“And when I touch you
in each of the places we meet
in all of the lives we are, it’s with hands that are dying
When I don’t touch you it’s a mistake in any life,
in each place and forever.”
-- Other Lives and Dimensions And Finally A Love Poem, by Bob Hicock.
Stephen Strange spends the next hundred years looking into fourteen-million possibilities in the span two of minutes.
He sees them lose. He sees them suffer. He sees them die in ways that not even Dormammu was cruel enough to come up with. He sees the universe end at their fingertips, he sees time bend and shape around him. He sees worlds covered in blood and choked by light.
Stephen sees into millions of possibilities and finds only one where they win, but he never expected to end up falling in love with Tony Stark in almost every single one of them.
The first time he falls in love with Tony, it goes like this:
In this timeline, the time stone in the last one Thanos seems to find. They wait on Titan for what feels like days, enough for them to have to build a makeshift shelter with Stephen’s help. Peter has his fourth nervous breakdown before he simply doesn’t speak at all. The man who calls himself Star-Lord sits by himself, trying to contact the rest of his group, but every single attempt is useless. Mantis helps them all sleep, thought Stephen doesn’t allow her to touch his head. She seems innocent, kind -- she doesn’t need to see the things he was forced to see. Let her have her kindness.
All in all, everyone keeps to themselves. Save for Tony, who keeps pacing around the group trying to keep them together. Stephen would do the same, but there’s no reason to when he knows what the future holds for them. What he didn’t know was that Tony could be so kind. No matter how quiet Peter is, Tony does not stop trying to get him to cheer up, promising to show him more Stark tech when they return to earth. ‘ When this is all over’, he says. Peter seems to believe him. Stephen cannot bring himself to be cruel enough to tell them the truth.
When he’s not consoling Peter or arguing with Star-Lord, Tony sits beside him. In this timeline, just like most timelines, Stephen tells him everything. His accident, Kamar-Taj, Mordo -- well, he doesn’t tell him about Dormammu. He doesn’t think the man needs to know about another cosmic, world-eating entity right now. Not like this.
In return, Tony tells him about Pepper. Stephen has heard of her in passing, just like most people have heard of Tony Stark. The man seems head over heels. He tells Stephen about his plans for their wedding, tells him about his hopes for a kid someday. He tells Stephen that the last words he heard from her sounded heartbroken, confused, and oh so angry. There hasn’t been a second since Tony arrived at Titan that he hasn’t looked guilty.
Which is why Stephen doesn’t understand why Tony kisses him. But just like every timeline where they kiss, Stephen allows himself to be selfish.
They’re speaking softly, a short walk away from their campsite, careful not to speak loud enough to wake anyone up. Stephen is delighted both him and Tony are equally as interested in knowing far too much about old albums. They’re talking about their favorite Rush album when Tony leans in to kiss him, a ghost of a breath against his lips before the man crashes into him. Stephen doesn’t stop him -- he should stop him -- but they’re both desperate and terrified enough not to care anymore. His hands shake more than usual when Tony grabs him by his hips to pull him closer. Stephen retaliates by digging his fingers into Tony’s hair.
They never get past kissing in these sort of timelines. Tony pulls away before they get carried away every single time and they’re both left panting, foreheads pressed against each other as they try to regain their composure. Guilt covers the expanse of Tony’s face in every possibility, but this is one of the only few where he hears the man say I’m sorry. Stephen always tries to comfort him by resting a hand to his cheek and pulling him into a hug, but he never replies and never feels the same way.
But in this timeline, Thanos saves the stone on his chest for last. In this life, he hears the bones in his neck crack and the last thing he hears is Tony screaming something he cannot understand before he disappears into the next.
There are a couple of timelines where Thanos kills Tony instead.
