Chapter 1: At the End of All Things
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.
The thing about dying is this:
It’s not really a surprise.
Sure, he hadn’t really expected to die now. He had gotten out of the weapons game. He has the suit, which is just as much a part of him as the blood running through his veins ("I am Iron Man"). He hasn’t partied hard since his fortieth birthday and hasn’t been a playboy in even longer. He might not eat or sleep in an exactly healthy manner but outside of self-soothing with cheeseburgers he eats pretty well and hits the gym every day. He has a one drink limit and even then most days his collection just sits in his liquor cabinet and looks pretty.
Frankly, he looks better at forty-six than he did at twenty-six and he had been damn fine at twenty-six.
So he hadn’t really expected to die now. This… this hadn’t been part of the plan.
Of course, pretty much everything that had happened over the past few days hadn’t been part of The Plan.
The Plan had been simple. Or so he had thought. And he’s pretty sure that this isn’t a case of his big genius brain thinking something is actually simpler than it really is. Like ninety-three percent. Maybe eighty-seven. He’s notoriously bad about judging other people’s intelligence. He’s a genius, alright? After a certain point everyone else is just… dumb. Still, he’s not asking people to master particle physics overnight. The Plan had legitimately seemed simple. Easy. He had been pretty fucking sure that not even DUM-E could mess it up.
… which means that a handful of moderately intelligent beings who supposedly trusted him should have been able to follow instructions.
Clearly, that had been expecting too much.
But had it? Had it really?
Look, Tony is aware that they – he and the rest of the Avengers – are not friends. Not real ones. His relationship with them has been perpetually stuck in that weird area where you’re probably, definitely more than acquaintances but you’re not actually friends. And that’s fine. Really. It is. He knows people don’t actually want to be friends with Tony Stark. They want his brain, his tech, his social and political influence, his money, or some combination of the above but they don’t really want him. He’s too smart, too loud, too fast, too blunt, too brash. He’s five million miles a minute and he doesn’t like to be touched or handed things. He’s PTSD and touched starved. He’s got a bit of a self-destructive personality. He’s obsessive.
So, yeah. He gets it.
Iron Man, yes. Tony Stark, not recommended.
But, you know, he had kind of expected after the initial ruffling of feathers and dick measuring (after they had closed the portal, saved the city, and sent Loki back to the rest of the Space Vikings) that they would settle into being… comrades? Brothers in arms? Something like that. People that didn’t necessarily get along or like each other but people that trusted each other. That had each other’s backs.
That were a goddamn team.
But they hadn’t and no matter how hard he had tried and how hard he had wished otherwise that fact didn’t change.
They. Were. Not. A. Team.
If they had been, if they had trusted each other (if they had trusted him instead of treating him like a mindless, wayward child…!) then he currently wouldn’t be here, dying in an empty, frozen bunker.
If they had been then Project Insight would have never gotten off the ground. Literally. Tony Stark might not be recommended but he’d designed and built a hell of a lot for SHIELD (…and HYDRA. Apparently) and if the nightmare with Stane had taught him anything it was to never leave his tech (his designs, his creations, his weapons) completely in someone else’s hands. So if Rogers or Natashalie had bothered to pick up the damn phone he could have grounded them. He could have had JARVIS rip HYDRA out of SHIELD, name by name, code by code, if only he had known to look for them.
Instead, he spent days trying to save as many SHIELD agents as he could as their covers and aliases were burnt on the public forum of the world wide web.
He might have found the footage of his parents’ murder and not been blindsided by it in the middle of fucking Siberia and left to die in an abandoned bunker.
And yet here he is.
In an abandoned bunker.
Because the truth of the matter is this:
Steve Rogers would destroy the world to regain Bucky Barnes and what is Tony Stark compared to the world?
The thing about dying is this:
Tony is no stranger to dying. He has had more lives than a room full of cats. Honestly, he’s pretty fucking surprised that he’s managed to survive this long. Forget Afghanistan, Iron Man, and the Avengers. He should have been dead at least a dozen times over by the time he turned twenty.
Electrocuted, caught in an engine turbine, misfired guns, kidnappers, alcohol poisoning, and drug overdoses – he’s never been easy on himself.
And then came Afghanistan. Once, as they sat huddled together, teeth clacking and limbs shaking in the bone deep cold of a desert night Yinsen had told him that his heart had stopped three times during his spur-of-the-moment makeshift surgery there in the desert caves. Before he escaped, before Iron Man, he had resented a god that he didn’t believe in for not letting him die then, to blink out of existence before the Ten Rings went to work on him.
It was years before he could shower without having a panic attack.
He still can’t handle taking a bath. Or swimming.
And then... well. It’s a fucking miracle that he survived using the Mark I. Plus all the testing that went into the building of the Mark II. Then Obie pulled his heart from his chest.
He died, up there on the other side of the wormhole. He died. He’s reviewed the logs from both JARVIS and the armor itself. He died. For a full two minutes he stopped breathing. His heart stopped beating. He fell.
He woke up.
AIM. Killian. Extremis.
ULTRON and his pet witch. Thor’s hand around his throat. Crushing. Bruising. He hadn’t been able to breathe or speak properly for days.
He has been beaten down so many times (so many times) and gotten back up again. He’s kept going, even when he didn’t want to. Even when he was drunk off his ass and high as a kite with a loaded gun sitting in the palm of his hand. Even when he was shoved under the water again and again with a car battery hooked up to his chest. Even when he was dying by slow, painful degrees with the arc reactor murdering him even as it kept him alive. Even when he had a nuclear bomb in his arms.
When he can’t breathe, when he has no options he still fights. He gets back up. He goes another round. (He’s too stupid to stay down.)
But not this time.
This time he’s stuck in a six hundred pound metal coffin with his chest crushed in, no power, no heat, no communications, limited lung capacity, in rapidly dropping sub-freezing temperatures, and bleeding out.
The truth of the matter is this:
He’s not getting up. Not this time.
The thing about dying is this:
It’s a truth serum. Bottle it up and he’d make a fucking fortune. He’d double his net worth overnight. (The Board would be thrilled.) Because when you’re dying there is no reason to lie to yourself. He could lie to the living but a) there isn’t anyone else here and b) even if there was – what would be the point? He’s dying. What are they going to do if they’re unhappy with the truth? Kill him?
Or he would if he could.
He’s having a bit of trouble taking a breath. He can taste copper at the back of his throat. He can feel (can hear) bubbles when he exhales.
It won’t be much longer. He’s past lying now.
The truth of the matter is this:
Tony Stark is Iron Man.
He is also a genius, billionaire, (former) playboy, philanthropist.
Tony Stark believes in people even though he really probably shouldn’t.
Tony Stark has exactly four friends. Two of them are technically his employees. One is his newest AI. Rhodey is, well, Rhodey. They’ve fallen in and out a thousand times in the past thirty years but the universe will cease to exist before Rhodey leaves him.
(Oh, god, Rhodey. He’s so sorry, platypus. So damn sorry.)
Tony Stark has six children. Only one of them is human. One of them is dead.
Tony Stark loves Pepper Potts. Like, really loves her with heart eyes and big fluffy hearts and everything - but he’s not in love with her. He’s in love with the idea of her. With the idea of having and keeping someone that knows him and cares for him. With the idea that he could build a life with someone, that he could have this little slice of normal just for himself. With the idea that there is someone who might love every bit of him. Except she doesn’t.
(Tony Stark, yes. Iron Man, no.)
She deserves better. She’s always deserved better.
Maybe, objectively, he has too.
(The very thought is terrifying. Tony's never deserved anything.)
Tony Stark has been a fucking doormat for SHIELD (and HYDRA) and the Avengers (…and HYDRA) for the past four years.
It is… it is not a good feeling.
(Stark men are made of iron. Look at how corroded he has become.)
Tony Stark has never stopped trying to earn Howard’s approval and he hates that. He hates that he has lived his entire life trying to gain the approval of a dead man who was nothing but cold, bitter, jealous, and obsessive in life.
Nine days out of ten if Steve had walked up and said, “Tony, the Winter Soldier killed your father” he would have shaken Barnes’ fucking hand and bought him a drink.
