ever called to him before, especially not Tony, so this was a little...odd.
“Yes, Stark?” He joined the ragtag group of fighters, pride filling his chest at just how hard each one fought. How much each one wanted to end Thanos before he could extinguish half the universe.
“We're discussing medical stuff, and Footloose here swears you can reattach an arm and it will work just fine. Well, without any help from tech.” He paused, taking in Stephen's wardrobe. “Or magic, I suppose.” Stephen frowned, uncertain why they were even talking about this when Thanos would be there in a few minutes, but he humored them anyway.
“Perhaps you have seen other life forms do so, Star-Lord, but humans cannot regain function in an appendage so large. We can, however, rescue toes, fingers, and in a few miraculous cases, male genitalia.” Both Quill and Stark gaped at that, which he expected. He certainly wasn't lying, but it was still fun to say to people.
“Wait, hold on, doc. You're telling me some poor guy had his-” Quill made a gesture that had Stark searching around him. Probably looking for Parker. “-removed and they were able to save it?” Stephen shrugged.
“It's only blood vessels and skin. Not hard to fix up and get working again. Fingers and anything more complicated in structure are not as easy to remedy. But it has been done. Still, we in the medical field prefer technology.” Tony beamed and Stephen tried not to blush under the attention. It was a weird feeling for him, but spending three million futures fighting side-by-side with someone could do that to you. It was similar to the rush of protectiveness he felt when Mantis or Parker was harmed.
“Now that science class is over, can we get on with the plan?” Stark and Quill wanted to ambush him, but Stephen rejected it instantly. When they eyed him skeptically, he shrugged.
“I have a Time Stone. I just know an ambush won't work. Not like that anyway.” Apparently, he played that card too early, both Tony and Quill eyeing the Eye suspiciously.
“Oh yeah? Well then, great and powerful Oz, tell us what does work.” He glared at Quill and shook his head.
“I don't know. I've only seen the losses. And they were ambushes each time. I think we need to be more direct.” Tony disagreed.
“That's showing our hand. We don't know what he's bringing, other than the Infinity Stones. We can't show him what we've got when we have no clue what's coming.” Stephen had to agree with that logic, but he couldn't think of anything else.
“Have any of you guys seen that kid movie, The Lion King?” They all turned to look at Parker, who was watching them with an amused tilt to his mouth.
“Yes, kid. Most people alive have seen that movie. Especially at our ages.” Stephen glared. He wasn't that old...
“Well, there's this scene where they have to distract the hyenas so they can go help Simba.” Quill seemed confused, but Tony instantly snapped his fingers.
“A distraction! Has that happened yet, Strange?” He thought back to as many outcomes as he could remember, though they were starting to blur together. They often used long conversations as a means of buying time until people were in place for the ambush, but nothing so drastic as in the Lion King movie.
“Not that I can recall.” Tony grinned at Parker, who ducked his head under the attention. Stark may deny any fatherly relation to Parker, but the instinct was clearly there.
“So, what will be the distraction, and who will do it?”
It turned out far better than expected. Tony, of course, volunteered to be the one to cause the distraction, something about fireworks or explosives, but Quill wanted to try a dance-off again. Stephen rejected Tony using any kind of explosives, in case they needed it, and both Drax and Mantis argued that Thanos wasn't dumb enough to fall for a dance-off, especially since Quill was somewhat compromised because of someone named Gamora. Stephen examined each member of the group, scrambling for anything they could do. Parker was almost pleading with him to choose him for the distraction, but he didn't know what the kid could do. And he really didn't want to see him get hurt.
Stephen, obviously, wanted it to be him who did it, but Stark shot him down because, in his words, 'you don't show your ace so early in the card game.' Whatever. It was down to Drax and Mantis, but Tony waved them away and crossed his arms. Stephen did not like the look on his face.
“Look, no one else besides me has any good distraction technique. So I'll do it.” He met Stephen's eye and rolled his. “Without explosives, Doctor Drama Queen. You're no fun, by the way. They teach that in wizard school?” In the end, they decided Tony and Parker could do the distraction, then Quill would toss in some smoke bombs. While the Titan was disoriented, Drax, Stephen, and Parker would go for holding down Thanos, and Stark would go for the gauntlet. Mantis would only drop in if Drax and Parker couldn't handle it.
They were able to remove the gauntlet for the first time, and Stephen let himself hope. This was the future he was searching for. But then, as Quill tried to fly off, Thanos roared and leaped into the sky, yanking the man into the ground and killing him on impact. Parker was able to steal it away with his webs, but Thanos had speed and strength even to the superhuman teenager, who was quickly dispatched of as well. Tony's cries of anguish combined with the firing of his blasters disoriented the Titan long enough for Drax to snatch it and make a run for a portal Stephen opened, but then he was knocked into Stephen and they landed with a grunt on the ground, the gauntlet sliding away a few feet.
Stephen watched as Tony dropped down in the suit and picked it up. He glanced over to Stephen and, with a determined set to his jaw, shot into the air once more. Stephen tried to open a new portal, knowing without having to speak that Tony was asking for that, but when he finally had it open to New York, Thanos launched a boulder the size of a skyscraper and knocked Tony clear out of the sky. Stephen staggered to his feet and launched the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak spell to snake around Thanos' arm. Drax was up on his feet as well and pulling on Stephen's arm to keep him from being yanked across the barren earth. Thanos howled in agony as Nebula leaped at him and sliced his skin with daggers.
It was working. If Tony could just escape through the portal still open hundreds of feet in the air...
The iron man lay under the mass of rock. The gauntlet sat next to him, glistening invitingly, but Tony didn't move. He was too far for Stephen to see, but a sick feeling began to rise in his throat.
They lost, in the end. Stephen lived only long enough to see Thanos obliterate Mantis and Drax before he too met the Infinity Stones. Jolted from the timeline, he blinked and tried to recover before he was thrust into a new one.
Possible Future 9,769,000
Many awful futures passed by quickly, ending much faster than the others, and Stephen was losing hope. How long could he keep looking before he was torn apart by the Time Stone?
This future was less friendly, Stark watching everyone, including Stephen, like they were also the enemy and would harm him or Parker. He wouldn't listen to reason, wouldn't listen to anyone except Parker, who for some reason didn't trust anyone either. Stephen knew if they didn't work together, things would end catastrophically, but there was nothing he could do to convince the distrustful Stark.
Thanos wiped them out easily since they were split, unable to form a cohesive unit. It was this timeline that drove home the point that teamwork was essential for their victory.
(It was the subsequent 6 futures that told him it was specifically Tony they needed to keep on board, as the rest played out far better than the one where Tony wouldn't listen.)
Possible Future 10,980,332
This future played out much like the first one, which was odd. There was arguing, playful banter, but eventual teamwork, which Stephen made sure to really focus on keeping. When Thanos landed, however, it was clear something was different.
“He has the Mind Stone.” Unlike the previous timelines, he had gone to Earth first and ripped the Mind Stone away from the Vision, making the Time Stone his final destination. Stephen swallowed thickly as he imagined all those left for dead on Earth.
