It had been five months, twenty-four days, eight hours and twenty-nine minutes since Thanos snapped his fingers and 50% of the universe went kaput.
In that small span of time, Tony Stark was pretty sure he had aged twenty years. It was almost funny, in a way. He could remember how out of control his anxiety and depression had been before Thanos. That all seemed easy to deal with compared to life now. Not a day went by when Tony didn't meet someone who blamed him for what had happened; grief was everywhere around him and in him, festering in his heart, swallowing him whole.
He sat back in his chair, rubbing his hands across his tired eyes. He'd grown used to the dull headache that pulsed at the back of his head. Slowly, knowing better than to move too fast less he get dizzy, he looked around at his companions. Bruce, Shuri, Nebula and Jane looked as tired and worn out as Tony felt, but for the first time in weeks Tony could see a spark of hope in their eyes. He glanced back down at what they'd been working on since the battle with Thanos. The little watch looked so innocuous.
"What do you think?" he asked, his voice sounding overly loud in the otherwise quiet room. "Who should go back?"
Even though it was the obvious question, no one had posed it thus far. Tony hated to be one who brought up the elephant in the room, but now that they'd figured out time travel - time travel! - they had to elect someone to use it. Between the scarcity of the materials (some of which Nebula had had to go into space to find), how dangerous it was to work with them and the sheer amount of delicate work involved, they only had one watch. That meant only one person was capable of going back. They literally had to put all their eggs in one basket.
"Thor?" Jane ventured. It was a logical suggestion. With Stormbreaker at his side, Thor's powers had grown exponentially. Tony started to nod, but Shuri was already shaking her head.
"That's not a good idea. We know how unstable this technology is and Thor's powers are an unpredictable variable. He could end up anywhere. Or he could break it entirely." Shuri looked very small, huddled in on herself with her arms wrapped loosely around her waist. Tony hadn't known her before T'Challa died, but he'd heard she'd become a completely different person.
They all had.
Bruce put a hand on her shoulder. "Shuri's right. It has to be someone else. Steve?"
Something in Tony's heart twisted, but he couldn't find the words to argue even though he felt very strongly that Steve was not the right choice for this. Steve couldn't really be trusted to make clear decisions when it came to Bucky Barnes. And ever since Bucky had disappeared, Steve had reverted back to the sharp, cold man he was when he first came out of the ice. In the back of his head, Tony envisioned a new future wherein Steve had sacrificed everyone else for the sake of Bucky and couldn't help wincing.
"No. It should be Tony," said Nebula.
Tony turned to her, astonished. "What?!" he exclaimed. The cape stirred at the sound of his voice, ruffling around his shoulders as though being blown by an invisible wind. Bruce looked at it warily as it wound around Tony's upper body in a pantomime of an embrace.
"Of the five of us, you are the best warrior. With your armor, you're stronger than I am," Nebula said. It seemed to pain her to admit it, but she forged on. "You also have the most connections on Earth aside from Bruce, but you don't have the same problems in battle that he does. I don't know Steve. I don't feel comfortable giving him the technology we've worked so hard for."
"He's Captain America," Bruce said, as though that meant something, and maybe at one time it had. But the world had changed while Bruce was gone. Tony hadn't bothered filling him in. He didn't think Bruce would care. Besides, the whole "civil war" seemed so distant and far away now. Hundreds of faces filled their days, and with every morning came the discovery of a new person who'd been lost. Not just Peter and Strange and the Guardians, but Pepper and half the board of Stark Industries and Tony's new personal assistant and that barista who made his coffee just right and his favorite tailor. You would think after a while the grief would stop being so sharp and fresh, but it never dulled.
Nebula looked down her nose. "What does that mean to me? I am not of your planet. He has not helped us. Tony has poured everything into this. My vote is for him."
"Mine too," Jane said. Tony blinked at her stupidly.
"And mine," Shuri said with a nod.
Bruce shrugged. "Works for me." He tried to smile, but it was like he'd forgotten how.
Tony stared at them in amazement. "You want me to go? But..."
"It makes sense," Nebula said. She picked up the watch and handed it to him. Even though it weighed no more than a normal wristwatch, it was impossibly heavy in Tony's hand. He looked from face to face, trying to see even a hint of doubt. Remarkably, there was none. Jane, who'd been a shell of herself since she lost Darcy, met Tony's eyes with confidence and nodded.
"You can do this," she said.
"Okay," Tony said. It sounded like someone else speaking. "Okay." His left hand trembled a little as he touched the dagger that hung at his side. Thor had disappeared for two months after Thanos. When he came back about five weeks later, he'd brought gifts for two of the Avengers: a dagger for Tony and a sword for Steve. Thor had told them that the weapons were made from Uru, a god-like metal. Normally such a thing would never have been given to a mortal, but Thor seemed to think it was important that the Avengers carried more than one weapon that could defeat Thanos. Why he'd chosen to given Tony a weapon and not, say, Bruce or Natasha or Sam was not a question that Tony had the courage to ask.
"You should go now," Shuri said softly. "Before anyone else finds out. I don't want them to try and stop us."
"There's a good chance you'll all cease to exist as soon as I arrive in the present," Tony pointed out. For a moment, he wished they'd been able to build more devices. He would've appreciated Nebula's company, or even Jane's. Both of them had cool heads, and Nebula was an extremely competent fighter. But there just wasn't enough material. Nebula had told them that to make more would take months, maybe even years, of scrounging, and none of them wanted to wait that long.
"Good," Jane said flatly. "I hope we do. I hope this whole miserable world disappears and is paved over with the changes you make." The others nodded in agreement and Tony couldn't blame them.
"Alright. I'll do it," Tony said, surprising himself with the sudden surge of determination that ran through him. He had the cape, the dagger, and the arc reactor that housed the nanobots and therefore his armor. He was as ready as he was going to get.
"Six months, remember," Bruce said. He looked worried, but then Bruce always looked worried now. "That's as far as you can go."
"Six months. That's still a little less than a week before Thanos arrives. It's enough time," Tony said, hoping he sounded more confident than he really felt. Again, he had regrets: more materials and more time meant he would've been able to travel back further. He spared a second to wish he could've gone back to before the "civil war", or even back before Ultron. It would've given them more time to prepare.
But if a week was all they got, Tony would make it do.
He picked up the watch and strapped it around his wrist. "Watch" wasn't really a fair description: the white face of it was blank, with a black dot in the middle. Beneath the face was an intricate working of alien and human technology that the five of them had labored long and hard over to meld together into one functioning time travel device. They hadn't bothered to calibrate it for a specific time; there was no point in going back after Thanos had snapped his fingers and destroyed half the world. Nebula had said six months was the maximum, and so six months was what it was going to be.
Right before he pressed the button, he looked around. "If I die, look after FRIDAY and my 'bots, okay?"
"We will," Jane said. Her eyes were full of tears.
Tony stared hard, trying to make his exhausted brain memorize their faces, and then nodded once. He pressed the button. The world blipped out around him. The closest way he could describe it was that someone had changed the channel. One moment he was standing in the bowels of the palace of Wakanda and the next moment he was standing in New York city. He staggered at the unexpected change and went down hard on one knee, feeling sickeningly weak, black spots dancing in front of his eyes and his wrist burning something awful.
It probably took a good four or five minutes before Tony stopped feeling like he was going to pass out or throw up. He breathed shallowly as he slowly raised his head, realizing that bystanders were parting around him like he was a buoy in the midst of a parade of boats. Not a single person looked at him. Tony was rather grateful for the anonymity. Regardless of what day it was, the last thing he needed was someone noticing Tony Stark in the middle of the sidewalk. The last time that happened, he'd barely escaped from a furious mob.
He slowly got to his feet and staggered off the sidewalk, lurching into an alley where he could put his back to a brick wall and just breathe. His hands were trembling badly and he could hear himself wheezing in panic. The cape wrapped around him against, squeezing him so tightly it hurt, but the restriction was strangely comforting. Tony slid slowly to the ground and shut his eyes, focusing on the feeling of the cape. He still didn't know how the cape had escaped being disintegrated along with Strange, but Tony would be forever grateful that it had. The cape had been his constant companion over the past five and a half months, and sometimes he thought it knew him better than he knew himself.
Strange. By focusing his thoughts on the sorcerer, Tony could feel himself calming. He took several deeper breaths and finally opened his eyes, gazing up at the blue sky overhead, before he looked down at the watch. At least that explained the burning feeling: the watch had exploded and was nothing more than a smoking mess. Tony took it off, flinching at the sight of the burn underneath. He'd need to find something to treat that, but -
He wasn't supposed to be in New York City, was he? No one had said anything about the watch transporting the user’s location at the same time. Maybe it hadn't worked. Maybe they'd discovered teleportation instead of time travel. Tony bit back a hysterical laugh and dragged himself up, stumbling back towards the mouth of the alley. The sun was painfully bright after weeks hidden away in the palace, but he didn't mind too much. He joined the crowd and let himself be swept along, looking around in a daze, until they came to a newstand.
His legs nearly gave out again as his eyes filled with tears of pure relief. Tony blinked them back, staring at the newspaper until someone stumbled into him. He walked on in a daze, head spinning. They'd done it. He didn't know how or why he was in New York, but that didn't really matter. They'd done it. They still had five and a half days until Thanos collected all of the Infinity Stones and changed the whole universe forever. Five and a half days to prepare, and goddamnit this time Tony was going to be prepared.
Step one was making sure that everyone else was prepared, too. He looked around until he found a street name that he vaguely recognized. From there he made his way back to Central Park and then west towards the "inner sanctum" or whatever Strange had called it. Tony's first journey there had been through one of Strange's glowy orange portals. But exiting the sanctum and walking right into Maw's attack would be forever burned into Tony's mind. He knew exactly where the sanctum was.
The cape fluttered excitedly the closer Tony got, which wasn't a bad thing: it's levitation power was actually helping to keep Tony on his feet. He wasn't out of shape by any means, but he also hadn't slept in days and he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten or drank. Food and sleep had seemed like paltry needs when their team was so close to figuring out time travel. Tony regretted that now as sweat ran down his back and the black spots came back to his eyes. He was panting heavily and wishing that he dared use one of his credit cards by the time he got to the sanctum, but to do so would risk alerting certain people to his presence before he was ready.
He staggered up the stairs. Before he could knock, the cape wrapped around the knob and twisted. Tony sputtered as the door swung open, revealing a sight that was at once familiar and not. He'd only seen it in real life once, yet he'd dreamt about it countless times. He stood there for a moment, unsure if should enter, before the cape grew tired of waiting and flew past, dragging Tony inside. Then, once he was fully inside and out of the way of the door, it slapped the door and slammed it shut. The sound echoed and Tony froze.
"What the hell are you doing?" he hissed.
"I could ask you the same question."
Oh. Tony's heart lurched as he turned slowly, looking up at the stairs. Dr. Stephen Strange was standing there, clad in the same uniform Tony remembered, red cape around his shoulders. Unlike Tony's, the cloak that Strange wore had never been ripped - or at least, it hadn't been ripped yet. Tony's cape had lost the bottom 1/4 of material during the fight with Thanos. The ragged edges had since smoothed themselves out, but the cape had never regained what it lost. It was just as well, because Tony was short enough that the cape was now a perfect fit for him.
"Strange," Tony breathed, feeling suddenly shaky.
Strange's eyebrows furrowed. "Have we met before, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes," Tony said, and then, "No." And then - god help him - he laughed. He couldn't help himself. The laughter lasted for only a moment or two before Tony realized that he wasn't laughing at all; he was crying, deep, bitter sobs shaking their way out of his chest and leaving him gasping for breath. He would've fallen had the cape not risen above him, holding him up. Strange's eyes snapped to it and, even through his hysteria, Tony saw his eyes widen in amazement.
"How?" Strange whispered.
Tony shook his head and covered his face, ashamed and panicked all at once. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He jolted when he felt an unexpected touch, lurching backwards and bringing his hands up defensively. The cape let him sink to the ground as Strange put his own hands up in turn, showing that he held no weapon. Which was ridiculous, frankly, because Tony knew exactly what sort of damage Strange was capable of. You didn't need a weapon when you could do the kind of things that Strange could do with his hands.
"You're having a panic attack, Mr. Stark," Strange said. His deep voice was very calm. "I'm a doctor. I can help you." He knelt in front of Tony.
There was no room for humor with the malestrom of emotions swirling through him, but Tony still barked out a bitter laugh. "N-no o-one c-can," he stuttered. No one could.
Strange frowned and made to stand, and suddenly Tony realized he couldn't bear it if Strange - this living proof that the world hadn't died after all - disappeared. He lurched forward and wrapped his arms around Strange with a desperate sob. It was embarrassing and invasive but Tony just couldn't help it; he pressed his face into Strange's robes and inhaled the scent of that familiar cologne that had clung to the cape for weeks following the disaster. It had become a comforting scent and Tony had been crushed when it finally faded. He'd looked for a long time, but he'd never been able to find it.
The cold panic that was shaking him apart from the inside out eased its grip just a little.
"Mr. Stark," Strange said, sounding at once confused and awkward.
"I'm sorry," Tony whispered. Tears burned at his eyes. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm - fuck, I'm so sorry - "
Something touched his head. The tidal wave of grief and fear was swallowed up by heavy exhaustion. Tony sank into sleep and it was like falling into a river of cold water. He hadn't slept well in over five months. None of them did, not anymore: there was a reason that they often worked long into the night, because only when you were truly exhausted could you sleep without dreaming. And even then, he was still likely to wake up screaming or choking on apologies that meant nothing now.
This time he jerked awake without a sound. He froze upon realizing that he was laying on a bed, the cape spread over him. For a moment, the panicked grief clawed at his chest and he thought it had just been a dream - but then his eyes grew used to the darkness and he saw that he wasn't alone. Strange was standing just outside the door, talking to someone in a tone too low to be overheard. Wong, probably. Tony had reached out to him a handful of times to ask questions about time travel, but the information that Wong had given them was unreliable at best.
Strange turned immediately when Tony sat up, ending the conversation, and stepped into the room. As he walked towards the bed, his fingers moved. A tray appeared on Tony's lap in a spray of golden sparks. Even though he knew they wouldn't burn him, the thought of burns still made him look instincitively at his arm. It no longer hurt and now he saw why. Someone - likely Strange - had cleansed it while Tony slept. His lower arm, from his wrist almost to his elbow, was now covered in neat white bandages.
"That was not human technology," Strange said. It was an odd way to open a conversation, but Tony hardly minded.
"Not entirely. It was partly alien, partly magic, partly human." He felt slightly calmer now, enough so that he could pick up the glass of orange juice. His hand shook badly as he lifted the glass to his lips and sipped. The taste of the juice made him shiver. Food and drink had tasted like cardboard for so long that he'd almost forgotten how vibrant everything could be.
"For what purpose?" Strange asked. He seemed to be willing to withhold judgment so long as he got the answers he wanted.
"It was for - my dagger!" Tony suddenly realized his dagger was gone. He looked around, frantic. "No! I need that to kill Thanos!"
"Who?" Strange said.
"Thanos! He's - he's going to destroy 50% of the universe. He's after the Infinity Stones -" Tony was practically hyperventilating. He'd fucked up already.
"I have your dagger. I've put it somewhere safe. If you tell me more, I'll get it for you."
“You have it?” Tony repeated.
“I have it.”
That was okay. Tony trusted him to keep the dagger safe. He unwound slowly, belatedly realizing he’d upset the tray and that there was toast and juice on the sheets. “I – sorry – ”
“It’s fine,” Strange said softly, an unreadable look in his eyes. “Why don’t you shower? We can talk more after.”
A shower. When was the last time he’d had a shower? It sounded wonderful, but it would also mean leaving Strange. Something in Tony balked at that. He anxiously rubbed at the cape, not looking at his companion, but not moving either. He couldn’t help feeling like losing sight of Strange would mean that none of this had really happened, and that would be unbearable.
Strange seemed to realize what the problem was. “You can leave the door open if you want. I won’t leave the room.”
Tony hesitated for a moment longer, but finally nodded. “Okay.”
“Do you think he’s crazy?”
“I’m just saying, he seems crazy.”
Stephen sighed, silently asking the gods for strength, and scowled at Wong. “He’s not crazy. I think he’s from the future.” He waved his cell phone in Wong’s face as proof. The screen was showing a live demonstration of a new prosthetics line for Stark Industries. A vastly different Tony Stark from the one standing in Strange’s shower was leading the presentation.
“That doesn’t mean he’s not crazy.”
Wong had a point. Stephen shook his head. “That’s not the point. He mentioned the Infinity Stones.” He touched the Eye of Agamotto, wrapping his hand around it protectively.
At first he’d been in total agreement with Wong. Stark had shown up out of nowhere and hugged him. Putting Stark to sleep had been an act of self-defence, the first thing Stephen had thought of to calm the man. They’d never really met before that Stephen knew of – casual encounters at galas or charity events years ago didn’t really count. Not for the level of desperation Stark had shown. He’d held on tightly enough that Stephen had bruises on his hips.
The other thing leading credibility to Stark being from the future was the fact that he had another Cloak of Levitation. There was only one as far as Stephen knew and it had chosen him. He touched the cloak absently, feeling it ripple in acknowledgement. What had happened in the future that Stark had ended up with it? Was Stephen dead? Stark had said something about 50% of the universe. He hoped that didn’t mean what he thought it might.
The shower turned off and Stephen turned to Wong. “He’s coming out. You should go.”
“If he goes crazy again, I told you so.”
“Oh just get out,” Stephen hissed, pointing to the door. Wong smirked at him and went.
Just in time, as Stark emerged from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, cloak draped around him. The clothes Stark had been wearing were filthy, so Stephen had laid out some of his own, older clothing. His stomach clenched at seeing the way the clothing hung off of Stark. The pants were too long so Stark had rolled them up, but he literally had to hold them up around his waist. The neck of the sweatshirt was sliding off one bony shoulder; Stark had to keep shrugging it back into place so it didn’t fall off entirely.
“Have you got a belt?” Stark asked quietly. He turned more fully towards Stephen, who recoiled slightly at the sight of the blue light shining through the sweatshirt. The arc reactor. It had been hidden beneath the clothing Stark was wearing earlier.
“A belt. Yes.” Stephen fetched one and handed it over, unwanted concern growing as Stark pulled the belt to the tightest notch. He told himself that it was merely a professional concern. He was still a doctor at heart.
“Thanks,” Stark said. With his hands free, he seemed to reach automatically for the cape around his shoulders. He rubbed at the fabric. A nervous tic?
“I’d like to know why you’re here. Who Thanos is and why he’s after the Infinity Stones,” Stephen said. “We can sit and eat and you can explain.” He deliberately didn’t make it a question. He wanted answers.
Stark didn’t look inclined to fight. He quietly followed Stephen to the small table set before the window and sat. The fare wasn’t much, just sandwiches and juice, but Stark didn’t complain. He picked up his juice and sipped, closing his eyes like it was the best thing he’d ever had. Stephen looked at his glass blankly, then picked it up and tasted it to be sure. It was just orange juice.
“Thanos is an alien,” Stark began quietly. “I first heard of him… it was six months ago. Well, it was six months ago. I’m from the future. I guess I should’ve started with that.”
Stephen smiled in spite of himself. “I guessed. Please continue.”
“Six months ago, I was with… with a coworker when you appeared out of a orange portal. My teammate, Dr. Bruce Banner, was with you,” Stark said. “Bruce had been off-planet for about two years, but he came back to warn us about Thanos. As I said, he’s an alien. He believes very strongly that, because all planets have limited resources, 50% of life in the universe must be destroyed in order to give the remaining life room to flourish.” Stark’s hand trembled and he quickly set his juice down.
“That’s… troubling,” Stephen said slowly.
Stark half-smiled. “You don’t know the half of it. He came to Earth because we have two Infinity Stones here. The Mind Stone is currently with Vision, and of course you have the Time Stone.” His gaze fell to the Eye.
Troubled that Stark knew, Stephen straightened. “I would never allow anyone to get the Time Stone. I have sworn an oath – ”
“To protect it, yeah, I know. You told me. Repeatedly.” Stark sighed. He hadn’t eaten anything yet. Stephen deliberately slipped a sandwich onto his plate. Stark looked down at it and blinked, as though it had just appeared, but obediently tore a small piece off and ate it. Stephen considered that a win.
“But somehow, Thanos did?” Stephen said.
“One of his henchmen kidnapped you. Spider-Man and I went after you. Well, I went after you. Sp-Spider-Man just came along of his own free will.” Stark stuttered over the name, grief crossing his face. “We decided to take the fight to Thanos. We ended up getting our asses royally kicked.”
Stephen frowned deeper. “He’s strong?”
“Impossibly strong. He already had some Stones, though. We tried to get the gauntlet off – the gauntlet is how he uses the Stones – but that didn’t work due to… to unforseen circumstances. Thanos was going to kill me. You gave up the Time Stone for me.”
“You did,” Stark whispered, watching him with dark eyes. Guilty, grieving eyes. “You looked into the future. You saw over fourteen million ways in which we lost, and only one way in which we won. You didn’t tell me what it was… but when Thanos snapped his fingers, the last thing you said to me before you disintegrated was that this was the only way.”
Stephen stared at him, speechless and deeply disturbed. The obvious conclusion to draw was that he’d seen a future in which Tony Stark had to live so that Thanos would lose. Still, it bothered him to know that he would have broken his vow for any reason. And then he’d disintegrated? Along with 50% of life in the universe? He inwardly shuddered. What a terrible way to die.
“Once he had the Time Stone, Thanos went to Earth and got the last two Infinity Stones. After… after he did it, he disappeared and took the gauntlet with him. No one could figure out where he’d gone, and we didn’t know if it was possible to reverse what he’d done even if we could get the Stones. So…”
“You turned to time travel,” Stephen finished, amazed by the tale. It all fit. “What method did you use?”
“We kind of created our own. It was a team of me, Dr. Jane Foster, Bruce, Shuri of Wakanda, and Nebula. She’s an alien who helped us to fight against Thanos. She’s the one who sourced out the alien material we ended up using. We also consulted with Wong, Thor of Asgard, Sif of Asgard, Dr. Helen Cho, and countless others,” Stark said. He looked down at his bandaged arm. Stephen had tended to the burn.
“Let’s say I believe you,” Stephen said. “What do you want from me?”
Stark looked up at him. “I need your help. I didn’t know who else to turn to.”
“We were having problems,” Stark said shortly. “Those of us who were left after… we still were. I didn’t think any current situation would be helped by a second Tony Stark showing up. Even if they were willing to listen to my story, they wouldn’t believe me.”
“Thor would,” Stephen said.
“He might, but he’s on Asgard. I have no way of contacting him.”
Stephen nodded slowly, sitting back in his chair. “This may seem like an inane question, but where did you get the Cloak of Levitation?”
“The… you mean my cape?” Stark had finished his sandwich. Now, he wiped his fingers and began petting the cape again. It preened under his touch. “It was yours. The other Strange’s, I mean. He wasn’t wearing it when he… you know. It was left behind. It seems to like me.”
That was an understatement. Stephen’s relationship with the cloak was tempestuous at best. Stark’s cloak, on the other hand, was absurdly protective. It had nearly taken Stephen’s hand off when he’d tried to bandage up the burn on Stark’s arm. He’d had to tell the cloak every step he was taking just to keep it from attacking while he worked. But perhaps, in light of this new information, Stephen couldn’t blame it: it sounded like Stark had been through hell.
“So I assume you came back with some sort of plan in mind,” Stephen said.
“Yes. When Maw kidnaps you, I want you to let it happen. We had an excellent plan going on Titan until Quill lost his temper. I really think we could’ve stopped Thanos then. With the dagger Thor gave me, I know we can.”
Stephen blinked. “I’m going to need more context than that.”
“Right. So, six days from now…” Stark laid out what had happened in as much detail as he could recall. Stephen listened carefully, making mental notes. He concealed his instinctual cringe when he heard about how he’d been tortured; Stark looked genuinely regretful about it, even though, from the sound of it, he couldn’t have stopped it any sooner than he had.
Stark continued with their arrival on Titan, and how they’d met the Guardians of the Galaxy: a group of aliens seeking justice against Thanos. They’d become unwilling allies and worked out a plan – a plan that had succeeded until the name Gamora entered the mix. Stark didn’t know who that was, but one of the Guardians, Quill, had lost his temper and lashed out against Thanos, foiling their plan in spite of Stark’s best efforts.
“I can’t really blame him,” Stark concluded quietly. “I… I know what it’s like to be confronted by the killer of someone you love. Quill was angry; he wasn’t thinking straight and he lost control. It was just the shittiest timing ever.”
“You believe your plan would’ve succeeded otherwise,” Stephen said.
“I do. Thanos is very strong, but he took a beating from all of us. Without the gauntlet, I think we could’ve won. If things play out exactly the same as before, but I’m there to quietly take Quill out before he loses it, that could make all the difference.”
Stephen considered this, drumming his fingers on the table. “And then what?”
“What? I don’t know what you mean,” Stark said.
“What happens to the Stones then?” Stephen said, staring him straight in the face. “Would you try to take them for your own?”
Stark actually recoiled at the question. “God no! I’ve seen what those things are capable of.”
“You could do whatever you wanted. You could fix all your mistakes. Be a rich man. Live forever,” Stephen agreed, watching carefully.
“I have money,” Stark said. “Or at least I did. I guess I don’t know now. But if I want some, I can make it. And I don’t want to live forever.” He looked darkly amused by the suggestion. “As for my mistakes… much as I hate to admit it, my mistakes helped to bring us to this point. There’s plenty I’d love to go back and do differently, but I could end up making things worse way too easily. My luck isn’t the best.”
He sounded convincing enough. Stephen cocked his head. “So what is your plan for them?”