They share their backstories, arguing which one is more tragic. They kiss behind the rock of an abandoned world. It’s all pretty simple and repetitive but Stephen never knows which neck Thanos is going to go for this time -- like a coin toss. Except sometimes, he watches the titan kill young Peter first, which is what usually leads to Tony’s death as the man loses all composure and lets out the most blood curdling scream, making futile attempts after another to try to kill Thanos, or at least hurt him, but it never works.
There are some where he turns into dust, holding Tony’s body in his own. There are others where he’s left in Titan with the bodies of his new found friends surrounding him, feeling the energy of the cosmos dwindle around him.
In every single timeline, Thanos knows who Tony is. He’s just not this angry in most of them.
The most tolerable realities are the ones where he watches Tony die without allowing the man to fall in love with him. The worst are the ones where he never got to touch Tony at all.
Not all of the timelines are terrible. None of them are good, but he holds fond memories of a few.
In one possibility, Stephen gets to know Peter quite well. The young man excitedly tells him that he’s from Queens when Stephen tells him he lives in the Village.
“Of course you do,” Peter said, with the first calm smile he’d seen the boy make in ages. “I don’t go there a lot but I hear that everyone who lives in Greenwich is a total hipster.”
Stephen snorted. “These are my sorcerer robes. I don’t actually go out dressed like this. Well, I try not to. Most people don’t actually care.”
“If I didn’t know you were a wizard I would just think you were cosplaying some anime.”
“Well, the preferred term is sorcerer.” Stephen shrugged.
“Didn’t you say you learned all your magic from books? Sorcerers have, like, innate magic.” As he speaks, Peter’s cheeks begin to flush out of embarrassment. “Wait, no -- those are Dungeons and Dragons rules.”
They continue discussing the best cheap delis they’ve gone to across the city, and Stephen decides then and there that he really likes the young man, though he’s too excitable for his own good.
Every possibility after that hurts even more when he realizes that Peter is just a kid.
Stephen gets tired of watching his friends die trying to protect the fucking stone in his chest. It’s a relic, and relics are only supposed to store magic that is too powerful to allow to roam freely. If he destroys the time stone, then the magic of time will be allowed to roam freely. Perhaps everyone can control it then, or no one at all. He’s desperate and furious enough to take either chance.
So he tells the group that they have to destroy the stone before Thanos can find it. Over the span of hundreds of timelines, Mantis tries to speak to the stone, asking it to go away. Peter tries to cover it in webbing. Drax punches it, trying to get it to break. Both Tony and Star-Lord shoot at it with lasers , and it’s just ridiculous enough to always make Stephen laugh, but it never works. There’s one timeline where Peter Quill shoots a laser at the time stone and it simply shoots him back, killing him. Stephen travels to the next timeline immediately after.
But they find ways to destroy it. In one, Tony throws himself into the nearest Sun, so does Drax in another. Peter tries to sacrifice himself over a hundred times and Tony never lets him, choosing to go in his place every single time. In some, Stephen tries to turn back the stone far back in time to the creation of the universe, and causes another Big Bang. Most of the time, Stephen crushes it with the strongest spells he can find, invoking the power of the Vishanti and giving his life to them. His hands bleed whenever the time stone is crushed under his finger tips.
Breaking the time stone never works the way he wants it to. It takes him far too many possibilities in order to realize this. Thanos is still the most powerful being in the universe and quickly finds out that he can easily commit genocide without it. The worst part is finding out that he’s lived the second half of his life protecting something that didn’t even matter in the end. There’s one timeline where Thanos realizes that he can use the reality stone to make a hundred time gems at whim. In one timeline, he forms them inside of Stephen’s lungs and the sorcerer ends up choking on his own promises.
There’s one possibility that shakes him to his very core, and it’s the last timeline where he ever thinks about breaking the stone. He once believed that he was just a spec in an indifferent universe. By learning about magic, he realized that the cosmos do care. They must care to someone -- perhaps to a strange old god that has been long forgotten, or maybe to the energy that flows around every living being in the universe. Someone has to care enough to have created love. The universe has to care about him, it didn't let him die in a pathetic car crash. It helped him learn the mystic arts. It allowed him to meet Tony. But that happened over time, over many sacrifices. Stephen had to learn the hard way that if time does not exist, nor does the universe. There’s one possibility where breaking the time stone near the gauntlet resulted in time stopping completely.