“Sorcerer. Hand over the Time Stone and I just may spare your pathetic life.” Stephen stormed towards him, feeling power course through his body. He summoned his discs and snarled.
“It just won't be that easy.” They fought, hard, but with the Mind Stone in play, Stephen knew something would go horribly wrong. Tony watched helplessly as Thanos used the mind-controlling powers of the stone on Parker, who killed everyone on their team in the most brutal fashion possible.
When he came to Tony, the nano-suit retracted and he stared sadly into Parker's glowing blue eyes. Stephen knew Stark wouldn't, couldn't, fight the kid, so he called on the Vishanti and drew as much power as he could to end Peter's life right there. It hurt but he had to do it. He couldn't be the only one left to face Thanos and Parker.
Tony turned, his eyes dead and tears cutting through the grime on his face.
“How could you do that? He was a child!” Stephen dropped his hands and glared.
“It wasn't him, Stark. You watched him kill the entire team. He was going to kill you too.” Tony launched at him, closing metal hands around his throat and squeezing until Stephen saw purple spots. He met Tony's eyes, filled with pain and betrayal, and struggled to speak.
Possible Future 12,094,944
Stephen cut straight to the point once the battle started. Take Thanos' arm and escape through the portal was the plan they were going with, and it actually worked. Tony sliced the arm clean off, Thanos roaring in pain, and tossed it to Stephen, who opened a portal and hopped through. He was followed by Parker and Stark, though the guardians agreed to just leave on their ship. Stephen dropped them in the middle of the woods, the three of them looking around for a few minutes.
“Where are we?” Tony and Stephen turned to look at Parker. Then both of them were staring at Stephen. Truthfully, he had no clue.
“Um...I'm not sure. I didn't have anywhere in mind when I made it. Just that we needed to escape.” Tony's suit came back to life, the AI telling them they were in New York, but in the more wooded part of it. Parker sighed in relief as his suit also came to life, the two of them dropping to the ground and staring at the sky.
“We can't relax for too long. Thanos will be searching for that.” He gestured over to the gauntlet, the arm still sticking out of it. Tony sat up and glared at it.
“Is there any way to dispose of it? Make it so he won't come kill us trying to find it.” Stephen shook his head.
“The stones can destroy the stones, but we are not strong enough to withstand that. We can try to spread them throughout space in hopes that Thanos will not find them again, but without Thor, I don't see how we can access them.” Tony raised a brow.
“What, your portals only work on Earth?” Stephen rolled his eyes.
“Right, because we didn't just get here through a portal. I can only make them if I've seen the place. Until the other day, I've never left Earth. Well, except to go to the dark dimension, but technically I was still on Earth.” Tony shook his head and picked up the gauntlet, wrinkling his face at the dangling alien flesh.
“Well, we can at least dispose of this. Kid, a little help?” Parker hopped up and took the gauntlet in his hands, Tony grimacing as they separated the severed arm from the metal glove. Stephen took the gauntlet and Tony turned the purple appendage to ash.
“Well, that was fun. Therapeutic almost.” Night was falling over them, meaning they were going to have to take shelter. Between the three of them, they were able to get a fire going, a few makeshift tents set up, and Stephen grabbed some food from the sanctum.
“What's the plan now, Mister Stark.” Rather than answer, however, Tony looked to Stephen.
“Any ideas, doc?” Stephen swallowed his last bite of food and shook his head.
“Keep moving. Keep monitoring. Keep low.” Parker pulled his knees to his chest and rested his chin on them.
“I guess that means I can't tell Aunt May I'm alive.” Tony moved to sit by the doleful teenager, wrapping an arm around him and gazing at the stars.
“Let's just be happy we're even alive enough to feel that way.”
The next day rain poured down on them as they hurried to clean up any trace of their stay. Then Stephen opened a portal to the Sanctum. Tony gave him a look once they were inside, lips tilted in a smirk.
“Yes, Stark? Something to say?” Tony shrugged and took a circle around them, coming back to face Stephen with an arched brow.
“Just thinking how obvious it would be that we are here. The magical headquarters in New York would be the first place I would look if someone cut off my arm and stole my universe jewelry.” Stephen snorted and brushed past Tony to move further into the sanctum. He knew that, any idiot would, but he had to do a few things before they went on the run. Like tell Wong.
“We aren't staying here, Stark. I just have to let Wong know what's going on and grab a few things.” He hurried away, locating Wong easily. This conversation should be fun.
“Ah, Stephen. You have returned, and with the Time Stone still with you.” His gaze dropped to the massive gauntlet in his arms, brows furrowing. “You were able to remove the other stones from his possession? And you brought them here?” Stephen nodded, gazing down at the golden object.
“Yes. He's still alive though. And I didn't bring it here, per se; I'm only here to grab some things and let you know I might be gone for a while.” Wong narrowed his eyes, concern apparent in his face.
“The Sanctum needs its master, Strange. I don't know how long I can hold onto it without you here.” He stood from the table and took the gauntlet out of Stephen's hands. “How long do you think you'll be gone?” He shrugged, not really sure what was going to happen. Was this the future they would certainly win? He couldn't go back to the real team on Titan until he was certain the alien couldn't find them on Earth.
“I've got Tony Stark and Spider-Man with me. We're going to be moving around a lot, but I'll try to keep you posted. If Thanos somehow gets here...” He swallowed thickly, not wanting to picture what could happen if Thanos crashed onto Earth.
“Don't worry about it, Stephen. Keep that thing far away from him. In the meantime, I'm going to figure out a way to get them off Earth.” Stephen finally smiled, appreciating Wong's unshakable strength and wisdom more and more. After he filled a bag with a few magic artifacts they could use (snapping at Tony to get off the damn Cauldron of the Cosmos) and a goodbye to Wong, the trio disappeared through the portal into a quiet open field.
“This reminds me of Clint's place. Say, do you think you can portal somewhere if I showed a picture or described it?” Stephen hushed him for a moment, surveying his surroundings and realizing where he'd put them- in Wakanda. The battlefield the Avengers were supposed to fight on was quiet, only a breeze shifting the grass.
“We're in Wakanda.” He turned to Tony, who was finally looking around, eyes wide in recognition. Stephen only nodded, not surprised Tony knew of the place. Parker whistled lowly.
“Why did you bring us here?” Stephen set the gauntlet down and rubbed his temples.
“This was the battlefield in so many different versions of this story. Here, many warriors fell. Avengers too.” He glanced over to Tony and Parker, who were watching him in quiet fascination. “We defeated Thanos on Titan, so the battle here never had to take place. I imagine they are working on saving Vision. They are probably inside the castle now.” He expected Tony to want to go join them, but instead he tugged on Stephen's robes and turned away, heading towards the thick woods surrounding the kingdom. Parker took a few seconds longer to follow.
“You don't want to go see your friends? Teammates?” Tony shook his head, sparing only a passing glance towards the palace.