In fact, if it had just been Howard in that car tonight would have been… different. Very different. He would have been shocked, yes, and pissed. So very, very pissed off because Steve fucking Rogers spent years using his money and his resources to find the man who murdered his parents, spent years hiding that truth from Tony because he didn’t want his funding pulled. But if it had just been Howard… he might have screamed. There would have been screaming. And he definitely would have punched Rogers in his too perfect face. Twice. But that… that would have probably been the end of it.
(Sorry, not sorry Zemo.)
But it hadn’t just been Howard. It had been his mom too. His mom. He had stood here and watched the Winter Soldier strangle his mom and then been expected to just let it go.
And that is what hurts. More than anything that is what is tearing a hole in his fucking chest.
(It’s either that or a snapped rib. Jury is out.)
Out of everything he has been through it’s that moment, the moment in which he realizes just how much a supposed teammate has manipulated him and how little his thoughts and feelings matter that absolutely destroys him.
The truth of the matter is this:
Tony Stark has been dead for hours. He’s just waiting for his body to catch up.
The thing about dying is this:
He never thought it would take so long.
He’s a mechanic, scientist, weapon manufacturer. He makes things go boom for both profit and pleasure. He’s always imagined that he’ll go out in a blaze of glory (or infamy) with a high probability of explosions. Dying old and in bed has never been in the cards for him.
He never thought it would be like this.
Fuck, even the waterboarding had been quicker than this.
Even the crawl to his workshop, dragging himself by his fingertips, had been quicker than this.
It’s been hours since Rogers and Barnes left. Hours since the shield hit the frozen ground. Hours since he was left staring up into nothing, unable to move.
It’s been hours since he tried to contact FRIDAY. Hours since he realized that this is it. That he’s all alone.
It’s dark now. Absolutely, completely black.
He can’t feel his legs anymore. Or his arms. Or his pelvis. Or his face. He can’t really feel his chest either but considering the entire front of his suit is caved he can live with that.
Or die with that.
He stopped shivering a while ago too.
That’s… that’s bad, he knows. Really bad. Terribly bad.
It’s getting really hard to form thoughts. Everything feels really heavy.
Tony is just so tired.
So. Fucking. Tired.
Maybe… maybe he’ll just close his eyes.
Just for a minute.
He dreams of orange and gold sparks.
And then he dies.
Chapter title taken from "I Knew You Were Trouble" by Taylor Swift
A note on the timeline:
According to the MCU Timeline canonically Stephen Strange's accident occurs on February 2, 2016 and he arrives in Kamar-Taj on May 4, 2016. The Avengers' fight at the airport and Tony's subsequent fight with Steve and Bucky takes place on June 24, 2016. HOWEVER, for the purpose of this story I'm fudging with Stephen's timeline to fit the idea I had in my head at the time of writing. Namely, until looking at the timeline I always vaguely assumed that the Air Force Colonel who crushed his lower spine while wearing experimental armor mentioned during the phone call happening in the minutes leading up to his accident was Rhodey. As such, for this fic you can assume that Stephen's accident also takes place on June 24th.
Chapter 3: The Sorcerer Supreme
Stephen stumbles as the portal closes behind him, his legs folding beneath him at the sudden loss of strength. Levi catches him, folds of crimson fabric stopping him from falling to his face in the roadside gravel. Unable to do anything else, he lets himself have this moment of weakness. Shutting his eyes against the bright agitation of passing headlights he groans quietly as Levi lowers him gently to the ground. For a moment he just lies there, uncaring of the rock and rubble digging into his flesh and tries to breathe. He is balanced on a precarious edge. Heartbeat hammering in his ears, his chest rises and falls as he sucks in deep, gasping breaths past gritted teeth while his entire body vibrates with a fine, consistent tremor.
Hands aching, forearms burning, he lies there and tries to convince his body that it’s not dying. That it is still in one piece. That it hasn’t been ripped into innumerable pieces. That this is really just the worst case of motion sickness he has ever (will ever) have. That his heart can still beat, that this air can still be breathed. Behind clenched teeth his stomach tries to heave and he shoves it down mercilessly.
Over his head thunder rumbles across the sky.
A drop of rain hits his cheek.
And then another.
Stephen lets out gasping sob and pushes himself to his feet.
“Shit,” he mutters, blindly grabbing for Levi as his vision momentarily goes black. Above him, the heavens open and torrent of water cascades down, slamming into the pavement in a dull roar. Swearing under his breath he blinks rapidly until he can begin to see bits and pieces of the road forming around the dark marks eclipsing his vision.
Above the roar of the rain he hears the shrieking crunch of metal impacting other metal at a high speed, hears the squeal of breaks and the punishing honk of a horn.
He opens his eyes and watches the silver Lamborghini jerk off the road, flipping end over end as it crashes down the cliff face.
“Oh god,” he breathes and promptly vomits all over the ground in front of him.
He knows exactly when it happens.
He is six feet away from the twist of metal that once been a car (his car), up to his knees in water, when suddenly everything stops.
Well, not quite everything. His forearms still burn and his hands are still aching and shaking as they haven’t done since the first time they took off the braces post-surgery. Overall, he still rather feels like he’s been beaten and burnt after having the audacity to eat some questionable convenience store sushi but it is a vast (vast) improvement over feeling like he is about to vibrate apart at a molecular level, as if the very world around him were trying to rip him open and make sense of him (scatter him into the cosmos, disperse him before he causes a disruption, destroy the intruder).
The shock of it makes him stumble again.
This time, though, he keeps going.
“Christ.” It punches out of him in a sharp exhale, taking all of his oxygen with it. It’s one thing to live through the accident. To feel the body of metal and glass crumple and break around him. It’s one thing to be trapped in the wreckage until they cut him out of it, hands smashed and slowly asphyxiating on his own blood and watching the water rise. It’s one thing to lie in a hospital bed and know that his career (his life) is over. It’s one thing to know that his survival is a literal miracle, that the fact that he still draws breath means he beat literal million-to-one odds.
It’s another thing entirely to have to look at a version of him that wasn’t so lucky and is now nothing more than a corpse of flesh and bone trapped in a corpse of twisted metal.
Stephen knows that he’s dead. He knows it because he felt it the instant this universe stopped trying to rip him apart.
He checks for a pulse anyway.
There isn’t one.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs as he stares at the contorted flesh, at the blood drip-drip-dripping onto the mess of broken glass. He chose this universe, at least in part, because the Stephen Strange of this universe never survived this moment. Still, there is a small part of him that wonders if that is really true. The odds are practically impossible… and yet. Stephen Strange is a man known for beating the odds. It is not outside the realm of possibility that his presence here further stacked things against his counterpart. Did he know something was wrong in those last few minutes? Did he fight to keep control of his vehicle while his atoms tried to vibrate apart? Or had it happened exactly as it had for Stephen? A moment (or more) of distracted driving at excessive speeds and then…
He supposes he will never know. Not for certain.
So, despite his familiarity with seeing himself die (feeling himself die) he is sorry.
But not sorry enough to regret it. Nor sorry enough to prevent him from taking the other Stephen’s place.
Well, not literally.
The look on the Ancient One’s face as he steps into her personal rooms is nothing short of shocked.
He very nearly laughs.
Instead, Stephen twists to avoid the first attack, bounces the second off a calmly conjured shield, and does a nifty piece of magic that he picked up from the witches of Yyloran VII that allows his aura to consume the third as if it were nothing more than a tasty treat tossed in his direction. By the time she moves to throw them into the Mirror Dimension he has her frozen, powers bound within his own.
“You are not Stephen Strange,” she says after a moment and her voice is calm but he can see the faintest edge of fear in the corner of her eyes. When he had first met her he hadn’t thought that she even knew what fear meant. She had always been so calm, so in control, so all knowing and mindful in the face of his desperation. Even once he began to understand (to learn) the way of things her power and control had seemed immense. They are immense. The presence of her magic is like the deepest ocean: still and seemingly bottomless with shadows and secrets stirring in the deep.
In comparison, Stephen is the black expanse of deep space: an endless, soundless abyss.