“I… hell, I don’t know. Hide them? Seal them away?” Stark spread his hands and shrugged. “Destroy them? I don’t care as long as they’re not in the hands of someone who wants to use them.”
Stephen nodded. “And you? What would you do? The future you’ve come from will disappear. It may have already. You won’t be able to go back. Either you’ll fade away as though you never existed, or you’ll be stuck here.”
“I know,” Stark whispered. Suddenly he looked very tired. “We all knew that. It doesn’t matter.”
It probably mattered at least a little, but Stephen didn’t press the issue. “Very well. You have my word, Stark. I will help you.”
Stark’s eyes widened a little and then it was like his whole body collapsed in on itself with relief. “Thank you,” he said shakily. “If you’d turned me away, I don’t know who I would have gone to.”
“You should rest,” Stephen said, standing. He needed to speak to Wong. They had to make some plans. “When you wake up, we’ll discuss what happens on Titan.”
“Rest. Yeah. I can do that,” Stark said. “Are your walls soundproof, by any chance?”
A flicker of sympathy curled in Stephen’s chest. He had enough nightmares of his own; he didn’t want to imagine having the kind of nightmares Stark would have. “I can help you sleep, if you like.”
“You already did.”
“Yes,” Stephen agreed shamelessly, “I did. But this would last longer, and you wouldn’t wake until you were truly rested.”
Stark just looked at him, doubt and fear written plainly across his face. “I don’t like magic,” he said hesitantly.
There was a story there, probably more than one. Stephen kept his body language open and his voice calm. “Then how about some tea and a sleeping pill?”
Surprisingly, Stark agreed to that. Stephen started to leave the room to head for the kitchen and wasn’t surprised to see that Stark automatically followed. He wasn’t wholly certain what was behind this shadowing; Stark hadn’t said what happened on Titan after Thanos got the Time Stone, just that Thanos had gone to Earth and ultimately collected all of the Stones. But whatever it was, it had impacted Stark deeply.
He escorted Stark to the kitchen, where he brewed a cup of tea that Christine had once recommended to him. It was supposed to have strong calming and relaxing properties. He set the tea and two sleeping pills before Stark, who took them without argument. They sat at the small table in silence while Stark sipped at the tea, and at some point Stephen looked up and realized that Stark had fallen asleep.
The old addage was true: Stark did look younger and more vulnerable while asleep, though not even sleep could erase the grey strands in his hair or the stress lines on his face. Stephen studied him for a moment. Stark was a handsome man, but he needed to eat and sleep more. According to the papers Stark had cut out drinking right around the time he broke up with Potts, which was good, but this much stress wouldn’t help with a heart attack. He needed someone to take care of him.
“Are you watching him sleep?” Wong asked from the doorway.
“No,” Stephen said quickly, realizing that he had, in fact, been doing just that. Shit.
“I hope you never watch me sleep.”
“You’re not my type,” Stephen said, and then regretted it deeply for the implication. Wong’s delighted smile suggested that comment would be coming back to haunt him at some point.
“Is he crazy?” Wong asked.
For a moment, Stephen wished that Stark was crazy. Life would be infinitely easier if that were the case. “No. Something bad is coming. He came back to warn us, and hopefully give us a fighting chance.”
All of the amusement seemed to drain out of Wong at once, replaced by something weary. “I thought as much.”
“Were you eavesdropping on our conversation?”
“Yes,” Wong said shamelessly.
Stephen sighed. He hadn’t thought to set wards against it. At least now he wouldn’t have to repeat everything Stark had said. He stood and cast the same spell he’d used before to lift Stark. For someone who professed not to like magic, Stark sank into the magic’s embrace like he was born for it. And the magic, in turn, curled as gently and tightly around Stark as Stark’s Cloak of Levitation. Stephen couldn’t help glaring at it; magic had never come to him so easily.
“I’m going to take Stark to bed,” Stephen said, “and then we’ll talk.”
Wong nodded and stepped aside as Stephen left, the magic bringing Stark along with him. As he walked back to the small bedroom, Stephen wondered if he and Wong should talk where Stark would be able to see them if he woke. Then he chastised himself: that was more consideration than he would’ve given a friend, never mind a stranger. He set Stark in the bed, watched as Stark’s Cloak settled over him like a blanket, and then turned and left.
Tony woke feeling more rested than he had in months. For once, nightmares hadn’t made an appearance. He wasn’t sure whether to attribute that to the sleeping pills or to the fact that he felt safer in the sanctum than he ever had in the palace. Or maybe it was just the simple fact that he and Strange had actually cooked up something that ressembled a plan for when Thanos came.
He sat up, feeling a little dizzy, and looked around. His chest tightened with a renewed flare of panic when he realized that Strange wasn’t in the room. The cape, sensing his panic, wrapped snugly around him. Tony rubbed at it absently, trying to calm himself down. He was in the sanctum, which meant that Strange had to be alive. His plan to return to the past had to have worked.
What if it hadn’t? whispered the annoying little voice in his head. At the worst moments, it sounded like Howard. What if all the device had done was teleport him? What if he’d ended up in New York in the current time and just imagined his conversation with Strange? What if he’d found his way to the sanctum and –
Tony looked up. Strange was standing in the doorway, dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, though his cloak still hung from his shoulders. Just the sight of him, casual and unafraid and without the mask of grief that had become so common, eased the building tightness. He was able to take a breath, shallow though it was, and force something close to a smile.
“Did I oversleep?” he asked, aiming for cocky and missing by a mile. Even to his own ears, it sounded breathless.
“No. You were free to sleep as long as you needed.”
“How long was I out for?”
“Thirteen hours,” Strange said.
“Thirteen -!” Tony choked a bit, shocked. No wonder he felt rested. It was more sleep than he’d gotten in the past two weeks combined.
“I was going to go out and get some lunch,” Strange went on. “Would you like to join me?”
“Um… sure?” Tony said hesitantly.
“You’ll have to leave your cloak here. It’s too noticeable.”
Tony’s grip tightened on the cape automatically. He hadn’t gone anywhere without it since the fight on Titan. Having it around had become a second nature, as familiar to him as the arc reactor or the Iron Man armor. People in New York, as well as people in Wakanda, had grown used to seeing him with it. The only person who’d ever questioned him was Rhodey, and even then Rhodey hadn’t pushed it much. They all their own ways of dealing with what happened.
“It will be safe here, and it will know to find you in an emergency,” Strange said, not unkindly.
“Right,” Tony said, a little embarrassed by how he was clinging to the cape like a toddler with a security blanket. He forced himself to let go, reminding himself that things were different in the past – well, the present. Here, people didn’t hate the Avengers and want to string Tony Stark up for not protecting them. He didn’t need multiple ways to escape, nor did he need to carry what was most important with him for fear of those things being destroyed when he wasn’t around.
The cape patted his leg, squeezed him tightly one more time, and then flew up. Tony stood, feeling cold without the cape’s comforting presence, and looked at Strange. “Do you have a baseball cap or something? I don’t want people to recognize me. No one can know there’s two Tony Stark’s around.”
“I’ll do you one better,” Strange replied. “The sanctum has numerous magical artefacts. Some are very dangerous, so I recommend you not touch anything unless Wong or I has told you it’s safe.” He paused. “Do you know Wong?”
“We met,” Tony said, not offering any more details. Wong had consulted on the time travel device, but their conversations were always brisk and cold. Tony had always gotten the feeling that Wong blamed him and the other Avengers for what had happened as much as everyone else did.
“Good. I’ll introduce you again later. For now, here.” Strange presented him with a hat – a cowboy hat. Tony raised his eyebrows.
“I thought the point was for me to not stick out,” he said, taking the hat. It was made of a lightweight but stiff material that was black in color.
“It’s magical. People will see what they expect to see when they look at you, whether that’s a child or a woman or a man,” Strange explained. “I’ll still see you, and you’ll see yourself when you look into a mirror, but no one else will expect to see Tony Stark so they won’t.”
“Okay,” Tony said doubtfully. He supposed that if people saw a second Tony Stark, it wouldn’t be the end of the world – not like before. He put the hat on, pressing it down over his hair, and looked at the cape. One corner waved sadly. Tony waved back and followed Strange out of the room.
It was weird to step outside the sanctum and see a New York that was still flooded with people. His brief trip to the sanctum felt like a blur, and, more than that, the New York that Tony knew was much quieter; there were still plenty of people, of course, but for a long time almost everyone had walked around with stunned, lost expressions. It had taken weeks to get all the ‘abandoned’ cars off the streets. For that first month or so, work had pretty much ground to a halt across the world.
Having so many people around should’ve been familiar and comforting. It wasn’t. Tony’s skin prickled with unease and his breath came short. The last time he’d been out in a crowd, they’d broken his arm and nearly killed Happy. People were just so angry that the Avengers hadn’t stopped Thanos, and that they weren’t doing anything (so far as the public could tell) to fix what had happened. There was a reason he’d gone to Wakanda, and it wasn’t entirely because of the proximity to Shuri and Bruce: it was just plain safer.
If Strange noticed Tony’s unease, he didn’t let on; he walked down the steps and joined the crowd on the sidewalk. Tony scurried after him, catching up to him and walking – well, walking a little more closely than he would’ve walked with anyone else, but the thought of being separated from Strange now was even less appealing than before. Strange’s presence helped to stive off the pressing thoughts that he was still in the future and that he was going to be attacked any minute.
Not having the cape wasn’t helping, either. The cape had saved his life a handful of times now. Tony felt as naked without it as he would’ve without the arc reactor. He touched his chest, comforting himself with the physical knowledge that the arc reactor was still there, which meant that the armor was too. Not that he’d use the armor against civilains. Only to escape.
They came to a crosswalk and stopped. As people gathered around them, Tony’s discomfort grew. Someone lurched towards them, arms flailing. Tony could admit it: he panicked. He grabbed for Strange’s arm with his left hand, heart roaring in his ears, and was ready to activate the armor when Strange seized the wrist of his right hand. In doing so he pulled Tony very close to him, Tony’s back to his chest.
“Steady, Stark. He’s drunk. You’re okay,” Strange murmured. His grip wasn’t strong but it was sure. Tony’s heart thudded as he looked for the man and belatedly realized Strange was right. The man was obviously on his way home from the bars, eyes red and bleary as he stumbled around.
“I – I thought –” Tony couldn’t make himself finish. Embarrassment and shame swirled in his chest. His cheeks were hot.
“Later,” Strange said quietly. “When we’re back in the sanctum.” The light changed and Strange let go, but then he took Tony’s hand in order to pull him forward. Tony moved on numb legs, waiting for the moment when Strange would let go. He didn’t.
They walked all the way to the deli holding hands. Strange placed an order that Tony was deaf to, and then handed him a bag to carry in his free hand. They held hands all the way back.
The cape leapt at Tony the moment he stepped into the sanctum. Tony laughed a little as the cape knocked the hat from his head and then settled around his shoulders. Strange wore an amused look as he took the bag from Tony. Something about that look made Tony’s stomach tighten in ways that he couldn’t put into words, but he knew he missed the feeling of Strange’s hand in his.
Leaving one bag on the staircase – Strange said that Wong would be by shortly to fetch it – they went up to the small kitchen from yesterday. Tony’s stomach growled hungrily as Strange emptied out the bag, putting a huge sub in front of both of them. It was stuffed with veggies, sauce and meat. He had to admit, Wakanda’s food was excellent but he’d missed New York fare.
But he couldn’t take a bite. Not yet. He owed Strange an explanation. So, looking down at the table, Tony said, “People weren’t very happy with us. After Thanos, I mean. They blamed the Avengers for not doing more to stop him. Rogers and the others were still fugitives and I thought that was why. I didn’t realize the attitude extended to me too.”
“What happened?” Strange asked.
“Not long after… it happened, my bodyguard and I had to go do… something. I don’t even remember what. Probably a press release. It doesn’t matter. There were a bunch of people there. I thought they were just waiting to hear what I had to say. I didn’t expect…” Tony trailed off, momentarily overcome by the memories. The slow, creeping realization that something was wrong. The cold, angry faces looking at him. The feel of Happy’s hands trying to shove him back into the car. And then, the sound of Happy’s screams.
He swallowed hard and tried to speak flatly. “They attacked us. It was a mob, really. My bodyguard tried to get me back into the car, but they grabbed him. It was chaos. I heard him screaming. Someone – I don’t even know who – broke my arm before I could get the armor on. It seemed to take forever before the armor –” He cut himself off, swallowing dryly, and finished weakly, “I grabbed my bodyguard and got out of there.”
He shivered in spite of his best efforts, a cold sweat breaking out over him. He’d flashed back to Afghanistan, which had impeded how quickly he activated the armor. But he couldn’t help it: for several seconds that felt like hours, he’d been trapped on his hands and knees with dozens of angry people around and above him. He’d come away with terrible bruising all over his body and a broken arm, but that was nothing compared to Happy.
Strange was quiet for a moment. The silence was heavy. Finally, he said, “Did he survive?”
“Yes. He was in the hospital for a long time, though. I haven’t seen him since then.” Tony rubbed his face, feeling unaccountably weary. “After that, I tried to go out a couple more times. I wanted people to know that the Avengers still cared. But either it ended in a mob out for blood, or people were so cold towards me that I didn’t stick around.”
“Did they hurt you again?” Strange asked. Something in his voice made Tony look up. Much to his surprise, he realized that Strange was upset.
“No. Eventually I went to Wakanda to be closer to Shuri and Bruce. They were helping with the time travel, so it made more sense for me to be close,” Tony explained. He didn’t add that part of the reason he’d gone was because New York had turned into a place where he didn’t belong anymore.
“And you haven’t been in a crowd since then,” Strange said. It wasn’t a question, but Tony nodded.
“No. I avoided them after that,” he admitted. He used to feel perfectly at home in a crowd of people. Schmoozing was one of the things Tony did best, after all. He felt a renewed flush of shame over his reaction earlier. Howard would’ve been rolling his grave.
“It’s understandable,” Strange said, perhaps realizing Tony’s embarrassment. “Someone you walk by on the street could be someone who hurt you or your friend six months from now. Had I known, I wouldn’t have suggested you go out at lunch time.”
“It’s not your fault,” Tony said. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. The whole world kind of fell apart after Thanos. Businesses, restaurants, even hospitals… a lot of people died. Some doctors were in the middle of surgery when they dematerialized. People were driving, flying airplanes, rock climbing, fighting fires… There was just so much to deal with. Thanos wasn’t around, so people wanted someone to be angry at. We were a convenient target.”
“It’s not your fault, either.”
Tony looked up with wide eyes. “What?”
“It’s not your fault, Tony,” Strange said gently. It was the first he’d used Tony’s name instead of calling him ‘Stark’, and Tony stared at him as if spellbound as Strange continued, “What happened… or what would have happened, I should say, was terrible. But you did everything you could to stop Thanos. You shouldn’t blame yourself for something that you ultimately had no control over.
“I used to be a doctor. I don’t know if you know that. I was a surgeon, one of the best. I saved a good many people in my time. But, like every doctor, I also lost patients. I blamed myself for a long time, but then I starting paying attention to what happened to my coworkers who couldn’t handle the blame. They either burnt out or they turned to drugs or alchohol. And eventually I started to realize that I’d done my job. I did everything I was supposed to do and sometimes more. And sometimes things happen and you can’t stop them.”
Tony’s throat got tight. He lowered his head. “I should have been able to stop him.”
“How? Based on what you said, you took control of the situation as soon as you learned about it. You did what you could. Now here you are, doing it all over again. I think you’ve done more than anyone else has.”
There was a certain kind of sense in Strange’s words that was hard to argue with, but Tony wasn’t ready to accept them. He groped for a change of subject and settled on, “You called me Tony.”
Strange blinked for a moment. “I suppose I did. My apologies, Stark.”
“Don’t apologize. You can call me Tony if you want to.” Tony finally picked up his sandwich and took a bite, then moaned in pleasure. Holy shit that was good. He chewed and swallowed and took another huge bite before he glanced back up at Strange. Surprisingly, Strange was smiling.
“Very well. Tony. I think, with time, you’ll be able to get used to being in crowds again. You should know that, even if someone recognized you, they wouldn’t have attacked,” he said, taking a bite of his own sandwich.
Tony licked his lips free of sauce and thought about that. “Logically, I know that. It’s just hard to overwrite months of panic,” he said finally. A bit defensively, he added, “It wasn’t just me. Like I said, the other Avengers, except for Thor, Rhodey and Bruce, were already fugitives, so I think people hated them anymore. Rogers got a rude awakening when he went with Wilson to Paris.”
“You didn’t mention the other Avengers when you were telling me your story,” Strange said.
“That’s because I didn’t have anything to do with them. Thanos brought the fight to Earth, I told you that much. Vision, who has the Mind Stone, was in Wakanda, so that’s where Thanos went. The other Avengers were there, but…” Tony shrugged helplessly. Shuri had shown him some of the footage. The Avengers and T’Challa and his troops had held Thanos’s group at bay for quite some time, but as soon as Thanos showed up everything went to hell.
“I’m guessing that in the future, Vision is dead,” said Strange.
“Vision, Maximoff, King T’Challa, Barnes, Wilson, Spider-Man, the Guardians, yourself,” Tony listed, checking them off. “Later, we found out Nick Fury and Maria Hill. My CEO, Pepper Potts. It seemed like every day we found out about someone new.”
“You’ve lost a lot.” Strange’s dark eyes were filled with… not pity, but sympathy and compassion. It made something hot and strange squirm in Tony’s stomach. He wasn’t used to that kind of emotion. He looked away.
“No more than anyone else did. And besides, that’s why I’m here. To make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Even if you stop Thanos, you’ll still have lost it all,” Strange pointed out. “You won’t be able to go back.”
“I know. That doesn’t matter.” Tony looked up, filled with a burning sense of determination. “I don’t care what happens to me. I’ll give anything to stop Thanos.”
Tony Stark was becoming more of a puzzle as the hours passed instead of less of one. After their lunch, which had gradually moved to slightly lighter topics, Stephen took his guest on a tour of the sanctum. Typically visitors didn’t go any further than the main room, but Stark – no, Tony was more than a visitor. Given that the future he was from had likely already disintegrated, Tony was stuck here.
As they walked the halls, Stephen wondered what Tony would do after Thanos was defeated. He strongly suspected that if he were to pose that question, he would get a blank look in return. Tony’s sole focus was Thanos and he clearly hadn’t put any thought into what would happen afterwards. It was possible that Tony believed he would just fade away. Stephen had alluded to that possibility earlier just to test the waters, but – even though he hadn’t told Tony as much – he knew that wouldn’t be the case.
Thanks to the Time Stone, Stephen had enough experience with time travel to know that it didn’t work that way. Just because that future was eradicated didn’t mean that Tony would go with it; he existed in this place and time now, which meant that he belonged here. It was true that two people could not exist in the same time and place, but this Tony and the Tony Stark of this time were not the same people. They were vastly different, with one having lived through experiences and loss that the other never would. Despite what some scientists hypothesized, the universe would not crumble if they met.
Which was a good thing, considering that Tony’s plan hinged on him and the Stark of this time eventually meeting. Stephen wasn’t sure if Tony had considered that, but Tony planned to keep himself hidden only until it was necessary - he would be making himself known to Stark, Spider-Man and the Guardians on Titan. And to Thanos, of course, but only long enough to cut off Thanos’s head.
That reminded Stephen, and he turned to Tony. “I’d almost forgotten. I have your dagger. Come with me and I’ll show you where I’ve put it.”
“Oh, right,” Tony said, looking a little surprised. “Thanks. Thor gave it to me.”
“So you said. Is it special?” Stephen already knew that it was. The dagger gleamed with an otherworldly light. It was impervious to magic, reflecting any spells that Stephen threw at it with twice the power. The silvery ripple in the metal suggested that it was not of any realm Stephen was familiar with.
“He said it’s made from Uru, a god-like metal,” Tony said, clearly quoting Thor. “He didn’t really explain what the meant, but he gave me the dagger and he gave Rogers a sword. He has an axe, Stormbreaker.” He paused, then added absently, “I suppose that when he eventually comes to Earth, I’ll have to tell him about Stormbreaker if he doesn’t already have it.”
“The dagger will kill Thanos?” Stephen said, choosing not to dwell on thoughts of Thor possessing another powerful weapon. His run-in with Thor and Loki was best left for another day.
“It should. Thor almost killed him. He stabbed Thanos in the chest. I plan to cut off his head.” Tony’s voice was flat. There was no sign of a desire for vengeance, only that same cold determination that had been present during their meal and which left Stephen both chilled and impressed.
Rather than respond, he took a sharp left and opened the first door they came to. The sanctum had several rooms which he and Wong never ventured into; Stephen had chosen to put the dagger in the safest room he knew of. His own bedroom. It was the one place that he knew Wong wouldn’t go. The dagger was sitting right where he’d left it, on his desk. Even in the dark room, it seemed to glow.
“Thank god,” Tony whispered. He advanced into the room and moved straight over to the desk, picking up the dagger and cradling it not unlike an infant. Stephen watched him closely, but saw no sign of any discomfort. When he’d held the dagger, it made his fingers tingle.
“You should be careful with that,” Stephen told him.
Tony turned to look at him. In the dark, with the cloak swirling around his shoulders and the blue light of the arc reactor glowing from his chest and the dagger’s dappled light in his hands, he looked like an exotic sorcerer. In a way, he was: Tony’s mastery over electronics was, Stephen suddenly thought, no less astonishing than Stephen’s own expertise with magic. They were two sides of the same coin.
He couldn’t have said why that thought made his heart beat faster.
“I know,” Tony said quietly. “Thor said the same thing. He warned us not to let our weapons fall into the wrong hands. I wasn’t even supposed to let anyone else touch it.” He smiled ruefully.
“I won’t tell if you won’t,” Stephen promised. His mouth was dry and he licked his lips to moisten them. Was it his imagination, or did Tony’s eyes trail briefly over his lips?
“Deal,” Tony said with a thin smile. “I guess I shouldn’t be carrying this around. It increases the chance that something could happen to it. I’ll leave it here, if that’s okay.” He gently set the dagger back on the desk, trailing his fingers across the blade. The ripple in the metal followed his fingertips.
“How about we continue the tour?” Strange suggested. “I’d also like to hear more about the future.”
“There’s not much to tell,” Tony replied, walking across the room to join him. They stepped out of the room. Stephen closed the door behind them and beckoned Tony down the hall.
Stephen wasn’t sure that was true, but he sensed that pressing Tony right now wouldn’t serve anyone. Instead, they spent the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening exploring the sanctum. Even though Stephen had been living there for about a year and a half, there were plenty of rooms he hadn’t bothered to enter. Tony, it turned out, was like a cat: if he saw a closed door, he needed to know what was on the other side.
It was surprisingly endearing, and Stephen found that he didn’t mind as much as he would have expected. In retrospect, it did seem silly that he’d never taken the time to explore the sanctum. He and Wong had developed the habit of staying in a few familiar rooms and never venturing any further than that. As Tony pointed out, there could even be magical items in the sanctum that would help them in defeating Thanos. Stephen had his doubts about that, but it was hard to argue when he didn’t know for sure.
“We should catalogue these items,” Stephen said thoughtfully. Most of the rooms had been empty, but others were crammed full. Only some of the items were labeled and he hesitated to touch the ones that weren’t. Wong would probably know what some of them were.
“We?” Tony repeated.
Stephen glanced over at him. Tony was kneeling in front of an old trunk, having discovered that it was unlocked, but he’d looked around when Stephen spoke. The light of the arc reactor lit up his face and the strangely vulnerable look that he was wearing. Again, Stephen found himself wondering if Tony had put any thought into what would happen after Thanos. Would he go stay with Stark? Join the New Avengers? He couldn’t have said why the thought of Tony leaving caused a twinge of disappointment.
“Yes, we. Wong and me and anyone else who wants to help. It’s probably been years since anyone went through this place. I’d bet that there are things here that no one even knows about,” Stephen replied. He surveyed the room and added, “It’s also dangerous. There could be a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off.”
“Does magic frequently become a ticking time bomb?” Tony asked quietly.
“Sometimes. It depends on the item. Or,” Stephen amended, “the person. Magic is power. Power can change people.” It had certainly changed him, though he liked to think it was for the better.
“Usually for the worst,” Tony said, not without bitterness.
Stephen glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes as he made his next comment. “Are you talking about the Scarlet Witch?”
Tony snorted. “No. Maybe. I didn’t even know Maximoff before that happened, so I can’t say what she was like beforehand. Her powers weren’t natural. I don’t know if you know this, but she got her powers through exposure to Loki’s scepter – the Mind Stone,” he clarified. “Which in retrospect, makes a lot of sense considering that Maximoff can worm her way into anyone’s mind that she wants to.”
“I’ve heard about what she can do,” Stephen said. She was another person that he meant to have a word with at some point. He couldn’t scare her away from Earth, but he could and would seal her powers until he was certain that she was taking due care with them.
“It’s not pleasant,” Tony said with a shudder. “She made me see my worst nightmare.” He opened the trunk and peered inside, adding, “But the Avengers all seemed to like her, so maybe it’s just me.”
Uncertain as to how he should respond to that, Stephen chose to remain silent. He occupied himself with examining a drawer of what, at first glance, appeared to be marbles and the subject was dropped. Still, he filed away Tony’s words for further consideration. He’d seen the news about what Scarlet Witch could do, but he’d not conversed with anyone who had firsthand experience. Maybe once Thanos was dealt with, Tony would be willing to give him more details about how she operated and whether she was a threat.
They ate a later supper, long after Wong had retired, and Stephen was surprised to find that he was tired as well. He hadn’t slept well last night, as there were far too many thoughts whirling around in his head. Tonight, they had a new problem: Tony still hadn’t let him out of his sight. Stephen toyed with the remains of his pasta and wondered how that could be resolved.
He was very surprised when Tony cleared his throat and said, “I guess I’ll hit the sack. Can I still use that room?”
