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The Strange Tale of a Lost Heart

Chapter Text

 

The plan was quite simple:

  1. Open a portal.
  2. Put Thanos’ arm with the gauntlet inside.
  3. Close the portal.

Done! On one side you have a mad Titan minus one arm, and on the other side, you have an Infinity Gauntlet with four Stones plus a spare arm.

 

Stephen Strange shook his head. That would never work.

But Tony Stark just winked and said, "Trust me, Doc."

And Stephen did because this was Iron Man, one of earth's greatest defenders. A man who saved the world countless times before. Surely he knew what he was talking about.

"I hate you."

"No, you don't. You love me." Tony patted his shoulder and smiled. "Come on, let's go over to the others and wait 'till the big guy arrives."

He was gone before Stephen could reply, so the doctor followed him with a sigh. "Yes, I love you. May the Vishanti help me, I do."

 

 

 

An hour later when Thanos arrived, he was greeted by a lonely figure sitting on a rock. His red and golden armor glinted in the faint light of the far sun.

"You're much more of a Thanos," the man on the rock said calmly.

"I take it that Maw is dead?"

The man on the rock nodded slightly.

"This day extracts a heavy toll," Thanos sighed. "Still, he accomplished his mission."

"You may regret that," Tony replied, running a finger teasingly over the Eye of Agamotto that he wore around his neck. "He brought you face-to-face with a genius billionaire and his invincible armor."

Thanos chucked. "Where do you think he brought you?"

"Listen, I don't care," Tony said with his arms spread wide. "There are appointments I have today, and I'd rather not be late, so can we please get to the point?"

"That's fine with me," Thanos chuckled. "Give me the stone!"

"No can do. How about you give us the gauntlet?"

"Us?"

With a grin, Tony raised a hand with Strange's sling ring and opened a portal right in front of Thanos.

On the other side, the rest of the team was already waiting. As soon as the portal opened, they acted immediately: Doctor Strange conjured the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak around Thanos’ left hand, while Spider-Man caught the arm with an extra strong strand of his webbing. Together with Drax and Nebula, they managed to pull the left arm of the surprised Titan through the portal.

Iron Man had closed the portal swiftly even before Thanos fully realized what had happened.

The Titan screamed in agony, but Iron Man and Star-Lord gave him no time to come to his senses. They attacked him with everything that Peter's blaster pistol and the weapon arsenal of Tony's armor had to give.

While Thanos was distracted, Doctor Strange jumped to help them. He cast the spell of the Icy Tendrils of Ikthalon, that trapped the Titan in a thick layer of ice. After that, Mantis put him to sleep with her psychic abilities.

"What now?" Spider-Man asked. He held the Gauntlet in one Hand and the detached Arm in the other one.

"First of all: Put that arm away. That's gross!" yelled Star-Lord.

"I think he is right, Peter. We have no further need for that arm. You can put it down," Strange said calmly.

Peter dropped both the arm and the gauntlet and joined the others, who had gathered around Thanos.

Tony asked Mantis, "How long can you keep him like that?"

"Not for long. He is very strong."

Stephen wanted to ask her another question, but Star-Lord interrupted him. "I want to know what happened to Gamora!" He turned to Thanos "Where's Gamora?"

The dazed Thanos moaned, "My Gamora!"

"Oh, bullshit! Where is she?" Quill yelled.

Thanos tossed and turned in the psychic grip of Mantis.

"He is in anguish," she explained.

"Good," Quill said.

"He... He mourns."

Star-Lord sneered, "What does this monster have to mourn?"

"Gamora..." Thanos groaned.

"What?" Star-Lord asked.

"He took her to Vormir," Nebula told them. "He came back with the Soul Stone. She didn't."

Star-Lord threw himself at the Titan with an outcry.

Tony tried to pull him back and shouted, "Okay, Quill? You gotta cool it right now, understand?"

But Quill just ignored him. He grabbed Thanos and shook him. "Tell me she's lying. Asshole! Tell me you didn't do it."

"I had to..." Thanos sighed.

"No, you didn't. No! No, you didn't!"

"Quill!" Iron Man had enough. He lifted Quill and threw him towards Peter and Stephen. "Can you keep him calm?" he asked Mantis with a nod in Thanos' direction.

"It is hard, but I think I can do that," answered Mantis.

Just for a moment, nobody paid attention to Quill, which was a mistake. He picked up the Infinity Gauntlet next to where Stark had thrown him and charged at Thanos. Unfortunately, he couldn't control the power of the magical artifact. It began to glow so brightly it hurt the eyes.

Strange knew within the blink of an eye that it would explode. He also knew he didn’t have enough time to prevent this. All the sorcerer could do was trying to protect as many people as possible. Horrified, he realized that Tony was too close to Star-Lord. Not even his newest high tech Iron Man armor would be able to protect him from an explosion of this scale.

"Save him! Get him as far away from Quill as possible!" he yelled at the Cloak of Levitation, and the magical artifact hurried without hesitation to obey his command. Then he ran over to Nebula, Spider-Man, and Drax, cast the strongest shield spell he knew around the four of them and hoped that this would suffice as protection.

Suddenly the ground beneath them was gone, and they crashed hard on something that Strange identified as the cold marble floor in the foyer of the Sanctum Sanctorum.

"What?" Stephen mumbled and looked up.

In shock and terror, he realized that Iron Man had conjured a portal with his sling ring. The Avenger hovered on the other side. He was about to move to the magic entrance to join them when everything exploded, and the portal vanished.

"Tony, no!" Stephen yelled. "No, no, no!" He knew no one could survive a blast like this, but he didn't care. He hat to get back to Titan immediately. All he needed was another sling ring. There had to be one in the Library on the second floor. He got up and ran to the stairs, where Bruce Banner’s chrash had left a deep hole. Had it really been just this morning?

He had barely reached the top of the stairs, when Peter cried out. "What the hell?! Stephen, there is something wrong..."

Stephen turned just in time to witness Nebula and Drax dissolving to dust.

"What was that?" Spider-Man asked panicked.

"I don't know. I've never seen something like that." The doctor rushed down the steps again.

For a moment fell an eerie silence over the city. But it didn't last long before the two of them could hear cars crashing and people screaming outside the Sanctum.

Stephen and Peter looked at each other and ran to the door to find out what was going on.

 

Chapter Text

They just acted.

They didn't think about it.

They just did what they always did.

They helped, they saved, they healed, and they protected.

 

The whole city was in chaos. People had vanished randomly from everywhere, and a lot of now driverless cars had crashed into pedestrians or buildings. Everywhere wandered screaming, panicking people aimlessly around, while others had started rioting and looting.

Peter dragged car wrecks and rubble from hurt people and Stephen did the best he could to stop bleedings and fix fractured bones with whatever he had at hand and a bit of magic.

Now and then the sorcerer incapacitated one of the rioters. He left them bound in magical bonds, hoping that police would pick them up later and even if no one came to collect them, at least they wouldn't be able to do any more damage as long as they lay there neatly wrapped up.

At one time Stephen got nearly hit by an ambulance. He decided to go with them because they had real bandages and medicine instead of torn shirts and useless magic tricks. Together with the driver and the paramedic of the ambulance, he drove through the streets, stopped now and then and helped the hurt people they came across.

When they found a severely injured girl in a car wreck, Stephen asked the driver to bring them to the nearest hospital.

The nearest hospital turned out to be the one where Stephen had worked in his days as a neurosurgeon.

How ironic.

Many people had gathered around the building and blocked all entrances. Stephen had to use magic to force his way through the crowd. Together with the paramedic, he passed a lot of hurt and angry people who screamed and threw things at them. Rachel shielded the hurt girl with her own body.

A security guard blocked their way when the finally arrived at the door. "I can't let you in here. Please leave!"

"This girl will die if she doesn't get medical attention immediately!"

"I'm sorry mister, but we have not enough medical staff to take care of all the patients."

"Then let me through! I am a doctor!" Stephen yelled in a commanding voice, a leftover from his days as a surgeon.

The guard eyed the dust-covered tunic of the sorcerer skeptical, but finally allowed them access to the building.

They wheeled the stretcher with their patient into a corridor, and a nurse stopped them. "What are you doing here?"

"Who is in charge?" Stephen asked.

"I am. And I asked you a question," the nurse answered miffed.

"Patient is female, approximately six years old, severe internal bleeding due to a car accident. We need an operating theatre as fast as possible," explained the sorcerer briefly.

"Oh yes? And who is going to perform this surgery? I don't have enough staff to help even half of the people who come here!"

"I'm going to do that!"

"You? Who the hell do you think you are?"

"I am Doctor Stephen Strange!"

"The Doctor Stephen Strange? You don't look like him. I met the guy once. He's kind of an asshole…"

He closed his eyes and hung his head. "Yes. I was. But that was long ago. Now, please let me save the life of this little girl."

She looked at him and contemplated what he just said. "What about that accident that you had. They said you'd never be able to hold a scalpel again."

"I assure you that won't be a problem. Please," he implored her.

She eyed him for a moment, still not sure what to make of him. Then she took a corner of the stretcher and steered it toward the elevators. "Okay. Follow me!"

Stephen turned to the paramedic of the ambulance. "I can handle it from here. Thank you."

"No. We thank you, Doc. Good luck," she said and hugged him goodbye.

He smiled and turned to follow the nurse.

"Does Doctor Christine Palmer still work here?" he asked on the way.

She hesitated before she answered. "I'm sorry. Doctor Palmer is one of those who turned into dust…"

Stephen felt a stab in his heart. How many more loved ones would he lose on this day?

A ping sound let him look up, and they entered the elevator.

"She was a dear friend of mine," he explained.

With a nod, she put her hand on his shoulder. For a fleeting moment, there was a wordless understanding between them.

"I'll take care that the operating theatre is ready. Do you need something before we start?"

He looked at his dirty robe. "A change of clothes would be welcome."

"No problem, I'll get you a pair of scrubs."

"Thank you."

When she brought him the clothes, he quickly changed and washed his hands. Afterward, he pulled a pair of fingerless gloves out of his robe and put them on. The silky blue material was reinforced with wires, but it fit snugly around his fingers.

Stephen sighed. "I hope this works…" He clipped the fasteners at the wrists shut, and the tremor in his hands subsided immediately. "Wow! That is more than I expected. Thanks, Tony."

He put a pair of surgical gloves over them and turned to the door.

The surgery went well and without complications. Stephen marveled at the technological wonder that he had received from Tony Stark. After he had finished the operation on the little girl, the nurse from earlier came to him. She told him that they had another emergency and asked if Stephen had time to help him too. The sorcerer agreed to help the man, and one patient turned into two and three and more. Countless hours later he sat exhausted to the bone in the changing room when the nurse came to him and handed him a paper cup with lukewarm coffee.

"Hey, Doc. I just wanted to thank you. For all that you did today."

He took a sip of coffee and waved his hand dismissively.

"No, honestly. You saved a lot of lives today."

"That wasn't me alone." He looked at the gloves he was still wearing.

"What is it with those gloves? The nurse who assisted you told me you insisted on wearing them the whole time…"

With a heavy sigh, he looked up at her. "The car accident a couple of years ago – it crushed my hands. Ended my career as a surgeon. I had constant tremors that made even small tasks nearly impossible. These gloves manage to stop them almost completely."

"That is impressive tech. I've never heard of something like that."

"I don't think something like that exists anywhere else. They are a prototype Tony Stark gave me as a gift. I didn’t have time to try them until today."

"Wow, Tony Stark? You must be a very good friend of his when he made something like that for you."

Stephen laughed a humorless laugh. "Yeah. You could say that…"

The nurse seemed to sense the sadness behind those words and tried to lighten the mood. "Then you are surely invited to the wedding."

"What wedding?" Stephen asked bewildered.

"His wedding?"

Stephen still looked puzzled.

"How can you not have heard of that? It's going to be a bigger deal than Megan and Prince Harry! It's all over the tabloids."

"Who… Who is he going to marry?"

"His CEO, Virginia Potts." She looked at him questioning. "You didn't know that?"

He hesitated, "I thought he was already married…"

"Oh. Maybe you know something the public doesn't. You know him personally after all."

"Yeah… Maybe… Not that it still matters – he's dead anyway." He was too tired to think of what he just heard and said, but deep in his heart, there was this nagging feeling that something was fundamentally wrong with the world.

For a moment there was an awkward silence.

"Change of subject: How do you get home, Doc?" the nurse asked with faked cheerfulness.

Stephen thought of that for a moment, until he answered, "I don't know. My sling ring and the Cloak of Levitation have been destroyed… and even if there were still any busses or taxis running, I wouldn't be able to get home because I'm absolutely broke…"

"Okay." Her glance told the doctor that she questioned his sanity. "I'll pretend that what you just said made any sense."

No matter how tired he was, he couldn’t help but laugh.

“How about this: I have a motorbike, and if you like I'll give you a ride."

He looked thankfully at her and nodded. "I didn't even ask for your name," he confessed ashamed.

She laughed. "It's Linda Carter."

Smiling, he shook her hand. "Nice to meet you, Linda Carter."

 

 

When Stephen finally arrived home, he didn't even have the energy to remove his shoes. All he managed to do was to crash on the couch and fall asleep.

 

 

"Stephen! Stephen!" Someone poked the sleeping sorcerer. He looked up and saw Spider-Man hovering over him.

"What is it, Pete?"

"There's something wrong with my room! All my stuff is gone!"

Stephen didn't even have the energy to care at the moment. All he wanted was to sleep.

"I'll look into it. Tomorrow. Go to your bed."

"But… it's gone…"

"Then sleep in my bed. I won't move any time soon…" with these words he had already fallen asleep again.

 

 

 

When Stephen woke up the next day every bone in his body hurt. Damn this couch. Tony was right. They should get a more comfortable one.

Stephen stopped.

There had been this explosion. Tony was dead. He would never come back from Titan. Stephen had to fight the tears. After everything that happened yesterday he merely hadn't had the time to think about that, but now it hit him with the power of a freight train.

Anthony Edward Stark was dead.

Gone.

Forever.

And Christine as well.

But Stephen didn’t even have time to mourn. The World needed the few superheroes that were still left more than ever. And maybe this was a good thing – having a purpose would stop him from the despair that lurked in the dark corners of his thoughts.

So, first things first: Stephen had to try to contact the remaining Avengers. He needed to find out what exactly had happened. How was it possible that Thanos' plan was successful when the titan and the gauntlet had been destroyed in a disastrous explosion just moments before? (Together with Tony ... no, better not go there.)

He had to find Captain America (but where should he start to look?) … Or maybe Rhodey (if he hadn't vanished) or even Thor (what if he was still somewhere out in space?).

Clearly, there were too many 'ifs'.

Stephen decided he had to start on familiar ground: he would go to Kamar-Taj and seek Wong's advice (hoping the librarian was still alive).

And just as he steeled himself for the day to come, Peter came screaming into the living room, "He is alive! He's back! They are showing it on TV! The ship of the Guardians just landed at Stark Tower!"

"What?" Stephen was confused.

Peter didn't answer. He just turned on the television. It showed shaky news helicopter footage of a spaceship standing on the landing pad on top of Stark Tower. A small figure in a tattered tracksuit stepped out into the blinding light of the midday sun.

"Tony!" Stephen's heart skipped a beat. How was this possible? His confusion only grew as the blue cyborg warrior called Nebula followed the Avenger. How could she be alive? Stephen had seen her turn into dust just the other day. There was something substantially wrong here.

"Come on!" Peter, already in his Spider-Man outfit, handed him a fresh robe and one of his reserve sling rings.

Chapter Text

Five Minutes later the two of them stepped through a portal directly into the penthouse on top of Stark Tower. The big room was empty except for the bar. All technical equipment and furniture had been removed.

"What happened here? Why is it so empty here? Where did everything go?" Peter asked worried while looking around.

Stephen didn't answer.

"Technically, we sold the tower. The new owners will move in next month," explained a voice at the back of the room.

"Pepper!" Peter called happily, ran towards her to hug her. "Why would Tony sell Stark Tower?"

"He sold the Avengers Tower because he had no use for it since he built the new Avengers facilities upstate." Pepper Potts entangled herself awkwardly from the lanky teen and looked at Spider-Man. "Do we know each other? I mean Tony talks a lot about you, but we never met before, haven't we?"

"You planned his birthday party… last August. You told me how you’re planning the one for this year already, even if it’s two months away," Stephen asserted skeptical while he walked toward them.

Furiously, Pepper stared at him. "You?"

"Congratulations on the wedding, by the way," Stephen said, and it sounded far more sarcastic than he intended to.

At that, she slapped him in the face. "Do you think this is funny? This whole mess is your fault! What did you do to Tony?"

"Hey! Why did you do that?" Peter asked shocked.

Stephen rubbed his hurting cheek. "It's okay Peter." He turned to Pepper. "I assure you I didn't do anything to Tony."

"He had been perfectly happy before you turned up!"

"Listen, Miss Potts. Something here is very wrong! I'm trying to figure out what it is, but I need to talk to Tony!"

"No! You will stay away from him!"

"Who will stay away from whom?" Tony Stark asked suddenly behind them. Their argument had distracted them so much that they hadn't noticed him entering the room.

Stephen was shocked at the sight of the Avenger. Tony looked like a man whose worst nightmare had come true. He was covered in cuts and bruises, had dark shadows under red-rimmed eyes, his usually meticulously trimmed beard was unkempt, and his clothes were torn and dirty. Overall he looked more tired than Stephen had ever seen him, which was a notable achievement because he had seen the man work for four days straight without sleep.

"Tony!"

Finally, Tony looked at Stephen. For a brief moment there was a flicker of confusion on his face, but then his expression turned grim. With a scream, he jumped at Stephen.

"Why did you do that? Because of you, he's dead! They're all dead because of you!"

He hit the sorcerer with his bare fist hard enough to draw blood. Stephen didn't react. He didn't do anything to protect himself because he was shocked. What should he do? He could never harm Tony Stark, even if said Tony Stark attacked him without restraint.

And then the onslaught suddenly stopped.

"Leave him alone!" Peter yelled. He had caught Tony's fist with a string of his webbing.

At that moment, Tony noticed Peter's presence for the first time. Something at the appearance of the teenager shocked him so much that he activated his armor, but the fight against Thanos had damaged it so much that he had only the chest plate and one gauntlet left.

"What are you? " Tony looked like he had seen a ghost. "Some kind of alien shapeshifter?" He burned Peter's web from his hand and turned to him.

"Tony?" Peter said confused. "It's me! Peter."

"You are not Peter Parker! You can't be because Peter Parker died in my arms!" He activated his repulsor and aimed at Peter.

Before he could shoot, the engineer was swept off his feet by a wave of pure energy. Stephen stood there buzzing with ancient power, sparks in his eyes. "Enough with this charade! I don't care if you are Tony Stark or Agamotto himself, if you lay a finger on my son I will end you!"

"Your son?" Tony asked and sounded like a man on the threshold of insanity.

"Yes! My son."

"He's not your son! You met him yesterday for the first time!"

Peter and Stephen exchanged questioning looks.

"What do you mean? Stephen adopted me too when you two…" Peter started, but the doctor put his hand on his shoulder and silenced him with a shake of the head.

Cautiously Stephen approached the man on the ground, but Tony scrambled back, away from the sorcerer. When he hit the wall, he sat there and looked up at him. He reminded Stephen of some wounded and cornered animal. It hurt him to see so much fear directed at him in those big brown eyes.

"I am sorry. I shouldn’t have attacked you. That was an overreaction. I didn't mean to hurt you," the doctor said and wiped the blood from his own lower lip.

"Leave him alone! Haven't you done enough?" Pepper shouted and held him back when he tried to draw nearer to Tony.