There is no measurement or reference for how much time Stephen spends in contemplation in that possibility. Everything is still, nothing moves. Maybe it’s just a few seconds as he isn’t quite sure if he’s able to breathe in the first place, air doesn’t flow in a paused universe. The universe isn’t destroyed in this timeline, but it isn’t saved either -- it can’t be when he’s the only one who’s allowed to live. This is a timeline of his own doing. One mistake amongst many.
But this just proves that the end game, even in the possibilities where they can win, will never be kind or easy. This is also proof that the universe is not as benevolent as he liked to believe. Stephen should have never expected that this job would be easy, but he never thought that he would have to face gods in the eye and realize they never cared for him in the first place.
Stephen shakes away his exhaustion and moves on to the next possibility, one where time continues, and he will have to live with the hope of better days coming.
There are far too many possibilities and realities that are ruined by Peter Quill’s carelessness. The man is impulsive, reckless, and far too loud. Like a kid who thinks he’s in charge of the playground. Except he’s a grown man who has the fate of the universe in front of him yet still manages put aside some room for his dick.
Which is why Stephen is unsurprised to learn that the man was captured from Earth as a child and raised by space pirates. The younger Peter points out, rather bluntly, that Quill technically never finished his elementary education. Tony laughs, but both Mantis and Drax admit they also never had an advanced education in solidarity with their friend, which also does not surprise Stephen.
What does surprise him, however, are the scattered timelines where Quill realizes that he is speaking to another human being for the first time since he was eight, and his entire composure shatters. It does not happen often, most of them are too scared and stressed to focus on anything but Thanos, but when it does, the man changes into a scared child, asking over a hundred questions about their home planet, touching them too much as if making sure that they’re real. Stephen allows it and pats him on the shoulder, he knows what it’s like to go so long without being touched tenderly.
Mantis joins in on the awkward patting and turns it into a hug, her touch accidentally transferring Quill’s feelings to Stephen’s head, until the sorcerer finds himself tearing up a bit too. Peter joins in to console him and of course, ends up bawling. It continues like a domino effect, where Tony is forced to join in by Mantis and the younger Peter, while Drax hugs them all at the same time, almost lifting the group with ease.
In some, Stephen and Tony are in charge of telling Quill which musical artists are alive and which one aren’t. Quill is excited when he finds out there are over nine more Star Wars films, even if they assure him that some of them are terrible. Peter promises that they can all have a marathon together once they get back, which makes all the adults fall into a deep, awkward silence. None of them can stand if for very long. Luckily, Tony brought his phone and uses what’s left of its battery so they can listen to the last songs David Bowie released.
There are too many timelines that are filled with cruelty. The worst outcomes Stephen could have imagined, so many that they become muddled and begin to blend with one another in his memory, until all he’s left with are moments like these: the timelines that are quiet, the one that give him hope then rip it from his chest like the worst kind of poetic irony. Some timelines are funny, ridiculous and beautiful. He makes friends. He learns from others. He grows.
Kindness does not save them.
By the eight millionth timeline, he starts getting careless.
With abilities like his own, it’s hard to remember that he’s still human, and even a photographic memory cannot remember his actions over the span of so many lives. Because of his mistakes, he sees his new found companions get maimed, mauled, eating, exploded, stabbed, thrown, choked, devoured -- you name it.
There are timelines where they stayed on Earth. Thanos tends to bring down the moon on their planet, killing everyone before Peter got to see his aunt again and before Quill ever got to say hello to his first home.
There are timelines where he stays and Wong goes with Tony. He does not know what the man tries, but they all end with him turning into dust in the middle of a quiet sanctum.
