He knew he was close to breaking the moment Tony looked at him and he raised that one finger that showed him yes, this was the one chance and saw the realization dawn in the other man’s eyes. Stephen knew he did not have time to break, he did not have the luxury of doing that, not even when that final moment came for Tony Stark as he had seen using the Eye of Agamotto, the snap of fingers that carried even over the roaring noises of battle. He’d scoured the timelines, millions of options but there was no future he had seen that improved on that scenario. So many times the Universe had been completely obliterated; different heroes, even villains trying and failing to stop it.
Himself among them – if he didn’t stop the water, Tony never reached Thanos in time – all it took was a split second delay to ruin a future. He knew no one else would care about that and he was right, they were too busy living and dying, mixing their blood with the dirt and rubble around them as they gave everything to save not just their world, but the whole universe.
Still it didn’t stop him from trying to construct a dam to hold back the lake water as quickly as possible, moving tons of rubble and earth and hoping that he could just do it in time.
It wouldn’t happen. He’d seen over and over the consequences if it did.
He felt them win in the white out of energy, eyes fixed on what he knew would happen as dust swirled around them all, and Thanos, always the last, collapsed into the nothingness taking his warped dreams of a grateful universe with him in the last gasp of dust and ashes. He saw the intense energy of the stones crawling over Tony’s body, the gamma radiation start breaking down living tissue with incredible rapidity, the fatal damage already done. He witnessed the incredible strength and compassion of Pepper giving Tony what he most needed in those last moments, the grief of his friends, the… not understanding when they saw him. The man that had manipulated everything and led to half a universe vanishing for five years just standing there useless. Responsible for the time that would never come back, the others living with that pain, the losses of great heroes, the Avengers.
Iron Man no more, as the light in his eyes glazed and vanished into death.
Tony Stark no more.
He hadn’t expected it to be such a physical pain in that moment when the culmination of that one future arrived and he was taxed beyond belief, finding it was all he could do to stand. Losing Tony called to millions of memories where it had happened and they had failed, and this was a victory – but to him it felt no different. There was no triumph there now; he’d long since lost any pride and hope had been beaten out of him by repetition after repetition of futures all ending in failure. He didn't know how to win any more.
No, he felt hollow and empty, exhausted of strength - this battle had been a fraction of what he had been doing and Stephen was relieved to be almost completely certain the next stage would see an end to him as well. He was well aware his mind and his own soul were most likely damaged beyond repair from what he had had to do to bring all the elements necessary for success to this point. The cracks were already showing but he could not allow himself more than this moment of reflection even as the Cloak supported him and stopped him dropping from tiredness and his own grief for those he had condemned to death.
He did not have time to grieve though waves of it passed through him from moment to moment; for the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj their biggest crisis was about to occur and they had little time to rest. He knew that the combination of the three Decimations and the original timeline ‘destruction’ of the infinity stones had caused catastrophic dimensional instability in the multiverse. Right now his job was to carry on fighting and he had studied enough futures to know what needed to happen next needed to be done immediately if they were to prevent those consequences from destroying the world as well. His conscience was already crying for mercy and he refused to overload it any more because he was weary. Sleep, rest and emotional collapse could wait until he deserved it.
Brusquely he turned away, blocking out the sounds of grieving tableau behind him, moving towards Wong who was approaching him across the rough debris strewn battlefield. He needed to organize the sorcerers response rapidly and Wong had more strength at telepathic contact than he did right now. He had overstrained himself organizing armies in very little time the moment he reconstituted on Titan, getting them placed in very precise positions on the battlefield. He’d sent a call for help to all the allies he knew of, and then helped organize their transport by portal knowing all along who would live and would die as he transported them. He partitioned that guilt away with the rest of it and moved into Master of the Mystic Arts mode, a mask of unfeeling detachment settling on him.
“We will have a massive reality breach in one of the prime nexus points within the next hour,” he said to Wong without pausing for breath, even as the taint of smoke and chemicals in the air made him want to cough. “The infinity stone energies have caused havoc between realms and we need to prevent multiple incursions. This is who we need and where.” He pushed the thoughts and images at the other Master trusting him to see the need and act on it without arguing.
Wong approved, he could see that much as he passed on the information. Wong would distribute it to the Masters who needed to be at each of the points, but he also caught a flicker of something underneath his acceptance of the information.
“Strange...” Wong said looking at him and it was one of the man’s peculiar statements and questions at the same time. He was asking if he was up to it, but what choice did he have? He had to be. There was no other way.
