“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Tony demanded.
“They’re small words, Tony,” Stephen Strange said, pushing Tony back onto the sofa using two fingers. “I don’t know what you’ll find in there, it wasn’t… I didn’t cover it in basic wizard training or anything. Also, you didn’t tell me.”
“Well, that was poor planning on my part,” Tony said. “Tell me how you’re here again.”
“It’s a time loop, Tony,” Stephen said. “We’re closing it. The infinity gauntlet was recovered, the stones were returned, Thanos was killed.”
“Yeah, that was… last week.”
“And this week, you enter the soul stone to bring back those who can assist you in righting these wrongs. To bring the universe back into balance. As it was meant to be before Thanos meddled. And some time from now, you will exit the stone, having made your choice. And this was, in fact, the first step. Sending me back in time to tell you how to get started.”
“So, we win? This is your one in fourteen million?”
“I don’t know,” Stephen said, and this time it was with a hint of impatience. “I can’t tell you about the future.”
“Well, there’s a plan, and I do, in fact, completely blame you for this,” Stephen said, “because you told us that I had to come back in time to instruct you on how to enter the soul’s realm.”
“To get you out,” Tony said with a shrug. “So, obviously, I’ve already done it, since now I’m doing it. Time travel verbs are the worst.”
“Oh, I heartily agree,” Stephen said.
“So, is this going to make a paradox?”
“Only if you don’t shut up and go,” Stephen said. “So, what I can tell you is that the soul realm is unique to everyone who enters. And it’s very tricky to discover who else is real, and who is merely a manifestation of the realm. You’ll discover at least one person, I know, who is false.”
“So what’s the first thing I say to you, when I find you in there?”
“If I tell you that, your manifestation will merely present you with an image of me, telling you that same thing,” Stephen said.
“Can you tell me anything?”
“You must go soon, you must go alone, and you must make the right choice.”
“What right choice?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“What if it’s you?”
“By Vishnu’s left butt cheek, will you go already?”
Stephen pushed him back on the sofa again and raised one hand. The stone released from the gauntlet with a dull clink and floated over to Stephen. “Pretty sure an illusion can’t do this,” Stephen said, and he let the stone hover over Tony’s chest. “Brace yourself. This might--”
Tony was pretty sure that was what Stephen had been about to say.
“S’all right there, pal, you just take ‘er easy,” someone said, and Tony opened his eyes to see the most angelic person leaning over him. Deep blue eyes, the color of stormclouds, a pretty face, full, plush lips, and messy hair hanging around him.
“Wow, you’re… gorgeous,” Tony said, and he tried to sit up.
“And you’re injured, so jus’ rest a bit, here,” the man said, and his voice was familiar, soothing. And then --
“Oh, fuck me, you’re Barnes,” Tony blurted, then clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Not without dinner first, and yes,” Barnes said. “And you’re Tony Stark.”
“Yeah?” Tony wondered. “Did you read about me in a museum?”
“Heard about you from some of the people here,” Barnes said. “Hard to know what’s true, what’s wish, and what’s an out and out lie. But you just showed up here, so I’mma take care of you.”
“Yeah, you’ve got to be the fake person,” Tony said, struggling to sit up.
“Here, let me--” Barnes slipped an arm between Tony’s back and the bed, helping him up. “I brought you food, if you want.”
“I will kiss you if there’s coffee involved in that tray.”
“Oh, will you now?” Barnes wondered. He brought the tray over and there were two english muffins topped with eggs. And coffee. “So, when do I get that kiss?”
“How long have I been here?”
“Dunno, it’s hard to tell time around here,” Barnes said. “We’re… in purgatory, near as I can tell. Some sort of place between life and death.”
“If you had to guess,” Tony said.
“Two days?” Barnes handed him the cup of coffee. It was hot, the cup soothing to his hands, and he curled into it. I ate dinner twice, and Steve’s come for his visit.”
“Rogers? He’s--” Not here, Tony was about to say and then he bit down on it. Of course if Barnes was real, he’d think that Steve was here, visiting. Because that’s what Steve would do, if he was here.
Which made Tony wonder if Barnes was real after all, and if he wasn’t, was he only talking about a not-real Steve because Tony thought he would? “Remind me to murder Strange with my bare hands if we get out of this.”
Because they would get out of this, Tony had to believe that. He had to believe that he would send Strange back in time to fetch Tony, to show him how to enter the Soul Stone’s realm.
Assuming, of course, that Strange had been real.