Stephen looked at her. He seemed to consider the whole situation, then he took off his sling ring and handed it to Peter.

"Pete, please can you get us some drinks?"

"What?" the teen asked confused.

"Tea would be nice," Stephen answered and sat on the floor. He leaned with his back to the wall, cautious to keep his distance to Tony.

"Tea?"

Everyone looked at him as if he’d gone mad.

"Yes, Tea. With a little honey, please. You know how we like to drink it."

"Are you okay, Stephen?" Peter asked cautiously.

"I'm just trying to lighten the mood… so… tea," Stephen retorted cheerfully.

"Okay. Tea… I'll be right back." Still confused, he turned away, opened a portal to the sanctum and disappeared.

"Why does he know how to do it?" Tony wanted to know. His voice was still shaky.

"He is my son. I taught him how to do it," Stephen explained in a soothing tone of voice.

"Is 'tea' code for something?"

"Oh yes. It's code for a hot beverage that you prepare with boiling water and dried leaves."

"That's not what I meant."

"I know what you meant, Tony. But I think a good cup of tea will help to calm the nerves here a bit." With a crooked smile, he looked up to Pepper. "Why don't you sit down, too? We need to talk, and that might take a while."

She gave him an angry look but sat down beside Tony. Possessively, she took a hand of her fiancé.

After a couple of minutes filled with awkward silence, Spider-Man finally returned. He carried a tray with a teapot and some cups. He gave everyone a cup and poured the tea.

"Thank you, Peter. Come and sit down."

Pepper and Tony eyed their cups suspiciously.

"It's honestly just tea," Peter explained to them and took a gulp. "Arrgh! So hot!"

Stephen smiled fondly and shook his head. He too sipped from his cup, but more cautiously. "Tony, I want you to tell me what happened yesterday. From the moment on when Bruce crashed into the sanctum to what happened on Titan."

"Why do you want me to tell you? You were there!"

The sorcerer inclined his head. "Yes maybe. But I want to hear it from you – as if I hadn't been there."

"Why?"

"Trust me."

Tony scoffed, " Trust you?"

"Yes. I know. I'm asking a lot, but I promise you, I will explain it."

And so Tony told them everything that happened the day before. He summarised how he was out with Pepper, how Strange interrupted a meaningful conversation and how he followed the sorcerer to the sanctum, where they explained to him everything they knew about Thanos and the infinity stones. He reported them about the arrival of the Children of Thanos and the subsequent fight, how they ended up on the spaceship with a set course to Titan.

Finally, he told them about the Guardians of the Galaxy and the fight against Thanos – and how they lost it.

Obviously, Peter wanted to say something, but Stephen held him back.

"Let him finish." He turned to Tony. "Please go on."

"There is not much more to say. Everyone suddenly started to dissolve. One by one. First the Guardians, then you and at last… Peter. After that Nebula and I took the Benatar and came here." A slight tremble in the voice of the billionaire was the only indicator of how agitated he was.

"Thank you, Tony. I know this wasn't easy for you. Please let me ask you another question: When did we meet for the first time?"

"…Yesterday morning, in the Park."

"We never met before? Not even on some stupid high society gala or something?"

"No. Not that I’m aware. Why?"

Strange didn't answer. He reached under his tunic and pulled out a ring on a plain silver chain. For a moment he ran a finger over the narrow red stripe on the polished golden metal. Then he handed it to Tony.

"What do you think this is?" the sorcerer asked.

"Looks like a wedding ring…"

"And you know what it is made of, don't you?"

Tony inspected the trinket closer. When he saw the engraving, he shot Stephen a shocked look.

"Is this…?"

The sorcerer nodded. "It is a piece of the ring finger from the remains of your Mark 46 armor… Well, technically not your Mark 46."

"What does that mean? Whose Mark 46? Who made it?"

"My husband, Tony Stark," answered Stephen calmly.

"I am Tony Stark! I am not married! And you would be the last person I would marry."

"Yes, thank you. I got that!" Stephen rolled the eyes. "But I'm sure you're familiar with the concept of the multiverse and parallel universes?"

The billionaire looked dumbfounded at the sorcerer.

"You saw me die yesterday. And I saw you die. But here we are – Alive and relatively well. So, my only conclusion is that we crossed from our universe into this one. That explanation fits – We won against Thanos. It was a victory that came with a high price, but a victory, nonetheless. The gauntlet and four of the stones are destroyed, and yet half the population of the universe has turned into dust. How is this possible?" He looked around and answered his own question. "It isn't. The only assumption that seems logical to me is: We ended up in a universe where Thanos won."

"But wait… How did we get here?" Peter asked confused.

"I think your father was a much more powerful sorcerer than each one of us expected. He accidentally opened a portal to another universe, when he just wanted to send us home," Stephen explained.

"You mean your Tony Stark is a sorcerer like you?" Pepper asked.

"No, he just knows a couple of tricks I taught him but..."

Suddenly Peter screamed, "There's a ghost!"

Behind them floated a golden glowing phantom that looked like Stephen Strange.

"Peter, you should know by now what an astral projection looks like!" the sorcerer berated his son.

"But how can this be an astral projection of you when you stand beside me and are conscious?"

"That is a good point, actually," the ‘ghost’ said.

Tony addressed the floating figure, "Who are you?"

"I am Doctor Stephen Strange. From this universe. Please, I don't have much time, my energy runs out fast. I have no idea how long I can hold the connection."

"Where are you?" Stephen demanded to know.

"I don't know where exactly 'here' is. Some of us think this is a pocket dimension where everyone killed by the Soul Stone is bought. We are all here. Half the population of the universe."

"Peter?" Tony whispered.

"He is here with me. I promise you I'll take care of him," Ghost Stephen assured the Avenger. "I have to go… I'm so sorry Tony for all the responsibility I'm putting on your shoulders. But I know Stephen will help you… please… you need all six stones to reverse…" With that, he was gone.

"Was that real?" Peter looked around. "What now? He could have been more precise about his plan."

"You believe some random apparition?" Pepper asked.

"Yes," Stephen and Tony murmured unisonous.

"Really? That is all it takes to convince you? A light-show and half-assed promises that maybe you could bring them back possibly?"

"Pep, we can bring them back!" Tony stated thrilled.

"And no one is going to question that? I mean, you trust some strange wizard, who tells you he's married to you…"

"Not to him!" Stephen interjected.

"…and what seems to be a clone of Spider-Man…" She didn't let them interrupt her.

"Hey! I am Spider-Man!" Peter complained.

"…and then a ghost tells you that you can bring back all the dead! Even you must see that this sounds just a bit too crazy!"

Tony looked from Pepper to Stephen and back. His expression was pained, but when his gaze found the puppy eyes of Peter, he made up his mind.

"I'll take my chances with the weird guys." He folded his hands in front of his chest. "Sorry, Pep. If there's anything I can do to make this right, I have to try at least!"

"Fine. Suit yourself. I'll go home!" She got up and walked towards the exit.

Tony followed her and tried to persuade her to stay, but she left him standing.

"Don't take it to heart. You know her. She'll come around," Peter said and put his hand on Tony's shoulder.

But Tony just stood there and stared into the empty room after her. "Thanks, Kid."

"Maybe she isn't wrong. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data," Stephen mused. "Before we make a plan, I have to do some research. Peter, come, we go to Kamar-Taj. We need to look up something in the library." He turned to Tony. "Stark, can you contact the Avengers?"

"I can try."

"Get them together! We meet you tomorrow morning, ten a.m. sharp, conference room of the Avengers compound."

Before Tony could answer, Stephen had opened a portal, and they were gone.

Chapter Text

"Where are we? This place is not Kamar-Taj." Peter looked around to see where Stephen's portal had brought them.

They stood in the hallway of an apartment building. Peter recognized it at once.

"No. It's not. There is someone we have to meet before we go there."

"This is where I lived with Aunt May."

"Correct."

"Why are we here?" Peter asked nervously.

"To make sure that she's safe. It's a dangerous world at the moment, and she shouldn't be alone right now." The doctor looked around. "Which apartment is it?"

Slowly Peter walked over to one door and rang the bell.

Stephen gently shoved him out of the way. When the door opened a crack, the face of a middle-aged woman stared from the darkness of the room at him. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"My name is Doctor Stephen Strange. I know what happened yesterday, and I know what happened to Peter."

The door slammed shut before it opened again. A petite woman with long brown hair and a huge baseball bat stepped into the open door and eyed him warily.

"Why should I believe you?" She raised the bat.

"Don't hit him! He's with me!" Peter called beside Stephen, his hand protectively raised in front of him.

Now she looked away from Stephen for the first time and noticed Peter. Within a second the bat clattered to the ground, and Peter found himself in a bone-crushing hug.

"You're alive! Thank God," she murmured into his hair. After a moment she stepped back and looked at him. " Why are you in your costume, without wearing the mask? Someone could see you! You don't want them to know you're Spider-Man!"

"Doesn't everyone know?" Peter asked bewildered.

"No! Only Ned and me. Peter, what happened? Did you hit your head?" She ran her fingers through his hair.

"No, I'm fine, I promise."

Stephen cleared his throat and suggested, "Perhaps it would be wise if we continued this conversation inside your apartment, Mrs. Parker,"

Now she looked at the doctor. "Who exactly are you?"

Stephen wanted to answer, but Peter beat him to it. "That's Stephen. He's my dad."

"Peter… I know you were a small child when your parents died, but you know your father's name was and what he looked like," May said softly.

"Yes, I know that! Stephen adopted me!"

"Why would he adopt you?"

"Because you're dead…" Peter said sheepishly, with tears in his eyes.

Stephen gently put his hand on Peter's shoulder. "Peter, maybe it is better when you leave the explanations to me?"

The teenager nodded sadly.

"Mrs. Parker, I promise you, I will explain everything you need to know." He nodded towards the open door. "Inside."

Hesitantly she let them inside. After they had settled down on the sofa, Stephen told her that they came from another universe, about Thanos, the Infinity Stones, and the snap, that turned half the population of the world into dust.

"I'm very sorry. Your nephew was one of those who turned into dust. Tony Stark told me, he was with him…" Stephen concluded his report.

"Tony Stark? I'm going to kill him!" May said grimly.

"To be fair, Peter's fate probably wouldn't have been any different if he had stayed on earth. I guess he would have turned into dust anyway. But we have reason to believe that we might be able to bring them back. All of them, half the population of the universe."

Hopefully, she looked at him. "Really?"

"We'll do anything we can, you have my word." He took her hand and looked her deep in the eyes.

She smiled and put her other hand over his. "Thank you."

"I'm surprised that you are not more skeptical about us being from another universe," he noted.

"You just told me that an angry giant grape turned half the people of the universe into dust. This is not that much more difficult to believe." Then she looked at Peter. "So… how did I die?"

"What? You didn't die! You're alive, I'm talking to you right now," babbled Peter.

"No, I mean the other me. What happened? Was I killed by some supervillain?"

Peter looked down at his hands. "It was just a stupid, everyday accident."

"How?"

"It was a normal day. May came from shopping just around the corner and crossed the street. A driver had a heart attack and ran her over. She died there on the spot. That was half a year after Uncle Ben…"

"Oh, honey. I'm so very sorry." She hugged him, and he started crying.

"I miss you so much…" the boy sobbed.

Stephen sat there and felt like an intruder. Intellectually he knew of course that he was part of this family, but at that moment it didn't feel like it. He got up and walked over to the window, peeking through the drawn curtains.

"What happened after..." She was lost for words.

"The accident?" Stephen helped.

"Yes… What happened after the accident?"

Peter sat up and looked at Stephen. "Tony Stark showed up one day and told me that he wanted to adopt me. He had found my Spider-Man-videos on YouTube and heard what happened."

"Stark?" Questioning, she looked over to Stephen. "And how do you fit into all this?"

"I married Stark," answered he with a smile, gripping the ring through his tunic. "Half a year ago. So, I too adopted Peter."

"Are you happy?" she asked Peter.

He wiped the tears away and nodded.

She hugged him again. "Good."

"That doesn't mean that I don't miss you…"

"I know, I know. I'm just glad you're happy."

Stephen cleared his throat. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but we should go. There is a lot of work to do. Mrs. Parker, please go and pack some clothes and other things you might need. We take you with us to a safe place."

"Where do we go?" Peter wanted to know.

"To Kamar-Taj. Even if Wong isn't there anymore, there are enough sorcerers to protect the place."

"What is a karma-tush?" May asked.

"You'll see," the doctor answered, smiling.

Chapter Text

It was one of the weirdest nights in the young life of Peter Stark.

He hadn't thought much when he went to Central Park after hearing that there was a monster that attacked unsuspecting joggers and people walking their dogs. He just decided it would be a good idea if he found out what's going on.

That was how he got here, neatly cocooned in the slimy tentacles of a twenty-foot tall monster.

Everything happened so quickly. Even his spider-sense hadn't been much of a help. He tried desperately to free himself, but the monster was more powerful than Spider-Man's super strength, so he wasn't able to loosen the metal grip of the creature for an inch.

Finally, he gave up. "Karen, please call help," he muttered and hung his head. He wasn't looking forward to the lecture he would get from Tony, primarily since their relationship was still very strained after the whole homecoming disaster. Nevertheless, he preferred it over being eaten by a tentacle monster. Or being molested by it.

Of course, that was one of his top concerns. Peter was a teenager with access to the internet after all.

A couple of minutes later the creature was hit by a red and gold flash. Screaming unearthly the tentacles released him. Iron Man, covered in purple slime, freed himself of the pulsating mess.

"It might not have been the best tactic to throw myself head first into this thing." He shook himself to get at least some of the slime off. "Are you unharmed, Kid?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. A bit squished, but fine," Peter answered and tried to shake slime off his costume. "Look out! Behind you!"

But it was too late, one of the tentacles had already grabbed Tony. He fired one of his repulsors at the beast and severed the limb holding him right off. He jump-started into the air to get some distance between him and the monster, in time to see that the appendage grew back immediately.

"Oh, yeah! My day keeps getting better and better!"

"What do we do now?" Peter asked.

Iron Man readied one of his mini-missiles for the launch. "We end this before it gets out of hand."

"No!" A strange man in a blue tunic and a red cape ran towards them. "Don't harm it! It isn't evil! It's just lost and scared!"

"Who are you?"

"I am Doctor Stephen Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and Keeper of the New York Sanct-" That was all he could say because the creature grabbed him too and started to envelop him in a cocoon of fine tentacles.

Under the helmet, Tony rolled his eyes.

"Who ordered that clown?"

"I've never seen him before!" Peter said with a shrug.

"Oh, great! Now I have to save this numb nut too?"

Glistening yellow light from the creature answered his question. From the middle of the monster erupted the stranger, his red cloak billowing around him as he soared into the air and coughed up a large chunk of purple goo.

"That was… a bit undignified," mumbled the man in blue.

"No shit!" Tony yelled. "What is your plan, Strangeling?"

The other man didn't answer. He cast blue sparks around his fingers and catapulted them towards the beast, where they fizzled a bit before they disappeared.

"What was that supposed to be?" Iron Man asked.

Strange looked at his hands and sighed. "A sleep spell. I never tried it before. It seems I did something wrong. Maybe I was too far away."

Carefully he hovered closer to the beast. However, he miscalculated the length of its tentacles and got caught again. Iron Man reacted quick, trying to pull Strange back, but the creature was even faster, and he got caught too.

Pressed together face-to-face by slimy appendages, Tony and Stephen were conveyed even closer to the center of the tentacles.

"Tony, what can I do to help you?" came Peter's panicked voice over the comm.

"Nothing! Stay out of reach! I don't want you to end up in here too."

He tried to wiggle a bit, but it was no use. The hold of the creature was too tight.

"Any Ideas?" he asked the sorcerer.

"I think it doesn't like heat." He put his arms around Iron Man's shoulders.

Tony felt inexplicable warm all of a sudden. "What are you doing?"

"As soon as it loosens its grip, fire your thrusters!"

"What?" The heat in Tony's armor became nearly unbearable. This mad wizard was heating up the suit itself! Tony wanted to shout at him to stop it, but suddenly the tentacles retracted. With one, powerful blast he catapulted himself and the sorcerer into the air. He wanted to land nearby, but the additional weight of Strange and the heat that disturbed his systems distracted his trajectory. Far to fast, they crashed into the ground, and Strange hit his head on Iron Man's helmet.

"You okay?" Tony checked.

Strange rubbed his head and nodded.

"Seems I was lucky that you didn't cut through my face-plate with those cheekbones," Tony joked.

Strange raised an eyebrow and looked at him. "Are you flirting with me, Mr. Stark?"

Tony scoffed and shoved the sorcerer off of him, "Absolutely not!"

"What a shame. Maybe I would have liked that." He stood up and looked around until he found Peter sitting in a tree, observing from a safe distance. "Hey, you! Spider-Boy!"

Peter protested, "I'm Spider-Man!"

"Yeah, later. That creature seems to be immune to magic, so my powers are not much of a help. Can you cocoon it with your web-thingy? Preferably as broad as possible."

"I'll try." He created a fine mesh with his web-shooters. With Tony's help, he draped it over the monster, but the thinner tentacles were able to slip through the holes. Finally, they tightened it together, and the beast was trapped.

"Watch out for those tentacles!" Tony warned Peter, then he turned and looked over to the sorcerer. "Hey, Gilderoy Lockhart! Are you going to help or will you stand there, watch us do all the work and look pretty?" he shouted annoyed.

The sorcerer stepped beside Iron Man and grinned. "Oh, Mr. Stark… So, you think I'm pretty?" Casually, he wiped purple slime out of his hair. Behind him, the trapped creature growled and hissed.

"You got some nerve!"

"And do you know what else I have?" He raised the hand with the sling ring. "A plan!" Slowly, he circled the other hand in the air before him, and a portal opened under the creature, but instead of falling right though, it got stuck – the entrance was not big enough.

Tony opened his helmet to let Strange see how absolutely and completely done he was. "Really? I'm starting to think you're doing this on purpose!"

"I didn't expect that." The sorcerer scratched his head. "In my defense, I have to say I'm still learning this magic stuff."

"Make the hole bigger!"

"I don't know how!"

The three of them just stood there and looked at the quivering mass of tentacles.

"What now?" Peter asked. "We really should do something! I don't know how long my web will last."

"Right. I'm on it!" Strange rose into the air and dropped himself feet first onto the beast. With a sickening squish sound, both of them plopped through the opening in the ground.

When the sorcerer reemerged, he looked disheveled and extra-slimy.

"I think it thanked me for bringing it home." He sniffed the slime and wrinkled his nose. "Gentlemen, it was a pleasure to meet you, but I'm in urgent need of a shower." Quickly, he closed the portal on the ground and turned to go.

"Wait! That's it? You come here, dump a slime monster into a hole in the ground and vanish into the night like fucking Batman?"

"Problem?"

"I have no Idea who you are, what your deal is! Where do I find you, if I'm looking for a 'Master of the Mystic Arts'?"

Strange opened a portal in front of himself, then turned and grinned. "The name is Doctor Stephen Strange, and the address is 177a Bleecker Street. Good Night." He winked and left.

Chapter Text

Due to the time difference between New York and Kathmandu, it was already late at night when they arrived in Kamar-Taj. The inner courtyard lay quietly before them. Only in a building at the far end of the square, were still lights burning.

"There's light in the library," Peter noted.

"Yes," Stephen was optimistic. "I hope Wong's there."

Silently they walked towards the library, but they didn't get far – a cage that consisted entirely of burning mandalas light up around them. "Identify yourself, intruder!" a voice demanded in the dark.

"It is me, Stephen Strange! With me, I bring friends who I wish to keep safe."