“I am,” he returns just as calmly. “I’m just not your Stephen Strange.”
Horror twists her face before she can stop it. “What have you done?”
Behind him Levi bristles at her tone and her eyes unerringly snap to the relic billowing from his shoulders, twitching like it wants to rush forward and wring her neck.
“Not now,” he murmurs and Levi makes what can only be describe as an angry gesture (definitely something he learned from Tony) with one of his corners before he dials it back just a notch or two. To the Ancient One he merely says, “What was necessary. May we speak? I promise, I mean you no harm.”
“I find it is not myself I am worried about.”
“I mean no harm to this Earth or this Reality,” he adds, barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “In fact, I mean to save it and half the universe from utter annihilation.” He takes a seat on one of the benches near her, crossing one leg over the other. “Approximately eleven minutes ago this universe’s Stephen Strange died in a car accident.”
The Ancient One closes her eyes and something that sounds surprisingly like despair flows out of her in a quiet sigh.
“I will be taking his place.”
The Ancient One’s eyes snap back open.
“Well,” Stephen adds after a pregnant pause in which he can see far too many incorrect ideas lighting up behind the Ancient One’s seemingly all-seeing gaze. “Not literally.”
Calmly, succinctly, and over fingers steepled in front of his chin Stephen outlines the events of the next few years.
“You have to understand,” he begins, “that I selected this universe for a reason. The differences between my universe and this up until the moment of my accident are so infinitesimal as to be nonexistent. It might be that some farmer in Iowa didn’t glance out his kitchen window this morning. It might be that someone put their left foot down first instead of their right. It might be as something as simple as a single grain of sand. There is a difference but whatever that difference is, it is so small that we will never notice or figure it out.”
“Except in this universe Stephen Strange dies in his accident,” the Ancient One points out.
Stephen inclines his head. “Of course,” he agrees mildly. “Having to murder myself seemed grisly and unnecessary. Far simpler to simply find a universe in which I died at a likely point.”
The fact that he would have been willing to do so should it have proved necessary goes unspoken. He has already murdered himself tens of millions of times. What’s once more in the face of such magnitude?
“You think you know how the world works,” he murmurs, echoing the words she had once spoken to him. “Worlds without end. Some benevolent and life giving. Others filled with malice and hunger. My universe was both. This one will be as well, unless we stop it. Unless we change.”
The Ancient One swallows.
And she listens.
“There is a being called the Mad Titan. The only surviving member of a race that overpopulated their world to the point of destruction he sweeps across the universe and leaves nothing but death in his wake. He calls it balance. In his eyes, his warmongering is an act of mercy. By killing off half of the population he is saving them from the agony his planet underwent. He has killed billions. It is not enough. He seeks a faster way. A more complete way. In my universe,” and in yours, he adds silently, “he sought the Infinity Stones – and he found them.”
He hadn’t even been aware that the Ancient One could be that shade of pale.
“By the time I encountered him he had four in his possession: Power, Space, Reality, and Soul. He had sent some of his followers – his Children – to Earth. They captured me. Two of the Avengers, Iron Man and Spiderman stowed away on their ship in an attempt to save me and the Time Stone. They were successful in freeing me but… the ship was locked into auto pilot and we took the fight to the Mad Titan.” He swallows, remembering. Even after all this time he can feel the sharp stabbing ache from where Ebony Maw had tortured him. Can remember the way his heart pounded in his chest and fear made his throat tight. “I gave him the Time Stone.”
The force of the Ancient One’s fury is like a tsunami. It rises up and crashes down over him, seeking to crush him, to drown him, to pick him up and fling him this way and that.
Once, that much power would have been enough to kill him where he sits.
Now, though, now he sits and like a mountain anchored in the ocean floor he lets it simply wash over him. He moves his hands in practiced, jerky movements and the sudden glow of gold and orange cuffs at his once mentor’s wrists cuts the roar of her power to nothing.
For a moment she stares at him, face pale and shaking, eyes absolutely sparking and then she crumples in on herself. Fourteen million, six hundred five lifetimes ago he might have called it the saddest thing he has ever seen, to watch such a sure, powerful woman become empty and meaningless. But it is not fourteen million, six hundred five lifetimes ago. He has watched entire planets die. He has held the dismembered pieces of his children in his hands. He has watched the man he loves sacrifice himself for the universe and not been able to stop him. Not been able to touch him, to comfort him in those final moments.
Bluntly, Stephen offers her an explanation, “I gave him the stone because in the minutes before he arrived I used it. I used it over and over and over again. Fourteen million, six hundred and five times I used it. I lived fourteen million, six hundred and five times to find a way to beat him.” His hands shake, the tremors aggravating the burning sensation in his forearms. It’s not his damaged nerves. He ignores it anyway. “By that point the only path to success required a momentary surrender. He took the stone and left. He came to Earth. He ripped the final stone – the Mind Stone – out of the head of the Vision. Once he had all of the stones he snapped his fingers and half of the living universe ceased to exist in an instant. Including me. I tried so many times to find another way but in the end that was the only viable option left to me.”
The only one.
It has been a very, very long time since he was a surgeon – an actual, proper one – but he still holds that oath in his heart. The promise to do good, to minimize harm still beats away at the very core of him.
It has saved him and damned him millions of times over.
He suspects it will do so again (and again) before he closes his eyes for good.
“I cannot imagine,” she tells him, sometime later, carefully folding her hands in her lap to hide their shaking. “When I have had need to use the Eye to peer into the future it is like looking through a window: real, but distant. Separate. To have actually lived all of those lives…” she stares at him. Stephen understands the feeling.
It should not be possible.
The human brain is a marvelous, miraculous thing but it is not capable of remembering a thousand lifetimes, let alone fourteen million six hundred five. Even with his eidetic memory he should, at best, remember the patterns of those lifetimes and not the detail of them. But he does remember. He remembers everything. He remembers how it feels for his body to break down and drift apart, to turn into dust and float away. He remembers how it feels to have the full power of four Infinity Stones turned on him, to be utterly unmade. He remembers the feel of the blue silk sheets against his arching back and the feel of Tony’s breath against his skin. He remembers the number of candles (seven) that had burned in a circle around them at their seventy-second wedding. He remembers that the last cup of tea he drank in his eleven millionth life had been made from a plant that tasted of pineapple and peppermint.
It should not be possible and yet it is.
Somewhere along the way Stephen Strange broke and in the breaking, became something more.
He knows because he can see it in the mirror. There in the irises of his eyes, like light shining through cracks in opaque glass: a particular shade of green to match the glow of the stone he wore for so long around his neck. He has lived fourteen million six hundred five lives and within them innumerable time loops. (That’s a lie. He remembers every single one of them too). Using the Time Stone is easier than breathing these days. It has sunk into his veins and hooked itself into his soul.
(“If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. Yeah, that’s right. I can quote Nietzsche. Don’t look so shocked, Dumbledore. I'm more than just a pretty face.”)
Even now he can feel it like separate heartbeat, thrumming excitedly in the rooms below him.
“So why are you here, if you saved your universe?” she asks and the quiet that they have sat in since he stopped talking has been enough to let her regain her tranquil, leading way of asking questions.
“I already told you that.”
She’s not put off.
“You did. You gave me but a grain of the truth while standing on a beach of it.”
“Once you told me that no matter how often you looked into the future that you could never see beyond the moment of your own death; that all paths led to lightning and snow,” he tells her, picking his words carefully. “I’m offering you a different path. One that ends in something more than death and bleak survival. I’m offering you a chance to get your house in order. Does the rest of the truth really matter?”
She stares at him.
He stares back.
The weight of the Eye of Agamotto’s chains settling around his neck is enough to make his knees buckle with relief and only Levi keeps him from making a fool of himself in front of the Ancient One.
“Hello, old friend,” he whispers, even though it has only technically been an hour. Within the Eye the Time Stone practically buzzes in excitement.
Beside him the Ancient One still stares, her eyebrows raised incredulously. “Then we are agreed?”
Stephen nods. “I will keep Kamar-Taj and the Masters a secret. As far as the rest of the world will know I discovered magic on my own.”