“Yes, of course,” Stephen said, recovering quickly. “Sleep well.”
“You too. Thanks.” Tony stood, hesitating slightly as though there were something else he wanted to say – but in the end he turned away from the table. He did look back over his shoulder just once before leaving the room, but he was gone too quickly for Stephen to be able to parse the expression on his face.
Well, that solved that problem. Stephen shrugged to himself and quickly tidied away the dishes, then walked up to his bedroom. His Cloak of Levitation was already draped across the back of his desk chair. It fluttered at him as he moved into the room, but otherwise made no attempts to move. He couldn’t prove it, but he was almost positive that the cloak slept at night.
He got ready for bed and crept between the sheets, deciding he’d spend a few minutes reading. Or at least, that was his intention. It had been a very long couple of days and he was more tired than he’d realized. Before he’d even read through a paragraph, his eyes were sliding shut. He sighed but gave into the inevitable, switching off the light. Rolling over, he quickly drifted off to sleep.
Sometime later, the cloak slapped him across the face. Stephen jerked awake with a shocked splutter, blinking rapidly to clear his bleary vision. The room was lit only by the moonlight that seeped in around the edge of the curtains. It gave him just enough light to see the cloak hovering over him. Sensing his attention, the cloak flew up and over to the door.
“What?” Stephen croaked, already pushing back the covers and standing. He groped about for his slippers and slid them on, padding over to the door. Whatever was on the other side had the cloak in a twist, but he wasn’t sure how many spells he could accurately cast at – he squinted at the clock on his nightstand – 3:57am.
The last thing he was expecting when he opened the bedroom door was to see Tony sitting in the hallway, leaning against the wall opposite the door.
“Tony?” Stephen whispered, shocked to his core. When he didn’t get an answer, he ducked a little to better see Tony’s face. Something on Tony’s body shifted – his cloak – and the light of the arc reactor illuminated the corridor, revealing that he was sleeping. His head was tipped down at an angle that would surely leave his neck in pain tomorrow. He was still wearing the clothing that Stephen had leant him, and Stephen belatedly realized he’d forgotten all about pajamas.
He rubbed his eyes, as though that might change what he was seeing, but Tony was still there. Stephen sighed and shuffled forward. Later, once the sun was up and he’d had his first cup of coffee, he would realize that it never once occurred to him to either send Tony away or, better yet, just leave him there. It would be a troubling thought. One of Christine’s deepest criticisms of his skills had always been about his lack of bedside manner; she’d called him out more than once for not having any compassion for other people.
Stiffly, he knelt down beside Tony and nearly received another slap in the face. He dodged at the last second, jerking his head back. Tony’s cloak bristled, protectively sliding up around Tony’s neck until it covered his entire body. Strange stared at it for a moment before scowling. It was very late and he was tired and he didn’t have the patience to deal with a temperamental cloak right now.
“Tony,” he said louder, keeping his distance this time.
Tony stirred, eyelashes fluttering, and then suddenly snapped awake. His eyes darted around, right hand snapping up to the arc reactor. Stephen grabbed his wrist out of instinct to stop him. He could admit that he was curious about the Iron Man armor, but he had no desire to be up close and personal with a repulsor at 4am. Tony fought against him for a moment, panicking, then suddenly stopped.
“Strange?” he said uncertainly. “What’s going on?”
“You’re sleeping outside my door,” Stephen said bluntly, not letting go. He still couldn’t grip things well, but his fingers fit just fine around Tony’s slender wrists.
“I… oh.” Tony flushed from his ears all the way down to his neck.
Stephen could have said something pointed or cutting. It would’ve been too easy. This was Tony Stark at his most vulnerable, and a lot of people would’ve called it karma or justice for Tony to be further ripped apart by a well-aimed comment. At the very least, he should’ve been upset at the intrusion into his personal space and made it clear that they were practically strangers and this level of oddity was not okay.
Instead, what he said was, “It’s very late and we’re both tired. I’ll make you up a bed on my floor.”
Tony blinked owlishly, seemingly shocked into speechlessness. Stephen clumsily got to his feet and tugged lightly at Tony’s wrist until Tony followed, getting up with far more grace. He led Tony back into his room and kicked the door shut behind them. Only then did he let go and walk over to one of the small storage chests that lined his room. The sanctum grew cold in the winter, and he had several extra blankets hidden inside to keep Wong from stealing them away.
He tossed the blankets on the ground, figuring they could always be washed, and quickly made up a bed. It wouldn’t be that comfortable on the hard floor, but perhaps tomorrow they could look into a cot of some kind. Stephen had the sneaking suspicion that this wasn’t going to be a one time thing. He looked down at the mess of blankets and figured, odd as the situation was, he could live with it until Thanos was destroyed.
He gestured to the bed and looked expectantly at Tony, who was still standing by the door. Slowly, Tony moved forward and then got down on the floor. A thought struck Stephen; he turned to his bed and grabbed one of his pillows, handing it to Tony. Tony took it with an odd look on his face, one that Stephen was far too tired to try and figure out. He moved over to his bed and sat, then swung his legs up and laid down. He pulled the covers up and sighed as a wave of lassitude swept over him.
It was strange to hear someone else shuffling around and breathing. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d shared a room with someone. He supposed that, considering the clinginess Tony had exhibited all day, he should’ve expected something like this to happen. He hadn’t, though. With the mask of sarcasm and arrogance stripped away, Tony Stark was proving to be something of a mystery.
The truth, not that he would have wanted to admit it, was that Tony slept far better once he was curled up on Strange’s floor. The pillow had the same cologne scent that had so comforted him in the weeks following the disaster; he’d fallen asleep numerous times with his face tucked into the cape, inhaling that smell, and it served him just as well now. He was out within minutes and slept for a long time without nightmares.
But he didn’t make it the whole night through. The most common nightmare he had now was the one where everyone – both those who had been lost and those who survived – gathered around to tell him what a pathetic job he’d done of protecting the Earth and accuse him of not having done enough. Some, like Peter and Pepper, would cry as they asked why he hadn’t saved them. Others, like Rogers and Barnes, would rage in anger and try to hit him. And always, the nightmare ended with dozens and dozens of other people appearing and screaming at Tony that he’d failed them and that he didn’t deserve to be alive when they were dead.
He jerked awake from one such nightmare, the taste of salt and apologies on his lips. The ceiling above him confused him for several long, paralyzing moments until he remembered where he was. Right. Strange’s bedroom. Last night, he’d gone into the room Strange had given him and lain on the bed for all fifteen minutes before the niggling sense of panic and loss drove him out.
He’d settled down in the hallway across from Strange’s room, knowing that it was massively invasive but unable to help himself, and told himself that he would be gone long before Strange woke up. But then he’d fallen asleep. Because while thirteen hours of sleep was wonderful, it wasn’t enough to mitigate the months where he’d barely slept at all.
Unsurprisingly Strange had figured it out and caught him, though Tony wasn’t sure how. He wasn’t sure why Strange had reacted the way he had. Why hadn’t Strange sent him back to his room? Why had he been kind enough to make up a bed for Tony on his floor? Why was he permitting Tony to act this way? No one else would have. The only conclusion Tony could draw was that there was a kinder man behind Strange’s acidic and snarky exterior than Strange wanted to admit.
It did fit. Tony had only met Wong briefly the first time around – before Strange died, anyway. After Strange died, Tony had spoken to Wong a handful of times. Wong didn’t know much about the aspects of time travel, so the information he provided wasn’t all that helpful. But he had been willing, maybe even eager, to talk about Stephen Strange. Tony had learned a lot about the brave man who’d been his teammate for such a short time, and what he’d learned he’d liked. Those conversations had only cemented his decision to seek out Strange in the past, and it seemed like this may well have been the best decision Tony had ever made.
Tony turned his head slowly in the direction the voice had come from and spotted Strange sitting at the desk, slowly tapping away at a laptop. It looked like he was working on financial records. Belatedly, Tony wondered how the sanctum supported itself and the people who lived here. Did Strange and Wong get paid for what they did? Did they have another source of income?
The silence dragged on until Tony realized that Strange was patiently waiting for him to respond, at which point he flushed a little and rasped, “Yeah. I – sorry about the whole sitting outside your room thing. I promise I’m not some weird pervert.”
Strange cracked a smile. “That’s not what the newspapers say.”
The teasing comment made Tony relax a bit. Evidently Strange wasn’t angry, though he wasn’t sure why. “Haven’t you ever heard that you shouldn’t believe everything you read?” he countered. The newspapers wouldn’t know it, but Tony hadn’t had sex in over two years. Not since well before he and Pepper had broken up.
“I think everyone in the limelight learns that lesson sooner or later,” Strange said. He turned away from his laptop to look more fully at Tony. “I’ve been thinking. Do you need to see a doctor before we face Thanos?”
“A doctor?” Tony echoed blankly. “You mean like a shrink.”
“I mean like an actual doctor, who could tend to any wounds,” Strange clarified. “I noticed that sometimes you hold your left arm as though it pains you.”
Tony started at that. He hadn’t realized that he was doing it, or that Strange had noticed. He instinctively put his right hand over his left shoulder protectively. “No. There’s nothing a doctor can do. I hurt it once in a fight. Damaged some nerves. And then that mob, this was the arm they broke. It’s as healed as it’s going to get at this point.”
Strange nodded. “Okay. Breakfast? And then I would like to go over our plan for Thanos with Wong in as much detail as you can give us.”
“Sure,” Tony said, a little confused. Apparently they weren’t even going to talk about the whole camping out on Strange’s floor thing. He picked himself up off the floor and started to clear away the blankets, but Strange cleared his throat.
“Leave it for now,” he said, jerking his head towards the door.
Figuring there was no point in arguing, Tony followed. He was beginning to learn his way around the sanctum, though the building was admittedly bewildering in a way he hadn’t expected. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve sworn that the halls changed sometimes. Then again, this was magic they were talking about. He wasn’t brave enough to ask just in case he was wrong, but it wouldn’t have surprised him.
Wong was in the kitchen when they entered, eating soup. He grunted when Strange acknowledged him and Tony guessed he wasn’t a morning person – fair, because Tony wasn’t really one either. He’d always done his best work at night when it was quiet and there was no one else to bother him. That was something else that changed after Thanos: being alone meant remembering everything he’d lost.
“Sit,” Strange said. “While we eat, you can give us more details.”
“I’ve already told you pretty much everything,” Tony replied, but there was no heat in his statement. It was easy to understand why Strange would want to hear the story more than once. The smallest of details could mean the difference between a win and another loss.
They couldn’t lose again. They just couldn’t.
Over a breakfast of toast with butter and jam and coffee, Tony repeated everything he knew about Thanos and what had happened that fateful day. He began with Strange’s arrival through the portal while he and Pepper were out jogging. After the fact, Bruce and Thor had told him what had happened on the Asgardian’s ship, so Tony added those details in. It was important that Strange and Wong fully understand what Thanos was capable of.
Then he went on to detail the actual fight, or as much of it as he knew of since they’d been split up. He couldn’t account for everything the past Strange had done, but he figured Strange could make an educated guess as to how he’d fought. That led into Strange’s kidnapping and the impulsive decision Tony had made to follow. Unfortunately that also meant he had to touch on Peter. Even after six months, it was a fight to keep his voice from breaking as he told them about Peter showing up and the plan that had led to them rescuing Strange.
“So at this point, it was just three of you,” Strange said. It was the first time he’d spoken in hours, remaining quiet to let Wong ask clarifying questions or make comments. He hadn’t shown any reaction this time to the description of his torture, and his thoughtful grey eyes hadn’t let Tony’s face once. The attention was both unnerving and comforting, a strange juxtaposition Tony couldn’t figure out.
"That's right. We only met up with the Guardians when we landed on Titan."
Strange leaned forward slightly, intent. "And what happened then?"
So Tony told them, describing the plan they'd come up with, how past-Strange had looked into the future, how Thanos had kicked their asses, how they'd come so close. He closed his eyes and fell quiet at that point, momentarily overcome by the heaviness in his chest. He'd talked about this so much, repeating the story over and over for Bruce, Steve, Shuri, Natasha - basically anyone who felt that they needed to hear it. Most of them had come down hard on Peter Quill. Tony was willing to give him a little more leeway: being confronted by the murderer of someone you loved was one of the most painful things you could live through. It just so happened that Quill's loss of control was poorly time, to say the least.
"What then?" Wong inquired, after the silence had last for well over a minute. "What do you plan to change?"
Tony had touched on this briefly while talking to Strange before, but this time he laid it all out on the table. "I think we should let things play out as they did before. We can't let Thanos get to Earth. There are too many Infinity Stones here and too much risk of him grabbing them. Our best shot at defeating him was on Titan."
"You think you can sway the battle?" Wong said.
Tony met his gaze squarely. "I know I can. I've gone over that battle in my head dozens of times. There's a moment where I can quietly take Quill out. Once he's down, we can remove the gauntlet from Thanos's hand. I'll kill him." His hand clenched into a fist. "And then we can destroy the Stones."
"You have a lot of faith in yourself," Strange noted. "Aren't you concerned that your past self might react differently once he sees you?"
"He won't see me," Tony said. He cupped a hand over the arc reactor. The blue light still flowed around his fingers. When he had it removed, he'd never thought there would be a day where he'd put it back. Yet the arc reactor had saved his life multiple times over. And he knew now, thanks to the modifications he'd made it while in Wakanda, it would save the universe.
Because while their little group had spent most of their time working on the time travel device, they'd all needed some down time now and then. Tony had spent his working on the armor, repairing both the nano particles and the damage to the suit itself. Shuri had helped, offering suggestions - and vibranium. With access to all of Wakanda's resources, both technological and materials, the Iron Man armor was now made of a mixture of vibranium and gold-titanium alloy which even someone like Steve Rogers would be hard-pressed to punch through. Given how well the original armor had stood up to Thanos, Tony was looking forward to seeing how this one made out.
He'd also successfully cracked long-term invisibility thanks to some heavy discussions with Sue Storm. The Iron Man armor could now stay invisible for upwards of twenty-four hours without needing to recharge the specific shields. Anything more than that would be pushing it, but Tony figured that was ample time for what they needed. Bruce, Jane and Nebula had offered their own suggestions on upgrading the weaponry for the armor; it wasn't outright alien tech, but it was pretty damn close. Nebula's only request had been that Tony blast Thanos in the face - god he missed her.
"You can turn yourself invisible," Wong said skeptically.
"Yes, I can. Not everything needs to be done magically," Tony said. "So I'll be invisible. I'll follow past Tony, Peter and you onto the ship and stay hidden in the background until you get to Titan and start your plan. No one will even know I'm there until the right moment."
"I've been thinking about it and I don't know if I like this plan. It depends on a lot of variables. What if you're hit during the fighting? Or you don't make it onto the ship?" Strange said.
"I'll keep back during the fighting, and I will make it on," said Tony. "I know that doesn't sound like much reassurance to you, but it's all I can say. I came here for a reason. I didn't trust anyone else." He looked straight at Strange as he spoke. It was the truth.
Going back in time to see the past-Tony Stark would've been a mistake. Tony had known that from day one. Coming out of the civil war and almost losing Peter in that theft fiasco, past-Tony was too raw at this point in time to handle anything else. A future Tony showing up would've prompted too many questions and demands for information. Tony just didn't have the three weeks it would take to convince his past self that he was telling the truth. It was too bad that he didn't have that time, because two Tony Stark's could've made some fantastic trouble for Thanos.
He wondered if he'd get the chance to mess around with his past self in the future.
"You said that I stayed behind," Wong said.
Looking back at them, Tony nodded. "I remember past-Strange saying something about protecting the sanctum."
"I'll need to do the same thing this time. Much as I would prefer to help, we can't risk leaving the sanctum without someone to guard it. It wouldn't do anyone any good if we successfully stopped Thanos but someone snuck in here and stole something that makes them a threat." He paused, staring off into the distance for a considerable amount of time, before concluding, "It's risky." He set his empty cup of tea on the table. It was late afternoon, verging on early evening, now. They'd been talking for literally hours. No wonder Tony's throat was getting sore.
"I don't know what else to do. I gathered intel from all my teammates. This was the best shot we had," Tony said.
Wong held a hand up. "I said it was risky. I didn't say it was a bad plan. Now that we have time to prepare, it can be a better plan." He turned to Strange. "There's a book I want to show you in the library. There are spells in it that could serve you well."
Strange nodded and stood. Tony got up and automatically trailed after them as they walked out of the kitchen, muttering to each other in low voices. The library turned out to be an enormous room that, to Tony's eyes, looked as though it went on forever. All the books looked dusty and old. Some of them were even chained away. Most of them were in languages that even Tony couldn't read. It wasn't long before he grew bored. He left the library and went into the room across the hall, which had a small television. With the doors open, he could still see Strange and Wong.
He turned on the television and, unsure of what to watch, switched to what he remembered as a news channel. A lot of television shows had simply gone off the air after Thanos. Hundreds of actors and actresses, writers, directors - many of the people who made television shows and movies happen had died. Things were only just starting to pick up again when Tony returned to the past. He supposed that all of humanity's efforts to pick up and keep going were for nothing now.
The anchor woman talked for a little while about electric cars and the price of gas. Then the screen switched to a familiar sight: Iron Man. Tony rocked backwards, shocked by the sight of the old armor as it fought against some idiot in a pink suit. He barely remembered that fight, but he was pretty sure it was the last one he'd participated in before Thanos came. He'd come out of it feeling damn good for taking down the threat on his own, since Vision had taken off. If only he'd known then what he knew now...
He touched the arc reactor again and shivered. The cape immediately wrapped around him in a hug. He patted it absently in thanks, eyes glued to the screen as Iron Man alighted on the ground. The faceplate snapped up to reveal the face of the past Tony Stark. He didn't look good; Tony knew, by comparison, that he currently looked a hell of a lot worse. Two days. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had. Just two more days.
I only saw Infinity War once and couldn't find a copy online, so the following chapters are being written from memory and with the help of summaries. Obviously some details will defer.
Tony expected to feel any number of emotions when he woke up on the day. Instead, he opened his eyes and looked up at Strange's ceiling and felt... numb. There was no other word for it. It was as though he'd cycled through so many emotions in the past six months that they'd all dried up inside of him. There was so much riding on the next twenty-four hours. He couldn't stand the idea that Thanos might win again and that he'd end up right back where he started. After everything that he, Bruce, Jane, Nebula and Shuri had worked for, Tony had to succeed. They had to kill Thanos.
He peeled himself out of the blankets and found that Strange was on his laptop, pecking at the keys in between sips of a cup of tea. Tony looked at him for a long moment and wondered if Strange was afraid of what was going to happen today. Did the thought of being tortured frighten him? Was he worried that Thanos might win? Had he thought about the fact that he could be dead by this time tomorrow? Or was he confident in their plan? Did he think that it was going to work? Part of Tony wanted to ask, but he wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer.
The morning was spent quietly. Tony kept to himself, though he stayed closer to Strange than ever. It was going to be hell letting Maw kidnap Strange, even though he knew he didn't have a choice. They needed to commandeer the spaceship in order to get to Titan, and the easiest way to do that was by letting things play out. Overpowering Maw might be possible if Tony were to show himself - the strength of two Iron Man armors couldn't be denied - but that would be playing his hand too early. He couldn't let Thanos know that he existed, or Thanos would be on guard when the moment of truth came.
Shortly before the approximate time when everything went to hell, Tony took a deep breath and drank his last mouthful of coffee. Somewhere out in the universe, dozens of Asgardians were dying. Loki was dying. His stomach tightened, threatening to make him throw up the piece of toast and two cups of coffee he'd just consumed. He forced himself to breathe through the nausea. Saving those Asgardians had never been a possibility. Tony had no way of getting to them and no way of warning Thor. His suit may have been made to sustain him in space, but he had nothing that could move fast enough to get him to Asgard's ship before Thanos attacked. It was a bitter thought regardless, and he didn't relish facing a grieving Thor with the truth after all this.
"Are you ready?" he asked Strange, twisting to look at the man. It was the first time Tony had spoken that morning, preferring to stay quiet and listen to Wong's and Strange's hushed conversation, and the words sounded shaky even to his own ears.
"As ready as anyone can be, knowing what we're facing. I think a better question is whether or not you are ready." Strange met Tony's eyes. For the first time, Tony realized Strange's eyes were a pale bluish grey. It was an unsettling color; he couldn't shake the feeling that Strange could see straight through him. For Strange's sake, Tony hoped that wasn't the case.
"I am," he said, brushing his fingers over the dagger. The metal was warm beneath his fingertips, as though sensing that its use was at hand.
"Then you should get out of sight," said Strange. He looked, for a moment, as though he might say something more, but didn’t. Tony wanted to – but what he could he say? Good luck? Please. This was far beyond luck, and Tony’s luck had always been shitty anyway.
He settled for a terse nod and crept out of sight, though he didn't go far. He remembered that Bruce had been pretty rattled, so it was unlikely that Bruce would notice anything out of his immediate field of vision. And now really wasn’t the time for the creeping sense of panic that hit him whenever Strange was out of his sight. Fortunately, he knew the sanctum well enough now to be able to follow Strange around without being half a step behind him.
His heart was beginning to pound and a sense of grim determination pierced through the numbness. He was the only one who didn't jump when the Hulk crashed through the ceiling and landed on the stairs of the sanctum, moments before Strange was about to leave to fetch lunch. The Hulk quickly turned back into Bruce, who looked... well, in all honesty he didn't look that good. But he still looked a hell of a lot better than the Bruce Banner that Tony had left behind in Wakanda.
Bruce scrambled up and, after realizing that he was back on Earth, gave Wong and Strange a rundown of the situation as he knew it. If he was surprised that both of them accepted what he had to say so easily, he didn't show it. He just looked incredibly grateful that they believed him and could do something about it. Tony couldn't blame him for that. Who else would understand exactly what it was right to spread warnings around and have them completely ignored? He'd only been warning people about an alien invasion coming for the past four years.
"We need Tony Stark," Bruce was saying. "Can you find him? He'll be able to contact the other Avengers. We need more help."
"I can find him," Strange said. He, of course, knew far more about the state of the Avengers than Bruce did, but you would've never known it for how blank his expression was. He half-turned, pulling something out of his pocket. Orange sparks leapt from his fingers. Bruce took an automatic step back, his eyes going wide with awe. It was the exact same look he used to wear when walking into Tony's workshop and it made something deep in Tony's chest ache.
Tony couldn't hear anything on the other side of the portal, but he remembered very clearly what was happening. He clenched a trembling hand into a tight fist, the other white-knuckled around the dagger, when the Tony Stark of the past walked through the portal, one arm draped around Bruce's shoulders. The cape wound around him tightly in an effort to comfort him. He patted at it absently, worrying the fabric between his thumb and index finger as he watched Stark take in the sanctum. Tony knew what he was thinking: the sanctum didn't look like much. Stark had no way of knowing that the sanctum would become the most comforting place on Earth to him in less than a year.
With luck, he would never find out.
“This sounds crazy,” Stark said when he’d been filled in – not that Bruce really knew much. He’d settled a little, focusing in on the other three people in the room. One of his hands was in his pocket, and Tony knew that he was holding onto the cell phone Steve Rogers had sent.
“It’s not. I’m telling you, Tony, he’s coming,” Bruce said. He was a little wild around the eyes now, lurching forward and grabbing Stark’s arm.
“Whoa, Brucie, I believe you. Easy.”
Bruce just shook his head. “You need to call Steve. Get the Avengers ready –”
“There might be a small problem with that,” Stark said slowly, and Tony winced as Bruce started laying into him about the fate of the world being more important than a squabble, a thin tremor running through him.
One day, not along after Tony fled to Wakanda, he and Bruce had been exploring the castle when Bruce asked what happened with the Avengers. Tony was shocked initially. No one had asked him that in years, and he’d been scared to tell Bruce the truth in case Bruce sided with Steve and the others. Then again, with clear evidence of just how tense things were between Tony and Steve, it wasn’t surprising that Bruce got curious. Steve may have been willing to push everything aside in the wake of what they’d lost: Tony wasn’t so willing to be forgiving.
So he’d laid it out and explained what happened, sparing no one. Tony had made mistakes too. Bruce listened without saying anything. He cringed a little when Ross’s name came up, but seemed to understand – better than Steve ever had, anyway – that Tony hadn’t had a choice. As the Secretary of State, it wasn’t like Tony had the luxury of slamming the door on Ross’s stupid face. The only thing worse than what had happened would’ve been all of the Avengers ending up as fugitives.
In the end, after a very long, one-sided conversation, Bruce had looked at him and said, “I’m not sorry for telling you to call Steve because it needed to be done. But I am sorry for leaving without saying anything, and for not being here while that happened. Next time, I’ll make the call for you.”
Tony had smiled weakly. “I hope there never is a next time, Brucie.” But Bruce’s words had helped, and their friendship was a little better after that. Not quite the same as after the Battle of New York, because Tony couldn’t forget that that Bruce was always ready to run, but it was an improvement. And in the wake of Thanos, Tony needed all the friends he could get.
The cape tightened to the point of leaving Tony a little breathless, drawing his attention back to the present. He realized that he could hear screaming. Another chill ran down his spine as Stark walked over to the doors of the sanctum and opened them. The screaming got a lot louder at that point. Even though they knew what was coming, Wong and Strange followed Bruce and Stark out the doors without hesitation.
“I guess it’s our turn,” Tony whispered to the cape. It unwound from around his shoulders and formed itself into a little shelf. Tony tried to smile and set the dagger on the cape. He’d learned it was a lot easier to release the armor when he wasn’t holding it.
Then he pressed a hand over the arc reactor and released the nanobots. They were much faster now that he’d had so much time to devote to improving them; they had taken well to the vibranium addition. In seconds, the helmet formed over his head. Tony blinked as the familiar blue lights of the HUD flashed across his face. He held his breath, hoping, praying.