A dark-skinned man in a dark green tunic stepped into the pale moonlight.

"Mordo!" Stephen murmured. "What are you doing here?"

"I told you, didn't I?" The sorcerer in green ignored Strange. "That there would be a price to pay? That the bill comes due? You didn't believe me! And now the Titan succeeded! Half the universe's dead!" Mordo paced around the cage angrily.

"How do you know that?"

"Wong told me!"

"Wong's alive?" Stephen asked relieved. "Praise the Vishanti! Wait... What did you do to him?"

"I did nothing to him. He and the other masters are in the library. I immobilized them, but I did not harm them. At least not more than I had to."

"Do you have a plan?" Peter whispered behind Stephen’s back quietly enough that Mordo didn't hear it.

"As soon as we're free, take May, run to the library and free the others," Stephen answered under his breath.

Calmly, he stepped forward and put a hand on the burning mandalas, which kept them captive.

"You will not be able to break my spell!" Mordo exclaimed.

"How bold of you to assume, you already captured me." With that, he looked around the courtyard. From behind every pillar surrounding them, emerged an exact copy of Strange.

"I see, you mastered the Images of Ikonn," Mordo noted smiling.

"Yes. My times as sorcerer's apprentice are long past. Are you sure you want to face a Sorcerer Supreme?" all the Stranges chanted simultaneously.

"That is creepy," May murmured, while Peter tried his best to shield her with his own body.

Mordo hissed, "Heresy! You are not the Sorcerer Supreme!"

Determined, the Stranges closed their circle around the other sorcerer. "Think what you want. I prefer to let my actions speak for themselves." One of the Stranges caught Mordo off guard and managed to grab the Staff of the Living Tribunal form Mordo's back and hit him with it. That distracted the other sorcerer so much that Stephen was able to dissolve the cage that trapped them.

Without hesitation, Peter grabbed May's hand and ran with her towards the library.

Stephen didn't look back. He trusted Peter and his abilities to protect both of them blindly. Instead, the doctor concentrated on Mordo. He and all his copies tried to bind his old mentor with the Crimson Bands of Cyttorack, but Mordo was able to block them with a shield spell.

Mordo managed to strike down the Strange-copy who had taken the staff and reclaimed his weapon. With the help of the Vaulting Boots of Valtorr, he jumped onto the nearest roof.

Stephen looked after him and cursed. He missed the Cloak of Levitation painfully. Quickly, the doctor portaled himself to the top of the roof. When he arrived, Mordo was nowhere to be seen. Alert, he watched his surroundings, but couldn't find anything out if the order.

Suddenly, the sound of smashing roof tiles drew his attention to the opposite side of the roof. He sprinted to where the noise had originated from and could see a piece of green fabric disappearing around the corner.

"Gotcha!" the doctor murmured. He knew the Kamar-Taj well enough to know how to cut him off. Another portal transported him right in front of Mordo, where he struck the other sorcerer with the most potent sleeping spell he knew.

Breathing heavily, Stephen stood next to Mordo when he saw people running towards them. Wong and Peter were the first ones to arrive.

Stephen hugged the librarian. "Wong! Good to see you. Are you alright?"

"Yes, thanks to your young friend. Mordo managed to take us by surprise when we were most vulnerable. Good to see you are among the living, too."

"We need to talk. In the library, where we have a bit more privacy," Stephen suggested.

Wong nodded.

"What about Mordo?" asked Peter.

"Master Hamir and the others will take care of him," Wong said, and a sorcerer with only one hand nodded in return.

"So… there are evil wizards, too?" May asked when she was alone with Peter, Strange and Wong.

"Yes. But have no fear. He usually goes only after other sorcerers," Wong explained casually. "Now, come along."

May, Stephen and Peter followed Wong to a cozy room full of old books and scrolls.

After he had closed the door, the doctor turned to the librarian. "This might be an unusual request, but is there a spell to tell if I am in the right universe?"

"The right Universe?"

"Yes! A spell that shows me that I am in the universe where I belong and originate from, or if I am accidentally in the wrong one."

"Why do you want to know that?" Peter asked.

"To be sure."

"But you said you were sure!"

"Yes. About eighty percent."

"You sounded very sure when you told Tony and Pepper!" the teenager noted.

"Well, that is something you learn as a doctor - radiating absolute confidence, even if you are only about three-quarters sure."

"Can someone please explain to me what's going on?" Wong interrupted both of them.

"I think, we are from another universe and I want proof," Stephen told the irritated librarian.

"Okay. Wait here." Wong disappeared behind a bookshelf, while May, Peter, and Stephen waited. After a while he reemerged. "I found something. It's quite a simple spell." He drew a glowing rune into the air between them. At first, nothing happened, but then the doctor and his son started emitting pale blue light.

"You are from a parallel universe!" exclaimed Wong surprised. "But you're not?" he asked May.

"No. I'm from Queens."

Wong turned to Strange. "You owe me an explanation!"

"Of course, my friend. But first I have to ask you if it is possible that Mrs. Parker stays here for a while. I fear for her safety if she remains in New York alone by herself."

Wong nodded, and Stephen sent Peter to show May the guest quarters. Meanwhile, Stephen used the time to tell Wong his story.

"Now we have to find out if your Strange was right. I mean, he contacted me. That is proof that they are somewhere out there. Our task is to figure out if there is anything we can do to bring them back," Stephen concluded his report.

The other masters of Kamar-Taj had joined them by now, and Stephen noted sadly that there were only three of them left.

At this moment Peter too slipped back into the room and sat down beside Stephen.

"What are we going to do about Mordo?" Master Hamir asked. It was so rare to hear the master speak. Most people thought him to be silent.

"We ask him to help us," Stephen declared.

Wong stared blankly at Strange.

"I know what you are thinking, but to imprison Mordo will not help us. He is a mighty sorcerer, and there is a strong demand for those at the moment. We need him," Stephen explained.

Wong didn't answer, but he snorted angrily.

"I don't expect you to be best friends with him, but you should consider at least a truce. Temporarily. You need for example a replacement as the guardian of the New York Sanctum."

"Why would you leave the sanctum?"

"Because as Sorcerer Supreme I might have other duties to perform."

Wong laughed.

"What's funny?" Stephen wondered.

"You are not the Sorcerer Supreme."

"Yes, I am. There was a tournament held by the Vishanti. I participated, I won, they declared me Sorcerer Supreme. We had a nice party afterward, and you were drunk as hell," Stephen recounted with a warm smile.

"He's right. You and Rhodey hat this stupid drinking game that got out of hand," Peter laughed.

"What exactly qualifies the boy to take part in this meeting?" one of the other masters asked displeased.

"He's my son. I say he belongs here. And that's the end of it!"

The other master looked grim. "You are not Strange. Who are you?"

"Oh, I am Strange. Not the one you know, but Strange, nonetheless. Furthermore, I am the acting Sorcerer Supreme of this realm at the moment, so when I say he stays, he stays."

The other master looks over to Wong. "What he says is true. I vow for him."

Stephen let out a frustrated snorting. "Now is not the time for petty disputes!" He turned to the three masters. "I trust you with the safety of Kamar-Taj, while Wong and I try to find out every single Information we can get about the Infinity Stones."

The masters nodded and left the library.

"Where do we start?" Peter asked and looked at the vast number of bookshelves.

Wong walked over to a shelf and handed Peter and Stephen a couple of old tomes. "How good is your Sanskrit, Spider-Boy?"

"I'm still learning. My teacher says I'm making progress."

"Who is your teacher?"

"You."

Wong looked intrigued, while Stephen smiled secretly behind his book.

 

 

Hours later, it was already afternoon; they had huge stacks of books piled around them.

"This book says that all who fall victim to the Soul Stone don't simply die. They end up in a dimension that is called 'Soul World' here," Peter summarized finally.

Wong added, "Yes, but we can't just go in there and bring them back here because their physical bodies have been turned into dust,"

"Also, bringing half the population of the universe through portals back to their homes just isn't feasible," Stephen sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "We would need the Infinity Gauntlet to reverse what Thanos did."

"Yeah. We go to the Mad Titan and ask if he gives the gauntlet to us..." Peter joked with a humorless tone. "It would be easier to collect the stones from our universe and bring them here. Thanos dead and no one else is looking for them. Except we know that five of them have been destroyed in a gigantic explosion."

"But are they really destroyed?" Wong asked suddenly.

"What?"

"These stones are nearly indestructible. I'm not sure if a simple explosion could break them."

"A simple explosion? That blast was strong enough to demolish a celestial body double the mass of our moon and kill Iron Man!" Stephen had screamed the last sentence without noticing.

Wong looked at him with sad eyes.

"Spare me your pity, Wong. I don't need it!"

"I think you should talk to someone about this."

"Thank you, Wong. If I need a life coach, I know where to find you," Stephen snarled sarcastically.

The librarian shook his head, but he left the subject for the moment.

"What I meant is: Those stones are tough enough to outlast the blast of a supernova. I fear if that explosion were big enough to destroy the stones, there wouldn't be anything left of your earth either. It would have wiped out the whole solar system."

Stephen felt a chill run through his heart. He hadn't thought about that before.

"We have to make sure it is still there!" Peter said panicked.

Stephen nodded, put on the sling ring and started to draw a circle into the air, but nothing happened.

"What's wrong?" Wong asked.

"I don't know. I cannot get through. Something is blocking me."

Peter whimpered, "It's gone?"

"No! It is not gone! I can feel it! It is there... but I can't reach it..."

"Are you sure?" Wong inquired.

Strange nodded.

"How can you be so sure?"

"I can't explain it. I simply know it, deep in my soul." Stephen looked at his hands and shook his head. "Maybe I'm just too tired to cross the barrier between universes. We should get some rest. We’re supposed to meet the Avengers in less than six hours, after all.”

“That might be a wise decision,” the librarian agreed.

Strange stood and walked to the exit. "Will you come with us to the meeting?"

"If you want me there."

"Thank you." Without another word, he left.

“Good night, Wong," Peter said quietly and followed him.

Chapter Text

After three hours of fitful sleep, the sorcerer supreme gave up the hope of getting a good night's rest. Too many thoughts kept him awake, and the knowledge that he was unable to get home caused him so much anxiety, that it was impossible for him to find the rest he desperately needed.

After he had tried to mediate –which didn't work– he went for a walk through Kamar-Taj. He wandered around aimlessly for a while until he stood in front of the building where they held Mordo captive.

Strange hesitated for a moment before he broke the magic seal which locked the door. Inside was a sparsely furnished room with a bed, a desk, and a window. Mordo sat on the bed and looked at the unexpected visitor.

"What do you want, Strange? Are you here to enjoy your victory?"

"No. I'm here to bargain," Stephen answered and smiled at the joke only he understood.

"Bargain?"

"Yes. I want to negotiate a truce between you and the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj."

"Are you even authorized to do that? Do they accept you as the sorcerer supreme?" Mordo taunts.

"It doesn't matter if they do. The Vishanti did. That's all I'm concerned about."

Mordo snickered and shook his head. "I know you well enough to realize this is not true. It annoys you that they don't accept your authority without questioning every word of you."

"You don't know me at all. Technically you've never met me before." Strange drew the rune Wong showed them earlier and immediately started to emit blue light.

"What does that mean?" Mordo asked bewildered.

"I'm not the Stephen Strange you know. Peter and I came by accident from a parallel universe. One that is much better than this one, as far as I'm concerned."

"Then, why don't you return to your universe, if that one is so much better, Strange?"

Stephen didn't answer.

"Oh, I see... You cannot. It's too difficult for the great sorcerer supreme to find the universe he belongs to again?"

"No! I know exactly where to go! Something blocks me. I can't reach it."

"Are you sure about that, Strange? Couldn't it be your own mind that blocks your way home?" Mordo tilted his head. "Is it your fear that traps you here? Or does something else hold you back? Something that is missing in your oh so much better universe?"

Stephen felt caught and exposed, but he tried his best to hide it. He put on a mask of indifference and sat on the table. "I'm not here to let you taunt me," he said calmly.

"Then why are you here, great sorcerer supreme?"

"To ask for your help," Strange admitted.

Mordo's mocking smile turned serious. "I cannot help you, Strange. I would never be able to find the right universe in the endlessness of the multiverse. You are the only one who can do that because only you know where you belong."

Stephen was taken aback by Mordo's sudden compassion. "That is not what I want to ask of you," he explained slowly. "I wanted to ask you to take my place as keeper of the Sanctum Sanctorum."

"Why me? Why give me a second chance?"

"Because I owe you. Without you, I would have died in the streets of Kathmandu years ago. I don't want you to think that I'll ever forget that. The path you chose is wrong, and the things you have done since our ways parted are cruel, but I don't think you are beyond redemption. Right now every sorcerer is needed to keep the world safe and a substantial part of the blame why there are so few left these days is on you. What is your answer?"

"Why would you trust me, Strange?"

"Who says I do? I trust Wong to keep an eye on you."

"Fair enough," Mordo mumbled. "In this case, I accept your offer. I will guard the New York Sanctum in your absence."

"Good!" Strange hopped off the table and tugged his robes in order. "I'll discuss the rest of the details with Wong."

He was already at the door when Mordo called after him, "I hope you'll find whatever it is you are looking for."

Stephen didn't answer. He just nodded and left.

Chapter Text

Here I proudly present to you: The brand new cover for this fic. (click on it to view it in full size)

 

Chapter Text

Tony Stark was nervous.

But why should I be nervous, he wondered.

He went to Greenwich Village because he needed to consult a sorcerer.

Do I really need that? he asked himself. Or do I just want to see him again?

That made no sense. Tony didn't even like the guy. He was pretentious, arrogant, irritating and incompetent.

...and mysterious and fascinating...

After their encounter in the park, he had googled the name Stephen Strange and learned about the brilliant neurosurgeon, who had been involved in a tragic car crash. All the other mentions of Stephen Strange he found online had been medical articles of Strange's work and research papers spanning a decade before the accident, but after the crash, he had vanished completely off the grid.

In Tony's opinion that was a real loss. He was fascinated by the research of the doctor and how he had progressed the field of neurology.

Ever since Extremis the engineer had secretly tried to reincorporate the controls of his armor more and more into his own nervous system, to reduce reaction time and to improve the communication speed between his brain and the suit. Of course, he hadn't told anyone about this. Especially not Pepper. He knew she would have freaked out if she discovered that he had started to experiment on himself again.

Not that it was any use. Eventually, she had found out,  and she had given him an ultimatum: Either he would stop 'this stupid shit,' or she would leave him for good this time. In his efforts to build a better armor and to be able to protect his loved ones better, he wouldn't compromise, not this time. He knew there was something out there. He knew there was a big thread that he couldn't name. It lurked in the darkness of space, but nobody believed the engineer.

Tony shook himself and returned to the present. Best not to dwell on that now, there would be time for this later. Now, he had a different goal.

When Tony finally arrived at the address, the wizard had given him, he couldn't help, but feel a bit disappointed. It was just a slightly fancy looking building in a nice neighborhood.

Idiot, he thought, what exactly did I expect? A spooky castle with a magical aura or something?

He went to the entrance and rang the doorbell. After a while, a man who was apparently not Stephen Strange opened the door.

"Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for a Dr. Stephen Strange?"

"And who shall I say wants to see him?"

Tony looked at the man, dumbfounded. "You know who I am. Who are you?"

"I'm Wong."

"Wong... And what else?"

"Just Wong."

"Like Madonna? ...or Cher?"

Wordless and out of the blue, Wong slammed the door in Tony's face. The shocked engineer could hear him yelling inside.

After a minute or two, the door was opened again, this time by a very bewildered Stephen Strange himself.

"Mr. Stark? What did you do to Wong?" He looked around as if he was searching for another person.

"I don't know," Tony answered confused. "What did he say?"

"I didn't understand most of it, but it sounded like 'may the Vishanti have mercy on me, now there're two of them!'"

"And does that make any sense to you?"

Stephen just shrugged. "Not really." Then he smiled at Tony. "Nevermind, what can I do for you, Mr. Stark?"

"Call me Tony."

"You came here, all the way to Manhattan, to tell me to call you Tony?"

"What? No! I'm just..."

"Just joking."

Tony pulled himself together and replied as casually as possible, "I knew that."

That caused Stephen to laugh. "Of course, you did. So, what can I do for you... Tony?"

"There is this old piece of parchment that we found last week. Keeps behaving weirdly. You know, glows and stuff. So I thought it'd be a good idea if you had a closer look at it, to be sure that it's not dangerous or something."

"Oh? Then come on in! I'm happy to examine it for you."

He stepped back and motioned Tony to follow him. Behind them, the door slammed shut.

Tony looked around in awe. "Yes, this is more what I expected - creepy castle."

"What?"

"Nothing." Well, the cozy kind of creepy castle, actually.

There was a small fireplace surrounded by comfy looking chairs beside the impressive stairway and Tony couldn't help, but think how lovely it would be to sit there with the sorcerer to read some of the old books on the bookshelf there.

"This way." Strange walked past the fireplace to a grand double door, where he waited for Tony. "I'm sorry, I didn't expect any visitors. It's a bit messy. The trees in the living room need to be trimmed, but honestly, I like them a bit wild." He opened the door. "Oh, and beware of the bats in the old dead trunk over there. They don't like to be disturbed. Pesky little critters."

Tony followed him skeptically, but even the words of the sorcerer hadn't prepared him to the weirdness of the room. It looked like someone had put their living room furniture into a forest. There was a fireplace that was bigger than the one in the foyer and antique looking chairs and sofas, precious old carpets on the floor and bookshelves on every wall, but in between grew huge, ceturies old trees.

Tony looked up to see how tall they were, to realize that this room had to be higher than the entire building.

"Doc?"

"Yes?"

"This house... Is it inside bigger than outside?"

"That depends entirely on your definition of 'inside' and 'outside'."

"Of course." Tony nodded. "I mean, why the hell would I want a clear answer to my question?"

Strange just shrugs. "I know it's weird. But in my line of work there sooner or later comes the point, when you stop questioning those things."

The room behind the living room was disappointingly ordinary. It had a large wooden desk in the center and shelves on the walls, where a crude collection of scientific instruments and artifacts from all over the world was on display, but overall it was surprisingly tidy and clean.

"You can put your parchment here." Smiling, Strange pointed at the desk.

Tony pulled a small metal tube out of his pocket, unscrewed the cap and took out a piece of parchment. It was approximately ten by five inches in size and covered in unreadable scribbles. When Tony tried to flatten it with his hand, it began to emit a bluish glow.

"Interesting," commented Strange. "You can see the glow?"

"Yes, why?"

"Not many people are able to see magic, only the ones with the gift for the mystical arts – and even then, most of them have to practice this ability to be able to see." He sounded intrigued.

"You mean I shouldn't give up the hope that one day I might get my letter from Hogwarts after all?"

"To say you are force-sensitive would describe it better," Strange clarified.

"So you're telling me that you wizards are secretly Jedi? Using the Force to protect the galaxy..." Tony joked.

"You would be surprised how often the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj have saved our reality, without you even realizing that it was in danger."

"You're kidding me, right Doc?"

"Nope."

Tony thought, he should be more worried by these revelations, but he was lost in the beautiful gray-blue eyes of the other man.

What is wrong with me? It's like I'm fifteen again.

He tore his gaze away from Strange, and the wizard turned his attention back to the scroll. With a movement of his hands, he opened the eye in the amulet he wore, which cast green light onto the parchment.

"What is that?"

"The all-revealing light of the Eye of Agamotto. It helps me to analyze the spell on your parchment." Carefully, he took it into his hand to have a closer look. After a moment he began to smile. "You don't need to be worried. The spell on this document is just for protection. As long as you don't try to damage it, it is harmless."