“They aren't really my teammates anymore. You remember the fallout.” He did, the news coverage lasting for weeks as some of the rogue avengers were tried and charged, the others becoming fugitives of their country.
“Still, I figured after everything, you might want to at least let them know you're alive. And back on Earth.” Tony smiled and turned back towards the woods, leading them far away from the palace.
“Maybe when we don't have a raging alien on our tail. Come on, Peter. We have to keep moving.”
The next couple weeks were spent in tense anticipation that any second, Thanos would find them and they would have to fight for not only their lives, but the entire universe. Tony especially was taking it hard, barely sleeping and having his AI scanning the country for any signs of alien life. Stephen was taking them anywhere he could think of, places so vague in his mind it was only Tony's suit that told them where they even were.
Peter, surprisingly, was the rock of the group. Well, he was the only one not freaking out inside more than likely. He was lively and always trying to cheer Tony up, which seemed to work for a short while. Stephen admired the kid's positive disposition, the drive to keep them healthy and fed. He made them sleep, eat, and relax when all Stephen and Tony wanted to do was scream at the sky in demand of Thanos.
After two months, Stephen was beginning to think this was the future he could take back to the team on Titan. Wong was surely on the path to finding a way to remove the stones from Earth, and Thanos didn't seem to be coming any time soon. Tony too was beginning to relax as each day passed, laughing with Peter and tossing jokes back and forth. Stephen eventually, at Tony's request, brought them back to New York, but rather than drop in the city, they were in the woods once again.
“Tell me again why you didn't want to go back to the tower and the Sanctum?” Tony turned slowly in a circle, taking in their surroundings, and smiled up at Stephen.
“Because. Look, I just want to be away from that. And if we're going to need to pick up and leave at a moment's notice, well, it's better we're away from the city. Thanos can't do much damage out here.” And neither can we. Stephen nodded.
“Okay. What are we going to do out here?” Peter dropped next to them, his space suit detaching from his body and shooting off into the sky. His normal Spider Suit still clung to him. He was sweating but clearly pleased.
“No one lives around here, Mister Stark. Were you thinking of setting up a base here?” Ah, that made sense. Tony was looking for a place he could still work, but just away from the city. To their surprise, Tony shook his head.
“I want to stop and smell the rain. I'm just. I want a break. From Fury, the Avengers, gosh even inventing suits and weapons to fight off alien invasions. I want to cease to exist for a while.” Stephen blinked.
“You want to what? Stark, you do understand we have a gauntlet with four Infinity Stones in it, a fifth one around my neck in this amulet, and you want to stop being Iron Man? Have you lost what was left of your sanity?” Tony glared at him and crossed his arms. Peter stepped back.
“Listen, asshole, I've spent over ten years of my life in fear. Constant, agonizing fear. The kind that infiltrates your dreams and turns them into nightmares. The kind that has you wondering how long you have left, how long anyone who touches you has left. That fear is killing me. I can't live like that anymore.” He stumbled back, dropping his gaze and running a hand through his hair. Stephen hadn't realized it was that bad. Hell, Tony seemed like he often enjoyed his life as a hero. But then again, he'd learned that the enigmatic man wore many masks. More than just the physical Iron Man one. “It probably won't be permanent anyway. My destiny is to die as Iron Man. I know that. But I just- I want to enjoy being Tony, okay? To live and not be expected to run into danger for once. Please. Let me have that.”
“Okay, Tony. Okay.”
Two years flew by and Stephen was ready to chalk this future up to a win. They lived in the woods, waiting but also relaxing for the first time in a long time. Stephen and Peter decided to keep training, keep their senses sharp, but Tony was more than happy to let it all go. He actually became rather domestic, cooking meals (and burning many of them), building a shed, a garage, the entire house... He had a garden he tended, he taught Peter how to fish, and he would sit on the porch (he built) and watch the sunset with a satisfied smile.
It was kind of nice, though Stephen never could relax. Far too aware of the impending threat.
Wong told him that sending the stones out would be the only real option, but it didn't eliminate the possibility of Thanos just finding them again. Peter and Stephen tried to reach Thor, but without any idea where he was or even how to contact someone in Asgard, it was a hopeless venture. Stephen studied books about the other nine realms, hoping to find one where he could send the stones to, but Thanos had destroyed more than half of the planets and their inhabitants in each realm.
“Stephen, do you ever not study?” He glanced up from the tome he was reading, something about encasing the stones in spells and runes. Maybe they could cloak their power somehow and bury them? He wasn't sure, nor was Wong, but it was worth a look. Tony leaned against the frame, watching Stephen with a tired smile. Another day had gone by with no disturbance, which meant Tony was free to build and explore their new home. He was always tired at the end of it, age creeping up on him even if he staunchly denied it, but it was the good kind of tired that came with hard work.
“Not since high school. I've been living on coffee and tea for a long time.” He set his book aside and stretched, sighing in satisfaction when his joints popped and his cramped muscles unfurled themselves. Tony settled on the couch, placing a steaming cup on the table in front of Stephen. Over the course of that year, in particular, they had grown closer, their friendship tighter, so something like this wasn't out of the ordinary. Stephen kind of liked this new side to Tony, soft and at ease. He was still a ball of energy, a charismatic person who took up the entire state with his personality, but he wasn't bogged down with stress anymore.
Must be nice. Letting go.
“Thank you, Tony.” He sat up and levitated the cup to his lips, blowing on it gently before taking a sip. They'd learned a lot about each other, like how Stephen took his tea and that he needed a special kind late at night when he was lost in studying. His stomach rumbled aggressively, which had Tony chuckling softly.
“Hungry?” Stephen finished the tea and rose, stretching again. He was going to have to take up yoga again. His body wasn't as youthful as it used to be. Even sitting for long periods of time was becoming cumbersome for him.
“Starving. What time is it?” FRIDAY piped up, telling them it was well near four in the morning. Dinner had been around eight. Nearly eight hours ago.
“You sit at the table. I'll fix you something.” Stephen shook his head, more than willing to just open a portal and order something, but Tony pushed him gently into a chair at the kitchen table and tsked him. “Stop worrying. Just sit.”
The massive omelet was in front of him twenty minutes later, along with one for Tony. Peter was sleeping in his room upstairs. Stephen examined his food with a raised brow.
“Tony, this is far more than I can possibly eat.” Tony had already tucked into his food, so he could only roll his eyes at the statement. Fine. Stephen wasn't going to argue with a man who stuffed his face like that anyway.
“Now see? You were far more hungry than you thought.” He cleared their empty plates and settled back down in his seat, tapping his fingers on the table and just watching him. Stephen gestured to his own face and raised a brow in question.
“Something wrong with it?” Tony blinked and shook his head, though he did stop staring and went on to close his eyes and hum. Stephen recognized the song, but he didn't want to interrupt the peace with his facts. Instead, he leaned back in his seat and listened as Tony then began to sing the song, quietly, but surprisingly on key. He had a nice voice.
“How long do you think we could stay like this?” Stephen pondered that for a moment.
“Ten minutes. I'm very tired.” Tony chuckled again.