“And I can tell the Masters that I gave the Eye into safekeeping with a sorcerer it has chosen, rather than waking to find it gone missing in the night,” his former mentor adds dryly.
Stephen doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to for both of them to know that it is true.
He has lived so long with it around his neck that he’s not quite sure he could manage to live without it.
"They will be displeased."
"I really don't care," Stephen snaps, folding his fingers around the metal curves of the Eye as if he expects her to try and rip it from him. She might. He wouldn't blame her. Not really. "I earned my rank minute by minute, dying for our reality because - I'm assuming - that confronting Dormammu thousands of times was essential to my future and mastery of the Time Stone. I need no such practice, this time. This time, you will do your job. I have already dealt with Kaecilius and the Dark Dimension for you once. I will not do so again."
The Ancient One presses her lips into a thin line, displeased, but after a moment she averts her eyes. "It will be as you say," she finally agrees. "You have turned our world on its ear, Stephen. I have spent many years staring after one future only to find it snatched from the frame and destroyed before my eyes."
"Some futures," Stephen replies, not unkindly, "are not worth living."
Kamar-Taj had been his home once. It had been a haven from a fast-paced world of frantic desperation and sharp, deliberate loneliness.
It’s not anymore.
Now it is nothing more than a faded, worn edged photograph kept in the pages of a favorite book: a window into a simpler time.
A distant one.
Stephen has lived so much of his existence on repeat. Now it is time to experience something new.
Chapter 4: Waking Up
Sorry this is a day late. My kids had the flu. I went 40+ hours without sleep. It was not pretty and I'm not sure I was capable of remembering my own name let alone hitting post on a chapter.
Much love and gratitude for all the kudos and lovely comments you have left. Comments are the carrot dangled in front of my muse.
The thing about dying is this:
He never thought it would take so long.
He’s a mechanic, scientist, weapon manufacturer. He makes things go boom for both profit and pleasure. He’s always imagined that he’ll go out in a blaze of glory (or infamy) with a high probability of explosions. Dying old and in bed has never been in the cards for him.
He never thought it would be like this.
Fuck, even the waterboarding had been quicker than this.
Even the crawl to his workshop had been quicker than this.
It’s been hours since Rogers and Barnes left. Hours since the shield hit the frozen ground. Hours since he was left staring up into nothing, unable to move.
It’s been hours since he tried to contact FRIDAY. Hours since he realized that this is it. That he’s all alone.
It’s dark now. Absolutely, completely black.
He can’t feel his legs anymore. Or his arms. Or his pelvis. Or his face. He can’t really feel his chest either but considering the entire front of his suit is caved he can live with that.
Or die with that.
He stopped shivering a while ago too.
That’s… that’s bad, he knows. Really bad. Terribly bad.
It’s getting really hard to form thoughts. Everything feels really heavy.
Tony is just so tired.
So. Fucking. Tired.
Maybe… maybe he’ll just close his eyes.
Just for a minute.
He dreams of orange and gold sparks.
“Tony,” the sound of his name pierces the thick, cold sludge overlaying his brain. “Oh my god, Tony…”
He struggles to get his eyes open. It’s hard. It’s really hard. It’s like that parking garage of cars landed on his eyelids instead of his suit. He’s never heard someone say his name like that: soft and warm and worried, in a voice deep enough that he almost feels it more than hears it.
He manages to pry his eyes open. Just a little.
Everything’s blurry. Faded around the edges. An old photograph. A corrupted file. A video taken from someone’s ancient, cheap ass flip phone…
The voice belongs to a man.
He thought if anyone would manage to find him out here it would be Viz.
Or maybe not.
Something… something red.
He tries to blink but his eyes don’t want to follow through. The blurry image is getting narrower and narrower.
Wait. No. Come back, he wants to say when the man disappears out of his line of sight. Come back. Don’t leave me. Please don’t…
Tony closes his eyes.
“…the Vishanti, I am going to kill him. I am going to let him freefall for centuries. Millenia.” Tony tries to open his eyes. Tries to work his throat.
No, no, don’t make me fall, he begs silently, trying. His tongue doesn’t work. His jaw his so heavy. So stiff. He can’t… it can’t… I hate falling.
He tries to swallow. Tries to, tries to open his eyes, to twitch his nose, something…
“Shhh… shhh… shhh, I know it hurts. You’ll be okay. You’re the strongest man I know. Toughest, most brilliant bastard in the universe.”
Tony should… he should protest. He’s not… he’s not strong. If he was strong and brilliant he wouldn’t be in this mess. If he was strong...
He tries to tell him. He tries but nothing is working. It’s slipping away. Like trying to grab oil. Nothing will stay put. Nothing is, uh, nothing is solid. It’s all… it’s getting away.
Everything is getting away.
“His ribcage is crushed. I’m going to need to support it and his spine before we try to move him.” The deep voice rumbles through him and Tony arches toward the sound. Tries to move. Tries to… The shock of something hot and searing like a brand against his cheek is enough to make his eyelids flicker.
The man is leaning over him and he’s… he’s got his hand on Tony’s face.
He’s not… he’s not sure. He’s not…
“I am sorry, Tony.”
There’s something… something happening in his chest. Literally. Not metaphorically. He doesn’t… he doesn’t…
It’s warm and… and… and…
Tony screams behind his locked teeth.
“Please forgive me.”
He’s burning. Tony is burning up. It’s so hot. It’s so hot. Why is he so hot? Is this what it feels like when you get too cold? He’s been cold before. He… he doesn’t think that’s right. That’s not… that’s not right. But he’s burning. His blood is bubbling in his veins. It’s too hot. It’s cooking him. He’s… he’s got to get it out.
He’s got to get the burning out.
He’s got to…
“Hold him down!”
Something wraps around him – around his hands and then across his chest and his shoulders, brushing up against his face. It’s soft and scratchy and warm and smells like…like crushed herbs and worn leather and the smell of an old book when you flip through its pages. He gasps and it hurts, it hurts to drag air into raw feeling lungs.
“It’s okay, Tony,” the voice rumbles. “Just let it do its job. It should be over soon.”
“…hot,” he manages to whisper and his throat feels like sandpaper.
“I know,” the voice agrees and then the touch is back on his face, cool digits pushing the sweat matted hair off of his face.
It’s… it’s nice.
Please don’t go, Tony thinks fuzzily. I don’t want to die alone.
And then he dies.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The unmistakable sound of something clearly meant to be an alarm filters down through the murky fog of unconsciousness. “FRI, turn it off,” he mutters without waking. He doesn’t want to wake up. He’s nice and warm and he hasn’t had any nightmares and fuck, he hasn’t slept this well in almost a decade. Why is he waking up? Why is there still beeping? “FRI,” he begins again and then stops.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Tony’s eyes slam open.
It’s not the bunker… which makes sense. That makes sense. He’s pretty sure that if he’d stayed in the HYDRA bunker he would have just been another corpse. So… not a corpse. That’s… that’s good. Right. Probably. Maybe.
Unless HYDRA has him. Or Ross.
Then it’s bad.
Really, really fucking bad.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
“Boss, your heart and respiration rates are becoming elevated. Please attempt to relax. Are you in need of assistance?”
Tony inhales sharply, “…FRIDAY?”
So… not HYDRA. That’s good.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that he can’t rule out Ross yet. Unfortunately.
He swallows against the lump that is suddenly blocking his throat and stares up at the crisp white of the ceiling over his head. It’s a significant improvement over the memory of darkness that claws at his brain.
“I’m here Boss,” his baby girl responds and he wants to cry and the sweet, curling lilt of her voice. He thought he’d never hear her again. He thought he’d lost her (that she had lost him), “It is 4:37 pm on June 27, 2016. You are in the Medical Center at the Avengers Compound. It is currently partially cloudy and seventy-eight degrees.”
The buzzing in Tony’s head is promptly derailed as the details sink in, his mighty genius brain catching upon important information and waving it around like a flag at a parade.