"Why would somebody go to such lengths to guard a piece of parchment? Can you read what's written on it?"

The doctor nodded. "It is a love letter," he answered with a distant smile, while he ran his fingers gently over the tattered edges of the letter, "and going by the state it's in, the addressee carried it with them wherever they went."

Tony looked at Strange, and his smile touched something in him.

So, the Doc is a romantic.

"It is a beautiful piece. Would you consider selling it, Tony?"

"You want to buy it?"

"An elegant spell like this would fit very well into my collection." He motioned to the sideboard.

"I'll give it to you for free." A stupid idea struck Tony. "Under one condition."

Strange furrowed his brow. "What condition?"

"A date. With me," Tony babbled before he could lose his courage.

"Deal!" blurted Strange instantaneous. He seemed surprised by his own answer.

"Good. It's a date, then."

"Great!"

They nodded both and grinned awkwardly.

"I should go now. Thank you for your help, Doc."

"You're welcome, Tony. Any time." He moved to the door. "Come on. I'll show you out."

 

In the big entrance hall, just as Strange was getting the door for Tony, the doctor turned and said, "I'm free tonight."

"What?"

"Our date. I am free tonight, so if you want..."

"I didn't expect you to be so eager to see me again."

Strange tried (and failed miserably) to act indifferent. "Maybe I simply want this to get over with. Contrary to your belief you are not the greatest thing since hulk-proof stretch pants."

"I invented those."

"Of course you did..."

Tony just grinned and shook his head. "Tonight is great. I'll pick you up at eight PM?"

"Sounds good."

They shared a smirk, then Tony stepped outside.

"I'll see you, Doc."

"Call me Stephen!" The sorcerer winked and closed the door.

Grinning like an idiot, the engineer floated on a cloud of endorphin back to his car.

I think he likes me.

 

 

 

The time until evening passed in a flash because there were so many things Tony had to take care of. He instructed F.R.I.D.A.Y. to book a table in his favorite restaurant, argued for an hour with her about his outfit for the evening, organized a small private concert just for two, and last, but not least he had to tell Peter that he had a date.

"You? A date? Do I know her?"

"Yes, you know him. It's the weird wizard from the park."

"Good for you. I didn't think you were..."

"Bisexual?" Tony interjected.

"...over Pepper yet."

"Oh... Well, I think I'll never get over her entirely. But it's no use – I have to move on."

Peter smiled sadly. "Have fun. Just don't do anything I would do and definitely don't do anything I wouldn't do. There’s a little grey area there, and that’s where you operate."

Tony grabbed his head with one hand and slung the other one around the boy's shoulder to hug him. "Thanks, Kid." He ruffled Peter's hair and turned to leave. At the door, he paused to ask, "Do you plan on going out tonight?"

The 'doing Spider-Man stuff?'-part of his question was unspoken but heavily implied. It always was.

"Maybe, why?"

"You have school tomorrow, so don't stay out too late. And I'll inform Rhody to be on standby if you need someone."

"Tony, I don't need a babysitter!"

"I know you don't need a babysitter, but isn't it a nice thought that there is somebody you can call, in case you need help?"

"...Yes. You're right. Thank you."

"You're welcome, Kid," he replied and was already through the door.

 

 

 

Three minutes before eight Tony rang the doorbell.

Now I have at least a reason to be nervous.

This time it was Stephen who opened the door.

Wow!

Tony's mind went blank.

The sorcerer was dressed in a midnight blue suit, which looked stunning on his pale skin. Underneath he wore a tight, white shirt without a tie. The top buttons were casually undone, so Tony had a great view of his long, slender neck.

"Wow, you look like the male lead in one of those cheesy romance movies."

"You're not so bad either, Mr. Stark."

Tony was glad he had chosen this particular tailor-made suit. Although it was a bit last season, he loved it. It was a dark grey, the material felt silky soft, and the pants were very tight in exactly the right places. He knew he had a great butt, so why not show it?

"You ready?" the billionaire asked, grinning.

"Yes, I'll only grab my coat, then I'm with you."

That sounded reasonable, it was nearly December, after all. Moments later Stephen stepped out, wearing a long crimson red coat with golden buttons. Going by the color and patterns of the fabric, Tony suspected that the sorcerer had transformed his cloak. When the collar waved at him, he knew for sure.

Stephen's eyes followed Tony's gaze. "I think it likes you."

"That's good to know." The engineer wasn't sure what to think about this statement. He decided to ignore it for the moment and cleared his throat and looked at Stephen. "Shall we go? My car's down the road."

The doctor hesitated.

"What's wrong, Merlin?"

"Cars... I am not overly fond of those since..." He lifted his scarred and shaking hands. "Accident."

Of course! That car crash!

Tony felt stupid. He believed he should have predicted that the man would have a problem with cars after such a horrific experience. After all, the billionaire knew very well what dealing with a trauma felt like.

"I'm sorry. I didn't think, Stephen."

But the doctor shrugged his shoulders. "That's not that big a problem. I could portal us if you give me the address."

"Or we walk. It's not far away."

Stephen smiled. "Yes, why not."

They stopped by Tony's car so that the engineer could get his coat before they set out for the restaurant. On the way, they talked about nothing in particular: just a bit small talk about the weather, and the progress of the renovations of Stark Tower and Tony's son Peter.

"I wanted to sell the Tower," Tony explained, "but Pete goes to school here, and he had to cope with enough changes... I know, Manhattan is not Queens, but it's at least closer than the compound upstate."

"When will you move back?"

"To the tower?" Tony scratched his head. "Our apartment should be ready in about two weeks. Why?"

"I like the thought of having you closer."

"You can teleport instantaneously everywhere on earth."

"Nonetheless, it feels nice to have you close," Stephen insisted.

Those words kindled an unexpected warmth in Tony's chest, so unlike the cold glow of his arc reactor.

They arrived at the restaurant – which was ridiculously expensive and hip – and a waiter brought them immediately to a secluded table next to a window.

Stephen looked at all the patrons on the bar who waited for their tables and chuckled while shaking his head.

"Something wrong, Doc?"

"No, everything's perfect. I think I've been here before." He looked Tony in the eyes. "Even at my best times as a famous neurosurgeon, I had to book a table here six months in advance... and you, Tony Stark, can just call, say you need something for tonight, and they are: 'Sure, whenever you like!'"

"I don't know. F.R.I.D.A.Y. made the call."

The look Stephen gave him, told Tony that this wasn't the right answer. "What do you want me to say? I know the owner. He owes me a favor. No biggie." Tony shrugged.

"Is there anyone in this city who doesn't? …Owe you a favor, I mean."

"I don't quite understand. What are you implying, Stephen?"

Stephen stared down at his hands. "Well, isn't it obvious? Without you, there wouldn't be much of a city left. This is a fucking biggie!" He looked up, into Tony's eyes with such intensity that it felt as if he could stare straight into his soul and there was this unexplainable warmth in Tony's chest again. "I was here when the Chitauri attacked New York. I had snuck on the roof of the hospital to have a cigarette – as you can imagine, it was a busy day – where I had the best view in town and I saw the bomb flying towards the city. At that moment I was resigned to die, but I didn't," he paused, "because Iron Man flew it through the sky portal-thing and saved us." He took one of Tony's hands into his. "You've been my hero ever since."

Tony swallowed. "You're welcome." Touched, he stared into the menu, but he didn't let go of Stephen's hand.

The rest of the evening flew by like minutes. It was so easy to talk to the doctor and so much fun to listen. After their meal, they went to the jazz club where Tony had organized the private concert, to realize that Stephen was not into jazz.

After half an hour he practically begged, "Please, Tony, this is awful. Let us go!"

Giggling and armed with a bottle of whiskey, they headed out into the cold November night. Outside, Tony started to shiver.

"Damn those cold New York nights. Man, sometimes I miss Malibu."

The sorcerer lifted one hand and made a circling motion with the other one until a ring of sparks appeared in front of them.

"What's that?"

"After you, Mr. Stark," he said, grinning.

Cautiously, the billionaire stepped into the ring of light. A mild breeze greeted him on the other side. The air smelled of saltwater, and he could hear the sound of waves. When he looked around, he realized that this was the place where is Malibu mansion had been.

"How did you know the address?"

"Tony, you told it the whole world in front of hundreds of TV-cameras and news reporters."

"Right. I forgot that part." He turned back to Stephen. "But why do you remember?"

"Eidetic memory. I remember things."

"Neat."

"There are things I wish I could forget."

"Yeah. I know the feeling." He shed his coat, put it on the ground and sat down on it.

Stephen was shocked. "Tony! That thing is worth several thousand dollars! You can't just use it as a picnic blanket!"

"Why not? Do you want me to ruin my favorite suit? Come here; there's enough space for both of us." He patted the vacant spot beside him.

Sighing, Stephen sat down beside him.

Tony took a big swig off the bottle and handed it to the doctor, who accepted it and sipped carefully. "How barbaric to drink stuff that expensive straight out of the bottle."

Tony just shrugged.

Stephen looked around. "Why didn't you rebuild it?"

"Dunno. I think... well, my life's in New York now. It felt wrong to move back here. But man, I miss the place! I miss J.A.R.V.I.S., and I miss how easy and uncomplicated things used to be, back then. You know, back when you clearly could tell who the bad guys were, and your friends had your back." He took another mouthful of whiskey and gave the bottle back to Stephen.

"I'm sorry, Tony. Now I killed the mood. That wasn't what I had in mind when I brought you here." He ran his hand over the red fabric of his coat and slowly, it changed back to its regular form. "How about a magic carpet ride over the sea?"

"Are you kidding, Doc?"

"No. Cloakie is strong enough to carry two people."

"Cloakie?"

"Well, I know it is not the most creative of names, but you'll have to agree that 'Cloak of Levitation' is a rather a mouth full."

"Right, Cloakie is much more snappy."

"So, what do you think, Tony?"

"Yeah, no thank you, I'll pass."

"Afraid of flying?"

"I am Iron Man!"

"You have no idea what flying really is like unless you have felt the wind in your hair and the starlight on your skin... unlike you in your tin can, all shielded and disconnected." He stood and offered Tony a hand to help him up. "I can show you the world." He sung.

"Shining, shimmering splendid?" Tony answered also singing.

"Tell me, princess, now when did you last let your heart decide?"

The man knows his Disney movies, hu?

"Why am I the princess?"

"Because you're the one in the golden cage with all the money and I'm the poor beggar with the magic carpet... and you have the most beautiful brown eyes I've ever seen."

Now, Tony started laughing and took the offered hand. "You must have been a lady's man in your time."

"Are you kidding? I was an asshole before the accident! No one liked me. Not even me liked me."

Tony felt a slight sting in his chest. That sounded far too familiar. But it seemed that Stephen was already a bit drunk and hadn't realized what he had just said.

"You sure this is a good idea, with all the booze you've had?"

"Don't worry. I'm not the one who's doing the flying, and Cloakie is perfectly sober! Y'know, it really likes you. Consider that as a compliment. Usually, it is very picky who it likes."

"It likes me? You talk about it as if it was a person."

Tenderly Stephen stroked the cloak. "Let me tell you, this magnificent piece of magical clothing has more personality than most of my colleagues back in the day when I was a surgeon!"

"I think I'm beginning to understand why they didn't like you..."

"Touché!" He shed the cloak. The fabric spread itself and floated two feet above the ground.

"Come on! I promise you it's perfectly safe."

Uneasy, Tony climbed on the cloak and sat down. Stephen took a seat behind him and wrapped his arms firmly around the engineer.

Slowly, Cloakie rose up. When it reached a certain height, it started to move forward, over the cliff and towards the sea. At first, its movements were cautious and gentle, but as Tony began to relax gradually, it grew bolder, performing increasingly complicated maneuvers in the air.

...and all the time Stephen didn't let go of him. He was a firm presence behind him, radiating a feeling of both safety and serenity.

When the cloak stopped near the ground after a particularly wild looping, Tony hopped off and screamed, "Wow! That was fun! What do you wanna do now?"

The doctor had this soft smile on his face, as he walked closer to Tony. "I think I want to kiss you..." He stepped into Tony's personal space and put his arms on the engineer's shoulders.

"Sounds like a stupid idea."

But Stephen had already leaned in and connected their lips. His goatee felt bristly on Tony's face, and the billionaire realized that it had been ages since he kissed another man.

He put his arms around Stephen's waist to pull him closer.

"'s not so stupid now, is it?"

"Shut up and kiss me, Doc." He took Stephen's face in both hands and pulled their lips back together. The doctor relaxed and let him take control. Shaking hands made their way underneath Tony's jacket and slowly began to stroke his sides. With a small outcry, Tony leaped forward.

"What was that, Mr. Stark?"

"Ticklish..."

"Well, well, what a shame if someone took advantage of this." Now he began to tickle on purpose.

The engineer began to laugh and pushed him away.

"You are a menace!" He stepped backward, away from Stephen, but he tripped and dropped on his butt.

"Tony! Are you okay?" the doctor asked concerned. With two steps he was at Tony's side and helped him up.

Tony rubbed his hurting rear. "Yes, only hurt my pride."

"I'm so sorry, Tony!"

"Wasn't your fault, Doc."

Awkwardly, they stood in front of each other, the magic of the moment was entirely lost.

"We should go home. It's late..."

Stephen nodded reluctantly. He walked over to Tony's discarded coat on the ground, picked it up and handed it to him. He tried to hide his disappointment, but Tony wouldn't have none of it. Determined, he grabbed Stephen and pulled him into a tight embrace.

"I would ask if you want to come with me to my place, but I live currently with a bunch of Avengers, some of which have absolutely no clue about the concept of privacy."

"Oh... I see... You know I live in a massive building, all by myself?"

Tony laughed, "...and?"

Stephen's voice dropped even deeper than usual, as he said seductively, "We could go to my place and enjoy the privacy there."

"Well... when you put it like that, how could I refuse?"

Stephen opened a portal, and hand in hand they walked through it.

Chapter Text

Another three hours later Stephen stepped nervously through a portal to the Avengers Compound, Peter and Wong at his side.

To protect Spider-Man's secret identity, they had decided to introduce Peter as a sorcerer from Kamar-Taj and dressed him in the robes of a novice.

Stephen sighed and mumbled, "This is going to be awkward."

"What do you mean?" Wong asked.

"Since I couldn't sleep, I looked into a couple of news sites to find out where this universe differs from ours. It seems like Iron Man and Captain America have not once met since the whole disaster with the Sokovia Accords."

"Yes. Possible. Why is this a Problem?"

"Because that means we are about to witness the first meeting of them since the Avengers split up. You know, fun."

"In our world, they met three months ago for the first time since then, and Stephen is right, it was painful!" Peter summarized.

Stephen clenched his teeth. "I'd prefer not to experience this a second time, especially since my own opinion on the matter is a bit – let's say – complicated."

He led them to the conference room and looked around to see who was present. The room was nearly empty.

Only Nebula stood by the window and looked outside, while Tony and Pepper had taken a seat at the conference table. They looked up when the sorcerers entered the room.

Peter was shocked. "Where is everyone?"

"They're on their way from Wakanda, but the Quinjet is delayed. We expect them any minute now," Pepper told them.

Stephen glanced at Tony and was glad to notice that the billionaire looked much better than the day before: His injuries had been treated, and he wore a dapper dark grey three-piece suit with a red tie and light blue sunglasses.

He didn't look up when they approached the table.

"Hey there, how are you, Tony?" Stephen asked tensely.

"I've been worse," Tony answered quietly and grabbed Pepper's hand.

The doctor felt the need to hug the other man, but he was aware that this would have been utterly inappropriate at this moment. An awkward pause followed.

Thankfully, this was the moment when F.R.I.D.A.Y. announced that the Quinjet asked for permission to land.

"Permission granted. Bring them down on landing platform three. We'll be there to greet them," Tony replied and stood up, without letting go of Pepper's hand.

Outside was it was quite chilly for a summer morning. Tony waited with Pepper hand in hand and gazed at the landing Quinjet. Nebula and the sorcerers remained in the back and observed. As the jet reached its final landing position, Stephen held his breath, not knowing who would step out.

Slowly, the escape hatch opened, and Pepper put her arm around Tony's shoulder, while the last remaining Avengers stepped onto the landing pad:

Steve Rogers, followed by Natasha Romanoff, Bruce Banner, James Rhodes, and a dressed, bipedal raccoon. A girl, who was roughly Peter's age, accompanied them. Judging by her clothes and the dark shade of her skin Stephen assumed she was from Wakanda. She was accompanied by a female warrior with a shaven head and a spear.

To look at this small procession was sobering to Stephen: including Tony, there were only five Avengers left – and every one of them seemed utterly defeated.

Rogers marched over to Tony and stopped right in front of him.

Stephen expected the worst. He remembered the accusations, the screaming and the arguments when his Tony and his Captain America met the first time after Siberia. And the doctor recalled the exact moment when he thought about the oath he had given to cause no harm and just said 'screw it' to himself before he punched Steve Rogers in the face. Of course, this had been a bad idea. His hand had hurt like hell for a week, and he wasn't sure if Rogers had even felt it. Well, sometimes even the Sorcerer Supreme does stupid things out of love. He had felt so hurt on Tony's behalf, even if he understood the motivation behind most of Rogers' actions.

Most. Not all of them.

He braced himself for a storm, but it didn't come. Stark and Rogers stood in front of each other, while nobody dared to make a move until Tony pulled off his sunglasses, threw his arms around Cap and started sobbing. Rogers was taken aback for a moment, then he hugged back, and he too began to cry.

"Steve, I couldn't save them. I failed," the inventor wept.

Stephen's heart broke anew for the man who wasn't his husband. He wanted to be there for Tony, comfort him, or at least take Pepper's hand, or hug Rhodey, who shed silent tears in the back. He wanted to support the people he considered his closest friends, but he couldn't because Stephen was a stranger to them. So he turned to the only person he had left and put his arm around Peter's shoulder.

"I didn't expect this," Wong said in a low voice.

"Neither did I. But let's look at the bright side: Maybe now we can look towards the future instead of fighting over things that cannot be changed. That would be... more efficient."

It took a while, but eventually, Tony and Rogers parted. They looked each other in the eyes, wiped away the tears and led the group into the building to the conference room.

Chapter Text

 

When everybody had taken a seat, Stephen peered over the table to Tony who stared with sad eyes into the room. The engineer must have felt his gaze because he pulled out his glasses and put them on.

Suddenly, a portal opened behind Wong and Stephen.

One of the masters of Kamar-Taj stepped through and stopped startled when the remaining Avengers and the visitors from Wakanda raised their weapons, ready to attack. (...and where did the raccoon get this enormous gun from?)

While Stephen cast a protective spell and tried to calm the Avengers down, Wong hissed annoyed, "Now is not a good time! What is the matter?"

"Master Wong, Master Strange there is a problem that requires your presence," the other sorcerer stammered.

"What do you mean?"

"Mordo. He is gone."

"How did that happen?" Wong asked.

"That doesn't matter now," Strange interrupted, "Have you looked for him in the New York Sanctum?"

"No, why would we look there?"

"Check if he is there! If he is, leave him there, if not, report back! And no further interruptions, unless there's a real emergency! And I'm talking end-of-the-world-emergency, understood?"

Clearly, the sorcerer wanted to object, but eventually, he replied, "Yes, Master Strange." He turned and vanished into the portal and left them alone with the battle-ready Avengers.

Captain America demanded to know, "What was that? Some sort of teleport mechanism?"

"It was a magical portal," Strange explained.

"Magic? Really?"

"Is that so difficult to believe, Captain Rogers? In a world where super-soldiers and thunder-gods from outer space exist – is it so unbelievable that magic could be real?" Stephen asked amused.