“No shit. I meant, you know, this life. How long before something goes wrong?” That had Stephen sitting up and meeting Tony's gaze, once again filled with fear and anxiety. No amount of distraction, comfort, or building (man he loved to build) could make them forget about the coming doom.
“I honestly don't know. I'm surprised it's lasted this long. I mean, how has he not even landed on Earth yet?” Tony turned to glance out over the lake, the moon reflecting off the ripples. It was almost unearthly how beautiful the view was in that cabin.
“Mind taking a walk, wizard?”
They ended up on the shore of the lake, taking their time walking around it. The time passed in silence, their minds churning and working. Stephen was always looking to the future, and he assumed Tony was too, but when he stopped them by the pier, brown eyes filled with the full moon as he stared up at Stephen, well...
“I love Pepper.” Stephen nodded, unsure what the hell he was saying.
“Right. I know. Do you want me to bring her here? I'm surprised you didn't ask when we first came.” Tony shook his head.
“That would be a bad idea considering she and I aren't a couple anymore. I broke it off with her about six months into living here. I couldn't allow her to keep waiting for me to come back. Who knows if we even will. It's better to untangle her from my life.” That surprised Stephen. He always figured they would stick together, marry, have a troop of little Starks, and grow old together; probably in the very cabin they were all living in.
“Oh. I'm sorry.” Tony shrugged, tilting his head to look out over the water. The moon cast his normally tanned skin in a silvery light, highlighting the small scars collected on his skin like stamps. Tony lived a dangerous life, and though he hung up the suit, it was always there in his eyes; his longing looks towards where the city lay. His constant need to build, build, build, even though there wasn't much left to create.
Tony missed it. Which meant he would go back to it someday. He was trying to protect the people he loved from it, even at his own expense.
“Yeah, well, it happens. You love and you lose. At least I have Peter still. And I know that Pepper will be safe without me around. She's better off.” He scratched the back of his neck and turned to look back at Stephen, then in the direction of the cabin.
“The thing is, something has sort of.. developed. Out of nowhere, really, but maybe not so much if I think hard on it.” Panic surged through his blood. Did his sensors come back with something? Was danger coming sooner than they thought? “Geeze, no need to freak out, Steph. It's nothing bad. Well, I hope not anyway.”
“Out with it, Tony. Before my blood pressure rises to dangerous territory.” True to his form, Tony wasn't straightforward. He ran a hand through his hair multiple times, cursing under his breath, and looked just about everywhere else.
“Should we play 20 Questions? Will that help?” Tony stuck his tongue out at him, though the nervous glint in his eyes didn't fade like Stephen hoped his joke would do.
“I should be able to do this, but I was never all that great with feelings. I am an inventor for a reason. I relate better to robots and machines than people.” Stephen didn't really agree with that statement, at all, but Tony steamrolled right over any objection he could make, carrying on in a mixture of mumbled and quickly-spoken phrases. Stephen placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Tony, relax. Just say it, if it will make you feel better. Don't worry about what people might say or think and just spit it out.”
“Right. Yeah. Okay. So, um, I swore off loving anyone after the mess with Pepper. Like we said; my life is too dangerous for a relationship. And I'm not really the best person to try that with anyway.” Stephen felt Tony constantly sold himself short (he would allow the pun on Tony's height), and in this case he was stomping himself into the mud. He wasn't all that bad, once you got past the sarcastic quips and haughtiness he carried around with him. Underneath that, he was insecure, desperate to prove himself worthy, and he cared more than anyone Stephen ever met. More than was probably healthy, really. He gave so much of himself to others, there was hardly a piece left for him. He carried guilt around like a sandbag, watching Peter with worry when the teenager wasn't looking.
How he was with Peter further proved he was a far better man than he thought of himself. Stephen had nearly assumed they were father and son when he first met them properly, they were so close. Tony loved Peter like he was his own child, even if he tried to deny that. Stephen had seen enough possible outcomes to know that.
“Do you always put yourself down so much?” Tony stopped talking and frowned.
“I'm only speaking the truth, Stephen. I have a history so dark it would make night look like day. But that's not the point. Look, even after everything I promised myself, especially since we are on the run from a homicidal alien looking to commit mass murder, I've gone and done something stupid.” Stephen tilted his head, examining Tony. “I've gone and fallen for someone.”
“Well, that's not so bad. End times often do that to people. Declarations of love are often shouted when bullets are raining down, or when death is knocking on their door. Geeze, Tony, I thought something was wrong with you for a minute.” The man stepped away, looking over the lake and shoving his hands in his pockets.
“There is something wrong with me. I can't love them, not at a time like this. Not when my life could vaporize any minute. It's stupid and I don't know how it even happened, but it did and there's no turning back from that.” Stephen rolled his eyes. Tony was one of the more dramatic people he knew.
“It may or may not be stupid, but feelings rarely ever make sense. They are illogical and shouldn't be listened to over good sense and intellect at a time like this. Not to say they should be denied. Just...put on a shelf.” Tony turned slowly towards him again, the moon doing something weird with his eyes, and his frown deepened.
“Right. Good to know, Spock. Anyway, we should, um, get back. Try to get some sleep, right? That's what good, logical, sensible people do.” He turned away and stormed back to the cabin, leaving Stephen with the sense he said the wrong thing. As he always did.
Stephen stood on the bank staring out over the water. Another year was coming to a close and still no sign of Thanos. They also weren't any closer to figuring out what to do with the stones in their possession, which means this future could still go either way. Stephen wished there was a fast-forward option in the Time Stone. Living every day having to grow closer to Peter and Tony while knowing any second their carefully made peace could crumble in their hands. It was better when they were just two supers he had to deal with when fighting for the universe.
“Hi, doc.” He turned to find Peter approaching. Much like Stephen, though he wore regular clothing, he always had his suit on underneath. Stephen rarely slept without his Eye of Agamotto and cloak nearby.
“Tony said to tell you if you want pancakes to get your, and I'm quoting him word-for-word, magical ass in here before I eat his food for him.” Stephen sighed and motioned for Peter to lead the way. Eating like that, Tony would be too big to fit into the Iron Man suits in the case of Thanos dropping in on them. They couldn't forget the mission.
“Back away from my cakes, Anthony Stark.” He caught the man two seconds from devouring his food, wide brown eyes blinking up at him in faux innocence.
“What? Me? Eat your food, Mister Doctor Sorcerer? Never crossed my mind.” He sat back in his seat, smiling when Stephen settled into his and carefully speared a bite of pancake. It quickly became evident Stephen struggled with a fork and knife, so Tony made sure anything difficult to cut up was prepared for Stephen. It had been humiliating at first, but by that point Stephen was nothing but grateful for Tony's kindness. Peter scarfed down his food and drummed his fingers on the table.
“Mister Stark, do you think we can do a little training today? I've been feeling so restless lately, and it's been so long since we've gotten to spar.” Stephen glanced over to Tony, who was still watching him. He swallowed nervously. It was happening more often that he was catching Tony observing him, and he didn't know what to make of it. Did he have the sense that Stephen was hiding something? That Stephen was waiting until something happened – good or bad – before going back to the real present?