“Hello, Sir,” JARVIS said.
It had worked. Tony closed his eyes and exhaled against the burn of tears. That was the other project he’d thrown himself into. With Vision dead and the Mind Stone in Thanos’s hands, Tony had harvested the remains of Vision’s coding. He hadn’t told anyone he was doing it, but Clint had stumbled across him one night. What followed was a deafening argument in which Clint had accused Tony of… well, of several things that Tony preferred not to dwell on now.
Steve and Bruce had broken their argument up. With Clint hustled away by Steve, Tony had confessed to Bruce what he was doing. He was shocked when Bruce offered his help, but had accepted. Between Bruce, Tony and FRIDAY, they’d picked through what remained of Vision and combined it with the remains of JARVIS. The result was speaking within the helmet right now. Not exactly the same, since he was missing some data, but it was enough.
“I am connecting with the internet, Sir, and finishing my download,” JARVIS announced. “Attempting to connect with the Stark Industries servers.”
“Just make sure FRIDAY doesn’t catch you,” Tony said, even though he knew JARVIS knew better than that. He felt a small pang of loss at the thought of FRIDAY: he’d left her behind in Wakanda for Bruce and Jane and Nebula. In the event that the time travel device didn’t work, Tony was okay with JARVIS dying at his side. He’d wanted FRIDAY to live, and leaving her with Nebula in particular seemed best.
Besides, as good as FRIDAY was, right now he needed JARVIS with him.
“Unlike some people, I am capable of discretion and take due care where necessary,” said JARVIS.
Tony smiled in spite of himself at the sass. “Yeah, yeah. Just get what you can while you can. When we leave the Earth’s atmosphere, FRIDAY was cut off and you will be too.”
If they survived this, Tony promised himself, he would find a way to build JARVIS a new server room, even better than what they’d had before. With that kind of capacity, it wouldn’t take JARVIS long to fill in the blanks and climb to even greater heights than he’d reached before. Right now, he’d been forced to limit JARVIS to the Iron Man armor – it was one of the only things Tony could bring with him from the future.
He turned to the cape and took the dagger back, sliding it into a sheath built into the waist of the armor. His hand felt bare without it, but he didn’t want to take the risk of losing it. Freed of its burden, the cape flew to him and easily attached itself around Tony’s shoulders. With the cape, the dagger and JARVIS, Tony was as prepared for this moment as he was ever going to be.
“JARVIS, activate the invisibility shield,” Tony said. He felt more than saw the ripple in the air. He’d practiced enough in Wakanda that he knew for a fact the shield was functioning, covering both the armor and the cape, so he didn’t hesitate in stepping outside.
It was chaos. During the battle with the aliens, he’d had no time to pay attention to anyone around them. Civilians had barely been more than a passing thought. Now, Tony could see firsthand what kind of damage was being done to New York. The winds alone were throwing debris all over the place. People were still running past the sanctum, trying to get safer ground – at the same time, police officers and firefighters were working on evacuating the area.
“Sir, to your left,” JARVIS said. Tony’s head snapped around.
“Shit!” he swore, lunging forward and throwing his hands up. The solid impact of the car made him grunt and stagger back a couple of steps. Several screaming people behind him, no doubt shocked at the sight of a car seemingly stopping in mid-air, scattered.
“How long has it been since the ship landed?” Tony said, tossing the car harmlessly aside.
“I estimate eight minutes,” JARVIS replied. “Sir, I have a lock on the other Iron Man armor. Spider-Man is also present.”
Fuck, Peter. Tony’s heart twisted. Even after six months, he could hardly bear to think about the poor kid. Peter’s terrified pleas echoed in his ears as, in the distance, Tony caught a glimpse of red-and-blue following after a blur of red-and-gold. He had to force himself to focus and not follow his first instinct, which was to rush to Peter’s side and forbid him from taking place in the following battle, even if it meant tying Peter to the goddamn ground.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” he said hoarsely. He activated the thrusters in stealth mode and flew straight up so that he could get a better look at things. He was just in time to see Maw disappearing into the ship with Strange bound behind him – and it felt like Tony stopped breathing. This couldn’t be happening so soon. Last time, the battle felt like it had taken forever.
“Sir!” JARVIS’s voice rebooted him. Tony jerked into motion without really thinking about it, blasting towards the ship. He got there at the same time as Stark did. Tony slowed and ducked down; if anyone was going to notice him, it would be the other armor.
He couldn’t use the same way he’d gotten on last time, but he could and did find another way in: he didn’t want to be outside when Stark met up with Peter. He knew logically that keeping Peter away from the battle wouldn’t help him; Peter hadn’t really been harmed in the battle, and if Thanos won again then there was nowhere Peter could go that would save him. Yet still the instinct hammered at the back of Tony’s mind, and he spent several minutes clinging to the wall just inside the ship and trying to remember how to breathe through the panic.
They had to do this. Tony couldn’t fail again. It was that determination, along with JARVIS’s soothing voice in his ear, that centered him. The cape helped too: it couldn’t wrap around him when he was in the armor, but it could and did squeeze and release one arm in a rhythmic pattern that helped Tony to focus. He breathed out shakily and moved on numb legs, stumbling towards the center of the ship.
I'm trying not to mirror IW too closely, as I don't want this fic to be boring - but some scenes do need to happen. Heads up: the Thanos part is going to happen fairly quickly, probably within the span of the next chapter or two; I, and I suspect many other people, are way more interested in what happens between Stephen and Tony than some oversized wrinkled grape.
Even though Tony had warned him, Stephen found himself unprepared for the pain of the torture. It didn’t actually hurt as each one initially pierced his body, they were so thin and sharp. It was only when they penetrated further, sinking into his flesh, that the incredible surge of pain frissoned through his nerves. In spite of his personal vow to remain silent, he couldn’t stop himself from moaning out loud.
He was so focused on the pain that, for a moment, he was barely aware of Iron Man. But it would’ve been impossible to ignore the sudden jolt; the blades snapped like icicles and went flying along with everything else. Stephen followed, uttering a shocked, strangled cry as he was literally sucked out the side of an alien ship. Some vague thought of a portal blossomed in the back of his mind, and then there was another sharp jolt as his momentum stopped. Spider-Man, he realized, had a hold of him.
Being thrown against the opposite side of the ship was not fun, but it beat being tortured – and now he had another role altogether to play. His legs and arms were weak as he pushed himself up onto his knees, highly conscious of the two men standing before him. They’d saved him, just as Tony had said they would. The thought of Tony was immensely comforting; he had to stop himself from looking around in search of another armor. Tony was surely well-hidden by now anyway, and they couldn’t risk Stark or Parker finding him beforehand.
“Thank you,” Stephen said finally, getting to his feet. Everything ached and his knees were shaky. The cloak helped, stabilizing his unsteady process and ultimately making it look like a far smoother action than it really was. Once he had his balance, he really looked at his companions.
Peter Parker was every bit as young as Tony, voice cracking, had said. It was evident in the way that Parker moved, not to mention his voice. Stark had retracted the armor back into the arc reactor, so Stephen could see all of him. To someone who didn’t know Tony Stark, they would’ve thought Stark perfectly in control. Stephen, who had spent a fair amount of time with a far more broken version of Tony Stark, knew better.
Yet this wasn’t Tony. Six months had been enough to change them into different people. Even physically, they weren’t identical: the longer Stephen studied Stark, the more subtle differences he could pick out. Tony wore his hair longer and his face was thinner. He still had a goatee, but it wasn’t as well-kept as Stark’s. Even the way they stood was different. Stark commanded a room with his presence, whereas Tony was prone to melting away into the shadows. A change, Stephen supposed, that came from six months of being blamed and hated by half the world.
“You’re welcome. I can’t believe it worked,” Parker said. He sounded boyishly excited, and Stephen summoned up a smile for him.
“You are?” he asked, because he wasn’t supposed to know who Parker was, and Parker ripped off his mask and beamed back. He was, as Stephen expected, young. Younger than anyone who should be fighting in a battle like this. Unfortunately, keeping him out of the battle was not an option. According to Tony, Parker’s strength rivalled that of Captain America. They would need him to subdue Thanos.
The resulting remark about made-up names didn’t bother Stephen as much as he let on. He knew his name had always been unusual, and – now that he was a sorcerer – was downright poetic. He allowed the moment to pass by quietly and instead turned to Stark, who had been largely silent. It was not a surprise to find Stark examining the massive amount of alien tech that filled the chamber they were in.
“We should return to Earth. We must protect the Time Stone,” Stephen said, already aware that wasn’t going to happen. But it was what he would’ve said under any other circumstances, especially when he had the Time Stone with him.
“No,” Stark said. “We should let the ship continue its course and take the fight to Thanos.”
“Are you crazy? That’s the last thing we should be doing!”
“Look, Sparkles, I tried to bench your magical ass and you refused,” Stark said flatly. “That’s your own damn fault. Now you’re up here with us and –”
“I don’t work for you,” Stephen snapped, hackles rising at the very idea. Even before Tony had told him what a disaster the Avengers were, he’d never wanted to be a part of them. The whole idea of working on a team wasn’t that appealing to begin with, but, as he looked at the cocky (scared, a part of Stephen’s mind whispered) man standing before him, it was even less appetizing.
Some unidentifiable emotion flashed across Stark’s face. He was quiet for a long moment, eyes flicking around. Then he said, “This ship is on auto-pilot. It’s taking us to Thanos.”
“Can you change its trajectory? Take us back home?”
There was another, longer silence. Stephen glanced at Parker, but the boy merely looked confused. He turned back to Stark. For the first time, Stephen wondered if maybe Stark couldn’t get them home. Maybe this whole argument was for naught. None of the technology around Stephen looked even remotely familiar, and he didn’t think that was because he wasn’t enmeshed in science and technology like Stark was. It might be asking too much of even Tony Stark.
Finally, Stark said, “Like I said, I’m not sure that we should.”
“You’re not sure? You better become sure!” Stephen said. “You don’t understand what’s at stake!” That was, he quickly realized, the wrong thing to say.
Stark crossed the distance between them and got right up in Stephen’s face. His brown eyes were unnaturally bright when he shouted, “Thanos has been in my head for six goddamn years! No one knows better than me what’s at stake. I’ve been trying to warn people since the Battle of New York. That, and what we just saw, was a fraction of what Thanos is capable of. And you want to take the fight back to Earth?! Do you know how many innocent people will be killed if we do?”
Stephen stared at him, stunned into silence. He could see Tony, his Tony, in Stark now. They had the same burning passion when it came to defeating Thanos, and it made something in Stephen’s chest ache. How terrible, and how cruel, to spend six years of your life trying to tell people what was coming, only to be ignored – and then, worse yet, to be villified when the very event you’d warned them about happened.
“Okay,” Stephen said softly, capitulating perhaps more quickly than he would have had he not met Tony beforehand. He had the strangest urge to find Tony and spirit the man away to somewhere safe. No wonder Tony’s cloak was so possessive and protective.
Stark blinked in surprise and pulled back. “What – okay? What do you mean, okay?”
“I meant exactly what I said. I think you’re right. We should take the fight to him.” Stephen hesitated, hands hovering over the Eye of Agamotto. “It is my duty to protect the Time Stone. That comes above all else.”
“Right,” Stark said slowly, still blinking. He’d clearly not expected Stephen to give in so easily. “Right. We’ll shock the hell out of Thanos then. Okay.” He gave a decisive nod and turned away, walking over to Parker. Stephen tuned out their conversation in favor of looking around the ship.
It was mostly barren now, as anything that had not been securely fastened to the walls was now outside in space. He experienced a little flicker of worry that Tony might have been one of those things, but he just as quickly squashed the thought. Of course Tony would have known to secure himself. He’d lived through this before. He, better than any of them, had known exactly how Stark’s and Parker’s plan would turn out.
He moved over to one of the windows and peered outside. His stomach flipped uncomfortably at the sight of the galaxy. It was one thing to view it via astral projection, and something else entirely to see it in person. One the one hand, it was a beautiful sight. But on the other hand, it was a reminder of just how small Earth was in the grand scheme of things. He also had to wonder how many of those planets had already been ravaged by Thanos.
According to Stark, it took them roughly ten Earth hours to reach their goal: Titan. The landing was less than ideal, and once again Stephen wondered if Stark would’ve been capable of getting them home. The alien tech was jerky and unyielding to human touch. Even with Parker and Stark at the helm, had it not been for the defensive magic Stephen quickly employed, the ship would’ve shattered apart around them and the three of them (four counting Tony) would’ve died long before they fought Thanos. As it was, the ship was literally in pieces by the time they came to a stop.
For the second time, Stephen shakily pushed himself to his feet, sparing a moment to hope that Tony was okay. And then, with the thought in mind that they would have to find another way home once Thanos was defeated. He didn’t have much time to dwell on that, though. The welcoming committee literally kicked the door down and the next thing Stephen knew, something tall and big was bellowing and running towards him.
It took much longer than it should’ve to realize what, or rather who, had just burst into the ship. Tony hadn’t been able to give them much data on the Guardians of the Galaxy. He’d only met Peter Quill, Drax and Mantis briefly on Titan, and most of their time had been spent plotting against Thanos. Later, Thor had told Tony what he knew of them, which was slightly more helpful: the tales of the Guardians and their deeds had reached Asgard. Tony had dutifully repeated everything he knew to Stephen and Wong, but in the end it wasn’t much.
Now, standing amidst the wreckage with runes glowing around his hands while Stark and Quill bickered, Stephen wondered if Tony was standing above them, watching and laughing.
“I don’t get paid enough for this kind of lunacy,” he muttered to himself, pleased to let his magic dissipate once it was established by all that no one was a threat. He wanted to conserve his energy for the coming battle, but Stark would’vee definitely picked up on something weird if Stephen hadn’t reacted against the Guardians.
Tony hadn’t said anything about Titan being uninhabitable or dangerous, so Stephen opted to make his way off the ruined ship without waiting for the others. His hope, that they would follow and give Tony the opportunity to leave the ship in private, panned out when first Stark and Parker, then the Guardians, trickled outside after him. He looked around at the desolate planet.
“It’s so… empty,” Parker said, which was exactly what Stephen was thinking.
“This used to be a planet with a large population,” said Drax, his gaze following Stephen’s.
“Not anymore,” Stephen said. He didn’t need magic to know that the planet was dying. Nothing would grow or flourish here.
He didn’t bother to listen as Stark and Quill began another argument, instead wandering a short distance away and taking a seat on a convenient rock. He knew, though he did not share it with the others, that there was nothing more to do but wait for Thanos to come. In a little while he would check in on their plan and make sure that they arrived at the same one as before, but for the time being he had something more intriguing in mind.
The Time Stone allowed him to peek at a variety of futures. It was overwhelming, exhausting work, so he didn’t do it very often. But this, out of any occasion, called for special measures. So Stephen hadn’t been surprised to learn that, in the old timeline, he had used the Time Stone to look for a future where Thanos didn’t win. It only made sense that his previous self would’ve wanted to figure out whether or not they had a fighting chance. He would remain forever grateful that the Stone had shown him one future where they did, and given him the sense to sacrifice the Stone to save Tony’s life.
Otherwise, half of all living beings would’ve been doomed.
He shook away the chill that ugly thought brought on and settled his breathing, closing his eyes. He tuned out the voices of the others and focused on his magic. There was no point in trying to figure out if they were going to win today. The future was unpredictable in that it could be changed in unfathomable ways with the smallest of decisions. It was impossible to foresee something so imprecise.
However, what Stephen could see was a future that had technically already happened. His magic was familiar enough with Tony by now. It wasn’t difficult to tap into the Time Stone with Tony’s essence in mind, and seek out a future with the same ‘feel’ as Tony. The world around him fell away as the magic of the Time Stone, always shockingly cold, filled his mind and soul and cast him forward to a future that, if Stephen and Tony had their way, would never actually happen.
He saw the moment that Thanos won, and how Tony and a blue-skinned woman were left behind on Titan. Stephen was a silent spectator to the six months that followed. His stomach tightened and he trembled with anger and sorrow as he watched Earth fall apart and Tony and the other Avengers become scapegoats. Humanity needed someone to blame and the Avengers, already on uneven footing after Ultron and the damages of their ‘civil war’, ended up being the ideal targets – especially because none of them, not even Captain America, had protested otherwise.
He watched as Tony and a small group of confidants worked together to create a time machine, pouring all of their energy and hope into the device. He watched Tony withdraw from the others and then cry himself to sleep at night with only his Cloak of Levitation for comfort. He watched the outside world begin to rebuild and adapt, while those in Wakanda focused everything on fixing the problem.
He saw Tony conversing with Wong, and how cleverly Tony turned the side of their conversations towards Stephen. It was both eerie and intriguing to see what the future Wong had to say about him; surprisingly, the information he gave Tony was largely positive, if somewhat useless to Tony’s overall task. He then watched Tony lay awake, talking out loud to the cloak, and come to the firm conclusion that he would seek out Stephen’s help if he were the one chosen to go back in time.
The connection snapped on the day that Tony actually used the device. Stephen rocked backwards like someone had punched him, gasping for breath in the thin air. Using the Time Stone always left him feeling like he’d stepped into a sub-zero freezer, expect the cold came from inside and not out. He jumped when he felt metal hands, warm to the touch, grab his shoulders.
“Strange. Hey, Strange, you’re fine.”
The voice alone was a reminder: this was Stark, not Tony. Strange looked up at him and realized that Stark had no idea how fortunate he was that he – that all of them – would be able to avoid the fate Thanos had planned. It was one thing to hear about it, but something else entirely to see it. He breathed out through an uncontrollable surge of determination to see Thanos dead no matter what. Now he understood why his past self had sacrificed the Time Stone.
“What were you looking at?” Stark asked, eyes searching Stephen’s intently.
“The future,” Stephen said. His voice sounded bleak, even to his own ears, and Stark recoiled slightly, obviously thinking that Stephen meant their current future. Stephen didn’t bother to elaborate. He wanted nothing more in that moment than to kill Thanos and bundle Tony away to somewhere safe, where they could both rest.
Standing back and watching the combined forces of Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Star Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Mantis and Nebula all converge on Thanos was not as difficult as Tony expected it would be. Everything felt numb. There was no anger, no grief, no dread. Just the sound of his own breath in his ears and the grunts and screams coming from the battle. Almost without his consent, his right hand moved to the holster and he removed the dagger that Thor gave him. The Urdu metal gleamed in the light of Titan, looking unholy and sharp.
Someone yelled and Tony turned his attention back to the battle just in time to see Mantis drop out of Strange's portal and land on Thanos's shoulders. Iron Man was on one side, trying to pry the gauntlet off. Spider-Man was on the other, the legs of his suit straining with effort, a piece of webbing wrapped around Thanos's opposite arm to held hold him in place. Strange had magic wrapped around the gauntlet to help Iron Man. Mantis was struggling to keep Thanos under. Drax was clutching at Thanos' s legs to keep him still. And in spite of all that, even from a distance, Tony could see the whites of Thanos's eyes as he fought against whatever Mantis was doing to him.
And then Quill stepped up and, underneath the mask, Tony closed his eyes. He could still hear Mantis saying that Thanos was mourning, and Nebula's grim voice as she told them all that Thanos had taken Gamora away and that he'd come back with a Soul Stone. She always did have a terrible sense of timing, Tony reflected, not that any of the blame could be laid on Nebula's shoulders. Or Quill's either, for that matter. They were both grieving. It was evident in the subtle shake of Nebula's shoulders and the quiver in Quill's voice as he yelled at Thanos.
"The stun darts are ready to be used, Sir," JARVIS said, his voice soft and meant for Tony along. Lights played across the screen of the HUD as JARVIS powered up the stun darts without being asked. He always was the best at knowing what Tony needed before Tony could think of it himself. He was pathetically grateful to have JARVIS here with him.
"You asshole!" Quill bellowed, drawing his arm back, and this was it. This was that split second when everything had gone wrong. Tony could see it in his mind: Quill would punch Thanos a couple times, dislodging Mantis's grip. Iron Man would let go to grab Quill. Thanos would regain control and send Mantis, and then Spider-Man, flying. He'd kick Drax's body at Quill and Iron Man, and then throw Strange halfway across the field.
Tony raised his left hand, took aim and fired. The stun dart was about the size of a battery that powered a watch, but much more dangerous. The instant that it impacted Quill was obvious: Quill convulsed, his hand inches away from Thanos's face, and then dropped like a stone. He shook a few more times on the ground, like he was trying to fight through it - Tony'd been expecting that, since Nebula had told him that Quill was not fully human. A regular stun gun wouldn't have worked. She, Thor and Tony had experimented until Tony had a version of a stun dart that could knock even an Asgardian for a loop - before he went perfectly still. A moment of confused quiet descended upon the field.
Then Tony stepped forward and activated the thrusters. They burned hot and bright, sending the armor shooting forward. He had to disengage the invisibly shields, as they didn't function properly when he was going that fast, and several shocked exclamations met his ears. He knew why, of course. The sight of a red and black Iron Man suit appearing as though from nowhere, flying at you with full speed, would be enough to give anyone pause. Especially considering his hand was stretched out in front of him and holding a dagger.
"Strange, now!" he shouted.
Strange lifted his opposite hand and pinched his fingers together, drawing his hand back sharply. Mantis was plucked from Thanos's shoulders like someone had grabbed the back of her shirt. Thanos's eyes flew open, but Tony was already there. He literally missed Mantis's right foot by mere centimetres as the dagger plunged through Thanos's thick neck like a hot knife through butter. There may have been some level of resistance - Tony had no idea. He was running high on adrenaline and momentum. The dagger came out the other side and he yanked it free, banking hard and spinning.
There was another beat of silence. Then Thanos's body slumped, like the wind had gone out of it, and fell over heavily. It rocked the ground. Tony stared down at it, his heart beating so fast that he was left feeling ill. He was half-expecting to see Thanos get up again. Thor had told them all, in great detail, of how he'd stabbed Thanos in the heart with Stormbreaker. Out of all the mistakes Thor had made, Tony knew that going for a chest shot as opposed to a head shot was Thor's deepest regret by far.
He pointed the left repulsor at the head. Power built, emitting a low hum, before he let go. The head splattered like a broken egg. Blood and bits of bone and brain matter went in every direction.
"What the hell," Spider-Man said.
Still feeling numb, Tony looked up. He was not surprised to see that Iron Man had taken aim at him. No one else had, but that was because, except for Strange, they had no idea what was going on. Tony kind of pitied him in a way. Once he disappeared, Strange would be left behind to explain. It was probably not an explanation that most people were going to take very well. But at this point, Tony was beyond caring. He just wanted to rest. So he didn't say anything. He just stood there and waited for time to catch up with him.
"Tony," Strange said, like he knew what Tony was waiting for. "That's not how it works. You exist here now. You're part of this time." His voice was unfathomably gentle, considering what they'd just been through.
"What? But - two people can't -" Tony fumbled. Words weren't a friend to him right now, it seemed.
"You're not the same person. Not in the ways that matter," Strange told him.
"What the fuck is going on?" Iron Man said before Tony could respond. "Strange? You've got two seconds to explain before I -"
"Time travel," Tony said, feeling like the words were coming from a distance. Apparently he'd have to explain after all. He let the armor retract. It slid seamlessly back into the arc reactor, leaving him standing in the sweatshirt and jeans he'd put on - god, it seemed like weeks ago. Had it really just been this morning? The world had changed since then.
The cape settled back around his shoulders, a welcome and familiar weight. Tony said, "Thanos won. He killed half the universe with a snap of his fingers and then disappeared. No one could figure out where he'd gone, so we couldn't get a hold of the Infinity Stones to fix it. So we decided to go with another route and built a time travel device so that someone could go back in time to kill Thanos before he collected all of the Stones." It sounded ludicrous even to his own ears, and Tony inwardly marvelled that this ridiculous plan had actually worked.
There was a pause, and then the faceplate of the armor flipped up to reveal Stark's disbelieving face. "So you're me. From the future. Where we lost."
"Yes," Tony said.
"This is so cool," Spider-Man said reverently, pulling his mask off. He looked like he was having a minor breakdown at the thought of two Tony Stark's. He was the only one who would feel that way, Tony suspected. Without thinking about it, he took a step towards the kid.
Immediately, Stark aimed a repulsor at him again. "Back off."
"I'm not going to hurt him, I just -" Tony just wanted to touch him. He just wanted to hug Peter and not have the kid dissolve in his arms. His hands started to shake. He heard himself give a great gulping gasp. The numbness was sliding away, pierced by the realization that they'd actually succeeded and that he was going to have to deal with whatever happened next. It was too much.
Suddenly Strange was there, stepping between them and blocking off Tony's view of Stark and Peter. He was just as filthy as the rest of them, but he didn't hesitate to pull Tony into a hug. Tony froze with shock even as Strange's arms wrapped securely around his shoulders and lower back, holding him in place. The cape and the cloak flowed over each other, hiding the outside world from his view - and hiding him from the outside world. It gave him a secure place to fall apart, and in spite of Tony's best efforts that's exactly what happened. Silent tears flowed down his cheeks and he started to tremble.
"You're the one who needs to back off, Stark," Strange was saying, his voice hard now. "He's not a threat to any of us. He just saved our lives. He just saved half the universe."
"You don't know that!" Stark said.
"Yes, I do. You know I have the Time Stone. That's what I was doing while we were waiting. I looked into the future to see what happened when Thanos won. You have no idea how many people died. Not just from being disintegrated, but from the the traffic accidents. Planes going down without their pilots. Doctors disappearing during surgeries. And that's only a small sliver of what I saw, but rest assured that it was a nightmare. Are you telling me that if that had happened, you wouldn't have done everything you could to come back in time and make sure that it didn't happen?"