"I'm sorry, but who are you and what are you doing here?" Rhodey barged in.

"That is a good question, and you deserve an answer. My name is Doctor Stephen Strange. I am a Master of the Mystic Arts and the Sorcerer Supreme of an earth that is very similar to this one in a parallel universe." He pointed at Peter and continued. "This is my son, Peter. We got here by accident."

"I met Doctor Strange before," Bruce Banner stated. "What happened to him, if you are not from this universe?"

"He vanished in the snap." Stephen sat down again. "Just like this Universe's version of Peter." Cautiously, he glanced to Tony, who didn't react. "If there are no objections, I think everyone should introduce themselves to the others and tell how we experienced the last couple of days, to get a more comprehensive picture of the events." He looked around, and nobody disagreed. "Good. It is only fair that I shall begin." Stephen told the others everything that had happened to them from the morning when Bruce Banner crashed through the roof window of the sanctum and the ensuing fight on Titan to the encounter with the astral form of the other Stephen.

"You mean there is hope? To bring them back?" asked Steve Rogers aloud.

To bring Bucky back? was the question, that Stephen read in his face.

"It is not impossible," answered Strange cautiously. He didn't want to raise false hopes. After all, despite what the other Stephen had told them, there was no guaranty that they even had a chance to succeed.

After that, they told their stories, one after the other: Rocket, the talking raccoon, explained how the Guardians had picked up Thor after Thanos had destroyed the ship of the Asgardians and how he traveled with him to Nidavellir to create Stormbreaker.

The next to speak was Steve Rogers. He reported about the assault on Scarlet Witch and Vision by the Children of Thanos.

Nebula told how Thanos had tortured her to get Gamora to reveal the location of the soul stone to him and how he came back with the stone but without her sister.

Then Bruce Banner took over. He ranted how the Hulk had let him down and that he had to fight in the Battle of Wakanda in the Hulk-Buster Armour.

James Rhodes tried to calm him down and summarized the events of the Battle of Wakanda and the victory of Thanos.

Shuri informed them that she had taken over the position of her brother and was now the queen of Wakanda.

The last one to tell their story was Tony. He explained how his battle on Titan differed from Stephen's: Strange looking into 14 Million possible futures with the time stone, the fight against Thanos, how the mad Titan had thrown a moon at him.

"...and then Strange gave up the stone to save my life. Thanos disappeared, and a short time later everyone except Nebula and I turned into dust."

Stephen could see that he was struggling to retain his composure.

A couple of deep breaths later Tony finished his recount, "Nebula and I took the ship of the Guardians and came back to earth, where I met the Peter and Stephen from another universe. After that, I did everything in my power, to bring the remaining Avengers back together."

"But where did Thor go?" Peter asked.

"He left earth to search for surviving Asgardians," Rocket explained. "He won't come back."

Nobody dared to speak for a moment; everyone was lost in their thoughts.

"What do we do now?" Banner looked from Stark to Rogers to Strange.

"Perhaps I have a plan," Stephen thought out loud, "and it is as simple as it is impossible."

"What plan?"

"We go to Thanos, get the stones back and undo the snap..."

"That's it? That's your whole plan?" Tony remarked.

"Pretty much, yeah."

"That sounds stupid."

"I know." Stephen nodded. "But do you have a better idea?"

"...No."

Steve Rogers crossed his arms in front of his chest. "So, you suggest we all go to space and fight Thanos to get the stones back?"

"Not all, Captain Rogers. I advise that we keep our group as small as possible. The Avengers are needed here on earth. Someone has to inform the public what happened, coordinate help efforts and overall be the beacon of hope people need right now."

"What? You want to turn us into a symbol?"

Stephen considered that for a moment. "Yes, I think so, Captain Rogers."

"But we are so few!" Bruce Banner interjected. He sounded desperate.

"No." Shuri, queen of Wakanda, stood and spoke. "The Nation of Wakanda will stand at your side!"

"As will the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj!" Wong looked at Shuri. "It is time for us to step out of the shadows."

Stephen felt a lump in his throat and had to swallow. Wong's offer touched him because he knew how substantial secrecy was for the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj.

"And who goes to space?" Rogers aimed to sound business-like, but Stephen could hear in the wavering of his voice how touched he was.

"Nebula and Rocket would be the obvious choice. Also, I should accompany them," Stephen answered.

"I'll go with you!" Peter said.

"No! You stay here!"

"But..."

"No discussion! We're going to talk about that later." The cold glare in Stephen's eyes told Peter that the doctor wouldn't allow any further discussion of the matter at the moment.

The others had witnessed their exchange awkwardly.

"I'm gonna go with you," Tony stated out of the blue.

"No!" Pepper and Stephen shouted in unison.

"The Avengers need Iron Man," Stephen pointed out.

"Why?" the billionaire asked deadpan. "Why do the Avengers need me? Rogers and the others have done pretty fine without me the last two years. No one needs me."

"I think the public..." Stephen began, but Tony interrupted him.

"I'm not gonna stay here and let you turn me into the poster boy of the Avengers while you are out there and have all the fun!"

"That has nothing to do with fun!"

"You can't force me to stay behind. Smiling and waving to the crowd like a trained monkey, completely useless, while out there is a war to be fought! I go, and if you don't want me with your little party, I'll go alone!"

The doctor steamed. "You stubborn..."

"I think Stark would be a useful addition to the team," Nebula intervened.

"Yes, let him go. If he wants to fight a war so badly, let him." The resignation in Rogers' voice was unmistakable. It seems Tony's words had touched something in him, but Stephen didn't understand what it was. The eyes of the two Avengers met, and there was an understanding between them that the doctor wasn't able to interpret. "I know how it feels to smile and wave at the crowd when you know you could make a difference if you were out there to do something."

Stephen took a deep breath. "So, I'm outvoted on this topic. Well then, the four of us it is." He turned to Rocket. "How fast can we leave?"

"I would like to check the Benatar over to be safe, but that shouldn't take longer than one or two days."

"Good. That gives me time to make some preparations of my own." Stephen nodded.

After that, they discussed what the next steps for the Avengers would be, how Wakanda and the sorcerers would assist them and so on and so forth.

Stephen spaced out sometime in between. He started to make a mental list of all the things he had to take care of before they started.

When everyone started to get up, he looked around, startled.

"Meeting's over, Stephen." Wong had put his hand on the doctor's shoulder. "I'm going to bring Shuri and Okoye back to Wakanda. We figured that's the fastest way for them to get home."

"Yeah, sounds reasonable. Pete and I go back to Kamar-Taj."

Wong nodded. "I'll see you later, then."

They got up and left the conference room, Peter trailing silently behind them. Once Wong and the others where out of earshot, the teenager confronted Stephen. "That's so unfair! You can't treat me like a child. I'm not twelve anymore! And worst of all, you made me look like a joke in front of the Avengers!"

Stephen felt a pang of guilt when he realized that he had, in fact, embarrassed Peter in front of everyone the boy looked up to. Nonetheless, he wouldn't budge in that matter.

"It is too dangerous! You will stay here, end of story!"

"You didn't say that to Tony..."

"He is Tony Stark! He does whatever the fuck he wants, no matter what I say!

Peter glared at him. "And so will I, because I am Peter Stark!"

"No, you won't, and you'll do as I say because I'm your father!"

"No! No, you're not! Tony was my father, and you adopted me just because of him. So, don't you dare play the daddy-card on me now!" With that, the teen pulled his sling ring over his fingers, conjured a portal and left Stephen standing alone in the corridor.

Chapter Text

After the argument with Peter, Stephen wished he could go somewhere quiet and lonely to be for himself for a while, but he couldn't. He had to check if Mordo did the job he had given him in the Sanctum Sanctorum.

So, for the time being, he shoved his dark thoughts into the back of his mind.

When he was convinced that Mordo would honor his end of their agreement, Stephen returned to Kamar-Taj.

 

He felt horrible. Right now, there was no other way to put it: he messed up big time.

What would Tony have done in his place?

Stephen was convinced that the engineer would have handled the situation with more sensitivity.

How did Tony always know the right thing to say when it came to Peter?

Crushed under all the insecurities he tried so hard to hide, and the feeling of guilt, the sorcerer trotted to the common room to rest. Just as his thoughts got more and more desperate, a friendly voice behind him asked, "You're back already? How did it go?"

In the corner of the room by the fireplace, sat May Parker in a wicker chair, with a book in hand, beaming at him. When she saw his face, she frowned. "What happened? Where's Peter?"

Stephen slumped into the sofa next to her. Curtly, he summarized what had happened in the meeting and afterward, staring at his hands the whole time.

"Why don't you want him with you on this mission?"

He looked up. "Because it is very, very likely that we won't come back. We survived the first confrontation with Thanos only because Tony threw us into another universe!"

"Have you ever considered..." she paused. "I mean this boy – he has lost enough parents for three lifetimes – first his biological parents, then his uncle, ...his aunt and one of his adoptive fathers. You are the only one he has left. Maybe leaving him behind and blindly sacrificing your life 'for the greater good' is not in his best interest."

"But I have to go."

"Why? What do you owe this universe? I mean, don't get me wrong, I appreciate that you are prepared to die in the attempt to bring my nephew back, but this universe is not your business. You just got here by accident."

"Yes, but it's my fault we can't go home. So, if Pete has to live in this universe, it's my obligation to at least make it a good one."

"Have you ever talked to him about that? How you feel?" One look at him told her all she needed to know. "Of course not." She rolled her eyes. "Men!"

"It just didn't come up. We didn't have the time..."

"Oh, that's B.S.! Stop lying to yourself. Again, I know I'm repeating myself here, but you don't owe us anything! However, you have an obligation to this boy, who has already lost so many loved ones! It is your responsibility to care for him, to feed and clothe and love him. You must help him to grow up and become a well-adjusted and healthy adult. That is what you have to do."

"I don't think I'm the right person for that. I... I can't do this on my own. With Tony at my side, all that seemed so easy." He wiped away a tear. "But the prospect that I have to go on all on my own without him is so damn daunting."

She bent over towards him and put her hand on his.

"Believe me; I know how you feel. This feeling, it will never fully go away, but I promise you it'll get easier with time."

Gently, she stroked his cheek and brushed another tear away.

"And you're not alone. You have Peter. He's a pretty great kid."

"But I'm not who he wants."

"What do you mean?"

He ran his hand over his face. "The problem is – I am not Tony Stark."

"I wouldn't see that as a problem. On the contrary: In my book that is a good thing."

He rolled his eyes.

"No, really, there is nothing wrong with not being Tony Stark."

"But I will never have this connection to Peter that Tony had."

"Of course not! You are a different person. You have different connections. There's nothing wrong with that either!"

"It seems so easy for the two of them. They have so much in common, share so many interests... and I... Sometimes I fear that I'll never be part of that. That I'll always be an outsider."

"You have to tell him that, or it will always stand between you!"

"He doesn't talk to me... and he's right. I'm not his father."

"That hurt the most, huh?"

Stephen nodded silently.

"But you are. I mean, who else?"

He glared at her.

"Don't worry about Peter. He adores you! Also, he's never been one to hold a grudge, you know. That's just not in his nature."

"Look how I let him down! I have no idea how to bring us home, and here we have no place to live, I have no income whatsoever – in no way am I able to give him what the son of Tony Stark is used to."

"First of all, he's not a Stark, he is a Parker and as such he's used to much less than you might think. It wasn't always easy for me to keep our heads above water. You, on the other hand, have exceptional abilities. You'll find a job."

"I already have a full-time job, but surprisingly, protecting our reality doesn't pay very well."

"I thought you're a doctor. There should be the possibility to work part-time somewhere."

"And which name shall I use? When we succeed and bring back the Stephen Strange from this universe, who will I be? Who will Peter be?"

"I don't know, but how about we cross that bridge when we come to it? Why waste our energy on problems that may never come to pass?"

A snuffle behind them startled the two.

They turned their heads. "Peter!"

Just a few feet away from them stood Peter with tears streaming down his face. "I didn't know." He wiped his face with the sleeve of his novice robe.

"How much did you hear?" Stephen asked shocked.

"I think pretty much everything you said." He nervously shuffled his feet on the floor. "Listen, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. You are my dad. I just said that to hurt you. I was so angry." Apologetic, he looked at Stephen. "But you are my dad. Sometimes even more than Tony, because you are the grown-up one. Yes, it's easier to talk to him and joke with him, but every time I have real problems I can count on you. You take things seriously and don't make stupid jokes in such moments."

Stephen didn't know how to respond to the first part of Peter's statement, so he did what had become second nature for him: defend Tony. "It's not his fault. That's just a defense mechanism of him. He makes jokes when things overwhelm him."

"I know that, but sometimes his stupid jokes make things. Just. So. Much. Worse. If he means it or not."

"I know."

A long and awkward silence followed this. None of the two knew how to bridge the gap between them.

May shook her head and pointed beside Stephen on the sofa. "Come, Pete, sit down with us."

He nodded and did how he was told.

"Please take me with you when you go. Don't leave me here alone. You're the only one I have left," begged the teen silently after a while.

"What if we die out there?"

"Then we die together. I know you want to protect me, but this is my decision, too. Please give me that. I am not a child anymore. I have powers! I can be useful!"

He sounded so desperate that it broke Stephen's heart. Gently, he took the boy into his arms and hugged him. "I swear, I won't leave you behind. But you have to promise me if it gets dangerous out there, you'll do as I say, no arguments."

"I promise." He buried his face in Stephen's chest and started crying in earnest. It was like a dam was finally broken, and all the pain he had kept back for the last days poured out of him.

Stephen held him and rubbed soothing circles onto his back.

"He really is gone, isn't he?" Peter asked after a while.

Stephen was taken aback by the abrupt change of subject. He pushed Peter a bit away so that he could look him in the eyes, but didn't let go of him. "You mean Tony?"

"Yes. He won’t come back, right?"

"No, I'm afraid, he won't come back."

"And the other one... he's not him."

"You have talked to him? The other Tony?"

Peter nodded slowly.

"It's not his fault, but no, he's not our Tony."

"Everything is so confusing! I can't even really grieve for him because there is this other Tony and it feels like he is still there somehow, but he isn't. He's dead."

Stephen could see how much Peter struggled to articulate this complicated mix of feelings.

"It was so much easier when May died." He looked apologetic to her. "I don't mean easy – it was horrible – but it was clear-cut, like someone slices your arm off – it hurts like hell and perhaps you die from the loss of blood, but at least you know why! There were a body and a funeral and a grave I could visit. But this…" He broke into tears again. "There is this other guy who looks like him and talks like him. He even has his memories, but the most important part is missing."

"The part that loves us," Stephen added.

As Peter nodded, the tears trickled from his nose and chin. Stephen conjured a tissue and handed it to him, which the teen took and blew his nose. Afterward, he leaned his head against the doctor's shoulder.

"Hey, at least we have each other..." Stephen mumbled.

"Yeah, that's good," Peter answered in a low voice.

"When I was young and pictured how my life would pan out, I would never have thought that I'll have a family one day." Stephen mused silently. "I was so full of myself, there just was no room for anything else, least of all children. Thought I'd die alone – a small price to pay for being the best at what I did. Then the accident happened and life as I knew it was over. It took some time, but a wise woman taught me one of the most important lessons of my life: That it's not always about me. So, I decided to devote the rest of my life to a higher goal, chose solitude to serve the greater good. Until life decided to throw me another curveball and this time it wore an Iron Man armor. Suddenly, before I even realized what was going on, I had a family... and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you as much as I loved Tony."

"I didn't know that. You never told me..."

"I know, sorry. Talking about feelings is not always easy for me, but I give you my word that I'll work on it. All this being-a-parent-thing is still pretty new for me."

"I forgive you."

Stephen pulled Peter closer and gently stroked his trembling hand over the boy's back.

Eventually, Peter calmed down. Exhausted, but content they sat by the fire, with Peter’s head leaned on Stephen's shoulder and Stephen's arm around his back. Now that they had finally put their feelings into words, the silence between them wasn’t as awkward as before. After a while, the boy fell asleep. It looked very uncomfortable, but it was so much like him to fall asleep in the most ill-fitting places. The doctor smiled down at his son and stroked his back gently.

"You knew he was standing there the whole time, right?" Stephen asked May.

"Of course."

"Then why didn't you stop me from talking?"

"You needed to say it, and he needed to hear it," she answered with a wise little smile. "You're welcome."

Stephen rested his cheek on the crown of Peter's head. "Thank you."

Chapter Text

"I want Stephen. Flying. In an Iron Man Suit," Tony grinned at the doctor.

Tony and Stephen had been dating for a month when the engineer decided to present the doctor to his family, so he invited him to a movie night at Stark Tower.

It had been a lovely evening, and after dinner, they sat with Peter and Ned, Pepper, Rhodey and Happy in the lounge talking and laughing. Somehow their conversation had evolved into a kind of truth and dare game.

"No. Absolutely not." Stephen shook his head.

"Why not?"

"I have no idea how those things work!"

"I promise you, it's not that difficult. Even Pepper and Rhodey managed it at first try."

"Hey!" Rhodey cried out offended.

"See it as a compliment."

"How is that a compliment, Tones?"

"Well, it's a compliment for the man who created this wonder of technology – with controls so intuitive that even a first-time-user can master them in seconds."

"Oh, Tony!" Pepper sipped at her drink. "Complimenting yourself? That's low, even for your standards."

He looked at her with big Bambi eyes. "But no one else does it..."

"Don't give me that look. It doesn't work anymore."

"You know me too well." He shrugged.

"Indeed. I'm immune to your crap."

The relationship between Pepper and Tony was still on shaky ground. They had decided to be friends again, and this night was something of a test run for them. So far, the results had been promising, Tony thought.

"Come on, Stephen!" Tony cheered and ordered F.R.I.D.A.Y. to bring in the suit. Seconds later the armor marched into the room.

"No, Jim's an Air Force pilot, and Pepper didn't fly in it, she just walked," Stephen specified.

"Your point being?"

"How many accidents did you have until you were really able to fly the thing for the first time?"

Tony shrugged. "Nearly none – also, that doesn't count. That was work in progress."

Stephen glared at him, but the Avenger remained unfazed.

"Come on, Gandalf. It'll be fun."

"In here? You're crazy, Stark!"

"Fine. We're going outside, then."

Stephen shook his head.

"What's the problem, Merlin?"

"I won't put my life in the hands of that thing!"

"Says the guy who expected me to trust a flying blanket with my life."

Behind Stephen, the Cloak of Levitation fluffed itself up in outrage.

"Hey, that's different! Cloakie is sentient. When something goes wrong, I trust it to make the right decisions."

"If you see it this way, the suit is sentient, too. F.R.I.D.A.Y. can control it any time, if necessary."

Stephen closed his eyes and breathed in slowly.

"I could take my spare suit and come with you."

With a sigh, Stephen mumbled, "I hate you."

Tony grinned. "No, you don't. You love me."

"Yes, I do." Stephen shrugged with an amused smile.

It took Tony a second to realize the significance of this statement.

Even though both of them had the impression that this thing between them could develop into something fairly long-term, none of them had dared to confess the other one their feelings.

Tony gaped at Stephen and said, "That's good. Good to know. I do too. Love you, you know."

"Good to know." The doctor nodded, still grinning.

At this moment they became aware that they were being watched.

"This is just disgusting," Rhodey exclaimed. "Pete, promise me, you'll never get as corny as your dad."

The night ended with all of them going outside to the Quinjet landing pad. Tony helped Stephen into the suit, and after a couple of tries the doctor had figured out the controls of the armor. Together they soared through the night sky.