“Sure, kid. We can.” They cleared their places, Peter throwing a loose arm around Stephen's shoulders in a brief hug before hurrying out the door. Tony and Stephen watched him go with matching looks of amusement.
“I know he's not your son but he's a lot like you, Tony. Bouncing from one thing to another with endless energy. I don't know how either of you do it.” The man leaned against the counter and sipped at a mug of something steamy. Probably coffee.
“It's probably why we get along so well. He reminds me a lot of myself when I was younger. Well, a better version of me when I was younger. He's in a much better place than I was.” He set the mug down and met Stephen's eyes with a sunny gaze. “He really seems to like you, doc. You might take my place as his favorite hero.”
“Not that I think that it's really possible for me to take your place, I'm not really someone a kid should look up to.” Tony shrugged.
“Neither am I. Sometimes it just happens, and you have to try to be someone worth looking up to. For them. Besides, you're not all that bad. A little callous, maybe, but I know you have a good heart Stephen, and that's what matters.” He left the kitchen to join Peter outside, shouting something to the kid that was cut off by the door shutting between them. Stephen chewed on the parting words along with the last few bites of breakfast.
A few hours later, Stephen was sitting on the porch with one of his murder mystery books, listening to the birds singing and the sounds of Tony grunting and Peter trying to dodge attacks. It was peaceful, a breeze ruffling his pages and the sun slanting through just right, and Stephen found himself praying this could be his real future. Being on the run wasn't exactly preferable, but if it led to him finally getting to chill out he wouldn't mind.
It helped he had interesting company during the now nearly three years of being in hiding. Stephen still carried his sling ring everywhere he went, just in case, but thus far things were looking up. He still communicated with Wong often, working on ways to either destroy or hide the stones from Thanos, and he made sure to keep his magic skills sharp. You never know when a mad titan might drop in searching for his treasure.
“Ow!” A string of curses followed, punctuated with gasping apologies, snapping Stephen's attention from his book to the yard Tony and Peter were supposed to be sparring in. Tony was on the ground, curled inward, and Peter was crouching next to him.
“What happened?” He gently moved Peter aside to examine Tony, whose face was red and his breaths coming out short and quick. Perspiration was gathering along his skin and he gritted his teeth against whatever was bothering him.
“I- I think I might have kicked him too hard. I forget my own strength sometimes. I'm really sorry, Mister Stark.” Stephen gathered Tony had a few broken ribs, nothing too damaging on the inside, and used magic to lift Tony up off the ground. He wasn't really strong enough to deadlift the man off the ground.
“Don't worry, Peter. He'll be fine in a month or two. Probably sooner, knowing Tony. He has a couple broken ribs.” Peter fussed the entire way into the house, through the kitchen, and into the den where Stephen carefully set Tony on a chair. The shirt was removed with a twitch of his fingers so he could examine him better, carefully laying his glowing hands against the warm skin. Peter sat on the couch and watched them with those big worried eyes.
“Yep. Three broken ribs. Not internal bleeding or puncture wounds. You'll be just fine.” Tony wheezed and nodded quickly, his eyes squeezed shut. Stephen returned the shirt and helped settle him against pillows on the spacious couch. Tony's grip turned bruising on his upper arm, but it was expected; broken ribs were no joke.
“Hold on. I have a spell to help with the pain.” A few seconds later and Tony was relaxing into sleep.
“So, he's really okay?” Stephen sat back, sweat rolling down his neck and under the collar of his shirt. It was the first time he was using any serious amounts of energy in his magic, and the lack of use drained him more than usual. He needed to put in more training.
“Perfectly. Don't blame yourself too much, Peter. Accidents like this happen all the time in sparring. I'm sure he was pushing you to fight harder and things like this often occur. He'll be good as new soon.” Peter sighed, scooting closer to Tony's feet and watching him sleep.
“I think he was distracted by something. He hasn't been as focused as he usually is. Like his mind is somewhere else.” Stephen chuckled, summoning two cups of hot chocolate for them.
“Well, he's a genius. Or so he claims, at least. I'm sure his mind is all over the place most of the time. He's been worrying about Thanos and about the peace we've so far enjoyed; maybe that's why he's given up on distracting himself with building.” Peter shook his head.
“I still think it's something else. We used to talk all the time, but now he keeps things to himself. Even during our sparring, which was when we would trade our concerns about whatever was happening, he was quiet.” Stephen smothered a sigh and sipped at his drink. Maybe he would have a talk with Tony when he woke up. If Peter was worried, it was time to worry.
“Well, the day is still young. Mind if we spar a little? He'll probably sleep for most of the day.” Peter nodded, excitement sparkling in his eyes, and he hurried to cover Tony with a blanket before bouncing away. Stephen cleared their dishes and checked on Tony's sleeping form one more time. Satisfied, he headed out and magicked his training tunic and pants on.
“Can you teach me some magic? Imagine a Spider-Man who can shoot webs, has iron spider legs, and can shoot magic bolts! That would be so cool.” Stephen could imagine. He could also imagine Tony strangling him with the Iron Man suit for teaching his kid anything dealing with magic.
“Maybe when Tony is well enough, we can talk him into it. I know he's not your father, but he'll still kill me for teaching you magic without him knowing.” Peter nodded in understanding, glancing back at the house.
“So what are we going to train? Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.” Stephen fell into a fighting stance and smirked.
“I'm not only a master of the Mystic Arts; I happen to be a master of Martial Arts too. Picked it up while in Nepal. We can do some hand-to-hand.” At first, Peter seemed too hesitant in his movements, pulling his punches and kicks ridiculously. Stephen finally tripped him with a leg sweep and raised a fist to strike him. Peter squeaked and tried to fight him off, still not using that strength he had.
“Peter. Stop holding back. You don't have to pretend I'm Thanos, but at least fight back a little.” They separated, Stephen narrowing his eyes on Peter's left shoulder. The kid kept rolling it like it bothered him. Doctor Stephen would look at it later, but Doctor Strange picked the weakness out to exploit it. Before he could even move, however, Peter was gone and he was knocked forward by a stiff hand to his back. Stephen stumbled and turned just in time to fend off a flurry of punches.
“Better! Remember to think before you strike. Don't just throw punches randomly.” He was able to grab Peter's left fist, stopping it from probably crushing his jaw, and kicked his legs out from under him again. Peter used the momentum to throw Stephen across the yard. He landed on his feet and turned back with a grin.
“Excellent.” Peter ducked his head and rubbed his shoulder again.
“One more? Or would you rather I check your shoulder?” The sun was falling to the west, blue skies melting into flaming orange. Somehow they missed lunch with everything going on, Stephen's stomach complaining loudly at the same moment Peter's cried out. They snickered.