“June 27th?” he yelps, scrambling upwards and all but flinging himself out of bed. He is stopped by two things: one, a slightly scratchy, woolen looking red blanket that he seems to be tangled in his sheets and swaddling him at the same time - and he’s not even sure where that blanket came from because it is completely unlike the fuzzy, plush things that he tends to order as he’s coming down from fifty-eight hour science binges or like the soft, delicately knitted cashmere things that Pepper buys to throw over the corners of couches – and two, the unmistakable jerk of an IV line in his arm.
“Ow, ow, ow, motherfucker,” he gasps, collapsing back onto the bed that FRIDAY has helpfully raised into a semi reclined position. “What the hell? Seriously, why I am hooked up to… yeah, no that’s got to go. I’ve got people to… Shit. Did the kid make it home okay? I was supposed to… and Rhodey. Oh, god. I’ve got to call the hospital. I’ve got to get to the workshop. He’ll walk again if it kills me and…Seriously, why will this not come out of my fucking arm?”
His fingers pick futilely at the edge of the clear medical tape securing the line and needle.
“Peter Parker arrived via your private jet yesterday afternoon at 1:23 pm and was escorted safely home. He was informed that you would be in contact within a few days and has left three non-critical text messages on your private phone since then,” FRIDAY informs him. “Colonel Rhodes underwent surgery at the Charite University Hospital in Germany on the 25th. The surgeons are cautiously optimistic but it is unclear at this stage how much damage is permanent. Ms. Potts has coordinated his return for the day after tomorrow and has arranged for a consultation with Dr. Cho.”
Tony nods his head along. Good. That’s… that’s good. If anyone can fix his Rhodey-bear it’ll probably be Helen Cho. Fuck, he’s going to have to do something about the kid. Keep his distance. Get attention off of him – or, more accurately, off of Spiderman – maybe assign Happy to keep his eye on him? And shit, Pepper. She’s going to kill him. She’s going to actually kill him. He spouts all of this bullshit about accountability and taking a step back and now she is going to literally murder him with the pair of heels he bought her the last time he forgot to sign a stack of paperwork.
(So… last week. Probably.)
“…Lang and the Bartons arrived at the Tower and have been installed in their suites per The Fox in the Henhouse protocols. There are thirty-nine messages from the Accords Council, the UN, the President, and Secretary Ross. Secretary Ross has attempted to gain access to the Compound three times since the Rogue Avengers were broken out of the Raft by Captain America on the 25th…”
Wait. What? No. What the hell…
“…unsuccessful and legal has added trespassing and harassment charges to the list of charges to filed against him. Both Legal and Public Relations note that their dossier on the Secretary is almost complete and ready for release. With all the happenings and rumors surrounding what is now being dubbed as the Avengers’ Civil War Stark Industries stock has dropped five points. You have thirteen calls, twenty-seven emails, and one text waiting from members of the Board. Ms. Potts has tried to contact you eighteen times. Harley Keener has sent fourteen text messages. The last one sent one hour and fifteen minutes ago indicates that if he does not from you by 6pm that he will be coming to New York.”
“What? No. No, no, no, he can’t come here! Not with…” Ross breathing down my neck. The UN out for blood. The press circling like sharks. The Board throwing a tantrum.
“… and finally, Doctor Strange asks that you please leave the IV line in until you are fully hydrated.”
Tony freezes like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. The edges of his nails are barely wedged underneath the corner of the tape that is finally starting to come up.
“…Doctor Strange?” he repeats and he knows his mouth is moving, making words, but it all feels rather foreign. Distant. As if it’s not his mouth. Or his words. Or… “FRIDAY, who…” He trails off as he looks down at the IV line and its presence finally sinks in.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Because the last thing he remembers is getting tag teamed by two super soldiers – and not in the fun, sexy way.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Because the last thing he remembers is having Steve slam his shield into Tony’s chest over and over and over again.
“…oss? Boss, my sensors indicate that you may be in the beginning stages of a panic attack. Please let me…”
Tony stops picking at the medical tape on his arm and starts ripping at the bedding half pulled over his chest, shoving it down until he can see his skin.
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
“FRIDAY,” he gasps, still staring down at his chest. “What happened to me?”
His chest is perfect. Objectively, that is. Not in a Sexiest Man Alive sort of way.
Okay. Perfect might be a bit of a hyperbole but comparatively speaking... it’s perfect. There’s no shield sized hole in it, for starters. It’s not bandaged or taped. There aren’t any stitches. There aren’t any bruises or abrasions. There is no evidence, in fact, that he spent hours lying in the snow, slowly dying. No evidence of what Steve Rogers would do to protect Bucky Barnes.
There’s no scar tissue either. No evidence of the torture he’s undergone or the remnants of nonconsensual open-heart surgery in the middle of the fucking desert.
Well, almost no evidence.
There’s a small raised patched of tissue where the arc reactor used to rest: a sunburst pattern that gleams almost blue against the stretch of otherwise unblemished skin.
“You died,” a deep voice, oddly familiar, answers and Tony’s eyes to the man that is standing in the doorway leading to his room. He’s tall with dark hair that is beginning to go silver at his temples. His face is full of angles and Tony is pretty sure he hasn’t seen cheekbones that sharp since Loki tried to take over Earth. The man is dressed neatly but unassuming in dark slacks and deep blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled neatly to his forearms.
His totally normal and unremarkable appearance is destroyed by the large pendant that hangs front his neck, the stone at the center of it glowing green as if lit from within instead of sparkling in the sunlight. Definitely not something that he picked up at Tiffany’s.
“Or nearly,” the man corrects with a wry, affectionate smile. “It didn’t stick. Obviously.”
“… obviously,” Tony repeats rather faintly and tries not to pass out. Or call a suit. Or...
The man’s smile broadens and Tony has no idea what he’s done to warrant such relief on the other man’s face. “Doctor Stephen Strange,” the man introduces, “and yes,” he adds at the look that Tony can feel twisting his face, “that is my real name. It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Tony.”
Chapter 5: Entering Orbit
“Boss is awake.”
Stephen jerks out of the light meditative state he had put himself into after he had finally caved to the plebian need for a shower, clean clothes, food, and water. Well used to pushing his body beyond its mortal capabilities he hadn’t even noticed the exhausted tremor contorting his limbs and making him shake like a cheap house in an earthquake until FRIDAY had brought it to his attention.
“How is he?” he asks instantly, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and shaking off the disorientation of being fulling present in the corporeal world. Inside of his chest his heart beats a little faster, hammering away at his ribs.
Tony is awake.
Tony is awake.
Tony is awake.
He swallows roughly, his mouth suddenly dry.
Awake, awake, awake, awake… The relief of it is enough to make him dizzy, to make him twist his aching hands in the silky soft sheets just to convince himself that he’s not freefalling, that reality hasn't been ripped out from underneath him.
Awake, awake, awake, awake… he bites back a sob and shuts his eyes. Tony is awake.
His shoulders shake with silent huff of desperate, giddy laughter.
Awake, he repeats to himself just because he can.
“His pulse and respiration rates are a little high,” the AI remarks a little critically, her own voice heavy with relief, “but not high enough to cause concern. Nothing else has deviated from the set parameters.” There’s something in her tone that makes him think that she’s not just talking about Tony.
That’s my girl, he thinks fondly.
“Don’t let him take the IV out yet,” he warns because if he knows Tony – which, he likes to think that he does – then ripping that line out of his arm is the first thing he’s going to do once he’s noticed it. Stephen can only hope that the super soldier strength medical tape is enough to slow him down. “He’s burning through liquids faster than normal and I don’t want to risk dehydration.”
“Boss has been notified.”
Stephen smiles in the direction of one of her cameras. “Thanks FRIDAY,” he tells her. “You’re the best.”
“I aim to please,” she replies with a soft flicker of lights that he associates with the quiet, bashful pleasure of a child praised for a job well done. Christ, she is so young. He has never known her this young. By the time he first met her, two years from now, she had been the equivalent of a young woman in her early twenties. Right now she is still a baby by AI standards - barely a year old and still learning.