It was such a completely different experience from flying with the cloak. They were able to fly much faster, perform impressive stunts high in the air, yet Stephen knew he was absolutely safe with Tony at his side. The feeling was indescribable.

When they landed, and Tony retracted his helmet to smile at him, while the others applauded and cheered at them, Stephen thought he could get used to this.

 


 

"If you want me to leave Tony alone, I will do that."

Stephen sat with Pepper in a little café close to the Stark Tower. Outside, thick snowflakes kept tumbling down, adding steadily to the white layer on the streets and sidewalks. They were chatting about everything and nothing in particular when he suddenly had become earnest.

"I can see you still love Tony and know he still loves you. If you tell me to go, I will."

She looked angry at him. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Just what I said. If you think you can make him happy, I won't stand in your way... because I don't want to be 'the other woman', if you understand what I mean."

Hesitantly, she reached over the table and took his hand in hers. "I had my chance – we had our chance. It didn't work out. Maybe it was just bad timing – nonetheless, it's over. But I've never seen Tony as happy as he is when you're around. So, I will pretend this conversation never happened. And don't you dare to suggest anything like this ever again, understood?"

With a sheepish smile, he nodded.

 


 

"I want you to move in with us." Lazily, Tony stroked Stephen's back. Naked and in post-coital bliss they lay in Tony's bed. The doctor rested his head on Tony's chest, and the engineer wound his arms around him.

High on feelings, Tony had blurted out his wish, but when the other man didn't answer, his heart sunk. Hurt, he detangled himself from Stephen and turned on his side, facing away from him.

"It's not I don't want to live with you..." Stephen's voice was low and quiet. "But... I am the guardian of the Sanctum Sanctorum. I can't do my job when I live in the Stark Tower. I'm already spending far too much time here."

"I understand," the Avenger spat out bitterly.

"No, Tony. I don't think you do." He tugged at Tony's shoulder; forced the other man to look him in the eyes. "I can tell you without any doubt that I have never in my life loved someone as much as I love you. It would be great if I could move to the Stark Tower, but my place is in the Sanctum. As much as it pains me, this is non-debatable, I'm afraid."

He pulled Tony closer to hug him. The Avenger was a bit stiff, but he allowed it.

"I have a crazy idea," Stephen whispered into his ear. "It's a pretty big building."

"Stark Tower?"

"No, the Sanctum. There are those rooms on the second floor – you know, in the less insane part of the house – they’re a bit separated from the rest of the sanctum, and we could use them as our apartment: There's a kitchen, two bathrooms, another living room – one without trees. Peter could have the bedroom next to the library, and we take the big one with the fireplace. If the interior is too old-fashioned for your taste, no problem, I already talked to Wong, we're allowed to refurbish it to fit our needs. And then, there's the cellar, the one with the beautiful vaulted ceilings – you'd have plenty of room for your workshop there."

"Wait, you're asking me to move with Pete into your madhouse?"

"Yes, I think so."

"You thought about this a lot, didn't you?"

"Of course. I was just waiting for the right moment to ask, but you beat me to that."

"I love you." Tony curled up in Stephen's arms and closed his eyes.

"I know."

"Wait, did you just 'Han Solo' me?"

Stephen just chuckled and hugged him even tighter.

 


 

"Ned said, he wants to marry me," Peter told Tony while the two of them were cooking dinner one evening.

Behind them, on the table sat Stephen and Ned, peeling peas and watching them.

"And what did you say?" asked Tony.

"Of course I said no!"

"Why? Do you think he's just after your money?" Tony turned to eye Ned suspiciously.

"No, he's just after my name!"

Stephen looked at Ned and frowned. "Are you sure that's a good idea? Isn't Ned Stark dead? Sean Bean plays him, so he must be dead, right?"

Slowly, Tony came over to the table and whispered loud enough everyone in the room could hear it, "Don't let him fool you! He still hasn't watched Game of Thrones."

"How can he not have seen it?" Ned and Peter asked simultaneously.

Tony shrugged.

"You know, some people have more important things to do than watching a show about dragons," Stephen stated.

Tony took a spatula out of a drawer and returned to the stove. "Says the guy who started watching Ally McBeal all over again."

Stephen crossed his arms in front of the chest and slumped into his chair. "Oh, shut up!"

 


 

"I want to talk to you, Wong. Do you have a moment?"

Wong was sorting books into different shelves when Tony ambushed him one evening.

"Mr. Stark."

"Oh, call me Tony, after all, we are almost family now."

"You do know that Stephen and I are not related?"

"I wouldn't have guessed," Tony muttered deadpan. "...But you know want people are saying: Sometimes family is a wizard, a billionaire genius, their spider-son, a flying blanket, and a grumpy librarian."

"I've never heard that one."

"Really? People say that all the time!"

"What do you want, Stark?"

"I just wanted to ask if Stephen talked to you about me by any chance."

Wong stared at the Avenger disdainfully. "I do not wish to be involved in the relationship you have with Stephen."

"I understand. But did he ever mention he is unhappy in any way?"

"Please keep me out of this."

Tony ignored him. "In the last few weeks, I had the feeling that he might think this thing we have could be just temporarily and I don't fully commit to him."

Wong sighed and gave in to his fate. "Why would he think that?"

"I don't know... Maybe I wasn't attentive enough. Maybe I didn't show him how much I cared."

Wong's usually stoic face turned grim. "You moved with your son into a building that could potentially kill you, just to be close to him. You started studying the mystic arts for him, even though you despise and distrust magic. Last week you bought a tabloid newspaper and liquidated it because they dared writing the new boyfriend of Tony Stark is way out of his league. Honestly, if he doesn't get the clue, he deserves dying alone."

"Are you sure?"

"Why don't you just marry him?" Wong roared exasperated.

Stunned, Tony looked at him.

"You are a genius!" Excited, he hugged the librarian and ran to the door. "Wong, you are invited to my wedding!"

"Shouldn't you first ask Stephen whether he even wants to marry you before you invite everyone?"

"Right. And a ring!" Tony shouted. "I need a ring!"

With that, he was gone. Wong shook his head and muttered what he could possibly have done to deserve two of them.

 


 

"Tony, we want a dog," Stephen said one evening when they sat together with Wong in the kitchen for dinner.

Tony looked at Peter and Stephen as if they just had stabbed him in the back.

"Listen, Tony... I know you are a cat person, but the truth is: We are not... and we decided we want a dog..."

Tony just stared at them, visibly hurt by their betrayal.

"Honey, please say something."

"How long have you two conspired behind my back?"

"Tony..."

"How long, Stephen?"

"Since you and Peter moved to the Sanctum."

Tony, being the drama queen he was, went down to his workshop and buried himself in his work until the early morning. When he finally came to bed, Stephen curled sleepily around him.

"I just want Pete to have a dog if he wants one. My dad never allowed us to have pets."

"...and you want to be better than your old man," Tony completed his thought.

Stephen nodded, damn him. He knew exactly how good the be-better-than-your-own-father-argument worked on Tony.

 

A week later they went with Peter to the nearest animal shelter, to adopt a dog, because they had decided to give an abandoned dog a second chance instead of buying a new puppy. The employee of the shelter introduced them to a couple of young dogs who would be a good fit for Peter's temperament, but Peter spotted a sad-looking Basset Hound in a kennel in the corner.

"What about him?" he asked the employee.

"Bats? He has been here for a while. His owner, an old woman, died last year. Since then he's been here. Some people wanted to take him in, but they all brought him back because he's not very nice to new people. I guess he misses his old owner so much."

Peter walked over and stopped in front of the kennel. "I want him."

"Are you sure? He's quite old for a dog and has a weak heart. That could result in a large bill for the vet."

Tony put his hand on Peter's shoulder and faced the employee. "Money won't be a problem, believe me."

"Of course not, Mr. Stark."

Hesitantly, the employee opened the kennel, to allow Peter access.

The dog inside trotted to the teenager, sniffing and wagging his tail.

"Hey, Bats! You're a good boy, right?" Peter dropped to his knees and started to pet the dog, who in turn licked his hand.

"That's new..." the employee uttered.

"What do you mean?" Stephen asked.

"Usually he just barks at people. Sometimes he even bites them."

"Why am I not surprised? Everyone loves Peter."

Stephen and Tony looked grinning at Peter, who sat there, the dog in his lap, laughing when Bats started to lick his face.

Stephen took Tony's hand. "I think we found our dog."

 

Bats turned out to be a very calm dog with a charming and protective personality. He got along well with the Cloak of Levitation and adored Christine, Pepper, Ned, Rhodey, and Wong. For some reason, he didn't trust Happy. No one understood why.

Of course, Bats also loved Peter and Tony, but his favorite was, without any doubt, Stephen. He followed the doctor everywhere when he was in the Sanctum. Stephen liked his canine shadow more than he was willing to admit.

 

Until one day, Bats got sick.

No veterinarian was able to tell them what was wrong with the dog. He had stopped eating and didn't like to get touched anymore, but none of the doctors was able to find any physical explanation for his condition.

"If he only could tell us what's wrong!" Peter said one evening sadly.

Stephen got up and ran to his library. When he reemerged in the middle of the night, everyone was fast asleep. He went to the sleeping Bats and petted him softly until he woke up. The dog whimpered silently and tried to get away from Stephen.

With shaking hands, the sorcerer cast a spell on his four-legged friend.

"Now Bats, tell me what's wrong with you."

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"'Cause you're going to be mad at me."

"I promise I won't."

"... really?"

"Really."

"...because I did something you told me not to do..."

"I promise, I won't be mad," Stephen repeated.

The dog looked at him with hopeful eyes. "I licked something in your trophy room, and now my tummy hurts."

"Can you tell me what it was?"

"I can show you." With that, Bats got up and waddled to the study behind the living room with the trees. He pointed with his snout at a scroll on the bottom shelf.

Stephen took it and read what was written on it.

"Oh Bats! You're not sick. Or poisoned. You're cursed!"

"Will I die now, Doc?"

"No! Now that I know what's wrong with you, it's no big deal to lift the curse."

"Glad to hear that."

Stephen sat down, and Bats immediately climbed into his lap. Slowly, the sorcerer petted the dog. His hand began to glow, as he lifted the curse from Bats.

"Better?"

"Hmmm." Bats hummed affirmatively.

Smiling, Stephen kept stroking the soft fur.

"Hey, Doc?"

"Yes, Bats?"

"Since when can you speak Dog?"

"Actually, I can't. That's a translation spell. I still speak English, and you still speak Dog, the spell just translates for us. Neat, don't you think?"

"I like being able to talk to you."

"We could keep the spell, but you have to promise me you won't talk when we're in public."

"Promise! There are so many things I want to tell you and Peter and Tony! And now I can!"

The Cloak of Levitation, who had followed them, settled on Stephen's shoulders, hugging both of them.

"Oh, old friend. So you were worried too..." Stephen ran his fingers over the soft red fabric, feeling at peace with the world.

Hours later Tony found them fast asleep on the floor, wrapped up in Cloakie, one snoring louder than the other.

 


 

"I want to find the Rogue Avengers, Tony."

They were in Tony's workshop one morning. Peter had left for school, Tony tinkered on his newest suit and Stephen lounged on his sofa in the corner of the room. He had put his book down, looking sternly at his husband.

"I mean it, Tony."

"Why would you want that?" Tony stubbornly avoided eye contact.

"You had another nightmare."

"How do my nightmares relate to Steve Rogers and his gang?"

"People who don't know you as well as I do, might think you still have nightmares about Siberia or the battle of New York. But I know what you're really losing sleep over." The doctor's voice was calm and composed, not accusing, just stating facts. "Something's out there, something big - and it's coming. Whatever it is, our chances beating it would improve, if the Avengers were united again."

The engineer looked up, tears in his eyes. "You believe me?" he asked questioningly.

Everyone else had told him the scenarios Wanda Maximoff had put in his head were only that – pictures and nothing else – just mind tricks to unsettle an enemy. Finding someone who finally believed him...

"Tony, why would I doubt you?"

"Everyone else does..."

Stephen looked at him long and sternly, until he got up and engulfed him in his arms. It was an awkward position with Tony still sitting, while the sorcerer stood, but neither of them cared at this moment.

"I'm not everyone else. Please believe me when I say I'll always be at your side if you need me." He massaged Tony's temples and the engineer closed his eyes and leaned into the touch. "Also, I've seen enough weird shit in the last years to know there's always something out there to get us and it will come eventually. We should gather as many allies as we can, while we still can. Captain Rogers and his troop would be a great help, especially Maximoff."

"You think?"

"Yes, and I think we shouldn't stop at that! It would be wise to reach out to Wakanda... and I know you don't want to hear that, but we should contact Hank Pym!"

"Good luck finding him!"

Stephen grinned. "I'm magic. Finding him won't be a problem."

"Yeah, but convincing him to join us – even your magic isn't powerful enough to do that trick!"

"Why is that? Why does he hate you so much?"

"To be fair, I don't think he hates me in particular. He just hates Starks in general because of that vendetta he had with my old man."

Stephen sat on the workbench in front of Tony.

"Then, maybe I should talk to him. Seems we have something in common."

Confused, Tony looked up at him.

"I'm not a fan of Howard Stark either..." Stephen said and took his husband's hand into his. "I know you are conflicted when it comes to your father, but I would punch him in the face if I ever met him."

"No, you wouldn't. You're a pacifist."

"Just because I avoid maiming or killing my enemies, doesn't mean I wouldn't knock Howard down if I had the chance."

He slid off the workbench and sat onto Tony's lap.

That made the engineer laugh. "You always say the sweetest things."

With that, he pulled the doctor's head down and kissed him.

 


 

"I want to know what we do next, Stephen."

Weeks later, Stephen had located the Rogue Avengers, and he and Tony had to decide how to proceed now. Should they hand them over to General Ross, who would punish them for their crimes?

"That's up to you, Tony. I'm not an Avenger. I don't have the authority to interfere in the internal affairs of the Avengers."

"You helped me to find them."

"Well, that was just me being a concerned citizen and helping Iron Man."

"All right then, I'm not talking to the Sorcerer Supreme here; I'm just asking my husband for his advice."

"Okay... My advice is: Renegotiate."

"What?"

"The Sokovia-Accords. Renegotiate the damn accords. If you hand Rogers and the others over to Ross, we would have accomplished nothing. He would lock them away, and if we need them, we first would have to break them out of jail."

"Not turning them in makes sense, but  renegotiating the Sokovia-Accords?"

"Tony, where is the problem? I know you don't believe in the Sokovia-Accords; you never have. I know you just signed them because you feared the UN would force the Avengers to split up – and we both know how well that worked out."

Tony glared angrily at him.

"Oh, don't give me that look! You went against the damn accords the very same week you signed them! I'm sorry Tony, but I'm with Rogers on this one: I think the safest hands are our own, not some government that can be corrupted."

"So, you side with Rogers?" Tony sounded deeply hurt.

"On this matter? Yes. I'm sorry, but yes."

Tony stepped away from him.

"That doesn't mean I think it was okay what he did in Siberia! He should have told you what he knew about the death of your parents. He shouldn't have left you there on your own in a broken armor and without backup or means of transport to get home."

Tentatively, the doctor pulled Tony into his arms.

"He hurt you and that I will never forgive him!"

"What do you expect me to do now?" Tony asked weakly.

"We go and get the Rogue Avengers if they want it or not. You contact Ross. You call Pepper and tell her to hire an army of lawyers, and then we negotiate the accords until every one of us can sign them with a clear conscience."

"You make that sound so easy, Merlin."

"Believe me, it won't be."

"So reassuring. Thank you."

"I don't understand why you didn't do that in the first place. Hire an army of lawyers, I mean. Why did you just sign it without any resistance? That is not the Tony Stark who told a Senate Committee that they had no claim on inventions, years ago."

"Well, I'm not that person anymore. I thought it was right to sign the accords. We needed to be put in check. Sokovia was my fault because Ultron was my fault. At the time it felt like the only option I had."

"Ultron wasn't your fault alone! I think everyone underestimates the Mind Stone. Those Infinity Stones, they have a mind of their own, that's another reason why they are so dangerous."

"Yeah, maybe. But I initiated it."

Tony put his head on Stephen's shoulder. Standing here with the man he loved, cradled in his arms, made it easier to speak about these things.

"You did that because of the things Maximoff put into your head." Stephen shrugged. "I just think it's unfair, to blame you solely when there were so many others involved. You tried your best to make the world safer."

"Tell that to the people who died in Sokovia."

"I know that's not what you want to hear, but you can't always win." He put his hand under Tony's chin and tipped it up, so the Avenger looked into his face. "Look at all the people Iron Man has saved. Peter, myself... without you..."

Tony put his hand on the doctor's mouth. "Please, don't say that. Just hold me."

 


 

"I want you, just for once, to shut up and listen, Steve!" Tony yelled.

With a deep sigh, Stephen buried this face in his hands.

It had been two weeks – Two weeks of Tony shouting at Rogers and two weeks of Rogers screaming back at Tony. Stephen was at the end of his rope. He was tired, he wanted to go home and be alone, but he had promised to stay at Tony's side. So the sorcerer took a deep breath and remained both in his seat and his body. It would have been so easy to escape this room in his astral form, but for Tony's sake, he stayed. Pepper beside him stroked his shoulder comradely.

"I think a break would be in order, to calm down a bit," the chief negotiator stated and looked from Stark to Rogers. When no one disagreed, the man proclaimed, "Two hours lunch break!"

 

Outside the conference room of the Avengers compound, Tony started ranting. "What does he think who he is?"

"Tony, I think he has some very valid points," Pepper said.

The engineer glared at her.

"She's absolutely right, Tony. If they want to have authority over the Avengers, they have to pay for them! This is just not on that they call the shots, while you are still the one paying for everything! If they want the Avengers to be an UN-institution, we are entitled to get funding."

"You're not even an Avenger! What do you care?" Tony hissed at Stephen.

"I will ignore what you just said because I know you are stressed an didn't mean that. But the next time you think you can take your frustration out on me, you will be sorry." He sounded calm, almost casually, but there was a dangerous flicker it the eyes of the sorcerer. "Understood?"

Tony nodded sheepshly.

"Anyways, why are you so adamant they hand over Barnes?" Pepper asked, mostly to change the subject.

Stephen realized Tony hadn't told her about the assassination of his parents by the Winter Soldier.

"He killed my parents," Tony spat out bitterly.

"No, he didn't," Stephen disagreed. "Well, physically he did, but that wasn't his choice, he was brainwashed by Hydra!"

"And you believe this story?"

"I took the time to study the leaked Hydra files. Everything I found fortified Rogers' claims, even if there weren't mentioned names."

"I don't care."

"Why do you insist on blaming him, Tony?"

"Because I want to blame someone! Anyone! Not just some shadowy secret society! I want to hold someone accountable!" Tony yelled.

Stephen put his hand on his shoulder and looked him deep in the eyes. "I know. But he's a victim of circumstance just as you are. He was used as a tool of Hydra against his will."

Tony looked away, but Stephen took his chin and forced him to face him.

"If someone took a hammer and crushed your hand, would you blame the hammer?"

Chewing his lower lip, the engineer shook his head. "No, why would I?"

Stephen didn't answer. He just continued to stare into Tony's eyes.

A weak "I hate you, Gandalf" from Tony was the only indication that he understood the point Stephen was trying to make.

"No, you don't. You love me."

"...Yes, I do."

Suddenly, an excited call attracted their attention, "Look Bats! They're over there!"

Peter, a tray with coffee cups in one hand and the Bat's leash in the other, strolled over to meet them.

"F.R.I.D.A.Y. told us you had a break, so we thought we bring coffee," he explained.

