Fourteen million, six hundred five.
He stands at the end of a dock and stares unseeing at the water.
Fourteen million, six hundred five.
The surface of the pond is as smooth as glass, the entire expanse of the surrounding woods and sky reflected in its surface with a clarity that makes him half wonder if he has accidentally opened a portal to the Mirror Dimension.
Fourteen million, six hundred five.
If there are any fish in this pond they aren’t moving. They, like the rest of the world, are unnaturally still. It feels like the whole of the universe is holding its breath. A moment of silence for Earth's Greatest Defender.
Fourteen million, six hundred five.
Stephen doesn’t blame them. He hasn’t taken a real breath in days. His chest is too tight. There is something there beneath his ribs and around his heart that locked into place in that terrible, final moment. It wouldn't surprise him if he never took a real breath again.
Fourteen million, six hundred five.
Out in the center of the pond the first miniaturized arc reactor floats on a little raft of twigs and flowers. There are ashes there, too. The last good man in Troy turned into nothing but dust by an incinerator somewhere.
(“Fuck, don’t bury me when I’m gone. Burying bodies is creepy. It’s creepy, isn’t it? Planting a fucking corpse in a box and slapping some awful stonework on top of it. Why the fuck do we do that? That’s how zombies happen, Stephanie. Zombies. Nah, when my time comes just light me up. Make it big and tasteless. Maybe let off some fireworks. There should definitely be explosions. And booze. Lots of booze. Don’t know how much of me there will be left anyway and this way some fucking idiot isn’t going to try and steal a piece of me.”)
Fourteen million, six hundred five.
He lived through fourteen million, six hundred five futures and could only find one in which they won.
(“There’s no such thing as winning, Gandalf. Not now. Not like this. There’s just survival. Move on, pack it up, let it go. This is big – bigger than anything I can imagine. It’s not about us winning anymore. It’s about Earth surviving.”)
Thanos is dead. The Decimation has been undone and half of the universe restored. The Infinity Stones will soon be scattered back to their points in time where they will live out their days until Thanos destroys them five years previously. Success has been met.
It should feel like victory but it doesn’t.
How can it?
Stephen Strange lived through fourteen million, six hundred and five lives in the time it takes to blink.
It only took him one life to fall in love with Tony Stark.
Fourteen million, six hundred five lives.
In eight million, three hundred ninety-eight thousand, one hundred twenty-seven they don’t meet Thanos on Titan.
In eight million, three hundred ninety-eight thousand, one hundred twenty-seven lives Stephen portals Tony and Peter back to the ship and the three of them run like hell.
In two million, seven hundred two thousand, eight hundred seventy-four lives Thanos catches them within the first week.
In nine hundred thousand, six hundred forty-five lives Stephen is lucky enough to die first. In the other one million, eight hundred two thousand, two hundred twenty-nine lives he has to watch at least one of his companions die first.
In five million, six hundred ninety-five thousand, two hundred fifty-three lives they last longer. A month. Two months. Six months. A year. Two years. Five years.
In two thousand, one hundred and sixteen lives they live out the rest of their natural lives flitting through all the corners of the universe and Thanos never catches them.
He destroys the Earth in all of them.
Punishment, for cowardice.
(“Oh my god, Stephen. They’re gone! Everyone’s gone! It’s my fault. I should have been better. I should have made them listen. I should have…!”)
“Uh… Doctor Strange?”
Stephen closes his eyes and tries to steady himself at the sound of Peter’s voice. It doesn’t work.
In four million, seven hundred seventy-seven thousand, forty-three lives Peter calls him Stephen. In sixty-two thousand three hundred eleven he calls him Papa.
In four lives he calls him Doctor Dad.
His hands shake so badly that he crosses his arms and hides their mangled twitching as he turns around to face the teen. Thank god he isn’t wearing the mask. Stephen doesn’t know if he could manage to call the boy (his child) anything but his name.
On second thought, he’ll take the mask. Anything (anything) is better than looking at sheer desolation on the younger man’s face.
(“Stop giving me those puppy eyes, kid. That’s not fair. That’s a violation of my basic rights. Help! Abuse!”)