“I will be at the energetic cores. I am most familiar with the specific energies of the infinity stones to be able to correct where their energies are preventing the multiverse from healing,” he replied as he walked as swiftly as he could manage away from the growing crowd of heroes clustered around their fallen leader, feeling their eyes on him as he did so. They would think him cold and unfeeling, an orchestrator of catastrophe leaving before he could be held to account. Soon the rationalizing of grief would lead the fault and blame to his door and they would only know the pain of now, not the infinitely worse possibilities he had experienced. There was no point trying to defend himself, he just took the silent judgement and pushed it away into a dark recess of his mind. He wouldn’t have to deal with it if he was right anyway, just had to survive it temporarily. “Leave the acolytes here to transport the wounded. They would not survive this battle.”
A lot of them would not either, but it would not just be a force from Kamar-taj in the Between. Many would come from different worlds and realities, all working desperately to seal that breach and stop it becoming a cascade of damage. The infinity stones had been like an aneurysm in a tiny vein of the brain of the multiverse. Tiny in itself but left to bleed and rupture the whole vast system would collapse.
“Stephen.” Again, the question in the single word of his name. Wong very, very rarely called him by his first name unless he was deeply concerned. He couldn’t answer the question in that name; didn’t want to admit aloud he was running headlong in desperation towards a future blankness in his own personal timeline. The millions of timelines held in his consciousness were breaking down with every moment lived and it felt like his sanity was going with it. He had skills now his fellow Masters of the Mystic Arts would think impossible for such a new master to attain due to the lifetimes experienced through the Time Stone but the payoff was he was excruciatingly conscious that inside he was broken beyond repair. A human being was simply not designed to handle such an overload. There had been the futures but also the experience of the soul stone; the others had been oblivious to the passage of time in the Soul World but none of them knew of the dangers that existed within that realm and what he’d had to do. Five years battling soul eaters, meshing with the soul stone to hold back the corrupted soul stone energies from the torment of their true purpose. His desperate feat of magical innovation and endurance so it would allow the Vanished to be able to return whole unlike the utterly horrifying timelines where they had come back soulless or soul damaged. He had needed to be inside that world to prevent that but it had stretched him beyond his limits, damaged him and yet here he was. Fighting again.
Not much longer. It was a mantra for him. He just needed to ensure the essences of the infinity stones were dispatched back into this reality where they would eventually incarnate again, rather than lodging like shrapnel in breaches and tears of the multiverse. He didn’t answer Wong, but opened a portal to Kamar-Taj. Momentum, that’s what he needed, just keep moving, doing, fighting and eventually it would be over.
“We will need as many relic users as possible,” he said as they reached the other side surrounded by the sight of the Masters of Kamar-Taj moving with true purpose. He did not need to tell them their job – this at least they had trained for and the duty was ingrained in them all.
“I have the Wand,” Wong replied still watching him as they both accepted one of the draughts and herbal preparations to strengthen them and their focus. “It accepted me finally.”
Stephen nodded. “It will be needed. Let’s not waste time. We will need to set up shifts; this is not a conflict to be resolved in hours.”
Weeks if they used all the short cuts he knew and that was just the main problems dealt with. There would be aftershocks for years. Keep moving, keep fighting until the end came to you…
The Cloak flared around him, lifting him slightly to help conserve his strength and without any further unnecessary communication, Stephen slipped into the Between and the chaos that lay before them all.
Wong didn’t like this at all. So far it had been a week of fighting, returning to meditate or sleep while others continued the battle; forming ad hoc alliances with other universes, battling rampaging horrors, casting spells at the limit of their strength and the strain and despair was etched into all his friends and colleagues faces. They had sealed three of the core breaches in that time, which was a miracle in and of itself, and returned the energetic essences of the infinity stones back to each universe from whence they came, and through it all Stephen was almost silent. None of his irritating questions, his attempts to make him laugh in defiance of any sense of humor. No proclamations, or shouting at others. Just curt information. Vital information of course, but the delivery of it had all his alarm bells ringing.
That and the other sorcerer didn’t seem to be eating or sleeping enough to account for the energy he was using – and that was a whole other issue there. The Cloak of Levitation was clingy and jealous of its Master’s his personal space in a way that he hadn’t seen in years since the Hong Kong aftermath.
“Master Wong,” the familiar soothing presence of Master Rosheen, leader of those specializing in Healing magics interrupted his thoughts. “Do you need healing?”
“I apologize,” Wong answered automatically, standing up from where he was sitting outside the Healer’s enclave. “I was waiting to see Master Strange after his treatment.” He was being treated for one of many injuries all of them had suffered in the past seven days. None had been unscathed by the ongoing conflict. Three days ago he himself had ended up facing an Undying One and even the Wand of Watoomb had not been enough prevent the injuries from dropping him mid battle.