There was a long silence. In spite of Tony's curiosity, he was relieved he couldn't see what was going on. The panic was still rushing through him and breathing was difficult but being pressed up against Strange was helping, and so were the presence of the cape and the cloak.
"You knew about this beforehand," Stark said finally. "How long have you been planning this?"
"For a few days."
"Why didn't you tell anyone?" Peter asked. He sounded genuinely curious, not accusing.
"This was our best chance at defeating Thanos with the least amount of damage," Strange said.
"The least amount of damage? Gamora is dead."
That was Nebula, and Tony flinched at the sound of her voice and the raw grief that was strung through it. If he could have, he would've saved everyone: Gamora, Loki, the other Asgardians. He would've used the time travel device to go back to the beginning, to the Battle of New York. The Nebula of the future had understood why Tony couldn't save Gamora: he had no way of getting to Gamora and Thanos before Thanos went after the Soul Stone. But he thought that this Nebula might not be so understanding, and a whole new grief gripped him.
Quill let out a groan, thankfully preventing Strange from having to answer something that wasn't his responsibility, and slurred, "What hit me? A spaceship?"
"A stun dart, from the looks of it," said Stark. "You'll survive."
"Easy for you to - whoa! What happened?!" Quill blurted out.
Strange sighed as Peter, Mantis and Drax all began talking at the same time and started to move. Tony went with him automatically, trusting Strange to lead him somewhere safe. They only moved a few feet before Strange sat, which meant Tony sat too. He hadn't realized how much of his weight that Strange was supporting until they were seated, and he became aware of just how weak his knees were. They felt more like overcooked noodles than legs. He kept his eyes on the ground as the cape and cloak unwound from around him.
"Tony, look at me," Strange said. He touched Tony's chin, pulling it up. Tony couldn't focus, though. He was still trembling too hard. Strange sighed and gave up, pulling the cape more securely around Tony's shoulders and muttering something about shock, settling his own arm around Tony's back.
"Strange." Stark had walked over too. He'd retracted the armor. Tony half-expected to see blood on the front of his shirt - but of course, this time, Stark hadn't been stabbed and so Strange didn't have to sacrifice the Time Stone to save his life.
"What?" Strange said, not unwelcoming, just wary.
Stark's eyes flicked towards Tony. "You said this was our best chance."
"Quill was going to punch Thanos and Mantis would lose her grip, setting off a chain of events that would end with Thanos winning," said Strange. "Once he got to Earth, there was no stopping him. Apparently Thor tried and was unsuccessful."
There was a very obvious struggle going on right now in Stark's face. Tony knew how much he used to hate magic - exactly how much Stark hated magic right now. That was all thanks to Wanda and, to a lesser extent, Loki. It was only after Thanos that he'd started to gain more of an appreciation for what magic could do, as he spoke to Wong and Nebula and grew to love the cape. Stark could work with Strange, but he was inherently distrustful of anything magic and right now that's what Tony's appearance looked like.
At some point, Tony thought, he'd have to sit down with Stark and explain that the time travel device had been 90% science and only 10% magic. Or maybe not. It depended on who else would be involved in that conversation. The last thing they needed was more people trying to go back in time to fix things.
"Alright," Stark said at last, sounding like he was physically pained. He spoke to all of them. "Here's what we're gonna do. We're going to take the gauntlet and go back to Earth. You said that two of your team went with Thor, correct?" Stark looked at the Guardians. Quill nodded. "Thor will be headed to Earth, so your comrades will be there. They're probably all gearing up for a fight." He shook his head in faint disbelief.
"With the gauntlet, we can reverse what Thanos did," Nebula pointed out.
"Now isn't the time. Who knows what would happen if you put that on?" Stark said. "We'll take it with us and figure out what to do then."
Nebula looked like she wanted to argue, but didn't. Quill, however, said, "Or we could use it now with the Stones that we have."
"Look -" Stark began.
"Don't 'look' me, my girlfriend -" Quill got up in Stark's face.
"Hey!" Peter shouted. Both men stopped and looked at him. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Stark's right. We're sitting ducks. That guy Thanos had a lot of minions, right? What happens if one of them comes along to check up on Thanos? None of us are in any shape to fight right now. Besides, we only have five of the Stones here. The last one is back on Earth anyway. The Gauntlet can probably do a lot more with all six, right?"
Peter's argument was sound. Tony felt a swell of pride that pushed aside the strongest bit of the panic and straightened up a little, though he stayed pressed as close to Strange as he could. Apparently Quill felt the same way, because he mumbled something but gave in. Stark just sighed and went to help Drax and Peter carry the gauntlet onto the Guardians' ship.
So I got a bit mixed writing this chapter; Thanos's forces were attacking Wakandan well before Thanos got to Earth, but let's pretend they were delayed and/or knocked off course by a ripple effect from Tony traveling back in time.
To say that it was a very tense trip back to Earth would be an understatement. It was a long trip, with the strained silence only occasionally broken by the Guardians’ whispering to each other or Parker and Stark making conversation. Nebula sat in stoic silence. Stephen didn’t speak either, remaining in the corner with Tony tucked securely under his arm. Tony had, Stephen knew, gone into shock after Thanos’s defeat. He’d stopped shaking so hard, though fine tremors occasionally traveled through him, and his silence now was both unnerving and concerning. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the place to have a talk.
After a couple of hours, Mantis stood and walked over to a small compartment. She removed what looked like foil packages of some kind of food and handed them out. Stark eyed his with open skepticism, but Parker apparently had no such compunctions: he tore his open and swallowed a mouthful of whatever was inside before Stark could stop him. Tony tensed at Stephen’s side, head lifting for the first time.
“It’s fine, Mr. Stark! It just tastes like beef stew,” Parker said, licking his lips.
Stark stared at him with an exasperated look. “How did you make it to sixteen-years-old? Didn’t your aunt ever tell you not to take food from strangers?”
“Mantis isn’t a stranger. She’s our teammate,” Parker replied. He was grinning, and Stephen suspected that he knew exactly how to push Stark’s buttons and was thoroughly enjoying the opportunity. As if to rub it in, he put the packet back to his lips and swallowed another mouthful. Stark put a hand over his face and groaned.
“They’re safe,” Quill said, looking back at them. It was the first thing he’d said since they got on the ship.
“How do you know?” Stark demanded.
Stephen opened his own packet and sniffed at the contents. His smelled like – well, not like chicken, but very similar. He tasted it cautiously and couldn’t identify the spices, but it didn’t taste bad. Of course, as a doctor he was well aware of just how many poisonous things could taste good. But he was hungry after expending so much energy, and something hot would do wonders for Tony, and Quill’s word was good enough.
He tore the top off of Tony’s package and sniffed it. Realizing that it smelled like his own, he nudged Tony. “Drink it. You’ll feel better.”
Tony looked up at him slowly. His eyes were kind of unfocused. He’d been through so much already; it was all hitting him now. He needed – he needed so many things, including medical attention, most of which Stephen couldn’t give him until they got back to Earth. But he could, and would, give Tony this. Concern deepening, he held the packet to Tony’s lips and bowed his head so that only Tony could hear him.
“Drink, Tony,” he murmured, pleased when Tony parted his lips and swallowed. “There you go. That’s good.” In soft, praising whispers, he coaxed Tony to drink the whole packet. It was only once Tony had consumed the last of it that Stephen felt eyes on them. He glanced up to see Stark openly staring at them. There was a very strange look on Stark’s face that Stephen couldn’t parse. Stephen raised his eyebrows, inviting a comment. Stark didn’t say anything, but nor did he look away.
Stephen decided to ignore the staring rather than challenge him. He drank his own packet and did feel better after. Slightly bolstered by the food, he readjusted his arm around Tony and then resumed his watch over the Gauntlet. He could see the space where the Time Stone would have gone. The Eye of Agamotto felt heavier around his neck then than it ever had before.
When they were within sight of Earth, Stark spoke again and gave Quill a set of coordinates. “They’re not for New York,” he added, answering Stephen’s question before it could be asked. “It’s for Wakanda. That’s where they’ll be preparing for the invasion.”
Wakanda. Stephen had heard of the country on the news – everyone had, by this point, to some degree. He knew it was the country of the Black Panther, and that it was supposedly very technologically advanced. And of course, he remembered Tony saying that was where he’d been before coming back in time, and also where Vision, who had the Mind Stone, had been in the future where Thanos won. But he had to wonder how Stark had known that was where they would be. Clearly there was more to that story.
They entered Earth’s atmosphere. The ship held up remarkably well, eventually breaking through the clouds to reveal Wakanda below. Stephen, looking out the window, saw the thousands of warriors. At the head of them all, he could see the Black Panther, Captain America, and the Black Widow. Tony stiffened when he saw them; Stephen didn’t have to look to know that Stark had tensed as well.
Quill landed the ship outside of what he said was a force field. They all sat in silence for a moment longer before Parker got up and strode over to the door. That seemed to be the signal everyone needed to get up. Tony wobbled when he was on his feet, supported only by the armor and the grip that Stephen still had on him. His face, already pale, whitened further as they left the protection of the ship and emerged outside onto Wakandan soil.
The force fields shimmered and then melted away as they approached. Captain America and Black Panther came to greet them, with Black Widow and several other people behind them, though they drew to a stop and maintained a respectful distance. The captain’s mouth dropped and his eyes bugged out when he saw that there were two versions of Tony Stark.
“Mr. Stark, what is going on?” the King demanded.
“We’ve beaten Thanos,” Stark said, lifting his chin slightly.
“What?” Rogers said, sounding shocked. “Tony, that’s – that’s impossible.”
“We have the Gauntlet, if you need to see proof,” Stark said coolly. Parker shifted uneasily, then drew closer to his mentor. But not as though he was seeking protection, Stephen noted. Not with the challenging stare he was giving Rogers.
“How?” Romanov said. Her eyes were narrowed and flicked back and forth between the two Tony Stark’s rapidly. “What did you do this time, Stark?”
Stephen bristled slightly at her accusatory tone. It bothered him that she immediately jumped to the conclusion that Stark had done something wrong. “He saved the world,” he said.
“And you are?” T’Challa said, looking at him.
“Dr. Stephen Strange. I am a sorcerer,” Stephen said. “And we are all very tired and in need of food and medical attention after the battle we just went through. Is that something you can help with, or should I open up a portal to New York?” He wasn’t being nearly as polite as he should have been, but their demeanor left a lot to be desired. If Rogers or Romanov took a step towards Tony, they were going to get a nasty surprise.
T’Challa blinked and shook his head. “I – of course. My apologies. We would like very much to hear your story as well. If what you say is true, you’ve done us all a great service.”
“It’s true,” said Quill. “And the Gauntlet stays on my ship for now.” His mouth was set in a hard, unhappy line.
Letting them bicker, Stephen turned to Tony. “Are you okay?”
“They hate me,” Tony breathed. Those were the first words he’d spoken in hours. “I don’t like being around them.”
“I won’t let them hurt you,” Stephen said. It wasn’t the place to ask, but he did wonder if Rogers and the other Avengers had hated Tony in the future too. Or maybe, after Thanos, no one had the energy to hate. He would have to ask later.
Somehow, Stephen didn’t care how, the others settled things amongst themselves. The Gauntlet was indeed left in the Milano. They walked back to the palace and were met halfway there by Bruce Banner, Barnes and four women. T’Challa lifted his hands and spoke rapidly to the women in a language Stephen wasn’t familiar with. Barnes went immediately over to Rogers, while Banner stumbled towards Stark with a look of confusion.
“Tony, what -?”
“We did it, Bruce,” Stark said, gently catching Banner by the shoulders. “We did it. He’s dead.”
Banner made an odd sound and collapsed into Stark’s arms like a marionette with its strings cut. Stark caught him easily enough, being that he was still in the armor, and started whispering to him. Stephen assumed that Stark was explaining what had happened, considering that Banner lifted his head and looked in their direction. An expression of astonishment crossed his face when he spotted Tony.
Word spread quickly amongst the other Wakandans. Several of them began to whoop with joy. T’Challa smiled and continued to issue orders as he lead their weary group back into the palace. There were three people waiting there: a young girl who looked a lot like T’Challa, a man with bright red skin and someone that Stephen recognized from the news: Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch.
“Steve, what happened?” Maximoff said. “Is it true?” She clung to the man’s arm. Something glinted in his forehead – the Mind Stone. So this was Vision.
“I don’t know yet, but we hope so,” Rogers said. “We need to debrief.”
“We need,” Stephen said tightly, “medical attention.” He was not going to allow Tony to be hauled into a meeting that would no doubt last several hours, as all of them would want to hear the full story at least once – probably multiple times – without being seen by another doctor.
And Tony wasn’t the only one, honestly. A quick glance at the others showed that all of them were banged up. Stephen himself could still feel the residual pricks of pain from those blasted needles, and every muscle in his body ached with renewed pain every step he took. The fight with Thanos had not been kind to anyone.
“We need answers,” Rogers countered, a grim tilt to his mouth.
“Your answers can wait. Your highness, I would keep your force field up. Thanos mentioned that he was sending a contigent of soldiers here. They may yet arrive,” Stephen said, turning to T’Challa and disregarding Rogers entirely. As he’d hoped, the possibility that an invasion might still happen was enough to distract them temporarily. T’Challa began calling out orders.
In the ensuing shuffle, the young woman who looked like T’Challa came over to Stephen. “My name is Shuri,” she said with a curious glance at Tony. “If you like, I can show you to our medical wing.”
“We would appreciate that,” Stephen told her, not at all surprised when Stark, Parker, Nebula, Quill, Drax and Mantis drifted after them. He could hear Parker complaining that he was fine and didn’t need a doctor, and Stark telling him that he was getting looked at whether he wanted to or not.
The medical wing was about the size of the New York hospital Stephen used to work at, and fully staffed by several waiting doctors. One of them, an older woman with a calm, no-nonsense demeanor, walked over to greet Stephen and Tony. Stephen’s eyes narrowed in on the badge clipped to her coat, registering her name as Dr. Akintola. She smiled easily at him.
“I’ll be looking after you,” she said to Stephen. “Would you come this way?”
“We stay together,” Stephen said firmly.
Dr. Akintola nodded. “Okay then. Come this way.” She led them into a small room and gestured for them to enter. “I’m going to have to ask you both to remove your uniforms and put on the hospital gown. Just press this button when you’re ready.” She stepped out, closing the door behind her.
Now that they were alone, Stephen took a moment to steady himself. The adrenaline was wearing off, leaving lingering pain and a sickening sense of relief behind. It was just beginning to sink in that their ploy had paid off and Thanos was really dead. Though that hadn’t been easy, what was coming was going to be difficult in a different way. The fact that he hadn’t disappeared had blindsided Tony.
He took a breath, inhaling the harsh scent of chemicals, and was calmed. He might not have been a worldclass surgeon anymore, but this was still his domain. He was comfortable in a hospital room in a way that most people couldn’t dream of. And while he wasn’t Tony’s doctor right now, Stephen could and would make sure that both of them got the best attention possible.
“Tony, I need you to step out of the armor for me,” Stephen said. He kept his voice low and firm, though not unkind. Tony was more responsive now than he’d been immediately following Thanos’s defeat, but simple commands were still best.
Tony, or perhaps the A.I. that helped to pilot the suit, obeyed. Stephen remembered seeing Stark’s armor flow over him when Maw attacked; this was the opposite, with the armor retracting back into the arc reactor. Tony’s legs gave out as soon as the armor was gone. Prepared for that, Stephen caught him easily. He bit back a hiss of pain as Tony’s weight jostled one of his injuries and instead eased Tony down onto the hospital bed.
“Why didn’t I disappear?” Tony asked.
Stephen looked at him. Tony’s brown eyes were clear and focused now. He sighed. “I can’t give you a concrete answer, only my best hypothesis.”
“I’ll take anything.”
“You and Stark aren’t the same person anymore. What happened after Thanos changed you fundamentally,” Stephen said. “If anything was going to happen because you two existed in the same time frame, it would’ve happened as soon as you appeared in this time.” He began removing his robes. The two cloaks were hovering in a corner of the room, so at least he didn’t need to worry about them.
Tony was quiet for a moment, reflecting on that. Then he said, “But that future doesn’t exist anymore. I should be gone too.”
“And if you were still there, you would be. But you were here, and you have been here for several days. Your energy has stabilized to the here and now.” He held up a hand when Tony went to argue. “I don’t know enough about the science of it to be able to say much more than that. I may be the keeper of the Time Stone, but I’ve never tried to use it to travel through time. I’ve looked at futures, yes, but that’s the extent of it.”
“That’s not helpful,” Tony said with a hint of a pout.
“I know, I’m sorry.” Stephen turned his back so that he could slip off his shirt and pants. That left him in just his boxers. He pulled the hospital gown on and tied it loosely, adding, “Surely you must have considered this as a possibility.”
“Not really,” Tony said. “I thought – ” He cut himself off, lowering his head, but not before Stephen caught the moisture in his eyes. His heart twisted. The future hadn’t been a good place, but there were still people Tony loved. And now those people were gone to him forever and he was left behind with different versions of them. He couldn’t even fathom what that would be like, but it had to be incredibly difficult.
“Time travel is always a gamble. You can never be sure how it will turn out.” Stephen picked up the second hospital gown and approached Tony, holding it out to him. “There is a space for you, if you want it.”
“Where? With the Avengers?” Tony’s mouth twisted in something bitter, and he snorted. “No thank you. I’d still like to be Iron Man if I can work it out with Stark somehow, but I have no interest in sticking around with the rest of them. I’ve lived through Rogers trying to apologize. I don’t need to do it a second time.”
“Not with them. With me,” Stephen said. He only realized how that sounded when Tony looked up, eyes round with shock, and flushed. “I – I mean, the Sanctum is very large for only Wong and me. And you,” he added, exasperated, when the Cloak of Levitation fluttered in protest. “There’s ample space for you to stay with us until you figure out what you want to do. At least you’re somewhat familiar with the Sanctum.” And comfortable, he didn’t add. He didn’t think Tony would want to go back to Stark Tower or the Avengers Compound.
It seemed he’d guessed right; Tony’s shoulders relaxed, as though a great weight had been eased off of them, and he took the hospital gown with a whispered, but heartfelt, “Thank you.”
All things considered, Tony got off light when compared to the rest of the group. He had some scrapes and bruises, but he hadn’t been tossed around nearly as much. Dr. Akintola couldn’t leave it at that, however, going on to point out that he was also malnourished, dehydrated, and exhausted – most of which wasn’t because of Thanos, but leftover remnants of the future. Tony scowled at her when he saw the alert expression on Strange’s face. He had the feeling that food and water and sleep were in his near future.
Strange was given a similar diagnosis, though without the malnourished tag and with several additional stitches thanks to those needles from Maw and Thanos. He’d also sprained his right wrist and bruised several ribs. They were both told to eat a good, simple meal, drink plenty of water and then sleep for several hours. That sounded like heaven to Tony, but he knew there was something much more uncomfortable to be done first.
“Where are you going?” Strange asked the second Tony made a move towards the door. The cape soared over and settled around Tony’s shoulders. He patted it in thanks.
“I just wanna make sure Peter is okay,” Tony said. A nurse had brought him plain white pants and a shirt and soft shoes, neither of which was nearly as comfortable as Strange’s sweatshirt and pants. He missed being able to pull the fabric over his nose and inhale Strange’s scent, but that weird and awkward so he was trying to ignore that persistent thought. He also missed being able to hide the arc reactor: the thin fabric didn’t leave much to the imagination.
“I’ll come with you.” Strange stood. He was dressed similarly, though his clothing was light grey. The cloak flew to him, settling onto his shoulders. What a pair the two of them were, Tony thought wryly.
He heard low murmurs as he stepped out into the hallway. Some of the doors were open, while others were still closed. Tony shuffled down the hall, glancing in through the open doors. All of the offices were empty and he started to wonder whether Peter was still in an office with a closed door. But why would it take so long? Peter was enhanced, so any damange he’d suffered from Thanos should have been well on its way to being healed, unless he’d been seriously injured and Tony just hadn’t noticed –
Strange’s hands landed on his shoulders, gently directing Tony’s attention. “Look, there he is. He looks fine.”
Tony followed his gaze. Relief rolled through him when he saw Stark and Peter sitting in the waiting room. Both of them had obviously been seen by a doctor, as they were wearing the same shirt and pants. Stark was in light blue and Peter was in green. Stark paid their entry no mind, too busy tapping away on his phone, but Peter looked up at them and smiled brightly in greeting.
“Mr. Stark!” he exclaimed, which drew Stark’s attention immediately. He frowned at the sight of them.
“Hi Peter. How are you doing?” Tony said quietly. He still wanted that hug, but knew better than to approach Peter right now.
“I’m fine. Just like I said,” Peter said meaningfully to Stark.
Stark just rolled his eyes. “If you’re expecting me to feel bad for making sure that you’re not dying, you’re gonna have a long wait.”
Peter pouted dramatically, turning back to Tony. “So, time travel. What’s that like?”
Tony blinked at him and heard Strange coughing to hide a laugh. “Uh… it was okay, I guess?”
“Just okay?” Peter said, and had it been anyone else Tony might have thought they were fishing for all the wrong reasons. Stark certainly looked interested in his answers. But this was Peter, and Tony knew the kid well enough to know that Peter was genuinely curious and not shy about making said curiosity known.
“It was weird. It made me dizzy,” Tony said, trying to remember. There was no way he was going to mention the severe panic attack he’d experienced. “And I thought I was going to throw up afterwards.”
Peter wrinkled his nose. “Ew. I thought it would be more… more.”
“Yeah, I don’t recommend it,” Tony replied. Suddenly feeling weak, he sank down into one of the chairs. Strange sat beside him, setting a comforting hand on Tony’s arm. Tony watched Stark’s eyes track the movement and wondered what Stark was thinking.
If he remembered correctly, Stark would’ve broken up with Pepper not that long ago. Pepper had been one of those lost, so Tony had never had the chance to make up with her – and now he had no desire to; he knew that he was broken enough that Pepper couldn’t handle it. But he had to wonder if Stark would take that chance, or if he’d decide that he and Pepper were finished once and for all.
The door opened and a woman – Tony recognized her as Teela, though of course she wouldn’t know him – stuck her head in. “His Highness has asked me to gather you in the dining room,” she said. “He has food and drink for you, so that you may eat while you tell your story.”
The implicit order was pretty clear. Tony got up obediently, used to this. He didn’t know T’Challa well, but Shuri had been used to having her orders followed. Strange stood too, clearly not prepared to let Tony go anywhere without home (and didn’t that make a little bloom of warmth happen in Tony’s chest). Stark frowned deeply and sat for a moment longer, clearly weighing his options, before he rose. Only then did Peter get up.
“The rest of your teammates are already in the dining room,” Teela added. “This way.”
She led them on a route that Tony knew, but didn’t know at the same time. Though the palace was the same, he’d never realized how much had been destroyed in the battle. The second time he nearly automatically turned the wrong way, Strange, giving him an odd look, took Tony’s hand and gently steered him in the right directions. Tony wasn’t going to protest the contact and just held on tightly.
They emerged into a dining room that was, all things considered, more of a hall. It held a very long table capable of seating fifty people. Right now, it was filled with a lot of people Tony didn’t want to see, including Steve, Barnes, Natasha, Wanda, Vision, Sam, Clint, T’Challa, Bruce, Shuri, Quill, Nebula, Drax, Mantis, several Wakandan dignitaries, and – oh. Tony’s heart turned over as Rhodey stood up and raced over to Stark, yanking him into a fierce hug. Stark hugged him back just as tightly.
It hurt. There was no denying that. Tony thought longingly of his own Rhodey; he wanted to cry when he thought about the fact that he’d never see Rhodey again, never get another hug or hear Rhodey call him Tony Stank. But this wasn’t the time or the place. He forced those feelings down deep and clamped a lid on them. He could grieve later, when he wasn’t being watched by literally dozens of curious and judgmental eyes.
“What the hell, man,” Rhodey was saying, pulling back. “Did we, or did we not, have an agreement that you would let me know before you went into space? And before you say anything, having FRIDAY pass on a belated message doesn’t count.”
“I’m sorry,” Stark said, sounding genuinely contrite. “There was just no time.”
Rhodey frowned at that, but didn’t argue. He hugged Stark again. Tony averted his eyes. Seeing this Rhodey was painful not just because it was a reminder of what he’d lost, but because this Rhodey looked so much healthier than the one Tony remembered. The snap had been hard on everyone. Rhodey, like the rest of them, had lost weight and suffered from a lack of sleep.
Strange squeezed his hand lightly and guided him over to the table. They sat where Teela indicated, in two free seats beside Quill. Stark and Peter were on the other side of Drax and Mantis. To Tony’s immediate right was T’Challa, who sat at the head of the table. His stomach churned as he realized he’d been purposely set in a place where everyone would notice if he tried to slip away. This was supposed to be a place of honor, at the King’s side, but right now it felt more like a prison.
“Now that we’ve all arrived,” T’Challa said as Peter, Rhodey and Stark also sat, “we would like to hear your story.” He looked expectantly at Tony as he spoke.
Tony swallowed hard. His mouth was dry. He hadn’t been the center of this much attention for a long time. He tried to drum up all those old tactics, pasting a smile across his face. “Well, it’s like this. I’m from a future where Thanos won and destroyed half the universe. Those of us who were left behind were working on a variety of ways to fix it. We figured out time travel, sent me back in time, and I was able to hatch a plan with Dr. Strange to kill Thanos before he won. The end.”
There was a disbelieving pause, and then Wanda said scornfully, “They sent you back?”
“You were dead, so your opinion didn’t count,” Tony snapped back before he could stop himself. Six+ months had not cooled his ire towards Wanda Maximoff. It was a pleasure to see Wanda recoil, visibly blanching. Steve put a comforting hand over hers, frowning at Tony.
“Who all survived?” Sam asked.