Pushing himself off of the bed with a wince, Stephen spares himself a glance in the mirror hung over the dresser and promptly wishes that he hadn’t. “I’m a mess,” he mutters, staring. And he is. His hair is a salt-and-pepper rat’s nest and his cheeks are sunken and pale from several days (millenia) of stress piled on top of a what feels like a never-ending series of days that had been emotionally, physically, and magically exhausting. The shadows under his eyes are dark enough that it looks like someone punched him. There are several mostly healed cuts on his abdomen: remnants from the battle with Thanos immortalized on his flesh with neat lines of black stitching that will eventually join the scattering of silvered scars that litter his body. His forearms and the backs of his hands bear the price of daring to wield three infinity stones: ashy gray marks that follow the veins from the tips of his fingers up the length of his forearms before gradually dissipating and then stopping entirely by curve of his elbow.
In short, he is a complete wreck and he’s currently in nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs which he thinks is probably not the best first meeting outfit – if for no other reason than it leaves him literally no where to hide but also because he’s achingly aware that he’s not at the prowl around in his underwear stage with Tony Stark. Not anymore. Not now. Possibly, not ever.
Fourteen million, six hundred five lives and he was only romantically involved with the man in four million, two hundred forty-six thousand, one hundred thirty-two of them.
Slightly less than one in three are not bad odds but Stephen is not above stacking the deck in his favor. Not anymore. And right now stumbling around mostly-naked is not going to do him any favors.
He looks good for being over twenty-eight million but he also looks like he’s recently had the shit beat out of him.
“Clothes,” he mutters to himself. “I need clothes.”
And to get out of his own head.
After he had removed Tony from the frozen tomb of Siberia (don’t think about it, Stephen, don’t fucking think about it) and gotten him stabilized (don’t think about it, don’t think about it) he had portaled over to his office at the hospital and painstakingly typed out the shortest resignation letter in history. He had then slapped on [in charge of hospital]’s desk and promptly given the other man a heart attack because by that point – early in the morning on the 26th – the wreckage of his car had been retrieved from the river and authorities had spent over a day dragging the river searching for his body. Once he had finally managed to get himself free of the hospital he had returned to his condo for the first time in twenty-eight million, seven hundred fifty-five thousand, six hundred ninety-one years. Everything is still there, frozen in that crystalline moment before his life had utterly changed in a crash of metal and his possessions sold off to fund his increasingly desperate attempts to regain the method of his former glory.
It had been paralyzing.
After spending fifteen minutes hyperventilating in the middle of his expensively furnished living room and desperately, selfishly wishing that Levi was there with him he had thrown his toiletries and a week’s worth of clothing into a suitcase and gotten the hell out of there. They’re not a perfect fit – he’s both skinnier and more muscular these days – but they’re close enough that he’s not going to look like a hobo. Not that there’s anything wrong with looking like a hobo. He had rocked the look for years. But just like so many other things, it has become something he wants to leave firmly in the past.
Stephen looks up from doing up the buttons on a shirt somewhere between navy and sapphire that brings out the shifting, mercurial blues of his eyes and curses the fact that past him hadn’t believed in tshirts or even god damn polos. “Yes, FRIDAY?” he responds as he finally gets the button into its hole and decides that leaving the top two buttons undone is perfectly acceptable.
Christ, he needs to get new clothes.
“Boss is showing signs of distress. He has a lot of questions but is exhibiting indicators that he is not fully processing the answers. I estimate the probability of an anxiety attack at seventy-four percent.”
Stephen abandons the rest of his attempts to make himself look less of a mess. “On my way,” he reassures her and creates a portal to the just outside of Medical.
“Friday, what happened to me?” Tony’s distress is palpable as he sits in the middle of the semi-inclined bed with the sheets shoved down around his waist and Levi still draped over his legs. The corner of the Cloak, hidden from Tony’s view, lifts in greeting and Stephen smiles even as he grabs blindly for the door frame. The sight of the two of them together makes his throat feel rough and swollen and he blinks rapidly against the horrible burning sensation at the corner of his eyes.
God, he looks good. Well, Tony always looks good. Even when he is being an abrasive asshole he is still one of the most beautiful things that Stephen has ever seen. But this… he knew there would be changes but seeing Tony at the height of his physical prime is enough to make him inhale sharply before he gets himself under control.
He hadn’t quite realized how much the events of the last few years had aged the billionaire’s features until it is all stripped away. Tony Stark had always seemed timeless. Untouchable.
“You died,” he interjects before FRIDAY can speak up. This is something Tony deserves to hear from him, no matter how happily complicit the AI had been in the actions that led to this moment. Tony’s head snaps towards him as soon as he speaks, familiar whiskey eyes locking on his face with a laser like focus. It’s like a punch to the gut and he is wildly grateful for the fact that he’s already leaning against the door frame so that he doesn’t collapse beneath the sheer weight of relief and love that surges in his chest. “It didn’t stick,” he adds with a small smile. “Obviously.”
“…obviously,” Tony repeats skeptically and it takes ever ounce of Stephen’s self-control to not cross the room in long legged strides and cup the other man’s familiar, if too thin, face in his hands and taste his lips. To not drag his cheek along the other man’s jaw, feel the smoothness of his flesh and the prick of his goatee. To not gather the other man in his arms and never let go. To not press his forehead against Tony’s and simply breathe.
He doesn’t, though.
He doesn’t and it is the second hardest thing he has ever done, which seems laughable in the face of all the things he has done but it is, inevitably, true.
Giving the Time Stone to Thanos had been easy. An infinity stone for the life of Tony Stark? A bargain. Being forced to float there and watch Tony pick up the gauntlet, being forced to hold his gaze and raise a single finger in reminder… that had been the hardest thing he had ever had to do.
Not touching him now that he is right here, that he is alive, that he isn’t yet trapped in a future that can only lead to his death…
Beneath the cover of arms crossed over his chest he digs his fingertips into his side until he has to fight back the urge to wince.
“Doctor Stephen Strange,” he introduces himself, “and yes,” he adds at the blatantly skeptical look that twists at Tony’s features, “that is my real name. It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Tony.”
He will never tire of properly meeting Tony, of feeling that hazel gaze sweep over him as analytical and all seeing as any scan that FRIDAY could perform. Never tire of the lock clicking into place, of the heady warmth of realizing that he has entered the orbit of the genius’ attention.
Tony stares at him for a minute, his forehead scrunched adorably in thought before he quietly asks, “…Stephen? Stephen Strange, the neurosurgeon? I read your paper on… Wait. Why are you… is something wrong with my brain?” The genius’ hands fly to his head, clutching at his hair as a look of unmitigated horror spreads across his face. “Oh my god, something is wrong with my brain.”
“Nothing is wrong with your brain,” Stephen assures instantly.
“Boss, your respiration and heart rates…” FRIDAY interjects as Tony digs his fingers tighter into the hair at the back of his head and hunches over. “Doctor…”
“I’m aware,” he snaps, not unkindly, and finally gives in to the urge to cross to Tony’s side. His hand is shaking – and only a little of it is the nerve damage – as he gently settles it between the juts of the other man’s shoulder blades. “Breathe, Tony. There is nothing wrong with your brain. There is nothing wrong with you at all,” he tells the other man, keeping his voice low and even. “I am here because I came to the Compound because I was hoping to talk about the Avengers with you. Breathe. It was not until I saw the… damage… to the residential areas that I realized how closely the Accords and Siberia aligned with my accident. Breathe. Once I knew what was happening, I insisted that FRIDAY make use of my considerable talents as both a doctor and a sorcerer. Breathe. Yes, I said sorcerer. We can talk about it later. Right now I need you to just breathe.”
Beneath his hand Tony lets out what just might be a choked off laugh and obediently sucks in air at Stephen’s prompting.
“There is nothing wrong with your brain,” he repeats, looping his other hand loosely around the other man’s wrist and subtly keeping track of his pulse. It’s too fast, thumping away like a panicked rabbit underneath the thin veneer of skin. “Your mind is your own. Breathe. You are safe in the Compound. Rhodes is safe. Breathe. Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan are safe. I saw Peter safely home myself. Breathe.”
Beneath his hand Tony lets out what might be a sob and Stephen gently brushes his thumb along his spine.