“Yes, Peter?” he asks and barely manages to repress a wince at the confusion that flies across the young man’s face. Right. They’re not close in this life (they haven’t had the time to become close).
“I. Uh. I was just wondering. Is there… can you…” the boy makes a circular motion with his hand. “Can you bring him back? With the…” he motions at Stephen’s chest where the Eye of Agamotto would rest if he were wearing it.
It’s a valid question and one not many would consider asking. Not one many people would know to ask.
(“He’s brilliant, you know? And good. So damn good it makes my teeth hurt. He deserves a better dad but I’m selfish. Fuck, I’m so selfish.”)
Unlike the Time Machine that Tony had invented overnight the Time Stone doesn’t just allow travel backwards and forwards in a timeline but it actually resets time. Using it is less taking a trip and more reloading a game from a previous save point.
A few minutes, even a few hours can be turned back safely – a good thing too or the incident with Dormammu would have ended quite differently – but weeks? Months? Years? That cannot be done without ripping the very fabric of time apart, without utterly destroying reality.
Not unless such a timeline exists entirely within a time bubble cast by the Infinity Stone. It can be set free of course, cut loose of the spell and making it solid - making it real beyond all doubt but in fourteen million, six hundred five lives Stephen had never done so.
The future in which they won - the future they are now (re)living had been life number four million, two hundred thousand, eighty-three. He had lived another nine million, eight hundred thousand, five hundred twenty-two lives trying to find a better way.
It had taken less than a tenth of that to realize that there wasn’t a better way. That no matter how many times he tried there was no future that began there in the dust and ruins of Titan that did not end in heartbreak and suffering.
He had tried anyway.
Nine million, eight hundred thousand, five hundred twenty-two times he had tried before he had been forced to bow to the inevitable: his starting point was already too far into the endgame. Too many pieces were already lost. Too many moves already set in stone.
There was no way to win.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Stephen tells him gently. “I am sorry.”
“No, no… I get it,” Peter mutters, looking away and blinking rapidly to keep the tears from falling. “He wouldn’t want us to risk it anyway, you know. He’d be so mad.”
Furious, Stephen agrees silently. Tony Stark would never stand for a world in which he lived but his children died.
(“I am Iron Man.”)
“Thanks though, Doctor Wizard.” The boy lets out a tremulous little huff and one side of his mouth curls up even as a single tear tracks down his cheek. “I know you did your best.” Whatever is left of Stephen’s heart twists painfully in his chest.
“It doesn’t feel like we won!” he bursts out. “The bad guy is dead and we got to come back to life but what about Mr. Stark? What about…” he shakes his head. “What about him? He saves the world and what? Why doesn’t…why doesn’t he get a happy ending?”
The memories of millions of lives have him wrapping his arm around the teen’s shoulders before he can think, before he can remind himself that he hasn’t earned such liberties here. For a moment the teen is stiff beneath his touch and Stephen thinks he’s going to pull away. Instead, Peter inhales sharply and curls into the awkward embrace, shoving his face into the crisp black of his suit and letting out a choked sob.
“It wasn’t about winning,” Stephen murmurs into the fluffy brown hair, knowing that the words will mean nothing. He says them anyway. Tony had said them anyway. “It was about making sure we survived. It was about making sure that you, that Earth, that the Universe had a future.”
Peter just cries.
In four million, nine hundred two thousand, eighty-seven lives Peter Parker calls Tony Stark “dad”.
In fourteen million, six hundred five futures, Tony Stark calls Peter Parker his son.
Stephen dies in the Decimation five million, six hundred two thousand, four hundred seventy-eight times.
The Decimation is reversed in fifty-six thousand one hundred twelve lives.
In thirty-nine thousand, six hundred fifty-four of those lives Tony grabs the gauntlet while everyone is distracted, arguing over who could be able to safely use it, and snaps his fingers.
In sixteen thousand, four hundred fifty-eight lives someone else restores the Dusted and Tony dies before he gets the chance to put on the gauntlet.
Every single time he dies, it is to save someone else.
He saves Stephen nine thousand, five hundred sixty-nine times.