“Does it matter?” Tony said. He didn’t want to think about those he’d left behind. “The point is, it never happened and it never will.”
Natasha rolled her eyes. “Of course it matters. You show up and expect us to believe that you traveled back in time for the sole purpose of saving the world. Were there no other candidates? Steve?”
Her doubt rankled. It always would. “Steve was there, but my team elected me to go back,” Tony said, fighting to keep his voice calm. It helped when Strange set a hand on his knee beneath the table. The contact was soothing.
“Who was your team?” T’Challa asked. Tony looked at him.
“Me, Dr. Jane Foster, Bruce, Shuri, and Nebula,” he said, seeing both Nebula and Shuri jerk in surprise. “We also consulted with Wong, Thor, Sif, Dr. Helen Cho, and countless others.”
“I was on your team?” Shuri said, her eyes gleaming with curiosity. Tony smiled.
“Yeah, you were. The time travel device ended up being a blend of magic, alien technology, and our technology. And before you ask, it’s not something that could be replicated,” he added. He didn’t want someone else getting the bright idea to go back in time.
Shuri looked slightly disappointed at that. “But it worked, obviously.”
“It worked. It brought me back six months,” Tony said.
“Why only six months? Why not longer? Why not go back to the start?” Steve said. His face was hard, judging. Tony knew what he was thinking. Why not go back to the 40’s when Bucky Barnes had fallen from a train and save him? Beside Steve, Barnes kept his eyes on the table.
“Because, Spangles, you have to think about more than just yourself when it comes to time travel. Do you even know what kind of ripple effect would be had if you traveled back in time that far?” Stark said coldly, and Tony remembered that this was the first time Stark and Steve had seen each other since Siberia. “You might change one small thing, but the likelihood that you would make everything else worse is exponential.”
Steve frowned. “But surely you could’ve –”
“Six months,” Tony broke in, proud when his voice didn’t shake. “We… we only had enough to go back six months. A few days before Thanos returned.”
“If that’s true, why did you go to New York?” T’Challa said, also frowning. “You obviously were aware that Vision and the other Avengers would end up here. It was the logical place for you to reach the most people. Instead, we remained in the dark, preparing for a threat that you knew would never come. Why didn’t you tell us?”
He was mad, Tony realized. Fair enough. He met T’Challa’s gaze squarely. “With all due respect, your highness, I knew there were people in Wakanda who wouldn’t believe me, or, at the very least, with whom I would have to waste precious time convincing them that I was telling the truth. Furthermore, Dr. Strange was a pivotal player in the battle the first time around. With his help, we came very close to defeating Thanos. By the time Thanos got to Earth, he’d already won. All your measures to protect Vision were for naught. He needed to be taken down on Titan, and so I went to the person who could most help with that.”
Stark was bristling at that, and Tony knew there’d have to be an uncomfortable conversation there at some point. For now though, he was grateful that Stark held his tongue and didn’t challenge him in front of all these people. Tony had enough glares focused on him. No one at the table seemed to like the implication that all of their preparation would have been useless.
“Forgive me, Mr. Stark, if I think you know not of which you speak,” T’Challa said coldly. “We could have stopped Thanos.”
“I’m telling you that you didn’t,” Tony said as calmly as he could.
The King scowled at him. Tony wondered if they were about to be kicked out of Wakanda. It surprised him to realize he was okay with that. Wakanda had become home once, but that Wakanda was gone now. Shuri and the Dora Milaje were strangers. And he didn’t want to stay here anyway – Strange had offered him a place at the Sanctum, which was something he wanted desperately.
But before T’Challa could speak, Bruce spoke up. “So if that’s the case, how did the battle on Titan go?”
“I can answer that,” Strange said smoothly, patting Tony’s knee in silent comfort. He began to tell their story in greater detail, starting from the point when Tony had arrived. Thankfully, he left out the embarrassing panic attack and Tony’s subsequent clinging and pathetic behavior, instead sticking to the hard facts of what had happened. Tony listened in silence, quietly fascinated: it sounded like something out of a fantasy story, not the reality of what they’d lived through.
Several times, Steve or Natasha looked like they wanted to interrupt. So did T’Challa. None of them did, possibly because Sam was kicking the former under the table and Shuri kept subtly nudging T’Challa. She winked at Tony when she saw him watching her. Tony blinked back, a little surprised. He’d only ever known Shuri after she lost her brother and her mother, but this Shuri had a spark that burned like a fire.
He lowered his gaze to his plate as servants began bringing platters of food to the table. He recognized many of the dishes and his stomach growled with hunger. Though he didn’t have much appetite, he served himself after T’Challa, Shuri and their mother had. The soft clinking of utensils, interspersed with surprised gasps, were the only other sounds in the hall aside from Strange’s calming, strong voice.
Was it terrible to think that this wasn’t even the worst dinner Tony had sat through? Because it wasn’t. It was awkward being peppered with questions, some of which Tony didn’t feel safe answering or which he couldn’t answer. But it was really nothing compared to some of the dinners he’d sat through with Howard or Obadiah Stane, or even the first dinner the survivors had eaten together after the snap. That topped the list.
He ate what he could and then a little bit more, until Strange stopped eyeing him with a judgmental look that suggested Tony was going to get force fed if he didn’t eat enough to satisfy the doctor, before setting his fork aside. He’d eaten about three quarters of his meal, which was pretty good in his opinion. Most of the people around him had eaten even less. Clearly, this was not the victory dinner that any of them had planned. Tony didn’t have the heart to tell them a second time that most of them wouldn’t have lived to eat it.
Wakandan custom said that he had to wait to leave until the King rose first. Shuri, in the days following the snap, had swiftly done away with much of the propriety and flat-out told them all that if they treated her like the queen, she was going to have them executed. Tony hadn’t been able to resist pointing out the disparity of that statement, which had actually made Shuri laugh for the first time since losing her brother and mother.
He didn’t think T’Challa would have the same reaction or propensity towards breaking the law as his sister did – or at least, not if it didn’t directly benefit him in some way. And right now, T’Challa was feeling dangerously out-of-sorts and like he didn’t hold enough power in this situation. Tony could see it in his face. It was better to sit quietly and wait to be dismissed than push the envelope.
Stark, apparently, felt differently. He stood when he was done. “I have some calls to make to New York,” he said curtly. “I left in a rush and there are urgent things that need my attention. Please excuse me.” He muttered something to Peter and then started walking away.
“Of course,” T’Challa said shortly to his back, anger flickering through his face.
Tony felt like rolling his eyes. Okay, so six months ago he would’ve done the same thing. He wasn’t proud of it, but he was positive that Stark really did have urgent things – like an explanatory phone call to Pepper – that needed to be done. He also suspected that Stark wasn’t feeling too respectful of T’Challa right now, since the presence of the ex-Avengers in Wakanda made it blatantly obvious that T’Challa had been shielding them all this time. Or, at the very least, that he’d known where they were.
It was the truth. Shuri had told him that much. She’d apologized, and said that T’Challa had been thinking of himself when he brought Barnes and the rest of the Avengers back, not of Wakanda. Tony couldn’t deny that. Barnes may not have killed T’Challa’s father, but, in his time as the Winter Soldier, he’d killed a heck of a lot of people. No matter what Steve said, Tony fiercely believed that Barnes should still face his day in court.
Back then, it had been a moot point: Barnes died in the snap. Now, it wasn’t. Tony glanced at Barnes, who’d spent the meal with his head lowered, and decided that it was probably time to say screw the rules. He needed to talk to Stark, and he wasn’t planning on staying here. Now that Strange had offered him a place, he was anxious to go home. Wakanda would never be home, not again.
“I apologize,” he said softly. “I have something I have to do, too.” He pushed his chair back and stood without thinking, only then realizing that Strange was still eating. He froze, his heart quickening. Could he leave without Strange? Did he want to? Should he sit back down? Would that look too weird?
It seemed an age, but was probably only seconds, before Strange wiped his mouth and stood. “Your highness,” he said with a polite nod to the three royals in the room, and then actually offered his arm to Tony. Like they were at a party or something. Tony was grateful for it, because his knees felt suddenly weak, and took his arm to be escorted out of the room.
“Thank you,” Tony whispered as they passed out of the dining room.
Strange shook his head slightly. “They were hardly the best of company,” he said dryly. “I can only tolerate being in the spotlight for so long.”
“Sorry. I should’ve answered more questions,” Tony said.
“It’s not your fault. Had they been more polite…” Strange trailed off, shaking his head. “I find it hard to understand their lack of trust in you. I know I was skeptical and wary when we first met, but within a day or two I knew that you were genuine when it came to saving the Earth. Stark may not have travelled back in time, but I’ve followed the Avengers for a while. He – you – have done remarkable things. Their attitude is off-putting.”
“It’s always been like this,” Tony said slowly, trying to get his thoughts in order. “I thought… I don’t know. That we could be a team. I even had rooms built for them after the Battle of New York.” He flushed a little, having never admitted that to anyone outside of Pepper or Rhodey. “But they didn’t seem interested, so I didn’t push it. I guess they became a team without me.” He paused, then added, “Barnes didn’t help the situation. I only learned after it was too late that Steve has zero objectivity when Barnes is involved.”
“That’s a story I would like to hear someday if you’re willing to tell it,” said Strange.
“It’s not a fun story,” Tony told him uncertainly. After the snap, he’d done his best to put aside everything that happened so that he could work with Steve and the others for the sake of the world. It ended up being one of the hardest things he’d ever done. Those first few weeks after he moved to Wakanda had been filled with more nightmares of a shield coming down towards his face than the snap.
Steve had seemed to think that, due to everything they’d lost, Tony had seen the necessity of forgiving and forgetting, and that all was well between them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tony had never forgotten, and he certainly had not forgiven no matter what Steve seemed to think. He might work with Captain America on the field if necessary, but he would never again call Steve Rogers a friend or teammate. It just wasn’t worth it. Not when Tony had never been able to shake the thought that the only reason Steve had paid so much attention to him was because Barnes was gone.
He supposed that since the snap had never happened, Steve would go either one of two ways. Either he’d act like he had no idea why Tony or Stark were upset – which was a tactic Steve had done a lot over the years, Tony knew – or he’d keep up this cool, skeptical act. The part of Tony that was still hurt thought bitterly that it would depend on whether or not Steve wanted something from him.
“I have my own share of not fun stories,” Strange said, drawing Tony’s attention back to him.
“I’ll show you mine and you show me yours?” Tony said with a small, but genuine smile. Strange winked at him and he laughed out loud.
“Do you mind?”
Both of them startled. Tony looked up to see Stark standing there, frowning at them. The hand holding his phone dangled loosely at his side, which Tony took to mean that Pepper hadn’t answered. She had to be in a meeting of some kind, as otherwise she would’ve been waiting for Stark’s call. Tony squashed the flicker of sadness that ran through him – he’d never gotten to call his own Pepper – and cleared his throat.
“Don’t mind at all. I wanted to talk to you,” he said.
Stark frowned, instantly suspicious. “Why? About what?”
Tony squeezed Strange’s arm and let go, hoping Strange would take the hint. He was pleased when Strange did, silently continuing down the long hall – just far enough that he was out of immediate earshot, but not so far that Tony couldn’t see him. It was more comforting than it should have been to know that Strange was within easy reach. He turned back to Stark rather than ponder that.
“I know you’re pissed off that I didn’t come see you when I came back in time. You’ve probably taken it as a sign that I don’t trust you. That’s stupid. I am you in all the ways that count. It was just easier to go to someone who didn’t know me, us. Strange is familiar with magic; I didn’t have to waste time trying to convince him that I really had traveled back in time,” Tony explained quickly. He wasn’t sure how much longer dinner would last, and Peter would probably come find Stark as soon as he was done.
“I would’ve believed you,” Stark said indignantly, and Tony snorted.
“Yeah, after two dozen tests and a lot of paranoia about whether I was a Maximoff-induced hallucination,” Tony said. They both shuddered at the same time, looking away from each other.
“You still should’ve told me,” Stark said after a moment. “Given me a heads up.”
“There just wasn’t time, and you would’ve asked questions I didn’t want to answer.”
“Like?” Stark looked directly at him with a silent challenge.
Tony met his gaze evenly. “We lost Peter. He faded away in my arms. He begged me to save him,” he said, wondering if the raw pain he still felt was audible in his voice. He didn’t think he’d ever get over that. It had left him terribly aware of just how fragile all life was, and how tragically short it could be, and how painful it could be to lose someone you loved. And even though they’d stopped Thanos, it was a memory that would always haunt him.
Stark inhaled sharply, paling a little. “Really?”
“Yes. Pepper too. She was long gone by the time I got back to Earth. I never got the chance to tell her that I was sorry.” Tony’s chest was growing tight. He had to force himself to breathe through it. He couldn’t even express what he’d wanted to apologize to Pepper for; there were just so many things, and he thought that Stark might already know them all.
“Who else?” Stark whispered.
“Fury and Maria Hill. T’Challa. That almost killed Shuri. Wilson. Barnes,” Tony said, and Stark looked at him sharply. “Vision. Maximoff. It was kind of nice living in a world where I didn’t have to worry about her.”
Stark snorted at that. “Yeah, I bet.” He uncrossed his arms and sighed. “What’s with the cape?”
Tony blinked, looking down at the cape. It fluttered against him. “It was Strange’s,” he said.
“Well obviously. Why do you have it?”
There was no adequate answer to that. Tony looked away, his eyes automatically tracking and finding Strange. He couldn’t describe the comfort the cape’s presence had given him during those long months. He didn’t think Stark would understand – or maybe Stark would understand a little too well. Either way, it wasn’t something Tony was prepared to go into right now.
So he just said, “It needed a home, and I was the closest person.”
Stark didn’t look convinced, but he appeared willing to let it go because all he said was, “And now you’re stuck here.”
“I guess I am,” Tony said with a shrug.
“Rhodey?” Stark asked.
“He survived, but his family didn’t,” Tony said quietly. Rhodey had struggled with that big time.
“Fucking hell.” Stark sighed loudly and ran both hands through his hair, looking as tired as Tony felt. “Okay, fine. I don’t like it, but I get why you went to an impartial third party. At least you didn’t come to Rogers and the other ex-Avengers.”
“God no,” Tony said. “We’d still be arguing over whether they can trust a single word that comes out of my mouth.”
“I guess some things never change,” Stark said bitterly. “You’re coming back to New York, then.”
“I am. I’m not staying here. I don’t think T’Challa would welcome me,” Tony admitted. The King’s pride had taken a serious blow tonight, and relations between Stark and T’Challa hadn’t been ideal to begin with. He was pretty sure that any Stark was now on T’Challa’s bad side.
Stark hesitated for a few seconds, then awkwardly said, “You could come to the tower?”
Touched, knowing that the offer was genuine, Tony shook his head. “Strange said I could go back with him for a while. I’m still – I need to get my bearings. Being somewhere that’s not where I was after the snap… it helps.” He thought that probably sounded weird and dumb, but at least Stark nodded like it made sense.
“Fine. This is – ” He stopped himself and laughed a little, shaking his head. “Fuck. I’ll give you a credit card. Linked to my account. You’re me, right? It’s your money too. Or it would’ve been.”
“Thank you,” Tony said, surprised in spite of himself. “I’d appreciate that.” Perhaps this was what Pepper and Rhodey meant when they said that sometimes Tony could be unfailingly generous. He’d never really seen it before, but this was definitely an offer that Stark didn’t have to make. Tony hadn’t even thought about money yet, but of course Strange couldn’t be expected to support him.
Stark waved a hand. “Don’t mention it. We’ve got plenty of money. More than even two Tony Stark’s could spend. Or two Iron Men?” He looked curiously at Tony, who shrugged.
“I’m probably not giving up the suit anytime soon. Oh, er…” Tony touched the arc reactor. His suit flowed over him. Down the hall, Strange turned quickly. Tony waved him off as the helmet coalesced and the HUD came alive. He carefully removed the helmet and held it out to Stark, who was giving him a very intense look.
“What are you doing?” he asked warily.
“Just put it on,” Tony ordered. He watched as Stark obeyed, the helmet obscuring his frown. He could tell the moment that JARVIS began to talk; Stark went stiff all over. He didn’t speak, just listening, but when he took the helmet off a couple minutes later his eyes were wet.
“JARVIS,” he whispered.
“Vision didn’t die in the snap. The mind stone was taken. What was left of JARVIS’s code remained,” Tony said, stepping closer so he could lay a fond hand on the helmet. He would die before he would lose JARVIS again. “I harvested it and combined it with all the scraps I could find in my own private servers. It took a while, and the armor is his only source of power right now, but it worked. He’s been helping me pilot the suit.”
There was something hungry in Stark’s eyes as he clutched the helmet. “I still have his old servers.”
“We could share,” Tony allowed. “Or JARVIS can help you fill in the missing gaps for your own JARVIS.” Part of him wanted to squirrel JARVIS away like something precious, but he wasn’t that selfish. He couldn’t be. Not with something that mattered so much.
Stark just nodded. He seemed speechless.
Tony said, “I’d like to go home tomorrow. If we could hitch a ride in your jet.”
That jolted Stark out of it. “Of course. Peter’s aunt will be looking for him –” He paused, seeing Tony’s wince. “What?”
“May survived when Peter didn’t,” Tony explained. That had been one very devastating conversation. “She… she blamed me.”
“Of course she did,” Stark muttered, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “Can’t blame her.”
“No, I didn’t, either. All the same… the sooner Peter can see her, the better,” Tony said quietly. Thank god this was a world where May Parker would never have to break down because she’d lost her nephew. He took the helmet back and released the suit, suddenly feeling unspeakably exhausted.
Stark’s fingers opened and closed around empty air, then he sighed. “I’ll get the kid. Early start.”
“We’ll be there,” Tony said, stepping past Stark. He walked down the hall to Strange and was immeasurably pleased when Strange lifted an arm, letting Tony slide under it.
Dawn broke early in Wakanda. Stephen woke with the sun, sitting up and glancing around the unfamiliar room. His heart was thumping and his eyes felt gritty. Despite how tired he’d been, he hadn’t slept well. Between nightmares and waking up to make sure that Tony was still in the room with him, he figured he’d only gotten about four hours of sleep. He looked forward to the moment when he could retire to his own bed.
He glanced over at the other bed and saw that Tony was curled up, wrapped around a pillow. Both cloaks were draped over him. One shifted, sensing Stephen’s stare, but made no move to leave Tony. The other, the longer of the two that actually belonged to Stephen, fled the bed and flew over to him. It undulated in front of him, the rich fabric rippling as it waved a corner at him. Stephen smiled at it in greeting, pushing the blankets back and standing so that he could stretch.
As anxious as he was to get back to New York, there was one thing that needed to be handled first.
“Come,” he said to the cloak, and it draped itself around his shoulders. Stephen glanced at Tony and then at the door. It was tempting to leave and hope that he could make it back before Tony woke, but he knew that Tony would panic if he woke up alone. That would be needlessly cruel. Sighing, he made his way over to Tony’s bed.
Tony’s cloak woke him before Stephen got there. Tony blinked, eyes heavy with sleep. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I’m going to see the Guardians about the gauntlet,” Stephen told him.
That woke Tony up fast. “Oh god. They didn’t –”
“No. I’m going to get there before anyone gets any bright ideas,” Stephen said.
“I’ll come too.” Tony swayed a little as he stood. In the early morning light, his scrapes and bruises stood out against his pale face. The resulting surge of protectiveness that swarmed through Stephen was both concerning and exasperating. He’d never felt this way about anyone, not even Christine. What was it about Tony that brought out all these previously unknown tendencies? His reputation as a sarcastic, blunt asshole was going to be wrecked if this ever got out.
Yet he couldn’t bring himself to care when he offered Tony his arm again and Tony, with a shy smile, took it, wrapping both hands around Stephen’s elbow and forearm. Stephen preferred that over holding hands with him, mostly because it meant that he didn’t have to worry about Tony noticing the poor shape his hands were in. He’d grown used to their state, but that didn’t mean he liked or was comfortable with them.
They walked down the hall, retracing the steps they’d taken last night. Tony was familiar enough with the palace to be able to lead them outside without having to ask for directions. A part of Stephen was relieved to see that the Milano was still parked where they’d left it; he hadn’t thought about it until this morning, but the Guardians could’ve taken off last night with no one the wiser.
“Friend Tony!” a voice bellowed as they grew nearer to the ship.
Tony stopped short, eyes wide. “Thor?”
A large man leapt down the plank of the ship and strode towards them. He didn’t look like the god of thunder that Stephen remembered. This man had his hair shorn short and was carrying an axe, not a hammer. But Tony’s face split into a welcoming grin, and he released Stephen’s arm to scurry forward. Thor grabbed Tony up in an enormous hug, lifting Tony’s feet clear off the ground. He spun Tony around exuberanty.
“You traveled through time to defeat Thanos!” Thor exclaimed. “How?”
“It’s a long story,” Tony squeaked out. He grunted as Thor set him back down, legs nearly giving out from under him. That brought him onto eye-level view of the axe. “Oh, you’ve got Stormbreaker!”
“You’re familiar with it,” Thor said, cocking his head. “I assumed you wouldn’t be, since they tell me we failed in our mission in your time.”
Tony’s smile faded. “It’s a long story,” he said quietly. “I’ll tell you, but not here. There are too many ears listening.”
Thor gave a grave nod. “I see. Tony, tell me – Loki?”
“I – I don’t know. I’m sorry,” Tony said. He looked distressed when Thor visibly sagged. “If I could’ve saved him, Thor, believe me, I would have. But I could only go back in time so far, and I had no way of contacting you – if I’d known where you were, or had the time –”
“I understand. You did what you could,” Thor murmured, pasting a smile on. “Hello, Strange.”
“You know each other?” Tony asked, quickly backing up and taking Stephen’s arm again. He leaned into Stephen, and Thor’s eyes flicked between them. A knowing look flashed across his face, though it was quickly replaced by a smile as Thor extended a big hand.
“We’ve met briefly,” Stephen said, shaking Thor’s hand.
“You didn’t tell me that,” Tony said.
“It never came up,” Stephen replied with a shrug. Truly, he hadn’t thought there was a need to. Tony’s story had made it clear that Thor would not be partaking in the battle with Thanos. And frankly, Stephen hadn’t thought they’d be here in Wakanda when Thor arrived. Besides, it wasn’t like he and Thor were friends.
Tony frowned at him, then turned back to Thor. “We’re heading back to New York in a few hours,” he explained, indicating himself and Stephen. “We came to deal with the gauntlet.”
“Ah.” Thor’s expression darkened. “There has been talk of using the stones to undo the damage that has been done. As much as I want my brother back, I can’t help thinking that this could easily spell disaster. I hope that’s not what you’re intending.”
“God no,” Tony said. “It’s just the opposite. I’ve been thinking – Wanda might be able to destroy them, but maybe that’s not such a good idea. She could unravel the fabric of time and space and not even know it.” His mouth curled in a bitter smile. “Or care, for that matter. So maybe we should just separate them. Take some of them as far away as possible. At least then it would take the next guy longer to collect them all.”
“Your idea has merit,” Thor said thoughtfully. “Have you put thought into who would be trusted with them?”
“The Time Stone belongs to Strange,” Tony said, squeezing Stephen’s arm.
“You know, you can call me Stephen,” Stephen said.
Tony blinked rapidly, then flushed. “I – uh – okay,” he stuttered. “St-Stephen. The Time Stone belongs to Stephen.”
Thor was looking slightly amused. “And I presume that Vision still has the Mind Stone.”
“You’d be correct. I can take the Soul Stone, or Stark could. We can build sufficient protections around it, both scientific and magical, that would dissuade anyone from stealing it,” Tony replied. “I would suggest we leave one with T’Challa, but I don’t like the idea of four stones staying on Earth. That’s too much temptation and makes Earth too much of a target. So, I think you should take the Reality Stone and the Space Stone, Thor. Keep one with you and take the other one somewhere safe, or take them both away. You should do the same with the gauntlet, for that matter. The Guardians can keep the Power Stone safe.”
“This should also be done quickly,” Stephen added. “Before certain people figure out that the stone are here.”
“I think that’s a sound plan,” Thor said. “I can think of several safe places for an Infinity Stone, and I know someone who would keep a very close eye on the gauntlet. The person who forged it would never allow anyone to touch it.”
“Then take it to him,” Tony said.
“I will. Do you have containers for the stones?” Thor said.
Stephen had been quietly thinking about this for some time. Knowing that the stones couldn’t be touched by human or alien hands without killing, he’d scoured a few of his books for more information on the Eye of Agamotto to figure out how it could contain the power of an Infinity Stone. What he’d learned had enabled him to replicate the shields, though not the Eye itself. He gently loosened Tony’s grip on his arm and lifted his hands, producing four round balls about the size of a baseball.
“These will contain the stones,” he said. “Given time, I can make them better. This was the best I could on short notice.”
Thor snagged one of the balls and gave it a squeeze. His eyebrows rose when it failed to break. “Very well. Come, let us seal them away before someone uses them.”
“But if we don’t use them, we can’t get Gamora back.”
Tony flinched and twisted to look at the Milano, guilt plastered across his face. Nebula was standing on the plank, her arms folded and her expression a mask of grief. Stephen remained quiet, holding three of the balls in his hands, as Tony crossed the grass towards her. He’d described a friendship with the Nebula of the future, and Stephen suspected it had to be very painful for him right now to not be able to comfort her the way he wanted to.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said, stopping short of ascending the plank. “It’s just not safe.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Nebula spat.
“Actually, it’s not. You didn’t see what they’re capable of. You weren’t there,” Tony snapped. “You use those Infinity Stones right now, you’re gonna be sending out a calling card to every asshole in the universe who’s ever wanted them. As it is, we should’ve locked them up last night. It won’t take long for word to get out that Thanos is gone and they’re up for grabs.”