Sometimes, Thanos dies. It always comes at a great cost. It’s usually with the added bonus of them winning except Tony dies in the process. It’s the closest they get to a happy ending, but it’s not Stephen’s happy ending. The years and years he’s spent peering through all these realities have made him selfish and desperate. Lives pass, and sometimes Stephen wonders if he should go back to the ones where he has to sacrifice Tony for the sake of the universe. But love makes him stupid. He never wants to be without him again.
The next million are covered in his own mistakes. A missed opportunity, someone he forgot to speak to, a death that wasn’t supposed to happen. So many of them close but none of them are perfect . Stephen Strange becomes a man with something to prove -- to the Vishanti? To Tony? To himself? He does not know -- but he tries and tries to make it better.
But horrible timelines open up for him like wounds. Stephen is tired of seeing these people die. He’s tired of hearing Tony say his name when the man dies in his arms, or having their roles reversed. He’s heard it almost twenty-thousand times and it never sounds the same. Some are panicked, some are angry, most of them feel helpless.
There’s a possibility where Stephen gives up the stone out of pure exhaustion. It almost works, there are ways he can work around it, he thinks. But as Peter turns to ash in front of them, Tony grabs at his neck and kills him before he can get the chance to think clearly. Stephen never stops him.
Maybe in another life.
He’s getting the hang of it. He’s getting closer.
Come on, Strange.
As much as it pained him, as much as it made him feel that he was betraying the universe and everything he stood for, giving the stone up to Thanos seemed to be the proper way to solve things... somehow. The possibilities called out to him, practically screamed at him, but their screams did not include what the specific outcome entailed. All he knew is that fixing the universe and stopping this madman required sacrifice, as most magical things entail.
He tries to give the stone up to Thanos himself, alone in Titan. Thanos returns the favor by cracking his neck, not trusting his intentions. In another life, he gives the stone up to one of his children the instant Ebony Maw arrives on earth, despite Wong’s protests. The creature is much crueler than his father, apparently, and does not have the mercy of giving him a quick death. Stephen leaves that life with memories he never wishes to ressurface.
He tries different approaches: perhaps someone else hands him the stone, or they do it in another location. Maybe he needs to affect the order in which Thanos finds the stones in the first place. Maybe he can sacrifice someone for the Soul Stone in place, but Stephen cannot bring himself to throw Tony down the cliff in any reality. There are too many variables to take in place that he can’t quite work together. In his own timeline, he knows it has been mere seconds since he started, but thirteen million possibilities later he feels an ache in his bones and head he can’t quite place -- he looks at Tony’s corpse from his current reality and sighs.
He’s starting to reach his breaking point. What use is he as the defender of an entire dimension if he can barely save the man he loves?
Millions of possibilities pass and not a single one works.
Stephen Strange jumps to the next and starts to wonder if there’s even a reality where they win in the first place.
Stephen finds yet another reality where they don’t win. But he’s happy here. It’s the reality where he gives up completely.
There are actually a couple of timelines like these.
Every time he gives up the stone to Thanos and half the universe disappears, the ones who disappear are always chosen at random. It does not happen often, but there are scattered realities where Stephen and Tony manage to survive the rapture. It always starts the same way: they are terrified, left trembling and mourning at nothing but ash, but they eventually cut their losses and make there way back to Earth to count the dead.
There’s one that he stays in for a very, very long time. Almost half-a second by normal standards, the nanoseconds stretch out to become an entire year of memories. Pepper does not make it, Stephen stays with him to mourn and ends up taking her place in his heart. Tony never stops looking guilty -- sometimes he can catch the man looking at him with a form a kind of pure, unfiltered hatred that Stephen cannot feel in return. But they are happy, as happy as people can be in a world desperately trying to repopulate itself and survive. As it turns out, mass sudden genocide does not actually have any good consequences, it only makes humanity weaker, angrier, and desperate. Still, Tony is rich, no matter how much he helps and donates, they have privilege of being able to focus on other things.