“Maybe we can eat and I'll check your shoulder? Sound good?” Together they made their way to the cabin, Peter going on about something he was building in the lab Tony made sure to include when he was building the home. When they entered, they dropped their conversation at the sight of Tony trying to work around the kitchen. He had pans on the stove and was leaning heavily on the counter in search for something in the cabinets. Stephen hurried forward to grab whatever it was Tony was surely going to drag onto his head while Peter supported Tony's weight.
“What are you doing, Mister Stark?” Stephen set the bowl on the counter and helped Peter get Tony into his seat. The man was panting but trying to push them off at the same time, which seemed to only make the pain worse.
“Tony, you really should be resting. You only just had them broken. Give your body a little time to heal.” Naturally, he tried to jerk away from Stephen.
“I'm fine. Let me get back to work. You both smell like a locker room.” Peter brushed Tony's hair back and examined his face.
“I don't care if we smell like rotten eggs, Mister Stark. You can't do stuff like that! You have to listen to the doctor.” Tony turned pain-soaked eyes on Stephen, anger sparking behind them.
“Don't you have a spell that can fix me up? Why are you holding out?”
“No. I don't have a healing spell. We rely on elixirs and I don't know how to make any or where to find them right now. So you're going to have to suck it up and let your body heal the natural way. Excuse me, I have to shower. Then I'll teleport into town and pick up something.” Tony obviously wanted to protest, shifting to leave his chair, but in his state Stephen was able to easily push him back down.
“Tony. Rest. Please. For Peter?” At that, Tony glanced over to Peter's strained expression and wide eyes.
A month dragged by, bogged down by the heat of summer and Tony's relentless complaining and stubbornness. Peter fretted over him until Tony was snapping at him to go away and do something more important, Stephen was cussed out constantly for not helping him heal faster, and meals were eaten in stony silence thanks to Tony's temper. He was proving to be one of the more difficult patients Stephen ever had to deal with.
One night Stephen was woken in the middle of the night. At first, he thought maybe it was the storm outside, but then he heard quiet swearing and what sounded like glass being cleaned up. He pulled on his housecoat and padded into the kitchen. One light was on above the stove, Tony crouched on the ground and trying valiantly to sweep the mess up. Rather than clean it himself with magic, Stephen pulled out the pitcher of water and poured a glass.
“Stephen? Did I wake you?” Tony was leaning on the counter, not as badly as when he first broke his ribs, but still more than Stephen liked seeing. Still, he could understand the humiliation of looking so weak when you were the same person who saved the world countless times. So he didn't mention anything about Tony's condition.
“I don't think so. I don't always sleep well. What are you doing up anyway?” The glass was dumped into the trash and Tony poured a glass of water for himself.
“I couldn't sleep.”
“Nightmares?” Tony smiled wryly.
“Something like that.” They shared a quiet moment.
“You can tell me. If you want.” This earned him a piercing look.
“Last time I tried to tell you something, you told me not to worry about it. You dismissed it because it wasn't related to the mission. What makes this different?” Stephen blinked.
“That was a year ago, Tony. I've actually been meaning to talk to you about something. Peter has expressed concern about you.” Tony leaned his back against the counter across from Stephen and crossed his arms.
“He worries a lot for a kid.”
“Well, you give people a lot to worry about.” A snort.
“Oh, now you're worried about me, doc? I'm touched.”
“Why are you being difficult? We're friends, Tony. You can tell me what's bothering you. Or you cannot. I respect you, and whatever you decide I'll respect that too. I just want you to know I'm willing to listen.” That had Tony jerking his face away and staring out over the lake.
“I dreamed Thanos came. I was unable to do anything because of an injury and had to watch you and Peter fight him alone. I watched you both die. It was horrible.” He didn't return his gaze to Stephen's, choosing to keep watching the lake.
“I'm afraid. Every day I think 'this could be it; this could be the day I lose everything.' I watch Peter building in the workshop and you reading on the porch and I worry. I want this to last forever, but I know it won't. It can't. He's coming.” Stephen froze at the quiet certainty in Tony's voice.
“Has someone said something? Has he found Earth?” Tony finally met his eye and sighed.
“No. But ever since New York, with Loki and the wormhole, I think I've had a connection to Thanos somehow. I knew he was coming, which is why I tried to build Ultron. I wanted to protect the world, but since I couldn't, I decided I needed to protect those I care about. Those I love. My nightmares were nonexistent for most of our time here, but now they have returned, worse than before in many ways. He's coming and we are not ready.” Stephen didn't like they were relying on Tony's nightmares to gauge how long before Thanos came, but he was someone who could manipulate energy into portals. Sometimes things didn't have to make sense to be true.
“Okay. What do you want to do? More training? Alert the Avengers? Return to the city?” Tony shook his head.
“No. We can't fight this, Stephen. He's coming. He's going to kill us. He's going to win. We just...we just have to enjoy what time we have left.” He was pleading with Stephen, but he couldn't be sure what it was he was pleading for. Tony Stark was giving up before the battle began?
“You can do what you wish, Tony, but I will not roll over and let Thanos just take the stones and kill half the universe. If you no longer wish to be apart of the coming battle, I will return to the sanctum.” Tony lurched forward and grabbed Stephen's arm tightly.
“Stephen, please. Don't- Don't leave. We- Peter needs you. Try to understand me, okay? I'm not giving up, but I am accepting this is our fate. I don't want to waste time pretending any amount of training will help us. I will fight with you because I know we need to, but I'm not foolishly wasting precious time on gathering Avengers and pretending this won't end in failure.” That was not reassuring at all, but Stephen couldn't fight the desperation in his voice, the way Tony Stark was begging Stephen to understand. Like on the Q-ship. Stephen had to admit even he knew if they faced Thanos, they would lose. His pride just didn't like to think about it.
“Okay, Tony. Alright. Calm down. I hear you.” The grip on his arm loosened and Tony nodded at him.
“Good. Thank you.” They shared a long look, Stephen trying to read what was behind this surge of desperate clinging and surrendering to fate. The Tony he knew, albeit somewhat briefly, never let fate have her way. In fact, his entire life was a big middle finger to fate.
Tony, on the other hand, seemed to be deciding on something. He was watching Stephen, as he had been doing for days, brown eyes shifting back and forth as they stood there. The full moon poured into the kitchen, silvery light painting Tony's face in a rather fascinating way. No. He couldn't get distracted. Even as Tony's eyes turned starry, the moonlight seeping into their depths and casting a spell all their own on Stephen, his brain reminded him he needed to focus. This wasn't real. This was not the mission.
“Hmm?” Trembling fingers found their way to Stephen's neck.
“Feel free to stop me at any time.” He wrinkled his brow at Tony's hushed words, but soon the meaning became clear as the hand on the back of his neck applied the pressure needed to bring Stephen closer. Surprise and maybe confusion jumped to the front of his mind, followed shortly by blinding understanding and then fear. This was all wrong, Stephen knew that, but he found himself not really wanting to stop it. Even as an unspoken request flashed in Tony's eyes, the lift to his brow, Stephen couldn't push away. No. He wanted this, realized everything in the past two years was leading him to this moment. Not to mention the knowledge of those past possible outcomes. He admired Tony, and that admiration was quickly evolving into feelings he had no right to feel towards the man.