“It wouldn’t take long. We could do it somewhere else if you’re so concerned about your planet,” she said.
“No, you can’t. Nebula, I’m telling you. Don’t you think I would use them if I could? I lost everything. My family, my friends.” Stephen couldn’t see Tony’s face, but he could hear Tony’s voice shaking. “If I put that gauntlet on, I could bring them all back. But I know how dangerous it is. It would kill me, and you, and anyone else who tried, and possibly destroy the universe while we’re at it. It can’t be done.”
The genuine grief in Tony’s voice seemed to give Nebula pause. She opened her mouth and then closed it without saying anything.
“Gamora is gone. The stones can’t bring her back,” Tony said quietly. “Using the gauntlet to bring her back is not the answer. I wish that it was.”
Nebula’s jaw tightened. A thin shudder ran through her and she turned away. “Do it quickly, before Quill returns. He will not listen to reason.”
“That’s why you’re taking the Power Stone, and not something else,” Tony said. He motioned to Stephen and Thor without looking away from her. “Either you can take it, or you can give it to them. I know – knew – you better than them; I trust your judgment.”
She looked at him, surprised. “You’re a foolish man if that’s true.”
“I’ve been called worse,” Tony whispered.
Stephen and Thor slipped by them. Their conversation died away as Stephen moved deeper into the ship. He found the gauntlet where they’d left it. It looked surprisingly innocuous, sitting on the table, just waiting for someone to slip it on. He suppressed a shudder and forced himself to move closer, eyes landing on the green Time Stone. He reached for the Eye of Agamotto and willed it to open. When it did, he made a beckoning gesture to the stone. It rose up from the gauntlet and shot straight into the Eye, which snapped shut. Having it back where it belonged was a relief.
“If you’ll hold the shields open, I’ll get the rest,” he said to Thor, who silently obliged. One by one, Stephen sealed the stones away until the gauntlet was empty. He took the Soul Stone and the Power Stone from Thor.
“I will take these two and the gauntlet. I may be gone for some time, but please tell Tony that I will seek him out when I return,” Thor said. “We have much to discuss.”
“I’ll tell him,” Stephen said. He followed Thor outside and paused near Tony and Nebula; Thor didn’t even look at them, stalking down the plank with the gauntlet under one arm. His other hand took hold of Stormbreaker. The axe began to crackle with lightening. Thunderclouds gathered swiftly overhead. Thor shoved Stormbreaker into the air and bellowed something in a language Stephen didn’t know; the lightening burst forth and swallowed him up. As Stephen blinked away spots in the next breath, he saw that Thor was gone.
“Always a drama queen,” Tony said faintly.
“He said he’ll come see you when he returns,” Stephen said. He gave Tony the two shields.
“The Power Stone,” Tony said, handing it to Nebula. “Guard it well.”
Her face looked ashen, but she took the shield and held it carefully. “A foolish man,” she said weakly, and then straightened. “I will handle Quill. He will be very upset. He loved Gamora.”
“I’m going back to New York. I know that doesn’t mean much to you since you’re not familiar with Earth, but the people in the castle know where that is. So does Thor. They could lead you there, if you wanted to stay here,” Tony told her. “It’s up to you, but you can think about it.”
Nebula seemed surprised by the offer, but nodded. She didn’t say anything else and Tony apparently took that to mean their conversation was over, as he walked down the plank and began heading back towards the castle. Stephen nodded to Nebula and jogged after him, easily catching up. He wasn’t sure what to say to break the heavy silence until he heard Tony sniffle. Only then did he stop, turning Tony to face him with a gentle hand. Tony stared at the ground rather than meet his eyes.
“Tony,” Stephen said gently. They were too far away for Nebula to hear or see them, but were still in clear view of the palace. He didn’t pull Tony into a hug, even though he wanted to.
“She was my friend,” Tony said, his voice wobbling. “Nebula, I mean. In the future… when Thanos snapped, she and I were left alone on Titan. We had to find our own way back to Earth. And when we did, she helped us consult on the time travel device. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”
“Oh, Tony,” Stephen said. “I’m sorry.”
Tony shook his head. “It’s fine. I knew this would happen. I’m just a stranger to her.” He shook his head and bit his bottom lip, then looked up at Stephen. “Can we go home now? Please?”
“Of course,” Stephen murmured, giving in to the impulse and pulling Tony into a hug. He was pleased when the cloaks wrapped around them, shielding Tony from view just like they had before. “We’ll go find Stark now and ask him if he’s ready to go.”
“Okay,” Tony whispered, and Stephen heard a muffled sob. He hugged Tony tighter; the sooner he could get Tony out of here and away from Wakanda and the Avengers and the Guardians, the better off they’d be.
Tony had no interest in saying goodbye to anyone in Wakanda, not even Bruce. In a way, he was relieved to be leaving without having to face anyone again – he had no desire to face the third degree again. Because he couldn’t help thinking that, now that people had had the time to absorb and really think about what he and Strange had said last night, he would’ve been hounded with questions that he couldn’t or didn’t want to answer.
So he slunk quietly up the plank of Stark’s jet behind Strange – no, Stephen. And hadn’t that been a surprise! Tony wasn’t used to thinking of the doctor as Stephen, and he wasn’t sure what it meant that Stephen had corrected him. It could mean something, but there was also a good possibility that it didn’t mean anything. Stephen hadn’t treated him any differently after they got back to their room. He’d just disappeared into the bathroom to take a quick shower, leaving the door open. That Tony had stood just outside the bathroom door regardless, listening, was a secret he’d take to his grave.
“Hey, Mr. Stark!” Peter said excitedly as Tony stepped fully into the jet. Tony stopped short and blinked at him in surprise. For some reason, he hadn’t expected to see Peter here. But of course he was; there was no way that Stark would’ve left without him.
“Hi Peter,” Tony said softly. “You, uh, you can call me Tony. To keep it from getting confusing.”
“Tony,” Peter parroted obediently, eyes shining with glee.
Tony tried to smile at him and probably failed. The cape, sensing his emotions, wound around him tightly. He stroked it in thanks, looking away from Peter and out the window as the jet rumbled to life beneath his feet. Stephen touched his arm, guiding him to a seat for take-off. Tony sat obediently, pulling the belt over his hips and taking a deep breath. He tapped at the arc reactor, trying to calm himself.
The last time Tony had seen this jet was before Thanos had gotten his hands on the Infinity Stones. He and Pepper had taken a business trip to Canada; they’d only just returned to New York when Bruce fell out of the sky. They were supposed to be take another, quick trip to Malibu. Since Tony was going to space, Pepper went by herself instead. He’d been relieved at the time, since it meant she was out of New York and therefore out of what he thought was the line of destruction.
What Tony hadn’t realized at the time was that Pepper would be on the jet at the exact moment that Thanos wrenched the Mind Stone out of Vision’s head and set it into the gauntlet. By the time Tony made it back to Earth, the jet had long since been destroyed in a fiery crash. The pilot who’d been flying it was one of the ones who’d been disintegrated in the Snap, and the jet had gone straight down – taking Pepper with it.
His stomach clenched at the memory. Pepper had been just one of many who’d died as a result of the Snap. Things had been such a goddamn mess that it had taken Tony a couple of days to figure out where and how she’d died. He still didn’t know to this day whether Pepper had been disintegrated or whether she’d died in the crash. He’d prayed that her death had been quick and painless, but his biggest fear was that Pepper had died alone and afraid because he hadn’t been there for her.
But that wasn’t going to happen this time. Pepper was safe in New York and Tony was sitting here on the very jet she’d died on and Thanos was dead, so obviously history wasn’t going to repeat itself. He still couldn’t bring himself to breathe easy until they were in the air. Only then did he look around, seeing that Peter was staring out the window with obvious excitement.
Stephen, on the other hand, was watching Tony. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Tony whispered. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about in front of Peter or anyone else. He could tell that Stephen wasn’t convinced, but that he knew better than to press Tony right now. Tony was, if nothing else, incredibly grateful for Stephen Strange.
“So Tony,” Peter said, and it was evident he was trying so hard to be calm about the use of Tony’s first name, “what was it like to travel through time? Did it hurt?”
Tony blinked at him, surprised. “Er, it wasn’t pleasant. My device exploded when I landed here. Left me with a burn.” He showed off his wrist. “And I was pretty disoriented. It’s a good thing I landed in New York, actually. I’m not sure I would’ve been capable of navigating somewhere I wasn’t already familiar with.”
Of course, part of the problem had been the lack of food and sleep. But Tony wasn’t going to bring that up. He was too busy enjoying the way that Peter’s eyes had started to gleam. He was fully expecting the barrage of questions that were promptly fired at him, but there was a difference between Peter and T’Challa and the ex-Avengers. Their questions had been asked with deliberate intent to replicate what Tony had done if at all possible. Peter’s questions were born from pure, scientific curiosity. There was no malice or challenge behind them, just an innocent drive to know and learn.
Tony answered as many questions about the science behind it as he could, but he shook his head when Peter’s questions started delving into magical territory. “Sorry, kid. Jane Foster was in charge of the magical side of things. I helped her gather the information, but Jane was really the one with a working knowledge of what was going on. I tried to stay out of that side of it.”
Peter cocked his head. “That’s fair. I know you don’t like magic.”
“Actually, I’m warming to it,” Tony admitted without thinking, then forbade himself from blushing when Stephen’s eyes snapped towards him.
“Really?” Peter said.
“Really?” echoed a second voice. Stark pulled the door to the cockpit open and peered out, raising a judgmental eyebrow. Tony frowned at him. He could appreciate Stark’s disbelief in a way. Everyone knew that Tony Stark hated magic.
And for a long time, particularly following the Snap, Tony really had hated magic. But his attitude had changed a little after spending time with his cape and helping Jane to gather what they needed for the time travel device, and it had changed even more after meeting Stephen. Magic, Tony was discovering, was only as good or as bad as the person who was using or manipulating it. Much like those who abused science, it was more apt to hate the people behind it as opposed to magic itself.
So he hated people like Wanda, who had never used her magic for good, or Loki, who’d used his magic to try and conquer the Earth for himself. And he still found magic frustrating because he didn’t fully understand the rules governing it, but being around Stephen was helping with that. It was true that magic didn’t always obey the laws of science, but that didn’t mean magic could do whatever it wanted: he’d discovered that there were rules and laws. Tony’s experience was just with people who chose to flout those rules.
But what it truly came down to was that it was hard to hate magic when magic was part of what had brought him back in time to save so many people. Magic had brought him the cape, which had kept him sane for months when he would’ve otherwise lost it. Magic had brought him to Stephen.
“Yes really,” Tony said, deciding that he owed no one an explanation.
“I never thought I’d hear the day when Tony Stark admitted that,” another familiar voice said. The door to the cockpit opened fully and Rhodey poked his head out.
Tony’s heart stopped. His voice cracked when he said, “I guess that’s what happens when a scientist comes across new data.”
Rhodey grinned. “Hell yeah. I’m not sure the world is ready for two of you, but I sure am.” He emerged fully, ducking around Stark, and crossed the distance between them. His stride was smooth and easy, which meant the bracers were doing their job. But what really caught Tony’s attention was the force of his smile. This Rhodey had never lost his family to Thanos, so there was none of the residual grief in his face that Tony was used to.
He squeaked when Rhodey hauled him in for a hug, unprepared for the sheer force of the hug. He’d still gotten Rhodey hugs in the old timeline, of course, but maybe he’d underestimated how far gone Rhodey had been. It was a hug that actually made Tony’s feet leave the ground by a few centimeters, not that he would ever share that with his friend. He’d had enough short jokes to last a lifetime.
He found himself staring over Rhodey’s shoulder at Stark and, for a moment, Tony hesitated. Technically this wasn’t his Rhodey. He didn’t want to step on any toes; Tony’d had more than enough of fighting for a whole lifetime, and going forward things were going to be much easier if he was working with Stark instead of against him. But Stark just nodded once, mouth set, and Tony took that as permission to bring his own arms up and hug Rhodey back. If anything, Rhodey held him tighter at that.
“You’re an idiot,” Rhodey said in a low voice, meant for Tony alone. “What were you thinking? That time travel device could’ve killed you.”
“It was worth it,” Tony said. By that point, he hadn’t really cared if he died. Most people had figured out how to pick up and move on. Tony hadn’t even tried. Had the device not worked, he didn’t know what he would’ve done. Started trying to figure out how to find Thanos, probably.
“I disagree personally, but in terms of the whole world…” Rhodey pulled back, setting his hands on Tony’s shoulders. “You saved the whole galaxy, man.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Tony replied, trying for a smile. This was giving him hope. Hope that maybe he wouldn’t have to figure out how to navigate life without Rhodey after all. That would be much more manageable.
“Let’s make it the last time, okay?” Rhodey said, rolling his eyes. “My heart can’t take it.”
Stark snorted at that. “Your heart is fine. We’re,” he gestured between himself and Tony, “the ones with heart problems, remember?”
“Oh god,” Rhodey said with dawning horror. “Now there’s two of you to worry about. What have I done?”
Unexpectedly, Peter piped up. “That’s been then the alternative, Mr. Rhodes. Now there’s two of them to fuss over me.”
“I do not fuss!” Stark sputtered.
Actually, they probably kind of did. Tony wasn’t about to admit that, though. “I’m with him.”
“And now they’re agreeing with each other.” Rhodey looked heavenward, as though praying for guidance.
“Yeah, Pep’s gonna have a cow,” Stark said.
“Gonna? You mean you didn’t tell her yet?” Tony said.
Stark grinned. “I thought I’d surprise her.”
“She’s going to kill you. And me. Us,” Tony said, cringing. He stepped away from Rhodey and sank down into his seat, not as upset as he was pretending to be. He’d actually missed being reamed out by Pepper.
“Your sorcerer will protect you,” Rhodey said, casting a thoughtful glance at Stephen.
Stephen just raised his eyebrows and drawled, “Based on what I’ve seen of Pepper Potts, I am not foolish enough to get in her way.”
“Can’t argue that,” Rhodey said, and shrugged as he took a seat beside Peter. “So, come on. Let’s hear the details you didn’t want to tell anyone else. Exactly how hard did you hit Thanos?”
Tony smiled. The rest of their trip was spent rehashing the fight, with Stephen, Peter and Stark chiming in to add extra details that Tony had either missed or glossed over. Rhodey was thoroughly delighted to hear about the moment Thanos was beheaded. It did make for a good story, Tony had to admit. He also, after Rhodey asked, told them about the battle the first time around, and how Thanos had won.
It was on that cheerful note that the jet descended, landing on a private airstrip just outside New York city. Tony glanced out the window again and his throat closed up when he saw a familiar head of red hair waiting out on the tarmac. Pepper. He hadn’t seen her in so long. Rhodey’s job with the military meant long stretches of time when Tony couldn’t see or speak to him, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone longer than a week without talking to Pepper.
“Let me go first,” Stark said to him.
“Fine by me,” Tony said. He watched as Stark, Rhodey and Peter got out off the jet.
“You added less details this time,” Stephen said.
“You didn’t tell them everything about Thanos.”
Tony shrugged, fiddling with the cape. “Some details are better left forgotten,” he said softly. “Besides, I had to tell you every little thing I could think of because you don’t know what might change things. They didn’t need to know that Nebula and I were stuck on Titan for three days afterwards, or that Thanos stabbed me.”
Stephen was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “Omitting that last fact was probably wise. Your friend is protective of you.”
“Right?” Tony nodded, sitting up.
The shriek from outside immediately made him collapse back down. “I don’t suppose you could open a portal for me.”
A small smile tugged at Stephen’s lips. “And delay the inevitable?”
“You just wanted to see me get murdered,” Tony muttered, hearing the tell-tale sound of heels on the steps. Tony looked at the door, dreading what was about to happen next, and stood.
But Pepper surprised him. She walked in and came straight over to him. “Tony?”
“Yeah, Pep. It’s me.”
“Oh my god,” Pepper breathed. She threw her arms around him. “Oh, Tony.”
Tony was left blinking for a few seconds in surprise before he carefully hugged her back. Her perfume and shampoo enveloped him and he inhaled deeply, realizing all over again how much he’d missed her. Over her head, he saw Stephen watching them with a strange look. When Stephen realized Tony was watching him, he quickly walked to the door and went outside.
“I can’t believe there’s two of you,” Pepper said.
“More of me to love,” Tony quipped. The humor of it fell flat, as Pepper leaned back and cupped his face with her hands.
“More of you two worry about,” she corrected.
Tony smiled at that. “Technically the only one you have to worry about is him.” He nodded in the direction of the door.
“Please. Regardless of whether you’re six months older, you’re both Tony Stark and that means I care about you equally,” Pepper informed him. She took a step back and let out her breath in a slow sigh, looking him up and down. “We… we have some things to figure out.”
“I know.” Tony wanted to apologize, but held his tongue. He wasn’t sorry, and he never would be.
Pepper shook her head. “We’ll work it out. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“I think a lot of people will disagree.”
“We’ll deal with them too.” Pepper’s eyes narrowed, and Tony knew she was already thinking of ways to spin this to the public. He smiled again; how could he have thought he could do this without his friends?
“Okay,” Pepper said. “Okay.” It was the third time she’d said that, yet Tony didn’t feel brave enough to point that out to her. He watched her pace back and forth, her heels making soft clicking sounds against the jet’s floor. Her expression was furrowed with concentration. She alternated between peering over at him and staring down at her phone.
“You don’t have to come up with a solution right now,” Tony pointed out. “This was kind of thrown into your lap and you have a zillion other things to be worried about.”
Pepper blinked at him. “Wait, a Tony Stark who acknowledges that he’s not the center of my world? Are you from the future or a parallel universe?”
Tony smiled grimly. “In the future, you died,” he said, as gently as he could. Pepper visibly recoiled. “I know exactly how much you have to do, Pep, because all of it got dumped on my shoulders after you were gone. I was trying to do the job of five people. I don’t know how you manage, but the last thing I want to do is put more stress on your shoulders. I’ll be fine without identification for a while, really.”
“Oh, Tony.” A look of compassion on her face, Pepper moved to stand in front of him. “I can’t imagine how hard that was for you.”
“It was horrible,” he admitted. “I’ve never felt so lost.” He looked up at her beautiful, familiar face and felt a pang of wistfulness. He loved her so much, but not like that. Not anymore. He’d grieved for that love when he laid his Pepper to rest six months ago. Maybe if she’d survived, things would’ve been different. They might have gotten back together and maybe even gotten married. They might’ve figured out how to make things work.
But that hadn’t happened, and it wouldn’t happen now. At least not between the two of them. Tony had been through too much; he couldn’t ask Pepper to accept or try to understand the fundamental differences between him and Stark. That wasn’t fair to her. Maybe Stark and Pepper would have a better chance, Tony didn’t know. He kind of hoped they would, if only so that he could see some Stark-Potts kids running around. They wouldn’t be his, but it would be the next best thing.
“I’ll work on it,” Pepper said, touching his face gently. “I have some contacts. You’ll probably have to take a different name legally, but you have some time to think about it.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” Tony promised, pressing an absent kiss to her hand. The cape moved around him and Pepper took a sudden step back.
“What the -?!”
“Oh, this is the Cloak of Levitation,” Tony said. He stood and let the cape slip from his shoulders. It hovered beside him and bowed to Pepper, whose eyes were the size of marbles.
“Did you make this?” she asked, looking awed.
Tony laughed. “Oh god no. It’s a magical artefact. It belonged to Dr. Stephen Strange, actually. That guy you saw with me? In the future, it was left behind after he disintegrated from the Snap.” He reached out to touch the cape, lightly running his fingers down the length of the fabric. “It got attached to me.”
“What does it do?” Pepper asked.
It acted as a security blanket, basically. Tony smiled at her. “It makes me look cool, of course.”
“Of course,” Pepper said, rolling her eyes, but she couldn’t hide the smile tugging at her lips.
“It ended up coming back in time with me. Stephen’s already got one, so I guess this one stays mine,” Tony added, and thank goodness for that. He would’ve been hard-pressed to give up the cake if Stephen had insisted on taking it back for some reason.
“Stephen, huh?” Pepper said.
“What? He’s an associate,” Tony said.
Pepper raised her eyebrows. “An associate who makes you smile like that?”
“What smile? I’m not smiling,” he said quickly.
“And who you’re going home with?” she continued, ignoring him.
“He offered out of professional courtesy!” Tony exclaimed. Actually, he wasn’t wholly sure why Stephen had offered up the Sanctum. He was too grateful for the offer to bother asking. The Sanctum was the only place where he felt safe and comfortable right now and Tony couldn’t think of anywhere he’d rather be. With time, that might change – but he wasn’t sure his desire to be around Stephen would ever go away.
But he wasn’t about to admit that to Pepper.
She looked at him knowingly. “Okay, Tony. Whatever you need to tell yourself.”
“Okay, Tony.” She was laughing now, and it was such a good sound. Tony smiled helplessly as she patted his shoulder, then jumped when the cape slapped her hand away.
They both stared at it. The cape just hovered there, silent and stubborn. Tony got the strangest feeling that, if the cape had arms, they would’ve been crossed.
“What - what the hell – what was that?!” Tony sputtered finally. “Pep, I’m so sorry. It’s never done that before.”
“Didn’t you say this was Strange’s?” Pepper said after a moment.
She smiled again. “No reason. Come on. We’ve been in here for almost forty-five minutes. I’ll be lucky if Tony hasn’t abandoned me to go get cheeseburgers.”
“Right,” Tony said. He didn’t think that was likely. He frowned at the cape as it flew back to him and resettled around his shoulders. He’d have to ask Stephen if it was common for the cape to do things like that, or if that was a sign there was something wrong with it.
He descended the plank behind Pepper and found that his suspicion had been entirely correct. There was no sign of Peter or Stephen, but Stark and Rhodey were both sprawled out on couches just inside the airport building. Stark jumped up the instant that Pepper made her appearance, walking quickly over to her and wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Rhodey rolled his eyes at them.
“Peter left,” Stark said, speaking more to Pepper than anyone else. “His aunt was freaking out.”
“I’m not surprised,” Tony said softly. They’d been out of New York for more than two days, and Peter would’ve been completely out of contact while they were in space. That, plus the footage that would’ve been broadcast of the alien invasion, would’ve given anyone cause to freak out.
“Do you mind if I tag along with you guys?” Rhodey said, sitting up. “By which I mean, tell me now if you’re going to spend the drive back make googly eyes at each other. And especially tell me now if you’re going to get frisky.” He pretended to shudder. “I’ve seen enough of that to last me a lifetime, and I’d rather take a cab back.”
“That’s not going to happen!” Pepper said, blushing faintly.
“Right,” Rhodey said skeptically. “That’s… not super convincing, Pep.”
Watching Pepper and Stark stutter and avoid looking at each other was amusing, but Tony found himself distracted. He looked around the small room as though Stephen might suddenly materialize, but there was no sign of him. He wanted to ask if Stephen had left already, but couldn’t bring himself to for fear the answer might come back as yes. If Stephen had left without him, that meant –
Well, Tony didn’t know exactly what it meant. But he knew enough to know that it couldn’t be good. His stomach clenched around a fresh wave of panic as he realized that this was the first time he’d been out of sight of Stephen since he’d come back from the future. When he was on the jet talking to Pepper, it hadn’t seemed so bad. He’d known – thought – that Stephen was just outside, giving them some privacy.
But maybe Stephen had changed his mind about Tony coming to the Sanctuary. Maybe he’d decided that he was better off without Tony, and that Tony could make do with Stark, Pepper and Rhodey. Maybe he’d thought that Tony should go to the tower instead. He couldn’t have known that just the thought of going to the tower made a cold sweat break out over Tony’s body. He wasn’t ready for that yet.
He must’ve made some kind of sound, because Rhodey turned towards him. “Tony? You okay?”
“Fine,” Tony said, or tried to say. The future was just gaping open before him like a gigantic empty chasm, and there was nothing tethering him to the ground. His breathing grew short.
“Tony, hey,” Rhodey said, expression changing to concern.
Tony waved him off, gritting his teeth. “It’s nothing, I –” His excuse died unvoiced as the far door opened and Stephen walked in. Pepper, Rhodey and Stark fell away as Stephen took in the scene, a frown crossing his face. Tony had never been so grateful to see someone in his life.
“Right,” Rhodey said slowly. “We’ll just – come on, outside.” He ushered Pepper and Stark out, looking back and forth between Tony and Stephen the whole way.
“Are you okay?” Stephen asked when they were alone. “You’re very pale.”
“I’m good,” Tony lied, panic still making his heart thump too fast. “I just… thought you might’ve left.”
“I was considering it,” Stephen admitted, and Tony winced. Stephen didn’t seem to notice, adding, “I wasn’t sure if you’d want to come back to the Sanctum with me now that you know your friends are willing to help you out. Ms. Potts would be able to help you out far more than I could.”
“It’s not an either/or,” Tony said. “I can go with you and still have her help. Unless… if you want to rescind your offer, I understand.”
Stephen looked at him. “You will always be welcome at the Sanctum, Tony,” he said simply, as though the words didn’t punch Tony in the stomach like a blow. He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. “Forgive me; I know it’s none of my business. But we used to move in similar social circles, and I’ve followed the Avengers on the news for a while. I know you and Ms. Potts were dating, and that you missed her very much after she died. I thought that you might want the time to get back together with her.”
Tony was at once touched and frustrated. He shook his head. “No. It’s never going to happen between me and Pepper.”
“Really?” Strange looked surprised and… pleased? That couldn’t be right.
Flustered, Tony dropped his gaze. “Yes, really. I may look like Stark, but I’m not him. Not to discount what we’ve been through, but I’ve gone through a lot more than he has. When I look at him, it’s like looking at a stranger in a way. Plus, I love Pepper, but I’m not in love with her anymore. And even if I was, it wouldn’t work.” He paused, then added, “Also, I don’t think I could do that to Stark.”