“I can’t do this.” Tony says. He just came back from a U.N meeting, apparently, discussing the relocation of population throughout the countries that lost the most citizens, and the ones who desperately need to repopulate the most. Stephen does not know the specifics of how they will handle that situation, or if there is any way they ever will. He heads where Tony is sitting on the corner of their bed, half-undressed but clearly too exhausted to finish. “I can’t do this anymore.”
This is not the first time Stephen has had to console a Tony on the brink of giving up. It’s not a common sight, the man has a stubbornness stronger than his own, but worlds like these break everyone. It almost broke him.
“You aren’t supposed to be here. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen.” Said Tony, head in his hands.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Stephen lied.
“I know about the timelines, I know you aren’t from this one.” Tony stood up to face him, staring him down even if he was considerably shorter. “Look, I don’t know how any of your magic works or why you gave up the stone --”
“Tony, we can’t have this discussion again.”
“-- but I’m not a fucking moron, Stephen.”
“You make sure to remind me every five minutes.” The sorcerer retaliated, avoiding eye-contact with the other man. Almost one-hundred years of jumping through lives, and he’d never managed to find one where Tony didn’t have the ability to be even the slightest bit insufferable at all times.
“You talk about things that have never happened between the two of us. You talk in your sleep about realities and other lives. About... Peter.” Tony shook his head. “This isn’t the world you were supposed to live in. You can leave. You should leave.”
“Any world where I am with you is the one where I’m supposed to be in.”
That almost kept Tony quiet -- almost -- but he watched as his lover closed his eyes, his own occasionally glancing out the window to view the quieter city beneath them. A population of almost ten million people cut to half. Five million people still mourning, still not knowing what to do.
Stephen held out his arms, hating the sight of seeing Tony quiet and resigned. A man as stubborn and loud as him should never look that way, but in this timeline, it’s all too common. “Come here.”
Tony walked up to him, carefully, and accepted the embrace. Stephen cherished it more than anything -- it’s the sort of comfort he can’t give Tony in other lives.
“Is this the timeline where you gave up?” Tony asked.
“Why did you stay?”
“Because we lost together. You stayed.”
He could see a slight frown appear on Tony’s face. “And Pepper didn’t.”
Stephen gulped, trying to change the subject. “I can’t go. I can’t leave you like this.”
“I mean, whatever happens to me in this world won’t matter right? Does it just not exist the instant you leave?”
Stephen shook his head. “I’ve never gone back to check. I assume they do, or they simply continue, lost of the rest of the multiverse.”
Tony hands gripped at Stephen’s arms, not making eye contact. “If you leave, will I get another Stephen?”
“I don’t know. I wish I did, Anthony.” Stephen pulled Tony in closer. “When I leave, the next Tony won’t know about any of this. About what we’ve all been through.”
“And you do?”
Tony let out a hollow laugh. “I don’t think I could stand having your job. I don’t think I could take it.”
Stephen pressed a kiss to Tony’s forehead and let him go. Tony seemed like he calmed down, at least. He can take the little victories when he can. But he can’t find a good response to Tony’s words. He didn’t think there are any.
Tony pulled back in return, still holding on to Stephen’s arms, slowly moving his hands until he’s holding Stephen’s. For some reason that he can’t quite place, every nerve in Stephen’s body began to tense.
“Whatever happens--” Tony begins, speaking to him like he’s addressing a crowd, voice strangely stead. “I... Whatever happens in all your timelines, I just want to let you know that... You almost had me, but this one was never going to work.”
“But I needed you in this life. And I’m glad I had you, but I need you to keep going. I’m not gonna let you stay here like this.”
Before Stephen can respond, Tony grips his hands, hard enough that they ache, and runs out the window. Theoretically, Stephen could stop him, he could save what’s left keeping him in this broken world, but it isn’t worth it.
Stephen leaves this timeline before he Tony’s body can even hit the ground.