The second their lips touched, just the barest of contact, all thoughts melted away. Stephen pressed forward and sighed into the kiss, arms seeking contact as Tony pulled him closer. A satisfied hum slipped into the silent room, causing Stephen to smile even while they still kissed. It felt right, so right, but naturally his brain had to wave logic in his face. Stephen mentally batted it away. This version of Tony was going to die, so why not indulge in it? It wasn't like it would hurt anyone in the real timeline.
They stood like that for what felt like hours to Stephen, only breaking away when something hard dug into his back and startled a grunt out of him. Tony was pleased at the sound, but Stephen made it apparent it wasn't a good grunt.
“Oh, sorry. Are you okay?” He nodded, stepping away from the counter and putting needed space between them. Tony was watching him again, face carefully blank as he just waited. Waited to see what Stephen would say. Maybe deciding what he could say. Stephen wondered if he was trying to think of a way to explain that away; he sure was.
“Um, I should probably get back to sleep. Goodnight, Tony.” He swept forward, surprise (and delight?) sparking in Tony's eyes as Stephen pressed a kiss to his cheek, mouth, and then the top of his head. He then brushed his fingers along Tony's jaw and smiled. “We can talk more tomorrow. Go get some rest, okay?”
“You're the doctor.” And with that, they parted ways, Stephen's chest tight and head spinning.
It turned out Tony waited most of the year to finally do that; to finally kiss Stephen. That walk around the lake taken over a year prior was when he wanted to admit he'd fallen for the sorcerer, but Stephen brushing it off scared Tony out of his confession. According to Tony, he never would have said anything at all except he realized they were running out of time. That explained the longing looks he constantly received from Tony, and Stephen felt bad for making him think Stephen didn't care about him. Imagine if the whole year was spent with them happily in a relationship instead of Tony pining from a safe distance and Stephen ignoring anything not directly related to the mission.
He couldn't, though, and needed to tell Tony this. How he was going to explain that the mission was all that could matter to Stephen he didn't know, but he certainly was not doing it in the same spot he hurt Tony's feeling in that night. Not with how Tony was looking up at him, how nervous he seemed even as Stephen ran his thumbs over Tony's hands to reassure him. But it needed to be done.
Peter found him later that day, bounding towards him and yanking him into a hug.
“Finally!” Stephen stumbled back and cleared his throat.
“Finally?” Peter beamed and pointed back to the cabin where Tony was putting together lunch.
“I saw Mister Stark. He's humming!” Well, that wasn't what Stephen was expecting.
“Okay? Is that not normal?” Peter reached out and grabbed Stephen's shoulders, pressing hard enough to bruise. The kid was incredibly strong.
“It means he's happy, which means he finally talked to you. And things went well!” Oh. Wow. The kid knew. It made sense, actually. He wondered if Tony was embarrassed when Peter found him. If he smiled shyly and mumbled for him to shut up. Stephen found himself smiling.
“Oh my gosh! That's so cute! I've totally shipped you guys since the alien spaceship. I totally knew it.” Stephen's brows furrowed.
“Shipped?” Peter chuckled and led them up to the cabin where Tony was standing on the porch, watching them walk across the yard. He looked more relaxed, lighter even, his smile free and bright. Stephen felt a blush itching up his neck with the knowledge that he was behind it.
“Yeah. You know, like, when you see two people and you think, 'wow, they would be a great couple.' When we met you, and you were talking with Mister Stark, I could see it. Really took him forever to finally admit it, and you even longer to see it, but now it's happened.” They were stepping up the stairs, Tony reaching for Stephen instantly and pulling him into a kiss. Peter's pleased sigh had Stephen breaking it and cutting a stern look at the teen. Tony turned his eyes back to him, the sun turning those brown eyes golden.
“Let him go, Stephen. He's excited. Apparently, he's been rooting for us since Titan.” Stephen chuckled, letting Tony pull him back in even as his brain chastised him for letting this go on when they had more important things to worry about. Stephen wanted to be selfish, wanted to soak in as much affection and happiness as he could before he was ultimately killed here and forced to look elsewhere for an answer. The kiss tipped into a purposeful one, Tony pressing closer and trying to open Stephen's mouth, so Stephen broke it and poked him on the nose. Tony blinked up at him in wonder and a goofy smile spread across his face.
“Mister Stark! The food is burning!”
Weeks flew by, Stephen relenting more and more to what Tony wanted. They had yet to sleep together, but even someone as oblivious and dense as Stephen could see it's what Tony was hoping for each time the kissed turned a bit more heated. Sure, they were more than happy to make out like teenagers on the couch, but they were grown men. Men with needs. Stephen just wasn't sure how smart it would be to let it happen. It wasn't like he didn't want to, gosh no, but with Thanos coming and the fact none of what was going on was real, it made Stephen apprehensive about taking the final step with Tony.
For his part, Tony didn't seem in a hurry despite that night in the kitchen where he confessed how worried he was they were running out of time. He didn't push Stephen, just sat back with a satisfied smile and dark eyes. They stuck to their own rooms, Stephen shifting restlessly in his bed almost every night, worry over their futures and a very real sense of want battling until he rolled out of bed and went for a walk to clear his head. The goodnight kisses were often the most heated, Tony examining him closely before whispering goodnight in a husky voice that had Stephen's hair standing up and pulse jumping. Each morning he was greeted with a cup of his tea and a searing kiss, leaving him breathless and warm.
Wong never commented on the stray marks along Stephen's neck or jaw, never once let Stephen know he was disappointed in him becoming distracted in a time like this, and it was actually worrying him. Wong would be the first person to snap Stephen out of his head and remind him the world would perish should he let himself go on like he was. Instead, they spoke about cloaking spells, dimensions far away, and never of the fact that it was obvious Stephen's heart wasn't in it anymore.
One night, about three months after the incident in the kitchen, Stephen startled awake. He was sweating and his throat was sore and dry. He must have had a nightmare. When he went into the kitchen, however, he found Tony staring out the window, arms wrapped around himself and fear evident on his face.
“Tony? Love, what's wrong?” The man didn't budge, didn't even seem to hear Stephen, so he carefully joined him and tried to find whatever it was he was staring at. Nothing jumped out at him as odd or terrifying, so he carefully wound his arms around Tony's shoulders and pressed his lips into his hair.
“He's coming. He'll be here soon. Stephen, I'm not ready.” Tony turned in his embrace and tucked his face into Stephen's neck, shuddering against him. “I'm terrified.” Stephen soothed him, staring out into the night and wondering what Thanos was doing to the man to scare him.
“I know, darling. We all are. But listen to me. We are not going to give up. We will work together or die trying.” Tony jerked back, lip wobbling and turning down sharply.
“I've had that promise broken before. I've been abandoned when I really needed my team.” Stephen leaned forward and pressed a kiss to Tony's head.
“I will not abandon you, Tony. I'm staying right here. I will die by your side.” Tony nodded and allowed himself to be pulled back into an embrace. Despite his words, Stephen was worrying.