“There is nothing wrong with your brain,” he repeats firmly. “Your mind is your own.”
And on they go.
“I’m sorry,” Tony mutters once he has finally stabilized and shoved himself back into an upright position. “I don’t… I’m a fucking mess, I know and you shouldn’t… you shouldn’t have to…”
“Tony,” he interrupts, “after everything that has happened to you it is amazing that you’re as functional as you are. You are allowed to feel how you feel. You don’t ever need to apologize for having an anxiety attack.”
Tony stares. “Right… Well. Thanks for the help, Doctor Quinn…”
“…but can we save the woo-woo pseudo science for later? We can eat ice cream and talk about our feelings and braid each other’s hair. Make a party of it.”
“…sounds positively titillating.”
“But right now I have a lot of questions and not a lot of patience and I don’t know why the hell I’m asking you. FRIDAY, why is the strange -heh – Doctor in my Compound? No. Scratch that. Why am I in my Compound? Because I distinctly remember being somewhere colder and way less awesome. One out of five stars, would not recommend. Point for the dead Nazis but the service was otherwise terrible. Fatal, even, so why the fuck am I here?” he flings his free arm wide and mocking, glaring at Stephen and at the ceiling above him.
“Breathe, Tony,” Stephen reminds him and brushes his thumb along the billionaire’s pulse. “I’ll answer any question you ask, so long as I have an answer. Truthfully,” he adds with emphasis, catching the disbelieving sneer on the other man’s face.
“Don’t tell me to breathe,” he snaps back, even as he reflexively inhales. Stephen continues to stroke his thumb gently along the underside of the other man’s wrist and waits patiently.
“Any question. Whatever you want to know.”
Tony sucks in a sharp breath and stares, suspicious. “What happened to me?” he finally asks and just the act of asking makes his pulse jump and speed beneath Stephen’s touch. “Why am I here and not…”
“…dead in a HYDRA bunker?”
Tony jerks his head sharply.
There are a dozen ways he could answer that. A hundred. Possibly even a thousand. He could answer without even answering. He could give the man a detailed, blow by blow power point presentation. Which Tony would interrupt halfway through because he couldn’t tolerate the fact that Stephen dared to use something as plebian and archaic as power point. He could even just take the easy way out and play the surveillance footage of his first several hours at the Compound. Tony is going to watch it anyway, might as well just get it over with now.
He doesn’t, though. He doesn’t do any of that.
Instead he gives the bluntest, most all-encompassing answer that he can. Two simple words.
Chapter 6: The Important Question
Tony freezes on the bed unable to move, unable to breathe as he stares at the other man’s face, searching it desperately for answers, for even the smallest hint. He finds… well, he finds a fat lot of nothing except for a timeless sort of… patience? He thinks it might be patience? It’s this calm, sort of waiting face and Tony doesn’t… Tony doesn’t…
How? How does he even… No one should know. No one but he and FRIDAY should know that Project Firecracker even exists. And FRIDAY is forbidden from speaking about it. There is no override code in existence that could make her speak of it. In its own way, Project Firecracker is even more protected than his suits.
But Stephen Strange knows.
Doctor Stephen Strange knows something that Tony has never breathed word of to anyone. Not a whisper, not a hint.
Because if they knew… if they knew…
(“You just don’t know when to stop, do you Stark?”)
Well, if they knew it would be his head on a platter. One way or another.
But see, Tony can’t help himself. He just can’t, okay? He’s a fixer. He’s an innovator. He creates, he advances, he evolves. And it had just been sitting there. A brilliant idea. A terribly flawed execution. And he’d just…
When he couldn’t sleep at night, when the nightmares were too fucking loud in his head, when Afghanistan replayed itself on the inside of his eyelids, when the entire soundless, empty expanse of space stretched before him filled with ships beyond number all coming for the portal (for earth) he’d built suits. And when he couldn’t build suits, when he couldn’t stand working on the armor (working on himself) he’d worked on Project Firecracker instead.
All theoretical, of course.
He’d gotten it to the point where the formula had a calculated ninety-six-point eight-four percent success rate. He’d thought about trying it out on a couple of rats – had even gone as far as ordering the creatures one night in the tailspin following a seventy-eight-hour lab binge but had decided against it once he’d slept for six hours and eaten something more than motor oil flavored coffee. A decision based upon the express need for secrecy above all else.
And, okay, also because DUM-E was (still is) absolutely enthralled by the rodents, which, no, not good. They’ll totally chew on his wires. But… well, Tony has always had issues saying no to his kids. So there might (maybe, definitely) be a super secure, ‘bot proof enclosure in the back corner of his workshop hidden by some half rebuilt engines and across from the ‘bots charging station where the three little white miscreants now live in the lap of luxury and get to play with his kids under close supervision upon occasion.
So, yeah, he’d tinkered. He’d ripped the code of it apart. He’d rebuilt it from the ground up. In the dark of the night he’d nearly perfected the next great leap in man’s constant search for immortality.
And then he’d set to the side – locked it away to never see daylight again. Never to be used.
(He should have just destroyed it.)
Tony breathes, sucking in a lungful of air past clenched teeth.
“How?” he demands urgently. There’s a buzzing in his ears, in his veins. There’s a weight on his legs. Strange has got fingers looped gently around his wrist. He’s not sure if the touch is holding him down or holding him together.
Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh goes his blood in his ears.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. The heart monitor is practically an alarm. It's screaming because he can't.
And Tony… Tony stares at the man sitting on the side of his bed and feels crazed. Feels half a second away from tackling the man to the floor. From calling up the guns hiding in the walls, from summoning the half dozen suits that line the walls of the shop on the other side of the compound.
“How did you know?”
Strange brushes a thumb across his pulse point and Tony takes a breath without thinking. “You told me.”
“Bullshit.” He hadn’t. He would remember that. “I’ve never talked to you before.” He hadn’t. He would remember that. Voice like that? Cheekbones like that? Yeah, he’d remember, he’d…
“The Maria Stark Foundation’s New Years Eve gala of 2008. You were drunk off your ass and made a pass at me at the bar.”
…made a pass at him. Of course, he had. Past him had good taste. Fuck that, he still has good taste.
“Oh, that’s right,” he murmured, blinking at the memory. Strange had been in a dark blue suit that had done amazing things to his eyes. And his shoulders. And his… well. Past him had excellent taste and deserves a high five. “I told you how pretty you were.”
“You compared me to an otter,” Strange says flatly, but there’s a smile on his face that says he thinks of the evening fondly.
“Hey, otters are fucking cute,” Tony defends, “and that doesn’t answer my question.”
Strange thumbs at his wrist again.
“It does,” Strange tells him. “You just don’t understand it. I have only talked to you once and it was a vaguely insulting, barely memorable…”
“…attempt at getting in my pants. But you are not the only Tony Stark I’ve spoken too.”
“I am from a parallel, alternate universe that is almost exactly like this one. This universe’s Stephen Strange died in a car accident on the evening of the twenty-fourth. In my universe, that accident crushed my hands and stole my ability to be a practicing surgeon,” Strange explains in a calm, steady voice with absolutely no inflection. “I told you, Doctor Stephen Strange is my real name,” he adds, clearly amused at whatever Tony’s face is doing.
“Right,” Tony drawls skeptically. “Pull the other one.”
Strange raises an eyebrow. “Please, like you haven’t been geeking out over multiverse theory since you were six years old.”
Tony blinks because that… that sounds like a throwaway comment but it’s also oddly specific.
“FRIDAY,” he says slowly, not taking his eyes away from the other man. “Why did you let Doctor Strange have the Firecracker virus?”
Tony gets the feeling that FRIDAY is pausing, considering something before she speaks. “Doctor Strange possessed all the necessary codes and passphrases.” She pauses again, clearly unaware that she has just the rug out from underneath him. Because no one has the codes except him. He made sure of it. None of Pepper or Rhodey’s (or Steve’s or Natasha’s) override codes will work in this instance. In fact, if any of those parties were to press they would trigger the destruction of the Extremis samples.
And yet, not only had Strange possessed the correct codes but he had also gotten around the voice print and biometrics requirements.