Maybe none of it was real, maybe Tony himself had been Snapped and this was all, just--
“You are thinkin’ too hard in there, whatever it is,” Barnes said. “Drink your coffee, eat your breakfast. Everything always looks better after breakfast.”
“I don’t usually eat breakfast,” Tony said.
“Well, no wonder you’re so grumpy.”
“Do you know-- I’m eating, I’m eating,” Tony protested, taking a huge bite of egg, felt the yoke dribbling down his lip and into his beard. From seemingly nowhere, Barnes took out a napkin and wiped at his chin while Tony was chewing frantically, trying to clear his mouth while he was being babied like he was a toddler. “Stop that. Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
“Time is hard,” Barnes repeated. “Mighta been a few months, might have been a couple years. Could have been six seconds. You’ll see what I mean.”
“I have decided that you’re real,” Tony said. “I don’t think I could come up with that nonsense, which means I’m not imagining you, because I have utterly no idea what I would think you would say.”
“Great,” Barnes said. “If I’m real, are you real?”
“If I wasn’t, do you think I’d have the self awareness of that fact in order to tell you the truth?”
“That’s just convoluted enough for me to think you might be real, too,” Barnes told him.
“Sounds fair,” Tony said.
“Good,” Barnes said. “Think I’d like that kiss now, Mr. Stark.”
“You, uh, can call me Tony,” Tony suggested. He was mostly positive that Barnes was real, although the kissing part didn’t entirely make sense to him, he wasn’t going to reject it either. It’d been a while since he’d been kissed, and everything just seemed very strange here in the soul realm. Maybe that was what Stephen meant when he said it was everyone’s individual manifestation.
There was something surreal about kissing Barnes, about letting the man who’d been used to murder Tony’s parents sweep aside all of his inhibitions (Well, who was Tony kidding, he didn’t really have those anymore) and kiss him, very thoroughly.
In fact, as Tony found his arms going around Barnes’ neck, pulling him in, the way Barnes’ tongue swept inside to taste Tony’s mouth, Tony was beginning to reconsider if Barnes was real at all.
No one real ought to be able to kiss like that, to make Tony forget everything he was there to do, every hope he had, every ounce of responsibility to the real word he had left, and just want to kiss the hell out of someone.
When Barnes pulled back with another brief nuzzle at Tony’s mouth, Tony was breathing fast, shaking, hard as a rock.
“Well,” he said, licking his lip, tasting the last bit of Barnes on his mouth. “That was…”
“Worth the coffee, I hope.”
Tony kinda got what Barnes meant by Time is Hard. He slept, he ate, he drank. But he never seemed to need to use the bathroom, except when he actually thought about it. He woke up fully rested, except when he remembered that he shouldn’t have been able to do that anymore.
He slept, dreamless.
There were visitors from time to time, and no one ever seemed surprised to see Tony there.
Nothing seemed particularly urgent.
He could have been there a month, or a year, but it only seemed a few days between the first time Bucky kissed him, and when Tony let them fall back into the bed to make love, slow and sensual and passionate.
Tony knew Steve Rogers wasn’t real, that Steve had survived the Snap, and that Steve was, in fact, currently living in the Avengers’ compound, trying to rebuild the world with Natasha. And yet, when Steve visited, like he did, Tony found himself talking with the man, really talking, saying everything that he needed to say and coming to an understanding. When Steve finally apologized for the terrible events in Siberia, Tony was able to forgive him.
“Do you ever think about leavin’?” Bucky asked him one night, and it could have been the next night, or it might have been several years later.
“Going home?” Tony laced his fingers with his lover. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem… important, somehow.”
“No, it really don’t,” Bucky said. “Do you think I’m real?”
“I think I love you,” Tony said.
“That’s all that matters.”
But it did matter, eventually.
A nagging little thing, in the back of his mind, like a chore he’d forgotten to do, or a meeting he was supposed to attend.
And once he’d decided he was going to find Strange, it didn’t take that long until he did.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been so utterly shocked when he discovered that Parker and Strange were living in the same house. It wasn’t really a house, though. More like a London flat, with two levels and Peter was installed in the attic, while Strange lived on the ground floor, with a library that couldn’t possibly have been contained within.
“It’s about time you got here,” Stephen said.
“Time is hard,” Tony replied, and Stephen wobbled his head a little raising an eyebrow. That’s fair, the expression seemed to say.
“The boy’s been waiting for you,” Stephen told him.
And suddenly Tony had an armful of Peter Parker. “Are we there yet, Mr. Stark?” Peter asked, and Tony held the kid tight, feeling his heartbeat, listening to his breathing. Oh, thank you, God, thank you.