His focus was supposed to be on the world above all. He was supposed to abandon all ties to the Earth, anything that would take his loyalties. He was quickly realizing Tony was becoming too important to him; Peter as well. He found himself burning with the desire to protect this poor man, to shield him away from the battle and sacrifice everything to make sure he stood in the end. It was dangerous for a sorcerer to feel that way because he was responsible for protecting the world.
Tony's fingers worked through his hair, nose sliding against his throat until lips made contact, and Stephen found himself not caring about that for the moment. In the morning, he could deal with his conflicting emotions. His fingers tightened in Tony's sleeping shirt and he sighed. Perhaps this could be their goodbye.
“Stephen, don't leave me alone.” That was all it took for Stephen to follow him across the cabin and into the dimly-lit bedroom. He would be stronger, more reasonable in the morning. He could focus on his tasks, focus on how to defeat Thanos and protect the world from total destruction at his hand. But for the night, he let himself just exist. To just indulge themselves.
Not even three days later and they were faced with the twisted snarl of Thanos and his puppets. He had only one arm, he seemed exhausted and weak, but still he somehow outsmarted and overpowered Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man. In his last moments, he saw Thanos dump Peter in a heap next to the crumpled metal Iron Man suit. Stephen scrambled over to them, tears burning his eyes before he felt the very molecules of his body separating and he was shoved from the timeline.
Possible Future 14,000,605
Stephen numbly watched as the team fell apart one-by-one, ignoring the painful betrayal and confusion on Tony's face. The team fought hard, were nearly successful, but Thanos was just too strong. Giving up the Time Stone to save Tony had been difficult but necessary. Whatever happened, he just knew Tony had to live. Of anyone on Earth, that man was the only one able to save the world from a snap like Thanos'. When Stephen felt that familiar sensation of death calling him, his molecules ripping apart, he met Tony's eyes and tried to say he loved him. That he believed in him.
All that came out was a gasp.
Unlike other timelines, his death didn't knock him into a new outcome. Instead, he got to observe everything that happened after the snap. Tony and the blue alien girl spent weeks on Titan, building and growing closer as Tony showed her ways to pass the time and told her funny stories about his days with the Avengers. She, in turn, revealed everything she could about Thanos, sprinkling stories of her and a girl named Gamora between the haunting tales of Thanos' conquest.
Then they were in space, Stephen's heart squeezing as he watched Tony dying on that ship, losing all hope of returning home and deciding to send a message to Pepper. It was crushing to have to witness, but then a brilliant light fell over Tony's sunken face, a glowing woman greeting the passengers and taking them home. Stephen was then on Earth, watching Tony greet his friends and family, tears falling as he confessed to Steve Rogers he had lost the kid. Peter's death was particularly hard on Tony, even more so than his malnourished body and fragility.
He watched as years passed. The Avengers, minus Tony, went to confront Thanos, cut off his hand (and head), only to find the stones destroyed. Hopeless, the team returned to Earth and tried to live their lives. Tony moved out into the woods and built a cabin, a family, and a new life for himself. He married Pepper in a very private ceremony, attended only by the priest and Rhodes, and they had a daughter not long after. Surprisingly, Stephen wasn't jealous or hurt over this development. In fact, it felt so right. Tony deserved a happy life filled with children and peace. Pepper could give him that.
Agent Romanov was the only one of the Avengers still set on reversing everything, which to Stephen meant she was an extremely important part of the story. She, along with Steve and a man named Scott, found Tony and tried to convince him of time travel to retrieve the stones. Tony, naturally, rejected them. He was happy, content, and unwilling to give up his family for something he found impossible.
Then, of course, Tony invented time travel that night, inspired by the loss of Peter. Stephen couldn't help the burst of pride he felt. Tony was an incredible man.
Soon the stones were retrieved, the gauntlet made, and everyone returned. Stephen didn't jump back into the story, however, instead watching a version of him wake up on Titan along with Peter and the guardians. This new Stephen then opened portals, planning an attack on Thanos in an hour. He also saw a new Thanos crash through the compound, seeking the gauntlet Tony made so he could vanquish Earth.
The battle was brutal. It seemed like the Avengers were going to lose once again, but then Stephen's portals opened all across the battlefield, swarms of people pouring out and ready to take on Thanos. With a renewed battle cry, Steve Rogers led the army of heroes against Thanos and his alien troops. The battle was hectic, dotted with moments between reunited heroes. Including Tony and Peter, who hugged tightly before getting back to work. Stephen found himself battling aliens with incredible power, turning to where Tony had landed to speak with him and exchanging brief pleasantries before Tony shot off to where Thanos was. It warmed him that Tony checked in with him, even if it was lacking the love Stephen missed.
The final moments, however, were so difficult to watch. Tony was able to remove the stones from the gauntlet Thanos nearly snapped again, surprising the Titan before snapping his own fingers. Stephen cried out, while the Stephen on the battlefield could only watch in anguish. Clearly, he knew it was happening. This was their victory plan? Everyone lives, save for Romanov and Stark apparently, but the savior of the universe has to perish? It was so unfair of the Time Stone to show this future to him last. Why, after showing every side to Tony, making Stephen fall for him, did it declare the only victory would be at the cost of Tony Stark's life?
It was a cruel twist of fate that he now had to decide between his own selfish desires and the fate of the universe. As a doctor, how could he knowingly send two people to their deaths? As a former lover of Tony's, how could he send that man into a battle he would not live to see become victorious? It was torture.
He jerked awake and fell forward, and of course it was into Tony's waiting arms. Concern flickered in his eyes as he softly assured Stephen that he was okay. Except he really wasn't. Not with what he had just experienced. How could he tell this man, a man he now cared about far more than he ever should, that the only way to save the world was for him to die?
Of course Tony would do it. He was much like Stephen, willing to sacrifice his life for the greater good, but it was still unfair that the burden fell on Stephen. It was unfair it was the man he now loved with his whole being.
“How many did you see?” Stephen swallowed, still trying to regulate his breathing and clutched to Tony's offered arm.
“14,000,605.” Tony blinked at him in surprise, something like admiration glowing in those brown eyes. It hurt so much to do this, but Stephen knew it was right. He had to abandon his own desires and ties to the world for the greater good.
“How many did we win?” There had been quite a few where they won for a little while, but the only one Stephen (or Tony, for that matter) would consider a victory? It hurt to meet his eyes, to see the hope in them as he watched Stephen's face.
(Later, on the battlefield, he met those eyes once more as he fought to hold back the water threatening to drown the fighters. Tony was searching for something. Somehow, Stephen was able to will himself to hold up his fingers, signaling this was it. He knew exactly what Tony was thinking, had seen it played out before, and he was unsurprised to find determination set in his face.)
(Watching him lay there, dying, surrounded by those he loved, speared Stephen's heart. Especially because he couldn't get over to him to say goodbye, too busy wrangling the tower of water he and some other sorcerers were trying to get rid of. The world was safe, but Stephen wasn't sure if he found the sacrifice worth it.)