Grinning, he handed everyone a cup. Meanwhile, Bats greeted Pepper, Tony, and Stephen enthusiastically.

"Peter, you are a ray of sunshine on a stormy day," said Stephen, while Tony exclaimed cheerfully, "Yay, Coffee!"

They stood there and chatted when Steve Rogers, Wanda Maximoff, and Sam Wilson entered the hall.

Bats noticed the tense atmosphere in the room immediately. Possessive, the dog moved in front of his family and started snarling at the newcomers.

Stephen tried calming him down, so he missed for what reason Tony and Rogers started shouting at each other again. In the end, it didn't matter, but it caused a chain of tragic events: Hell-bent on protecting his humans, Bats started barking aggressively at Rogers. He crowded Captain America to scare him away, but of course that didn't work.

"Get your stupid dog away from me!"

Peter and Stephen tried to appease the dog, but Bats had torn off his leash and bit Rogers in the leg.

Out of reflex, the Avenger kicked the animal away, who crashed into the nearest wall.

Before the Basset Hound could attack Rogers again, Maximoff trapped him in a force field, where he started to go berserk.

"Let him out!" Stephen yelled.

"I'm not hurting him! I just hold him back," Maximoff responded.

Stephen could see something was wrong with Bats. "He has a weak heart!"

The barking turned into a pitiful whimper, and the short legs of the dog bucked.

"Let me through!" Stephen forcefully punched his way through the magic barrier of Maximoff, but it was too late to help Bats. Tenderly, the sorcerer took the lifeless body in his arms.

Peter joined him. "Is he...?"

Stephen just shook his head, tears in his eyes. He cradled the dead dog in front of his chest and rose to his feet.

Angry he glared at Steve and Tony. "Do you see now that your dispute only hurts others? Get your shit together and sort this out, for fuck's sake!"

Without looking back, he left the building, with a crying Peter following close behind.

 

Late at night, Stephen lay awake and reviewed the day's events in his mind, silent tears running down his face.

Briefly, he had considered banishing Tony from the bedroom and making him sleep on the sofa, but couldn't bring himself to blame anyone – not even Rogers – for what had happened. It had been just an unfortunate series of events.

"Hey Doc?" a quiet voice above asked anxiously.

The doctor opened his eyes and looked up. Four feet above the bed floated a glowing specter in the shape of a Basset Hound.

"Bats?"

"Yes?"

"What happened to you?"

"I was hoping, you could tell me, Doc."

"You are dead."

"Does that mean, I'm a ghost now?"

"It seems so."

"How did this happen?"

"You had a heart attack."

"No, I mean the-me-being-a-ghost-part."

"I have no idea." He sat up and reached for the glowing phantom, but his hand went straight through it. "Maybe it's a side-effect of the curse you put on yourself recently."

"You sure?"

"It's possible... I'd have to look into this."

After a moment of silence, Bats asked, "...What do we do now?"

"We wake up Peter and Tony and tell them!"

"No. Let them sleep. We surprise them in the morning."

"..Bats?"

"Yes, Doc?"

"I'm glad you're back."

Bats landed on his chest, where he curled up, with his head on Stephen's shoulder.

Before he fell asleep, the sorcerer noticed that the ghost felt a little chilly, but didn't weight an ounce.

In the morning they were woken up by Tony's "Ghost! Ghost!" screams.

Stephen smiled. He realized how strange his life was, but he wouldn't change that for the world.

Chapter Text

"What is this?"

Stephen and Peter stood with Tony in Tony's workshop in the Avengers Compound and stared at a piece of clothing that the doctor held magically in the air. It was mostly black and dark grey but on the chest and back ran white stripes in intricate patterns. Also, there were white stripes along the undersides of the arms, and the gloves had white palms, which created a stark contrast to the dark materials of the rest of the suit. 

Above the center of the chest sat a golden glowing dome, that looked very much like the housing unit for Tony's nanites. Tony tapped it with two fingers, and it began immediately to transform. Within seconds, it had changed into a copy Tony's latest Iron Man armor, but with different colors, because it retained the colors of the suit underneath – dark grey metal with mat silver patterns on the chest and back. Except for the golden gauntlets. 

Peter looked confused. "Wait, where did you get it from? Did you wear it all the time underneath your other clothes?"

"I have magic pockets." Stephen grinned. 

"Wow! Like the handbag of Hermione Granger?" Peter marveled.

Stephen rolled his eyes. "No, I was kidding, it's not magic, It's Pym Particles. I shrunk the suit to fit it in my pocket." 

Tony eyed him skeptically. "Hank Pym gave you access to his shrinking technology?"

"Yes. It took a while, but eventually, he had to admit that Tony is not Howard Stark. We convinced him to sign the New Sokovia Accords, and in exchange, all charges against Pym and his associates were dropped. Tony and Hank are working together since. Great minds that push each other to unprecedented intellectual heights."

Tony shook his head. "Weird."

Stephen grinned. Fondly, he ran a hand over the suit in front of him. "But it doesn't work like the suit of Ant-Man. It's not able to change the size of a person. It shrinks itself for better storage, but in its core, it is a modified model of the Mark L Iron Man Armor." 

"Modified? How exactly? Aside from the colors and the shrinking, I mean."

Smiling, Stephen traced the lines on the chest plate with his hand. "All its electronic parts are specially shielded against magic."

"Why would anyone go through the effort to do that?"

"Because otherwise, the wearer tends to fry the circuits when he casts a spell. I know that. Had some quite painful accidents because of that."

"So, 'The wearer' means you, I suppose?"

The doctor nodded slowly.

"Nice thing, no question. But why are you showing it to me?" 

"I've never worn it in a fight. Tony had no time to complete it."

Tony stepped around the armor to look at it from all sides.

"Looks complete to me..."

Stephen followed him. "The thing is: Because of said specially shielded circuits, Tony didn't manage to fully integrate the A.I. into the suit. See, in the last months, he didn't have the time to tinker on a passion project like this, we were busy to reintegrate the Rogue Avengers into the team."

"So, you want me to look into that?"

"I would appreciate it."

Out of a drawer on the wall, Tony pulled an instrument which he attached to the chest plate of the armor.

"Oh... That's odd." Tony tapped on the display of the gadget.

"What is odd?"

"There is something saved in the memory storage. It looks a bit like the patterns of an A.I., but not quite."

Stephen frowned. "Maybe Tony progressed further than he told me."

"It's not connected to any of the systems of the suit; it's just saved there." Tony looked up. "I could try to connect it. Shouldn't be a big deal."

"Yes, please. Go ahead."

With a nod, Tony started to tap again. Shortly afterward, the nanites of the suit retracted into it their housing unit.

"Rebooting..." Tony mumbled.

The armor formed again over the undersuit. This time it moved on its own accord. It looked around; then tentatively it lifted the arms and gazed at the hands.

"Is this normal?" Peter asked.

Tony shook his head. "Shouldn't move unless you give it a command..."

When they spoke, the head of the armor turned toward them. "Tony? Pete? ...Stephen? Is that you?" It stepped back until it hit a wall, then it dropped on the ground. "Please, help me! I don't know how to get out of here!"

Stephen's eyes went wide. "Bats? Ist that you?"

"Yes, Doc. Who else should I be?"

"Who's Bats?" Tony interrupted.

"Bats is our dog. He's a ghost, and he can talk," Peter explained.

"You have a talking ghost dog?"

"That's a kinda long story..."

Stephen knelt down and gently started to pet the armor. "He vanished two weeks ago. We thought he... moved on. Obviously, we were wrong." To the suit, he said, "How did you get in there, Bats?"

"I was looking for a good place for a nap, and it smelled so nice in here. Later I noticed I couldn't get out."

"Those specially shielded circuits seem to have trapped your ghost dog, once he was inside," Tony mused.

Peter also knelt down by Bats' side. "We have to get him out of there!"

"How? Should we call an exorcist?" Tony suggests.

"No! We're not going to harm Bats!" Stephen roared.

"I'm sorry, but I have no idea how to get him out of there without damaging the armor or him. He has to stay there for the time being."

Stephen rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Great! Now I have an armor possessed by a canine ghost."

With a shrug, Tony tapped something into his tool. "I could make that work..."

"What do you mean?"

"Why program an A.I. from scratch, if you have something very similar, that already likes you and follows your commands? You know, like a dog."

Confused, Stephen looked at him. "What do you mean?" he repeated.

"It seems your dead dog is an energy-based entity, that possessed your suit. Obviously, he is already able to control it – he moves, he has access to the sensors of the armor and the voice output systems. All I would have to do is to integrate him properly into the operating system and hook him up to the internal databases." He pointed towards the armor. "If this really is a proper Mark L Iron Man armor, Bats'll be practically a shapeshifter, once I'm done with him."

"Wow! Did you hear that, Bats?" Peter asked excitedly. He looked at Tony. "Can you program some dog-like shapes for him? And modify the sensors, that their output feels more doggish?"

With a soft smile, Tony answered, "I'll try my best, Kiddo."

"Can I help?"

Tony stared at Stephen as if he was asking him for permission to allow it.

The doctor just shrugged. "Your lab, your decision."

"Okay, Kiddo! Grab a hammer and a screwdriver we're doing advanced software engineering now!"

Laughing, Stephen turned to Bats. "Is this okay for you?"

"Yes, Doc. I trust Peter and Tony." 

Stephen patted the helmet again and whispered, "Good boy." To Peter and Tony, he said, "I'll leave you to it, then. I have some preparations of my own to do."

With a nod, he left the room.

Chapter Text

Stephen snuck into the next room of Tony's workshop, where the engineer used to store the armors he currently worked on.

On a workbench lay the housing unit of one of Tony's new nanotech armors. Stephen had expected Tony to produce another one to replace the model that had been damaged on Titan.

Cautiously, Stephen shot a look towards the door and sat down at the workbench. He took the glowing storage container to check it carefully.

"F.R.I.D.A.Y.? You there?"

"Of course, Dr. Strange. How can I help you?"

Stephen wondered for a moment why this F.R.I.D.A.Y. knew his name, but then he realized she probably had recorded the Avengers meeting the previous day.

"Is this Tony's current armor? The one he plans to wear for the next mission?"

"Yes, Doctor."

"Thanks, Fri. That's all I wanted to know."

He put it back onto the tabletop and started to weave runes into the air around it. Slowly, the glowing characters drifted to the nano-container and attached themselves to the surface if it, where they glimmered golden before they faded.

"I hope this is nothing that's going to harm Tony," a voice from the door stated, "because if it does, I'll personally make sure you're sorry for this."

"No need to worry, Jim. It's just a protective spell."

Rhodey stepped fully into the room and joined Stephen at the workbench.

"That's weird. It's been ages since anybody called me 'Jim.'"

That caused Stephen to chuckle. "Doesn't surprise me. Tony's nicknames tend to stick."

"Can I ask you something, Doc?"

"Hm?"

"Were... are we friends where you're from?"

"What did Pepper and Tony tell you about me, Colonel Rhodes?"

"Things... you know, this, that."

Stephen nodded, understanding.

"You're the best friend of my husband – so of course, we are friends."

Rhodey took the nano-container. Lightly, he brushed his fingers over the area, where the glowing symbols just had disappeared. He gasped when they flared up again.

"Be careful. This fresh, the spell tends to be a bit overprotective."

"So, magic is really real?" Rhodey asked baffled.

Stephen nodded grinning. "Yupp."

The door opened again.

"Hey, Honey Bear, I was looking for you! Thought I would find you–" Tony strolled in, but froze when he saw Stephen.

"What are you doing here, Doc?"

Stephen stood up and stepped away from the workbench.

"And what are you doing with this?"

Tony snatched the nanotech container from Rhodey and traced the glowing characters on the surface of it. "What are those?" He asked.

"Protection runes. The next time someone throws a moon at you, you won't feel a thing," answered Stephen with a wink.

"You sure?"

"Yes, why?"

"Well, it didn't do much good for your Tony, didn't it?"

With that, the playful smile on Stephen's face disappeared. "There's a bit of a difference between being crushed by a small moon and an explosion huge enough to destroy a celestial body bigger than Mercury. But yeah, let's say it was my fault, douchebag."

He turned and stormed out of the room. In passing, he hit Tony with a spell, that threw the billionaire off his feet.

Rhodey looked at the man on the ground. "Are you hurt?"

"No, I'm fine. Can you help me up?"

"Get on your feet yourself. You did deserve that, you know." With that, he followed Stephen.

 

A bit later, Stephen and Rhodey sat on the bench in front of the Avengers Compound, next to the landing pad, watching Nebula and Rocket how they patched up the Benetar.

"Hey, Dad! Hey, Rhodey!"

The greeting let them look over to the exit of the compound. There stood Peter waving at them, at his side was a gigantic dog, that's best described as a hellhound: It had the built of a Rottweiler, but it was so tall its rear reached Peter's hip. Its eyes glowed fierily, and its metallic black skin was adorned with the golden nano housing unit of Stephen's armor on the chest.

"Bats? That you?"

The monster was on top of Stephen in the blink of the eye. Rhodey barely had the time to jump out of the way. A moment later Stephen was encased in a surprisingly comfortable suit of armor.

When the head-up display came online, it showed a stylized avatar of a Basset Hound in the corner of the field of view.

"Hey, Doc." The dog icon seemed to be grinning.

Stephen tried to catalogize all the new impressions that were rushing in on his senses. He had worn some of Tony's old suits in the past, but this was the first one the engineer had tailor-made just for Stephen. The controls were a bit different, far more intuitive for the sorcerer. He stood up and walked a couple of paces.

"Hey, Bats. What is our status?"

"All systems work within standard parameters. I think that means everything is all right."

"Do you want to try flying?"

"What if I say no?"

"Then we try anyways."

"Thought so," the dog sighed. "Still not sure, that's a good idea, Doc."

"Bats..."

"Okay – loading weather report and topographical data of the area..."

"No need. We're just flying a short lap around the compound!"

"But–"

"No buts, Bats. Sometimes you gotta run before you can walk."

"You understand the meaning of this phrase, don't you? Because it's the opposite of what you're doing right now!"

"Not in our house." Stephen took off with a sudden burst of the repulsors, that catapulted him skyward. He accelerated to top speed, rising higher and higher above ground, then he turned off the propulsion.

"Are you crazy, Doc? You're gonna kill us both!" Bats screamed in the helmet.

"You don't need to worry – you are already dead, after all."

"Yes? But I like this new body, so there's no need to smash it just for fun!"

Only a couple of meters off the ground, Stephen reignited the thrusters and shot back into the air again.

"I'm gonna be sick!"

"You are a dead dog in a high-tech suit of armor. It is physically impossible for you to throw up!"

After one last looping, Stephen landed elegantly in front of the main entrance where Peter, Tony, and Rhodey stared up toward them.

Peter started clapping and cheering, while Rhodey remained absolutely unimpressed.

Stephen stepped out of the armor, which converted back into its hellhound form and followed him.

"That was a couple of superb maneuvers up there," Tony said when Stephen reached them.

"I had a great teacher," Stephen smirked.

"Well, yeah. Listen, I wanted to apologize for earlier. It might have been a bit tactless of me to say it's your fault your Tony died."

Stephen stared at him for a moment until he spoke, "Rhodey told you to apologize, am I right?"

"I'm a grown man, you know, old enough to notice when I've gone too far! I don't need Rhodey to be my conscious!"

"Whatever you say, douchebag... I accept your apology, though." Stephen offered Tony a hand.

The engineer took it, grinning. "Don't get the wrong impression! That doesn't mean I like you, asshole!"

"Me neither."

"Good. I'm glad we sorted that out."

Chapter Text

In the short briefing before their start, Nebula had revealed, that she knew where they would find Thanos.

Supposedly, the Titan had built himself a farm on a remote Planet, where he wanted to retire once his plan had come to fruition. So they decided, this would be their destination.

Rocket informed them that they had to stop on the way to get some supplies, but when asked, the raccoon refused to tell them for what kind of supplies he was looking.

 

When they boarded the ship, Stephen had changed into his new suit. Tony gazed at him with a raised eyebrow.

"What?" Stephen confronted him.

"That is... very tight." He gestured towards Stephen's body.

"There's no need to sound so disapproving," the sorcerer retorted with a cheeky grin. "You know very well who designed this suit."

Although there was a slight reddish tint on Tony's cheeks, he held Stephen's look defiantly. "Wasn't me."

Stephen leaned in and whispered in his ear, "But we both know it could have been you."

With a flirty wink, he disappeared inside the spaceship.

Tony stood there and definitely didn't check out Stephen's leather-clad ass. He averted his eyes rashly when the sorcerer looked back, a questioning expression on his face.

With a deep breath, Tony followed the other man.

"Yepp," he mumbled to himself, "definitely could have been me."

 

A couple of hours later, they arrived in the kind of establishment where you expected to find someone who sold merchandise of questionable nature under the counter.

It was a dingy bar located on a desert planet, frequented by a handful of dangerous-looking individuals.

"I'm getting serious Star Wars flashbacks in here," noted Peter, when they stepped through the door.

"Yeah, but at least they go without this annoying cantina song!" Tony joked.

Stephen shot him an annoyed look. "I'd take that over real, lethal weapons every time."

"You just have to shoot faster than everyone else!" explained Rocket, throwing his massive gun casually over his shoulder for everybody to see. "If you excuse me now for a second, I have to greet an old friend."

He walked to a green-skinned, bug-eyed person who sat on a table in an alcove in a particularly dark corner of the room. Nebula followed him wordlessly.

"That guy looks like Greedo," Peter whispered.

Tony nodded. "Then let's hope Rocket knows when to shoot first..."

Disapprovingly, Stephen shook his head. "No, let's hope nobody shoots at all!"

"Yeah, sounds even better." Tony agreed.

"You don't look like you're from around here!" a female voice called from the bar.

They turned to see who was speaking. A young woman with blond hair in a red-blue leather suit eyed them skeptically. "You're from earth, aren't you?"

"And you are?" Stephen asked back.

"Distrustful – as one should be. Half the life in the universe has disappeared, and nobody knows why."

"We know why!" Peter blabbed without thinking. That earned him dark looks from both Stephen and Tony. "...or maybe not? I'm probably wrong. It was a long week, you know."

The stranger stood up and marched towards Peter, while the other patrons of the establishment ducked away in fear.

Without a second thought, Tony stepped protectively in front of the kid, activating his complete armor except for the helmet and glared defiantly at the unknown woman. She stopped, to examine Tony's face, recognition sparking in her expression.

"Tony? Tony Stark?" she asked eventually.

Stephen rolled his eyes. Was there any place in the universe where people didn't know the fabulous Tony Stark?

Tony, on the other hand, didn't seem to recognize her. Was she one of Tony's conquests from his old playboy days?

"Come on, Tiny Stark! You've been Rhodey's best friend, and I'm..." She looked at him expectantly, until the penny finally dropped.

"Oh my god! Carol is that you?" Tony burst out. "You haven't aged a day! I mean literally. How is that possible?"

"Oh, I survived an explosion involving am Infinity Stone that gave me insane superpowers – you know, the usual. And what about you?"

"I got kidnapped, build a power-armor in a cave to escape, which led to me being Iron Man. Later I joined a team of superpowered people called the Avengers, assembled by Nick Fury. Like you say, just everyday stuff," he answered, grinning.

"You know Fury? How is he?"

Tony shrugged. "Grumpy, one-eyed, ominous. Same old, you know..."

"That doesn't sound like the Nick Fury I know."

"Lady, We're all happy to share embarrassing stories about Nick Fury later, but how about you tell us where you're from and why these charming people here seem to be so afraid of you," Stephen interrupted.

She turned to face the sorcerer. "As I said, I have insane superpowers. You wouldn't believe it."