“Yeah, we’re there,” Tony said. “I’m here. I came to bring you all home again.”
“Do we have a plan?” Stephen wondered.
“Uh, it was your plan, Doc,” Tony protested. “you wouldn't tell me what it was, just that we only had the one chance.”
“Well,” Stephen said. “I might have lied.”
“Lied about the one chance, or lied about having a plan?”
“Does it matter?” Stephen wondered. “All our needs are met, here. There's no war, no hatred, no hunger. We live easy, simple lives, filled with whatever love, study, and friendship that we desire. It's not heaven, but it may be as close as we can get. What has the world done for us, that we should sacrifice this gift?”
“Uh, half the world, half the universe, really, is dead,” Tony said. “That doesn't matter?”
“Half the universe is here,” Stephen replied. “The remainder, perhaps, are the ones that are gone. Who's to say who is actually here and who is not? Are you real, Tony Stark?”
“You're insane,” Tony said. And quite possibly not real.
“At least I'm not about to throw happiness away with both hands in order to go back and undo what has been done,” Stephen said, holding up his hands, unblemished, scar-free. “I have everything I want, right here. And so do you. And you’re going to what, give it up? Go back to feuding with Rogers, defending your right to exist from people like Ross?”
“Doctor Strange,” Peter said. “In all this time, I’ve never seen my aunt. Did you know that? If I’m dead there, or she’s dead here, she’s still gone.”
“No,” Stephen said. “No, I refuse. I have everything I want here.”
No, Stephen was real, all right. That was too much pain for Tony to imagine. Pain that he recognized, and would never wish on anyone else. “Whatever it is, whoever it is, can’t you bring them with us? Back to the real world?”
“It’s Donna, isn’t it?” Peter asked, putting his hand out and touching Stephen’s arm.
“My sister,” Stephen confessed. “She-- she’s not real, she’s a manifestation. I know that.”
“How do you know?”
“She died when we were children. She drowned. I couldn’t save her, but here, Tony, here, she’s got a life, she grew up, she’s--”
“She’s not real,” Tony said. “She’s what you imagined she could be.” The one person, Tony thought. The one Stephen said-- “I’m sorry, Stephen. God, no wonder you hate me.”
“I don’t-- I don’t hate you,” Stephen said. “But the power of the stone-- there’s no choice. Either we all leave, or we all stay. And you’re right, and Peter’s right, and everyone who’s… everyone who’s not in this world with us. Deserves better. I should be better.”
Tony almost flinched. Shit, he’d thought and said the same thing so many times. I should be better.
Tony didn’t look at Bucky, didn’t want to know-- “Can you break the spell?”
“No,” Stephen said. “But you can.”
“You didn’t dissolve in the Snap. You came here from your own free will. So, you can leave. Just… take someone with you. But make sure that it’s a real person. If you take a shadow, we all stay here, and you can’t try again.”
“So, like, no pressure,” Tony remarked. “All right, Doc, come on.”
Stephen made a face. “How do you know I’m real?”
“Because the Stephen in my mind? The one I’d be imaging if you weren’t real? Would not be arguing that he might not be real. It would never occur to me that you… would try to believe you were a mere manifestation of my mind… so, what do I do, tap my heels together and say there’s no place like home?”
“If you really must, I suppose that would be good enough,” Stephen sighed. “Take my hand, and wish to leave.”
Tony nodded, squeezed Bucky’s hand. “I’ll find you-- when this is over. I will find you.”
“I’m done hidin’,” Bucky agreed.
Tony grabbed Stephen’s wrist, tapped his heels, because why not, he’d only get to make one dramatic exit like this in his entire life. “There’s no place like home.”
Tony was pretty sure Stephen was real.
The first thing the man did when they appeared on the other side of the Soul Stone was punch Tony in the jaw.
“Bastard,” Stephen spat.
“Yeah, you’re real, all right,” Tony said, gingerly adjusting his jaw. “So, like, it worked.”
“Yes, quite probably,” Stephen said. “I should… go to Titan and fetch Peter home again.”
A moment later, Tony’s cell phone rang.
Not that one, the other one.
Hesitantly, Tony took it from his pocket. Unknown number. Rogers wouldn’t call this number; he had other ways of getting in touch with Tony these days, if he needed them. Which left wrong number, or… Tony’s hands were shaking when he answered the phone.
“Hey doll,” a familiar voice said. “I could, uh, use a lift, if you’re not busy.”
Oh, thank god.
“On my way,” Tony promised. “I love you.”
“That’s the only thing that matters.”