“I see,” Stephen said slowly. “But I would understand if you want to go with them. They’re your friends, and you lost them.”
“I did, but I know they’re there. I’d rather go with you,” Tony said, forcing himself to look Stephen square in the eyes. He didn’t want to spend another twenty minutes dancing around the obvious. He was tired, and he wanted to go home and sleep for a while.
Stephen smiled. It made his eyes light up, the tired lines vanishing, as he offered his arm just the way he had when they were in Wakanda, and this time Tony’s heart fluttered for an entirely different reason. He couldn’t tell if Stephen had been jealous of Pepper, or if his motivations were pure and he was just being considerate. Or maybe it was both, though Tony probably wasn’t that lucky.
He stepped forward and took Stephen’s arm, at once feeling more relaxed. Stephen opened the door and they stepped through. The chilly New York evening air made him shiver, and he was grateful for both the cape around his shoulders and Stephen’s presence at his side. Stark, Pepper and Rhodey all looked back when the door opened, so Tony was in a perfect position to see the smirk on Rhodey’s and Pepper’s faces and the thoughtful look on Stark’s. But he pretended not to notice, because his friends could be merciless sometimes.
“I take it you won’t be helping me to keep the flirting between these two down to a bare minimum,” Rhodey drawled.
“Sorry, Honey-bear, you’ll have to take care of that yourself,” Tony said with a smile. “I, uh, don’t have a cell phone, but –”
“You can call mine,” Stephen said, drawing a business card out of his pocket. He passed it off to Pepper, who took it with a nod. Tony wondered what it said. Dr. Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme? What kind of tagline would you even use?
“We’ll overnight you a phone and a credit card,” Pepper said. “I can’t imagine a Tony Stark who goes without technology for long.”
Tony smiled at that. “I have my ways,” he said, tapping the reactor. Even with limited processing power, JARVIS could get pretty much anywhere. Tony was looking forward to letting JARVIS sink his teeth back into SHIELD. FRIDAY had done her best, and Tony gave her kudos for that, but JARVIS was intimately familiar with SHIELD’s lame firewalls and servers.
“You guys need a ride?” Stark asked.
“We have one,” Stephen said, lifting his hands. Tony didn’t think he’d ever get tired of watching him use magic. Stephen’s fingers were so graceful, effortlessly flowing from one complicated movement to the next without pause. The portal swelled open before them, showing the main hall of the Sanctum. Pepper’s and Rhodey’s eyes boggled, whereas Stark merely tipped his head; he’d seen the portals before.
“Catch you later,” Tony said with a wink, moving forward at the same time that Stephen did. They stepped through the portal together. Tony turned, catching one last sight of his astonished friends, before the portal closed and he was left only the faint smell of smoke to know it had ever been there.
Antonio Edwin Stark.
Tony stared down at the driver’s license, his heart in his throat. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when the courier had delivered the package from Pepper Potts. She’d made good on her word to overnight him a credit card and a new phone, but that had been nearly a week ago and Tony hadn’t heard much from her in the meantime. This package had come out of the blue.
She’d told him he could think about new identity, but honestly Tony hadn’t put any thought into it whatsoever. Apparently Pepper had. He touched a finger that shook to the name, tracing the small letters. It was perfect. He’d never liked the name Anthony, but Maria used to call him ‘her little Antonio’ all the time. And Edwin, of course, came from Jarvis’s first name. It was an ideal replacement for the name Edward, which had been the first name of Tony’s paternal grandfather.
Antonio Edwin Stark. It worked.
He immediately pulled out his phone. It had come pre-programmed with numerous familiar contacts. In fact, Tony was pretty sure that Stark had copied everything on his own phone onto this one before allowing Pepper to send it. He was grateful for their foresight. Tony had never been someone to memorize numbers. Some of them, like Rogers, Tony had no use for, but he’d talked to Rhodey every day. He selected Pepper’s number.
“Hello?” Pepper said.
“Hi Pep,” Tony said, smiling at the sound of her voice.
“You got the package,” Pepper said instantly. “Do you like it?”
“I love it. I couldn’t have come up with any better myself if I tried.”
“I wish that I could say it was my idea, but really it was Tony’s,” Pepper replied. “We both felt that sticking to something as close to what you’re used to as possible would work the best. You’ll probably have to be called Antonio publicly, though.”
“That’s fine,” Tony said, shifting through the rest of the box. He found a passport and birth certificate, as well as several other documents.
“Are you sure?” Pepper pressed.
“Yes, Pep, I’m sure,” Tony said. He hadn’t told her as much yet, but he had zero interest in stepping back out into the public spotlight. Did he want to be Iron Man still? Hell yes. Did he want to take back Stark Industries? Hell no. He was perfectly content working behind the scenes this time around. The insane curiosity and attention when his presence was eventually revealed was going to be bad enough.
Besides, that meant he and Stark wouldn’t be running in the same circles and that was fine with him. Tony was content for the time being to stay here at the sanctum with Wong and Stephen. Stark seemed like he was trying to put the Avengers Initiative back together, so at some point Tony was pretty sure Stark would come calling for him and Stephen. But until that happened, Tony was content to take a break. After work nonstop for over six months, his body was in desperate need of a break. Doctor’s orders.
Pepper sounded a little doubtful when she said, “Okay. If you change your mind, I ask that you tell me before doing anything stupid.”
“I’m wounded by your lack of belief in me. I really am.”
She snorted. “No, you’re not.”
“No, I’m not,” Tony agreed, grinning with delight at the playful note in her voice. This friendly, affectionate Pepper was worth more to him than any romantic venture had ever been.
“Did you see your birth certificate?” Pepper asked.
“Yeah, I’ve got it here.”
“Are you… okay with it?”
Tony heard the slight hesitation as she asked and understood the reason for it. They’d listed his father as Gregory Stark and Angelica Ricci. He recognized Gregory Stark’s name; Howard had gone on a few rants about his ‘good-for-nothing’ younger brotherc. Apparently, as soon as he turned eighteen, Gregory had walked away from the Stark name never to be seen again. Tony remembered his mother asking, just once, if Howard knew what had happened to his brother. Howard’s subsequent drunken, enraged temper tantrum had insured that Maria never asked again.
After his parents died, Tony had looked into his uncle. He’d been curious about the prospect of another Stark, though he’d made sure that Obadiah Stane hadn’t realized that he was looking. All he’d found was a death certificate, filed about two years before Howard and Maria Stark were killed by the Winter Soldier. The cause of death had been listed as a heart attack. Sometimes, considering how Howard and Maria had truly died, Tony wondered.
“Tony?” Pepper said, and he realized that he’d been quiet for too long.
“I didn’t even know him,” he admitted. “He’s as good a dad as any, and probably the best excuse we have for why Stark and I look identical. But who’s Angelica Ricci?”
“She was Greg Stark’s girlfriend for a period of time,” said Pepper. “FRIDAY looked into it. She has no family and she passed away not long after Greg Stark did. You ended up in an orphanage for several years before leaving when you turned twenty-one. But it took you a long time before you decided to look into the rest of your family.”
“Did it,” Tony murmured, amused. The story was kind of flimsy. No doubt someone, somewhere, would be able to poke holes in it. But it was a story they could stick to. All the conjecture and questions and theories in the world wouldn’t matter so long as Tony, Stark and anyone else who mattered stuck to their cover story.
There was always the possibility that Rogers or one of the others might go public with the truth, but Tony thought that was unlikely. Rogers, Romanov, Barton, Wilson, Lang, Maximoff – they were collectively a lot of things, but stupid wasn’t (usually) one of them. He thought that at least one of them would be able to see that telling the general population that time travel was possible was a superbly dumb idea.
“You weren’t interested in trying to prove yourself,” Pepper said, and Tony could tell she was trying not to laugh. “But after this whole civil war thing happened, and you heard Tony almost died, you reached out.”
Tony cocked his head. That made sense. “And when they see me appear as Iron Man?”
“Tony gave a suit to Rhodey. The New Avengers are hurting for members they can trust. We can make it sound plausible,” Pepper said confidently. “You and Tony may have to change the design of your armors enough to make them different, and you’ll need a different name for marketing purposes. But mostly, I think people will just be jealous that they weren’t picked for a suit instead.”
Tony laughed in spite of himself. “Pepper, are you jealous? Cause we’ll build you a suit.”
“Oh yes, so jealous,” Pepper said, and Tony could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you continued to keep a low profile for a while longer. The more ducks in a row we can have before the news breaks, the better off we’ll be.”
“I can do that. Stephen has this fancy hat that can disguise me if I need to go out,” Tony said. He hadn’t yet. He’d been perfectly content to stay inside for the past five days.
“That does not surprise me in the least,” she said. “You’re making this really easy.”
He raised his eyebrows at his phone. “Considering that all of this got dumped in your lap, that’s gracious.”
“You saved our lives. It’s the least I can do.” Her voice was soft and it made his chest twist. He didn’t want her, or anyone, thinking that he’d come back purely for altruistic reasons when really, he was being selfish. Living in a fractured world was too hard, so he’d elected to fix it so that he wouldn’t have to deal with it. That kind of sentiment wasn’t deserving of any accolades or praise.
“I’m a superhero. It’s what I do,” he said lightly. “How’s Stark? And Rhodey?”
“Both fine. Tony is… well, Tony. I think this whole thing has shaken him up, but he’s been doing good. Better than I expected,” she added thoughtfully.
Perhaps Stark had taken Pepper’s death to heart, even if he hadn’t experienced it directly. Tony smiled. “Do I hear a lovestruck tone?” he asked teasingly.
“W-what? No!” Pepper sputtered.
He laughed. “Come off it, Pep. If you can’t tell me…”
“It’s just weird,” she huffed. “I can barely talk to my own Tony about this kind of stuff, much less a future version of him.”
“Make him talk whether he likes it or not,” Tony advised her. It was the best thing she could do for their relationship. Things had always deteriorated quickest when he and Pepper clammed up, either too busy to talk or for other reasons. He didn’t regret pushing her away when he was dying, but he could see in retrospect how self-destructive that had been. He may not have declined as quickly as he had without the additional stress of losing the people who meant most to him to deal with.
“Easier said than done,” Pepper muttered. “You Stark’s are stubborn as hell.”
“But you love us,” Tony said with an impish grin.
She snorted. “That’s what you think,” she said fondly. “Goodbye.”
“’Bye,” Tony said. The dial tone rang in his ear. He was probably lucky she hadn’t hung up on him.
Movement out of the corner of his eyes caught his attention, and he looked up automatically. After their return to the sanctum, Stephen had offered Tony the bedroom that was directly beside his. He’d claimed that it was because Tony was staying for a while, so should have a permanent room as opposed to a guest room. Privately, Tony figured it was probably Stephen’s way of hinting that he didn’t want to wake up to find any more Stark’s on his bedroom floor. That was fair.
What he hadn’t expected, and which had shocked the hell out of him, was to walk in and find that there was a connecting door between their bedrooms. That was unusual to say the least, and he had yet to figure out whether the rooms had always been like that or whether Stephen had done it on purpose or if the sanctum itself had made the change without anyone else’s interference. Regardless, the most surprising thing of all was that Stephen seemed fine with leaving the door open at all times.
Tony hated to admit it, but it helped. More often than not he jerked awake from nightmares where the time travel device hadn’t worked, or where their plan to stop Thanos had failed. Being able to roll over and look through the door and see Stephen in bed or at his desk was an enormous help in calming down and preventing panic attacks before they really began.
He told himself that it was only because Stephen had died in the future, so their plan had to have worked for him to be alive now. He refused to think about what it might mean that JARVIS and the cape, as much as the cape could, had laughed at him when Tony said that out loud. JARVIS, sarcastic to the end, had also made a pointed comment about Tony’s spectacular history of ignoring the people right in front of him until they either left or threw themselves at him.
Rude. He was surrounded by cruelty.
“Tony?” Stephen stood at the door that connected their rooms, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt. “I’m going to get supper. Would you care to join me?”
It was after seven, so the rush hour commute would be long over. “Sure,” Tony said slowly. This couldn’t be worse than sitting at that dinner table in Wakanda with dozens of angry, skeptical faces staring back at him.
He put the dumb hat on and left the cape sulking, following Stephen down to the front entrance. His skin prickled as he stepped outside into the cool night air, and he immediately realized he should’ve grabbed a coat. He just didn’t think about things like that anymore. The cape had been such a constant in his life, to the point that he’d worn it everywhere in Wakanda, and it was easily warm enough to combat some chilly weather.
“Ready?” Stephen said, extending his arm.
Tony blinked at him, shocked by the offer. But he still took Stephen’s arm, maybe a little too eagerly, and they walked down the front steps together. A couple people looked at them curiously, but with no recognition in their faces. It was kind of nice in a weird way. Now that Tony wasn’t panicking (as much) about being outside in New York, he found that being able to walk down the sidewalk without reporters or fans trailing him was an unexpected treat. He’d never really had this kind of anonymity before.
“Why don’t they know you?” he found himself asking as they walked.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve saved the world at least twice that I know of. Maybe more. Yet no one really knows who Dr. Strange is,” Tony said.
Stephen considered that. “Sometimes fights with magic happen on a different plane that normal people wouldn’t be aware of. It can take months of training to figure out how to sense it, never mind how to access it. And of course, our fight with Thanos took place on Titan. I suppose people could’ve seen me when you and I were fighting with Maw, but that happened so fast. I don’t think the news ‘copters even had a chance to get near us before we were on the spaceship. So they probably didn’t have a chance to see my face.”
“That will change if you join the New Avengers,” Tony pointed out.
“I’m aware. I’ve already experienced a certain amount of notoriety from when I was a surgeon. I may not have had people following me like you did, but there are always journalists who watch doctors like a hawk. Just waiting for us to make a mistake.”
“It’s not the same.”
Stephen nodded. “I know. It’s why I’m thinking very carefully about whether I want to join the Avengers.” He looked away from Tony for a moment, just long enough to guide Tony around a puddle of some unidentifiable substance. “In the end, I probably will. I like Stark. He seems to be working towards putting a good team together. But there’s a glaring lack of magic users, and that presents a serious problem. Magic is only going to become more prevalent, I think. The New Avengers could benefit from having someone with my expertise on the team. Saving the world is worth the loss of anonymity,” he finished.
“I’d believe that more if you didn’t have this handy hat,” Tony said, pointing to his head. “You can go out anytime you want and no one would be the wiser.”
The smirk that spread across Stephen’s face made a swooping sensation rush through Tony’s stomach. It didn’t improve when Stephen winked at him. “Just one of the many benefits of magic. If you’re good, I may show you more.”
“Would you?” Tony asked some time later, and Stephen glanced at him in confusion. They were on their way to one of Stephen’s favorite delis. Tony had to admit that he’d pressed a lot closer than he probably should have when they had passed a boutique that had a crowd of people out front, but he hadn’t freaked out. He considered that a vast improvement.
Tony flexed the fingers of his hand where he held Stephen’s arm, chancing a glance up at the man. He realized that he liked walking through New York arm-in-arm with Stephen Strange. He and Pepper had never gotten the chance to do something so… so simple. The paparazzi would’ve been all over them in a heartbeat. Right now, Tony could put his head on Stephen’s shoulder and no one would give them a second look.
He flushed at himself for that thought. What was he thinking? There was no way he could do that. Stephen had been absurdly kind over the past two weeks, going out of his way to allow Tony liberties that few other people would have afforded him. But something like that, Tony knew, would definitely be crossing a line. They were teammates, if you could even go that far, and nothing more.
“Would I what?” Stephen asked, drawing Tony’s attention back to him.
“Show me how to do magic,” Tony said, trying not to be overly obvious about glancing at Stephen’s hands. Stephen may not have liked his hands, but Tony did. For one thing, they capable of producing amazing feats of magic. But even more than that, as far as Tony was concerned, those hands were capable of coaxing Tony out of a terrifying panic attack. Just one of those hands could tether him to the present when Tony felt like he was falling apart. Those hands had given him a reason to keep going when his whole world had literally been destroyed.
Stephen stared at him. “You would want to learn? Really?”
“Well… maybe. I don’t know if I’d be any good at it.” Tony looked away from the penetrating gaze, focusing on the sidewalk. “I do have a very scientifically inclined mind, or so I’m told. But I’m curious. At the very least, I’d like to see more of what you’re capable of.”
“I’m surprised,” Stephen said slowly. More than that, he sounded intrigued. And when Tony glanced up, it was to see that Stephen was still staring at him like Tony was a new and particularly challenging puzzle that he needed to figure out.
Oh god, that was making bad thoughts flit through Tony’s head. He cleared his throat. “Are you really? You said it yourself, magic is becoming more commonplace. I think we need to understand something to know how to fight it. I never want to be blindsided again if I can help it.”
“You don’t need to be able to use magic to understand it,” Stephen pointed out.
Tony considered that, and nodded. “That’s true. If you don’t want to show me, I get it.” It was only fair for Stephen to be nervous about placing more power in the hands of Tony Stark, of all people. He’d seen what could happen when the wrong kind of people got their hands on magic. Loki and Wanda immediately came to mind, but he was sure there were others.
“That’s not what I meant,” Stephen said. “I just – I know you said you feel differently about magic, but you used to be so vocal about hating it.”
“Guess I’ve changed,” Tony said with a small smile. “I did spend the last six months with a magical cape, you know. It kept me sane. I can’t hate magic now.”
Stephen chuckled at that. “I’m sure the cloak would be very proud of itself if you told it that it was responsible for changing your attitude.”
The cape wasn’t the only thing, Tony didn’t say. His attitude had already changed to some degree, but returning to the past and spending time with Stephen had swayed him the rest of the way. Stephen was the epitome of a sorcerer. He was careful with his magic, yet he wasn’t afraid to circumvent the rules where necessary. Perhaps it was partially due to the oaths he’d taken as a doctor, but, despite having magic, Stephen didn’t think himself above the common man. Tony couldn’t see someone like Wanda waiting in line at the local deli to get supper.
“Yeah, well, I’ll never tell it. I don’t want it getting a swelled head,” Tony explained. “It thinks a lot of itself as it is.”
“Magical artifacts can be like that.” They moved forward a step in the line. “Tony, I would gladly teach you. But I don’t think you’re ready yet. I don’t say that in a negative way, but –” he lowered his voice “ – you’ve just been through something that would traumatize anyone. Magic is best learned with a steady mind and heart. Take it from someone who didn’t feel that way when they learned.” His smile was bitter.
Tony couldn’t say he wasn’t disappointed, but nor was he surprised. He leaned into Stephen. “That sounds like there’s a story there.”
“My master had to dump me at the top of Mount Everest before I could open myself up to magic,” Stephen said, putting his free hand over Tony’s where they rested on his arm. “I could never bring myself to do something like to you.”
That warm, swooping sensation returned, stronger this time. It was kind of scary to think that he actually believed Stephen. Trust didn’t usually come this easily to him. Then again, considering everything that he and Stephen had been through together, Tony would’ve been crazy not to trust him. In every way that mattered, Stephen had reacted differently from the people who had betrayed him in the past.
Because what would Steve Rogers have done, even before they met, if Tony Stark had returned from the past? Thinking back on how their first interaction had gone on the helicarrier, Tony didn’t think that Rogers would’ve been even half as receptive as Stephen was. More likely, Rogers would’ve dismissed him outright – or accused Tony of trying to play hero. He wouldn’t have taken Tony in, given him a home and more support than Tony could’ve fathomed, and stood by his side against a megalomaniac who wanted to murder half the universe.
“Why did you believe me?” he blurted out before he could stop himself. “When I showed up. You believed me so quickly. And then you let me stay, even though I’m… me.” He waved a hand at himself. “You didn’t even ask for anything in return, like most people would.”
Stephen gave him a curious look, but by that point they’d reached the front of the line and had to order. Tony wasn’t sure whether to be gratified for the reprieve or not. He was at once embarrassed and ashamed for having asked, but at the same time he needed to know. He remained quiet as Stephen ordered, and then they moved over to wait in silence. By the time their food was ready, he was bursting. As they left, he found he couldn’t remain quiet any longer.
“I shouldn’t have –”
“There were two Tony Stark’s,” Stephen interrupted, facing forwards. “How could I ignore that? You don’t have a twin, and I suppose that a clone isn’t too far-fetched considering our lives, but I’m more familiar with time travel than most. I’ve experienced it myself. It seemed like the most likely answer. Furthermore, I know the costs. If someone travels through time to tell me that a huge threat is coming, of course I’m going to believe them. I may proceed with caution, but to outright ignore their advice would be, to put it bluntly, stupid.”
“That’s fair,” Tony said. He’d figured it was something like that. He started to turn towards the Sanctum, but Stephen tugged him in another direction, towards Central Park. Tony followed willingly.
Quietly, Stephen continued. “I let you stay because you had nowhere else to go, and because you needed my help to stop Thanos. You being… you had very little to do with it. We barely knew each other, and I try not to make a practice out of judging people based solely on what the media reports. They report what sells, not what the truth is. As for repayment, you had nothing to give me so I couldn’t have asked for anything even if I wanted to. And now that you do have money thanks to Stark, I still don’t want anything,” he added, perhaps foreseeing Tony’s next question.
“And now?” Tony said, his throat dry enough that swallowing was painful.
“And now it seems like we’ll shortly be teammates, if the New Avengers initiative goes through the way we think it will. You didn’t want to go with Stark, and the Sanctum has plenty of room and likes you, and you like being there, so I made you an offer to stay.”
Tony blinked, momentarily side-tracked. “Wait, what do you mean it likes me?”
“Magic likes you,” Stephen said. “I noticed it from the very first day you came here.”
“It likes me?” Tony repeated, screwing his face up. “What does that even mean?”
Stephen cracked a smile. “You’d get a very different answers depending on who you asked.”
He wondered what Stephen’s answer would’ve been, but didn’t feel brave enough to ask. Instead, he ducked his head. “Thank you. For letting me stay, and believing me, I mean. Life would’ve been considerably harder otherwise.”
“We saved the world together. That’s thanks enough,” Stephen said, and from anyone else it would’ve been corny, but he sounded completely serious and Tony knew how he felt. Just being able to walk through Central Park and see business as usual was amazing. Last time Tony had been here, the park had been eerily empty aside from a handful of people who’d been crying hysterically.
They walked in silence for a few minutes. It was more crowded than Tony was expecting, but, although his heart rate increased and he pressed closer to Stephen still, he didn’t feel like he was going to freak out. Defeating Thanos had proven that this was a different world and he was determined to remind himself of that until it became a concrete thought in his dumb brain.
“I will, someday,” Stephen said suddenly, and Tony looked at him in surprise.
“Teach you magic. If you still want to learn. I’ve never taught anyone before, but I’m sure we could figure it out.”
“I’d like that,” Tony said, meaning it. Learning magic meant he would be able to figure out how to properly defend himself from the Wanda’s and the Loki’s of the world, and that he wouldn’t have to depend on someone else to do the defending. But it also meant that he would understand Stephen better, and he liked the thought of that too. And as for the implicit suggestion that he and Stephen were going to be in contact long enough for that to happen, well. It was like a comforting promise that Tony could hold close.
Stephen nodded. He was quiet for a moment before he spoke again. “I wanted to ask you something. I’m not sure if I should.”
Tony blinked at that, turning to look at him. “You can ask me anything. What?”
“This may be inappropriate,” Stephen said slowly. “If you say no, that’s fine. It won’t change anything. The Sanctum will always be your home if you want it. I would’ve done it there where we have more privacy, but frankly the cloak hangs over you constantly and I thought it might slap me –”
“That’s a valid fear,” Tony acknowledged. “It slapped Pepper for trying to touch me.”
“May I kiss you?”
It was so out of the blue that Tony just stared at him for a few seconds, trying to figure out if he’d just had a hallucination. But no – Stephen’s eyes were steady as he waited for an answer. And perhaps, Tony thought, it wasn’t so sudden after all. Hadn’t Stephen seemed jealous when Pepper was around? Hadn’t fished around until Tony outright told him that nothing would happen between him and Pepper? Didn’t it push the boundaries of even a doctor who might be worried about someone’s mental health to walk around arm-in-arm with another man like this?
This was probably what all of those knowingly teasing looks from Pepper and Rhodey were about. Tony was never going to live this down.
He didn’t have to think for very long before he was nodding. “Yes. Please.”
Looking relieved, Stephen stepped closer and bent slightly. Tony went up on his toes – god this man was tall – and they met halfway, mouths brushing together in one of the most chaste kisses of Tony’s life. It was still enough to make the warmth rush through him and he shivered as they stepped back, though they didn’t go far. He was close enough that he could’ve put his head on Stephen’s shoulder if he wanted to.
“Was that okay?” Stephen asked.
“It was very okay. It might just be the most okay thing that’s happened to me in the past seven months,” Tony admitted, and was rewarded with another gorgeous smile. He hadn’t fully realized until just this moment how handsome Stephen was, but now that knowledge was sinking in deep.
“I’d take that as more of a compliment if I didn’t know how truly heinous the past seven months have been for you,” Stephen said dryly, and Tony grinned. He couldn’t argue with that.
“You know, I bet our sandwiches are cold. Wong’ll be mad.” He held up the plastic bag as proof. It swung gently from his hand in the breeze.
“He’s a sorcerer. He can reheat his food,” Stephen said with a snort. “Want to take the long way home?”
Home. That was a good word to hear. The long way home meant walking around the pond, where there’d be less crowds and it would be a lot quieter. Good for both his anxiety and the chance to steal kisses. He smiled – hell, he couldn’t seem to stop smiling – and slid his arm through Stephen’s again. They had a lot of work to do in the coming weeks, particularly Tony, but right now he couldn’t think of a better way to spend the next half hour.
That's all she wrote, folks. I don't have any current plans for a sequel.