Stephen had brought him in, and returned to fight without saying more than a few words.
“Ah yes, Master Strange,” Rosheen said, his expression becoming somber.
“Is he well?” Wong queried. It had been an exceptional explosion when they had sealed the breach of the Power stone and of course Stephen had been at the very epicenter as he had been in the other conflicts. He had shielded himself and a cohort of other sorcerers from almost certain obliteration. They had joked in the past that no one could shield like Master Strange and he owed it all to Dormammu’s training regime but to stand against an infinity stone energy was exceptional.
“He is healed of his major injuries if that is what you ask,” the Healer said. “Master Wong, I am caught in a dilemma. I cannot divulge a patients details unless it poses a threat to us all, but I urge you as the one closest to him. Please talk to him.”
Something tensed in Wong as he heard that, even as he caught the flash of red that was the subject of their discussions relic. The Cloak wasn’t on Strange’s back and seemed agitated. Normally this would be cause for a one-sided argument from Strange with the object which in the past had afforded him with a great deal of carefully hidden amusement but the man who walked in very carefully, obviously stiff and sore at the least was not arguing, or cajoling. He was just focused on going elsewhere.
“Master Strange,” Rosheen said. “I believe I said you should rest for the next cycle.”
“You did,” Stephen said shortly. “But this is an… obligation I cannot miss. Wong, did my clothes get moved from the Sanctum back to Kamar-Taj when you took over?”
“No. They are still there. “ A moments thought told him why. Tony Stark’s funeral – much to Stephen’s shock they had notification from the acolyte monks protecting the Sanctum of the time and date. He made a rapid decision, one he had earlier rejected due to the Duty. If Stephen felt the battle would be imperiled by their absence in their rest break, he would tell him. It did not take even a novice to realize Stephen was working to things foreseen. “I will go with you.” He still had a suit of his own.
“You don’t have to.” Stephen said barely looking at him.
“I worked with him too,” Wong pointed out. A brilliant man in his own way for all his constant quips and banter and all too similar to Stephen in many ways. It had reminded him of the other man as they suffered with half their numbers gone, though Tony had clearly blamed Stephen for saving his life and dooming half the universe in their few interactions. He did not tell Strange that, initially to protect him but it occurred to him that having used the Time stone, the other sorcerer was almost definitely aware of that fact.
They walked to the portal room, and walked through to the New York Sanctum. Stephen hesitated as they passed the mended spot where Dr Banner had crash landed and gave the Sanctum a long look. Wong found it hard to read whether he was refreshing his memory or amazed that so many changes had been made in what had to be for him a short space of time.
“The memorial is at his house,” Stephen replied. “We have thirty minutes or so. I’m going to have a shower.”
Wong nodded and went to get ready himself. It seemed like a very long time to him since the battle with Thanos and the need for combat readiness was likely to continue as the realities suffered the aftershocks. The Infinity stones were too powerful and the events had been occurring in parallel across the multiverse. To not pay honor to the man that had stopped the worst of this would have been a travesty because Tony Stark had not just stopped it here, but everywhere. That was the nature of the Infinity Stones. A human with the strength of will to even hold the stones power for a moment was nothing short of a miracle let alone to bend them to his wishes. Tony Stark had been a remarkable man.
When the two reconvened to make their way to the memorial service, Wong actually found himself shocked and only years of training and a habit of maintaining a set demeanor kept his expression implacable. He’d seen Stephen in that suit before, but now it hung off of him. He looked pale and gaunt against the black material and the only splash of color was the Cloak that was so determined to go with them it shrank itself down to handkerchief size, and having witnessed some of the two’s arguments he knew it absolutely loathed that. Stephen tucked it in his pocket, and flexed his fingers a moment. The expression on his face was one of resignation and he was avoiding eye-contact.
“Are you well enough?” Wong asked and tried for levity. “I do not want to have to catch you if you pass out.”
There was the faintest hint of a smile. “I doubt you would even try,” the other sorcerer replied. “ I am well enough, but I am not looking forward to this.”
It was pretty much the first time Stephen had offered anything as a conversational opening since his return and Wong seized on it. “You would be a strange person indeed to look forward to funerals.”
“Only my own perhaps,” he said obviously trying to sound light as he conjured the portal in brilliant sparks of magical energy . “Time to face the music.”
Wong frowned before he followed. That wasn’t how that was meant to go at all.