It is dark before Stephen manages to make himself leave the dock. Peter had left hours ago, his eyes swollen and red from crying, though whether he had gone back to Queens and May or simply inside Tony’s house Stephen is unsure.
It doesn’t matter, he supposes. He doubts he will see the spiderling here again.
The Cloak is waiting for him at the end of the dock, crimson folds turned burgundy in the light of the rising moon. He can feel it from here, not just the swirl of magics that originally gave it sentience but the true golden spark of life brushing up against his magic like an overgrown cat. Stephen isn’t the only one to bear the mark of fourteen million lifetimes. The Cloak’s animation and personality had always been unparalleled amongst the other relics but fourteen million, six hundred five lifetimes have done more than imbue it with additional magic. They have allowed his companion (his friend) to attain true sentience. After much thought they had attended the memorial separately. The Cloak…
(“Oh my god, you can’t just keep calling it “The Cloak of Levitation”. That makes him sound like a pompous asshole. Which, well, he’s an asshole but he’s not the pompous, stick-up-his-ass sort. Hey, don’t hit me – that was a compliment! In case you haven’t noticed, he’s not really a magic carpet anymore. He’s alive. He deserves a name. What about… Levi?”)
… Levi had wanted to attend as his own person: a silent sentinel representing all the supposedly artificial lifeforms that Tony Stark had loved and understood.
And with Levi attending on his own Stephen had felt less ridiculous about wearing a proper, exquisitely tailored suit.
(“Oh, fuck me. No. Seriously. Fuck. Me. Forget the gala celebration thing. We get it. We saved their planet from giant space worms. Go team! We’re not going. Or we’re going to be late. Really, really late. I’ve been too responsible lately anyway. It’s a thing.”)
Still, the crushing loneliness eases just a little at the familiar feel of eldritch wool sliding over his shoulders. “You don’t have to come,” Stephen murmurs, staring up at the cabin. It’s rustic and warm and Stephen doesn’t know whether to smile or cry at the thought of Tony living here. Tony, who should be surrounded by metal and glass and blue lit holograms, with grease on his cheek and up to his elbows in the newest engine of the week. “You’ve been through a lot with me, old friend. Far more than you bargained for. You can stop here, if you want.”
Levi needs neither a voice nor a face in order to tell Stephen what he thinks of that.
That sort of language he definitely learned from Tony.
In spite of everything, Stephen feels a small, almost giddy smile pulling at his lips. “Very well,” he murmurs. “Just remember that you had an out.”
If Levi had eyes, he would be rolling them.
Stephen pauses on the back deck and stares down at the little girl lying amidst the sea of fast food wrappers, a man’s suit jacket tucked around her shoulders and a well worn Iron Man plushie clutched desperately in her arms. The tear tracks on her face bring Stephen to his knees, his fingers shaking worse than they have in years as he carefully brushes dark, curly strands of hair away from her face.
Morgan Stark existed in three million, forty-seven thousand, two lives.
In three million, forty-six thousand, nine hundred sixty-six her mother is the indominable Pepper Potts.
In twenty-four lives her skin is tinged a pale blue and her hair is a glossy, blue-black – both traits inherited from her mother, Nebula.
In eleven lives she is born to a viciously sassy woman named Darcy and is a F7 tornado contained in human flesh.
In one life she is paler and blonde, Tony’s chocolate and whiskey handsomeness tempered by Christine Everheart’s sun kissed Californian beauty.
In forty-two lives her name is Morgan Stark-Strange and she calls him Papa.
In seventeen lives he buys her time to escape with the currency of his death.
In twelve lives he has to watch as Thanos tears her apart.
In elven others he is already blissfully, mercifully dead before that happens.
In two he has the honor of watching her grow into a fierce, intelligent, sharp tongued, caring, beautiful woman.
In one life he gets to hold his grandson in his mangled, shaking hands and can’t see through the tears of unmitigated joy filling his eyes and streaming down his face.
He very nearly ended the time loop there, the rest of the universe be damned.