Stephen just smirked and conjured the Rings of Raggadorr at the tips of his fists. "Try me!"

"Better not in here," she answered, obviously amused, "I like this dive, so I'd rather not trash it."

"Why don't we sit down and talk a bit? Until Rocket has finished his business transactions, we're stuck here anyway," Tony suggested.

So they sat down, and Carol entertained Stephen and Peter with the story of how she had met Tony and Rhodey, back when all three of them had been in college.

"Carol and Rhodey were a couple at that time, they both went off to the Air Force to become fighter pilots, while I just continued being the son of Howard Stark..."

"I'd loved knowing you back then, Tony..." Stephen sighed.

"Nah, I don't think so. You wouldn't have liked me – hell, I didn't like me!"

Stephen didn't say anything; he just shook his head and put his hand on Tony's. Surprisingly, Tony didn't move it away. After that, they told Carol everything they knew about Thanos and the snap and the Infinity Gauntlet.

"...so what is your plan?" she asked when they'd concluded their report.

"We go to Thanos, get the gauntlet back, and reverse the snap."

She looked skeptical. "That's not a plan – that's an intention! You must have thought of something a bit more sophisticated when you expect to confront the guy that has already beaten you once and take back the stones."

"We have no intention confronting Thanos – we want the gauntlet and the stones and get out of there! We know quite well we'd only lose another fight," Stephen explained.

"What? Do you expect him to let you take the thing and leave?" she asked sarcastically.

"Well, we intend taking advantage of the element of surprise and the mystic mumbo jumbo that Doc here does. He's a wizard, you know."

"Hey! I'm a sorcerer!" Stephen complained. "...and not just any ordinary sorcerer – I'm the Sorcerer Supreme."

Tony eyed him, smirking. "What does that even mean? Does that make you the king of the wizards?"

The sorcerer just shook his head and mumbled with a smile, "I hate you..."

"No, you don't. You love me," Tony answered absentmindedly.

Abruptly, Stephen let go of Tony's hand and moved his chair away from the inventor. No one else seemed to have noticed what was going on.

Carol went on, "Okay. So, maybe you are a mighty wizard. But you've been that before. It didn't help you win the first fight."

"What would you propose?" Peter asked her.

"You need not to worry. Now you have me." She beamed. "I'm gonna be your ace in the hole!"

Tony and Stephen exchanged a look.

"Listen..." the doctor began, "no offense, but we're not sure if you realize how powerful Thanos is, and we don't want you to get hurt."

"I destroyed a Kree battlecruiser once," Carol stated calmly. "With my bare hands."

"A Kree battlecruiser? How big are those?" Stephen inquired hesitantly.

"Have you ever seen an aircraft carrier?"

They nodded.

"About five times the size." She shrugged.

"I want her on the team..." Peter murmured in the blink of an eye.

"Yeah, me too," Tony agreed.

Stephen extended his hand to her, which she took.

"Welcome to the team, Captain Danvers."

"Does it have a name, your team?" she wanted to know.

"We're the Avengers!" Peter proclaimed.

"Nah, we're the Guardians of the Galaxy," objected Rocket, who had moved unnoticed to their table.

"We are the Avengers of the Galaxy!" Stephen joked, but everyone else just nodded.

"That doesn't sound so bad, Doc," Tony acknowledged impressed. "Avengers of the Galaxy it is!"

Chapter Text

"So what's in the box you bought in the cantina?" Peter asked Rocket back on the ship.

"Nothing... yet," was all the raccoon said in return.

"So, you bought nothing?"

"I bought the box!"

"The box? But why?"

"Yeah, what's so special about the box?" Tony now butted in.

"It can mask the energy signature of every object you put in there, so nobody can follow it," Rocket answered, annoyed. "Like, you know, six Infinity Stones for example."

"Neat! But why didn't you tell us before?"

 "Cause I didn't know if this a-hole would sell it to me."

"We're arriving at our destination in ten minutes," Nebula announced abruptly.

"Time to recap the plan one last time," Tony announced.

Everyone else nodded.

"Good. Kiddo?" He turned to Peter.

"Yes, Tony?"

"You got your sling ring?"

"Yes, Sir!" Peter pulled out the ring and put it on his left hand.

"...and you know how to use it?" Tony asked.

"You have seen me using it!" Peter replied.

But Tony ignored the retort and went on, "You and Nebula go through the mirror dimension into Thanos' hut and search for the gauntlet. When you find it, you take it and put it in the box." He pointed in Rocket's direction. "That is what the box is for, right?"

"Yes, that's exactly the thing the box is for," Rocket confirmed.

"Meanwhile, Carol, Stephen and I distract Thanos, so you don't get caught. I've programmed some awesome combo-maneuvers into our suits. It's gonna be epic! Our biggest mistake last time was that we let him divide us. This time we do this together."

Stephen touched his earpiece. "Bats? Can you hear me?"

"Of course, Doc."

"Please synchronize your systems with F.R.I.D.A.Y. now."

After a moment, Bats and F.R.I.D.A.Y. announced "Synchronization complete" in unison.

Stephen nodded at Tony with a stern look on his face.

"Good… and last, but not least: Rocket, you wait in the ship and leave the engines running. In case we need to make a fast exit."

"If you want," Rocket grumbled.

"Then, my friends, prepare yourselves. You might want to speak your prayers one last time. We certainly need all the help we can get."

With a nod, Peter and Stephen activated their armors. Tony himself had taken a deep breath before he tapped the nano-container on his chest to suit up as well.

"Beginning the landing approach," Rocket declared.

When the planet slowly came into view, Stephen could spot more and more details of the landscape. It surprised him, how untouched nature here seemed to be.

They landed about a mile away from Thanos' farm.

Peter opened a portal to the mirror dimension.

"Good luck, Kid!" Tony whisper-shouted at him.

"To you too," Peter answered.

"See you soon, son." Stephen gave Peter one last hug.

"Of course, dad."

Then Peter and Nebula disappeared.

Feeling the nervousness rising in his guts, Stephen turned to Carol and Tony. "Let's go. We need to make some noise. We are the distraction, after all."

They flew towards Thanos' farm. When it came in sight, Bats said alarmed, "Doc, we got a problem!"

"What's wrong, Bats?"

The Picture in Stephen's head-up display zoomed in on Thanos, who was doing some gardening – while still wearing the Infinity Gauntlet.

"Shit!" Stephen hissed. He contacted Carol and Tony. "Do you see what I see?"

"Yes. What now?" Carol replied.

"We have to change the plan!"

"Yeah, no shit, Sherlock!" Tony yelled. "What do you want to do? He must have noticed us by now!"

Stephen's mind raced. He had to decide fast. The worst thing was he couldn't contact Peter and Nebula while they were in the mirror dimension. Stephen thought back to the fight on Titan. They barely had had a chance against Thanos when he had four of the gems in his possession, with all six of them he could simply snap them out of existence. So, they had to separate Thanos from the stones before the Titan had a chance to react.

"Blast the gauntlet!"

"What?" Carol yelled.

"Are you crazy?" Tony screamed.

"Blast! The! Gauntlet! Give it everything you got!"

"That's a stupid idea! And since when are you the one calling the shots?"

"You are free to come up with a better plan, Tony. I'm all ears!"

 There was a long silence on Tony's end. "But we need the gauntlet!" he said eventually.

"No, what we need is to get the stones away from Thanos! Everything else is secondary!"

"What if we accidentally destroy the stones?"

"Believe me, it is impossible to destroy those stones by accident! I've done the research. They are as old as the universe itself, and they'll still be around when we are long gone. The only way to destroy the stones is with the stones themselves."

Stephen could see colored lights flash up on Thanos' hand.

"Now! Fire!" With these words, Stephen fired the uni-beam of his armor towards Thanos. For good measure, he added an explosion spell afterward. Carol and Tony joined him, blasting the Titan with full force into the ground.

Stephen could have sworn he'd seen something glowing flying away.

That was the moment when a portal opened and Nebula and Peter stepped out of the mirror dimension.

"Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth! What's going on here?" sounded Peter's question over the intercom.

"He had the stones with him, so we had to change the plan," Tony answered. "Also: Language?"

Stephen shook his head over the last bit and added, "Pete, you and Nebula have to collect the stones! I think I've seen them skidding away from Thanos, but remember, you mustn't touch them! We keep Thanos occupied."

Thanos, after crawling out of the crater their attack had created, turned and looked towards the portal. Without a moment of hesitation, Stephen plunged down and decked the Titan with a series of repulsor blasts that more annoyed than wounded him.

"How can we pick them up without touching them?"

"Use your nets, Kid!" Tony yelled and threw himself at Thanos, too.

In perfect unison with the doctor, he delivered a series of blows to the head and face of the Titan. After the fifth double-hit, the purple monster fell like a tree.

Tony was already cheering when Stephen saw something purple shimmering in Thanos' hand.

"Watch out, he has–" he started, but it was already too late, Thanos blasted them away with the force of the Power Stone.

Thanks to the armor uninjured, Stephen was smashed into a group of threes. Heavy breathing, he lay there unable to move, until he was hit by the dead bulk of Iron Man.

"Tony? Get off me! We have to get back an help them!"

Groaning, Tony rolled off him.

Suddenly they heard Peter scream over the intercom, "I have an idea! It is not a nice idea, but it might work. I'll open a portal, and you push his head into the opening and hold him there. Then I'll close it..."

"You want to decapitate him?" Carol replied.

"Yes, we did that with his arm on Titan. It worked."

"That really is not nice."

"Peter, no!" Everything in Stephen screamed. He didn't want his son to become a murderer. Not even to defeat Thanos.

"They can't hear us, Doc," Bats explained.

"Why?"

"The blast damaged our intercom. We're in receive-only mode at the moment."

"Fix it!"

"Sorry Doc, but restoring our flight capacity and weapon systems has a higher priority than the communication."

"Retract the armor!"

"That is currently not possible."

"By the Demons of Denak! Then forget the weapons! I need to move and talk to the others!"

It took Stephen an enormous amount of energy to get back on his feet, but he finally managed it. As fast as the cumbersome suit of armor allowed it, he sprinted back towards the battleground. When it got too exhausting, he catapulted himself into the air with a spell. This way, he was able to leap nearly a hundred feet at a time.

"Open the helmet, Bats!"

"This action is not advisable during an ongoing battle."

"Do it!"

The helmet retracted into the suit, and Stephen was hit by a cloud of dust. Coughing and with burning eyes, he continued his way. When the crater came into sight, the sorcerer conjured the Rings of Raggadorr around his fists. He tried to scream, only to be silenced by another coughing fit.

The scene before him played out like a scene in a movie. Unable to stop it, he had to watch Carol, who immobilized Thanos by holding him in a hammerlock while Nebula pushed his head through the opening of a portal with all the strength she could muster.

"Close it!" Nebula ordered.

Peter hesitated. "But your arm..."

"I can get a new one! Close the portal!"

With a swift motion, Peter closed the portal and separated Thanos' head from his body as well as Nebula's left hand from the remaining arm.

Peter fell to his knees, looking around in shock. When he realized what he just did, he threw up there and then.

Nebula nudged the headless body with a foot and frowned in disgust.

Now Stephen finally arrived, Peter threw himself into his arms.

"I did it, dad."

"Yes, I know. I'm proud of you." Of course, he wasn't happy with the way it all had happened, but there hadn't been much choice. At least that was what Stephen wanted to tell himself.

"I know you said never to take a life, but..." Tears were streaming down Peter's face.

Stephen closed his arms around him, hindered by the bulky armor it was a bit awkward, but neither of them cared right now.

"You did what you had to do, Pete."

"Does this make me a bad person?"

"No, of course not!"

Carol combed through the rubble in search of the stones. After a moment, she stopped. "Has anyone seen Tony by the way?"

"On my way," came a shaky voice from the intercom.

A soft, thudding noise ended the message.

Stephen turned to Carol. "Can you please get him?"

With a nod, she was gone. A moment later, she carried Tony in a damaged armor back to the group. He had a heavily bleeding cut on the forehead but seemed to be okay otherwise.

"Oh, Tony. That's going to need stitches," said Stephen after he'd taken a closer look at the engineer's head.

"I can close it with my nanoparticles," Tony suggested.

"Okay, but first we have to clean the wound, once we're back on the ship." Absentmindedly he caressed Tony's cheek with his thumb.

Tony didn't seem to mind. "What now, Doc?"

"We gather the stones and put them into the box."

"That makes sense."

Together, they collected the stones to put them away. Tony created spheres with the nanoparticles of his armor to contain each gem separately.

When this was done, they walked back to their landing spot. Nebula had already radioed Rocket to inform him what what had transpired. As soon as they arrived, they gathered in the mess of the ship.

Defeated, Tony looked at the six stones, neatly contained in their spheres. "Dammit! Thanos won! How can we undo the snap, without the gauntlet?"

"It was a stupid idea to listen to Strange! How could you destroy the gauntlet?" Rocket stood on his chair and looked at Stephen in disgust.

"You weren't there! You have no right to–" Carol began, but Rocket interrupted her.

"It wasn't my idea to stay here, twiddling thumbs and hoping you wouldn't mess up! Which you did, in case you haven't noticed, Sweet Cheeks."

"Can't we just... make a new gauntlet?" Peter asked hesitantly.

Stephen had a sudden epiphany. "I can't believe it!" he yelled. "Of course! That's it! Don't you see? That is why you had to live!" He pointed at Tony.

The others looked at him like he had lost his mind. Except for Tony. He stared at Stephen as if he had just told him Tony's father had been a gorilla: highly offended and confused at the same time.

"What do you mean, Merlin?"

"That's why the other me has given up the Time Stone! He couldn't let Thanos kill you. You are too important!"

"Yeah... and?"

Excited, Stephen grinned. "Back to hardware mode!"

After a second, understanding dawned in the face of the engineer. "Back to hardware mode," he agreed.

Chapter Text

"So, let me recap this: you plan to make a new Infinity Gauntlet. Where do you expect to do that? On your little hillbilly backwater planet?" Rocket joked.

"Do you know a better place, Ratchet?" Tony asks.

"I think I do, yes."

 

A few hours later, they arrived at the forge of Nidavellir. They searched through the entire structure but didn't find a single living soul.

When they met up in the middle of the forge, they sat down debating their next steps.

"Eitri must have been dusted," Rocket speculated.

"You could be right," Carol agreed. "It's either that or he fled."

Tony was still inspecting the tools and machines of the forge with interest. "Can we use this place to make our new gauntlet? I mean, without him?"

"Do you know how any of these things work?" Carol replied with a hand gesture that encompassed the whole room.

"No," Tony had to admit.

"Then we should probably look for a better place," she said.

Still prying around, Tony peered into the melting pot. He tapped the frame of his glasses a couple of times, then he asked, "Does anyone know what kind of metal this is? I get the most interesting sensor readings from this stuff."

"Probably uru, you know, what Thor's hammer was made of... the Infinity Gauntlet as well, I think. That stuff is nearly indestructible, magical, and extremely scarce." Rocket turned to him.

"We could take some of it with us for the new gauntlet."

"That could be difficult. Have you ever worked with uru?"

"No. Have you?" Tony sat down next to Peter, eyes trained at the raccoon.

"Nah..." Rocket shook his head.

"I have." To everybody's surprise, it was Stephen who had spoken.

"You, Doc? Is metalwork a secret hobby of yours?" joked Tony.

"Well, I once made a ring that was half uru and half vibranium. Gifts I had received from Thor and T'Challa."

"A ring? You're into jewelry?" Tony asked in a sarcastic tone.

With a sad smile, Stephen answered, "It was a very special ring for a very special occasion."

The mocking smirk on Tony's face vanished in an instance. "Oh... Special occasion? Like a wedding?"

Stephen shrugged.

Tony's grin returned, but this time, it was kinder. "So, he made your wedding ring from parts of an old Iron Man armor, and you learned how to forge uru and vibranium to make his? That has to be the cheesiest thing I've ever heard!" he teased the doctor.

"Oh, shut up, asshole! You're just jealous!"

"I am certainly not!" The engineer looked around. "Back to topic: How did you do it, Doc?"

"I had help from Shuri, the princess of Wakanda."

"Shuri knows how to process uru?" Peter asked, surprised.

"Not now, but she'll figure it out. At least, that's what she did in our world."

Tony rose from where he sat and clapped his hands. "Come on, folks. Let's grab some bars of this uru stuff and head back home. We got work to do."

 

 

The sun was already setting and cast the entire sky above the capital city of Wakanda in its warm, red light when they arrived back on earth. Queen Shuri took the time to greet her guests in person.

"Welcome to Wakanda! I hope the fact that you are still alive means you were successful."

"Partially," Stephen crossed his arms in front of his chest and nodded his head to reply to her greetings the Wakandan way. "We were able to retrieve the stones, but the gauntlet has been destroyed."

"That doesn't sound good." The concern in her voice was unmistakable.

"We are confident we can make a new one," Tony explained.

"And that is why we are here: To seek your help, Your Majesty," Stephen completed Tony's declaration.

"Whatever you need – you shall have it. Given Wakanda can provide it!"

Stephen bowed his head. "Thank you."

Tony, on the other hand, was already in full business mode, "We need a place to work."

"Yes, of course. My personal lab is at your disposal. Follow me!" The queen led the way inside the palace to a big, bright room filled with technical instruments, workbenches, and computer terminals.

"That looks like it's straight out of Star Trek," Peter marveled. "You know, like the new stuff by J.J. Abrams, not the old 90s looking shows."

"Yes, Pete, we got it," replied Stephen quietly.

"What is a Star Trek?" Rocket asked.

"Shhh! Later." Stephen hissed, as Shuri lead them deeper into the room.

Stephen could see how hard Tony tried not to look too excited.

"This is great. Very useful." The engineer eyed the wall panels, which displayed schematics of something. "Very useful, indeed." He clapped his hands together and addressed the queen, "Good. Let's begin: We need to process an unknown metal. I trust you have the means to analyze it sufficiently, so we know what we're dealing with. And a forge! We need a forge!"

"I could set up one in the room next door. Should be ready tomorrow," Shuri explained.

"Yes, perfect. Also, it would be great if I had access to my workshop as well. I might need some of my tools. Doc, can you make one of your portals so that I can go back and forth?"

"That shouldn't pose a problem. It is possible to establish a permanent pathway between here and New York."

"Yeah! That sounds great. Let's do it!"

"Hey, hey, hey, hey! Wait a moment!" Carol yelled over the sudden hustle and bustle. "Would it not be useful we decided first what our goal is? What we're going to build? You can't just take a piece of that uru, make something gauntlet-shaped and call it a day! I'm pretty sure that won't work."

"There is truth in what she says," Stephen agreed.

So, they gathered at the conference table in the next room to discuss their further actions. Halfway through, when Shuri, Tony and Rocket went into technical details, Stephen tuned out.

The only thing he understood among all the technobabble was that they wanted to make a full-body armor instead of just a gauntlet, to distribute the snap's recoil over a greater area. They also decided to use vibranium along with the uru because it could absorb large amounts of energy and release them later when it was convenient.

Peter, at his side, had fallen asleep, snoring softly and drooling into Stephen's sleeve. It had been a long, hard day for the boy.

Smiling, Stephen wrapped his arm around his son.

Tony noticed and smiled at them.

"Maybe we should call it a day," he proposed.

"Of course," Shuri agreed. "I will send someone to show you your quarters."

Stephen nodded thankfully. Trying not to wake Peter up, he picked him up as he followed the palace guard who showed them the way. With the help of his new armor, the weight of the teenager didn't pose any problem.

"Thanks, Bats," he murmured so quietly, only the AI-dog could hear.

"You're welcome, Doc," was the answer over his earpiece.