Out of curiosity, Stephen tries to jump back, hands still trembling in pain and shock. He sees an empty timeline -- forgotten amongst millions in an unforgiving universe.
In the middle of the cosmos, between dimensions, Stephen Strange lets out a blood-curdling scream.
He takes an intermission.
He’s in one of the more benevolent dimensions, the one that The Ancient One forced him to go to the first time they met. It’s his second favorite place in the world to find peace and quiet. His first favorite is beside the window of the Sanctum, but there’s no way he could go there now.
He then realizes that he’s using the time stone while he’s still inside a stone induced trance -- possibilities inside possibilities.
He’s going back to old habits. He was, after all, a man of science before he knew any of this even existed. Each possibility is simply a hypothesis that turned out to be wrong. He assembles the variables, he thinks of a control -- the universe where true body is in now. If he evaluates his mistakes properly, maybe it won’t take him hundreds of thousands more tries to find a possibility where they win.
There have been hundreds of possibilities where they win. Possibly even a thousand. But none of them end with Tony being spared. The fate of the universe comes with the price of Stephen’s sanity or Tony’s life. Or both, sometimes.
There has to be one where they win and he gets a happy ending.
There has to be something he can do.
Stephen Strange takes a deep breath and calls out to the Vishanti. To the Ancient one. To every ancient and kind god that will hear his cry for guidance, and feels his entire body ache as the weight of the universe is lifted from his shoulders as he hears them answer in a cacophonous whisper: All he ever had to do was give up the stone and let half the universe die so Tony can live. Everyone else who survives gets to save this dimension -- it was never supposed to be him in the first place.
It’s not about you.
In the middle of the cosmos, between dimensions, Stephen Strange cannot help but shake his head and laugh.
It takes him 14,000,605 tries before he goes back to his own universe. Tony and him don’t fall in love in this one, they don’t even touch. They barely known each other, every moment between them is spent bickering or trying to one up the other man. Yet Tony still runs to him, holding his hand as he falls from his trance, looking at him with more worry and care than anyone has shown him in a very, very long time.
Stephen offers a gentle pat in return, it’s the most he touches Tony before he speaks. His hands still seem to ache and tremble more than usual. Whether it’s out of sheer anxiety or from the ghost of past Tony’s holding his hands, he doesn’t know.
Stephen has to hold himself back from saying anything else, from acting in any way that might jeopardize their plan. He sits in painful silence and Tony and Quill detail their plan as Peter stands beside them with a glint in his eye and desperate for something to prove.
He knows nothing will go as they want it to this timeline -- it’s supposed go horribly wrong. Mistake after mistakes falling into line like dominos. He sees Mantis use her powers to calm Thanos down, he fights simply because he has to look like he’s trying, he see Quill breakdown and ruin everything.
All things he’d seen before, only slightly faster than he’d like them do be. Like a song he’s listened to far too many times in a row until it becomes background noise. Stephen does everything he has to, setting up the pieces into play. And yet, even after fourteen million timelines, he can’t bring himself to look at Tony’s face when he take out the time stone and hands it to Thanos.
He wonders if the man thinks he gave up the stone solely to save his life. Under any other circumstance, it might be the most romantic thing he’s ever done. Here, it just feels cruel.
And he waits in silence. No one who remains in Titan will look at him. Stephen does not answer when they ask if he can create a portal back to earth. He looks at Tony at tells him that this is the end game, hoping desperately that the man understands there was nothing he could do.
“Tony,” Stephen says, all the ache and tenderness formed throughout countless lives making his voice shake as much as his hands. He swears he sees something in the man’s expression change into something even more painful. Stephen pauses, he shouldn’t have spoken. Not with this sort of desperate longing. And yet he continues. Tony stands in front of him bruised and bleeding, like some sort of touchable dream. “There was no other way.”
Stephen feels his body turn to ash and all he can do is hope Tony remembers him.