He wants to tell her that everything will be okay. That daddy did what he does best: he saved the universe. He wants to tell her that even though Tony is gone that she won’t ever be alone. That she has Uncle Happy (who, if previous lives are any indicator, will someday be her stepfather) and Uncle Rhodey. He wants to tell her that she’ll always have Peter: kind, gentle Peter who would (had) burned worlds to ashes in her defense.
He doesn’t, though. He will let her find all that out on her own.
Instead, he gently draws mandalas and runes for peace and protection against her skin. “Sleep well, princess,” he whispers and his voice shakes as much as his hands. Leaning forward he brushes a soft kiss against her forehead. “I love you infinity.”
The house is oddly quiet. There’s a tangible weight to the air, the force of grief and guilt gagging those inside its walls. Pepper is curled up in the corner of the couch, wrapped in a blanket. There’s an untouched glass of wine on the table next to her and her mouth is pressed into thin line as she stares at the fire crackling away in the fireplace. Happy is crouched in front of her, tie undone and jacket shed – to be used as Morgan’s blanket, no doubt – with a small Iron Man water bottle held in one hand as he talks to her softly.
There are people in the kitchen. Stephen recognizes the voices of Rhodes, Wilson, T’Challa, and Rogers as he slips by. The former Winter Soldier is nothing more than a breath of air moving through the darkness, a soul signature pacing back and forth on the front deck. Wanda Maximoff is sitting at the dining room table, staring sightlessly at a scrap of sooty, golden fabric held between her hands.
He ignores all of them.
Up the stairs he passes a guest bedroom where he can spot Laura Barton curled up on the bed, her three children tucked in beside her, through the crack of the slightly opened door. Stephen doesn’t have to see him to know that Clint is in there as well. He hasn’t been able to let them out of sight and/or reaching distance since the battle ended.
He passes two more bedrooms – including one set aside for him, though he had politely declined it citing the fact that he has portals at his disposal – before he arrives at the Captain’s.
It’s the smallest room, at the very end of the house with a bed shoved under the sloping eves and Stephen can’t quite stop the curl of amused satisfaction that cuts through him at the thought of Captain America trying to stand up and move around in most of the room. Not that the super soldier spends much time here. There’s a small duffle, just large enough for a change of clothes and a few toiletries, at the end of the bed but that is it. There is nothing else in the room.
Nothing else but the locked and warded box containing the infinity stones.
Tomorrow they will go back to where they belong but tonight…
Stephen sits cross legged on the floor before the box and unweaves the magic keeping it sealed.
“Hello, old friend,” he murmurs as the Time Stone brightens at the brush of his magic, shining until the whole room is filled with a flickering green light. “I have one more task for you.”
The stone all but quivers in its setting.
He hadn’t lied to Peter. He can’t go back. Not enough to make a difference. Not enough to save Tony Stark.
This universe has been saved. The timeline closed.
Important word: this.
He moves his fingers, weaving them through the air until eldritch threads pull three stones from where they lay against the matte gray cushioning.
The Time Stone, for obvious reasons.
The Reality Stone, to keep the threads of the universes separate while he passes through.
The Power Stone, so as not to burn himself into an empty husk in his attempt.
Wielding all six infinity stones, even with the help of the gauntlet, had been enough to kill Tony Stark. It had been enough to injure the Hulk.
Three isn’t enough to kill him unless he touches them with his bare skin but even through his magic he can feel them burning. The overload of power creeping through his veins and winding up his arms. He will have scars at the very least.
Stephen can live with scars.
Taking a deep breath he gathers up all the thoughts and worries (the sorrow and the regret) running through his head and slowly he breathes it out until his mind is as smooth as the pond this afternoon, reflecting nothing but the world he wishes to find.
A parallel universe, one so closely mirroring his current reality as to be nearly indistinguishable.
A parallel universe, one in which his younger self was not quite so miraculously lucky when his car crashed.
A parallel universe, one in which there is still more time to prepare for the Mad Titan’s arrival.
Time in which to save Tony.
Stephen moves his hands.
Gold sparks shatter and splash through the air, falling to the ground like rain.
His arms burn.
In front of him a road curves sharply. He can hear the velvety purr of an engine. Smell the scent of rubber against asphalt.
He steps through.
Behind him the infinity stones fall back into their case and the portal winks shut.