Which is… worrying.
“Boss, did I do something wrong?” FRIDAY asks tentatively, the worried lilt of her voice breaking through his thoughts and no. Nope. Uh-huh.
“No, no baby girl,” he hastens to correct, fixing his eyes on one of the cameras in the area above Strange’s head. “No. If he met all the requirements you did exactly as you were supposed to. You did…” he swallows heavily, “…the right thing?”
It’s more of a question than he wants it to be, because Tony never wanted this. Not really. He was already a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, superhero. Those things were all him. This… this had been a theoretical mind game to keep himself from self-destructing beneath the weight of his own guilt. He’d never meant to use it. He’d never even thought of it. He had been more than content with using the severely watered down strain to keep himself from dying on the operating table when they removed the arc reactor.
Well, no. That’s a lie. He had, sort of nebulously in the back of his mind, thought that he might need to use it under the worst of world-ending scenarios.
It’s not that he has anything against enhanced humans, obviously. Frankly, he probably qualifies all on his own just because of his IQ but other than being mind bogglingly smart he is a baseline human. Always has been and he’s been content with that. Look, he has enough shit in his life. Enough… everything. He’s made his peace with who he is.
(He’s an old dog. He’s too tired to learn new tricks.)
As amazing as Extremis is he never had any desire to watch everyone he’s ever manage to love grow old and die.
And yet here he is.
He’ll never have to worry about getting a sniffle again.
“To live would be an awfully big adventure,” Strange murmurs and Tony doesn’t know if he should laugh or if he should cry. If he’s falling apart or coming together.
“You know that’s not how it actually goes,” Tony mutters, rubbing at the sunburst on his chest. “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
“Well, no offense to Barrie but Peter Banning said it better.”
Tony had thought so too. It’s why… well.
It’s a wild, fantastical tale that Strange weaves for him. As odd as a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist that builds a metal suit of armor and flies around in it trying to save the world. As odd as a skinny, sick kid that lets the government experiment on him until he turns into some sort of self righteous Adonis that solves all his problems by hitting them with a metal shield and can survive sitting in a submerged, frozen plane for seventy years. As odd as a god who flies around with a hammer and gets weirdly excited over pop tarts.
Tony is used to odd. Odd is the new normal, these days. Gods and portals and super soldiers and magic. So Infinity Stones? End of half the universe? Time travel?
Sure. Tony can buy that. He’s always known that something’s coming. He saw it, there on the other side of the portal. He saw what was waiting for him (waiting to come through).
“So, say that I believe that that you’re the Stephen Strange from an alternate universe and… what? Why are you here?” Strange stares at him and Tony squirms, unsure what to make of that look. “You won in your universe, right? So this is a…courtesy warning? Because that’s… actually, yeah. I can work with that.”
No one will believe him if he tells them (they never do) but two years? He manufactured a new element, in his house, over the course of a weekend. He can do a lot of damage with two years of warning.
His fingers itch for a StarkPad, aching to make notes. He’ll need suits. More suits. And he’ll need to figure out a way to separate Vision from the Mind Stone. Or at least a way to hide Vision so he can’t be found.
(He’s not killing another member of his family. He can’t. He won’t.)
Strange is still staring at him, eyes impossibly sad. There’s a weight there that speaks to something there in the center of Tony’s chest. He’s not sure what it is but it’s what drove him to build the Iron Man armor in plain sight. It’s what drove him to fly a nuke into space. It’s what drove him to build a way to defend the entire planet.
(It’s what drives him spit out the blood in his mouth and stand back up. He doesn’t know how to stay down.)
It’s what kept him up at night, tinkering on miracle virus that he shouldn’t even have in his possession.
“We didn’t win,” Strange repeats.
Tony narrows his eyes in confusion. “But you…”
“…succeeded in bringing back the half of the universe that Thanos killed. But those that died after the Snap were still dead. Those that fought and perished against Thanos’ forces when he came forward in time still died in a battle that should never have existed. We didn’t win anything. We fixed a tragedy because there are many who were utterly incapable of letting go of the past. Of finding closure, of moving on. Some might call that winning. I don’t. That’s why I’m here. I’m here because by the time I was involved, by the time we knew what was going on there was no version of events in which we came out on top,” Tony swallows at the echo of his own words being spoken back to him, words he had uttered to Loki what feels like a lifetime ago. Words that exist in encrypted surveillance footage somewhere but that he has never repeated to anyone.
Except apparently some version of him repeated them to Strange.
Just as some version of him gave the Doctor his most closely guarded codes and authorization phrases.
His fascination with the multiverse aside, Tony is inclined to believe him. Not because of the big things but because of how they’ve sat here on this bed for nearly an hour and Strange has kept his fingers looped around Tony’s wrist the entire time, thumbing across the hammering of his pulse every few minutes that in turn seems to pull Tony from his thoughts and remember to take a deep breath. He’d be annoyed except he’s not even sure the Doctor is aware that he’s doing it anymore.
It’s the way he touches Tony, the way he moves around him, the way he watches him. It’s the way he talks to FRIDAY as he has her pull up news articles or video footage to verify pieces of his story.
It all speaks of familiarity – of movements and interactions that have happened so many times they have become worn, comfortable habit.
It’s how Pepper and Rhodey act around him except… except softer and fiercer, somehow. More… unguarded.
I’ll answer any question you ask, so long as I have an answer. Truthfully.
Tony doesn’t know what to do with that. People don’t just offer him honesty. See: Captain fucking America. See: Natalie Rushman. See: Nicholas Fury. See: just about every fucking person he has ever fucking met.
Actually, that’s a lie.
Tony knows exactly what to do. It’s what he always does.
He pokes at it.
“So… what? This universe is just a do-over for you?”
Tony’s eyes widen at the blatant admission. He hadn’t really expected the other man to admit it. People… people don’t like to admit selfish things like that. They always want to couch it in grand terms. In terms of the greater good.
“Yes,” Strange repeats calmly. “When I told you that I looked into the future to find a way to beat Thanos I didn’t just see what could happen. I lived it, Tony.”
“Lived it,” he repeats again. “I have lived twenty-eight million, seven hundred fifty-five thousand, six hundred ninety-one years, ten months, and twenty-two days and I remember every single second of it. I have watched you die eight million, twenty-one thousand, one hundred and forty-three times and I am sick of it, Tony. I am sick of watching you die for a future you warned about and a future you never wanted. I am tired of living in a universe where the best we can come up with results in your death.”
“Wow,” Tony says after a minute and he’s not sure if he’s serious or joking. Story of his life, really. “Tell me how you really feel. No, seriously, don’t hold back. This is your do over, Gandalf. What is it you’re wanting?”
Because everyone wants something.
Even magical doctors from alternate universes who apparently don’t like watching Tony die.
Which, honestly, feels more absurd than anything else that’s been here today. People love watching Tony die. Dangerous, reckless, scandalous… it’s what they expect. It’s the show they demand. This universe that Strange speaks of sounds like story. A fanciful tale that reaches its natural conclusion with divine justice: the poetic redemption of the Merchant of Death.
“Just tell me what you want,” he demands wearily. “Just tell me so that I don’t have to spend four years waiting for you to beat me to death over it.”
Because the truth is this: Tony is tired. He is used up and worn out and right back at square one, except for now all the squares in front of him are covered in broken glass, knee-high mud, an entire menagerie of venomous creatures, and a few mountain ranges.
Strange smiles and it’s blinding. It’s bright and warm and yes, the man looks like a smug, satisfied little otter and the part of Tony that watches cat videos on youtube when the bottom of a bottle starts looking really, really tempting wants to coo.
“I want you to be happy,” he says simply. “That’s it. I want you to be happy,” he says like it’s the most natural thing in the world. “I want to see you be happy. I want to see what type of world you create in your joy, unhindered by the deadweight that clings to you. That’s all I want. So I guess the question you really need to ask is what does Tony Stark want?”
Tony feels the question like a punch to the gut. (Like a shield slammed into his chest).
What does he want?
What does he want?
Tony sits in the medical bed, a world away from where he died in the cold, and laughs until he cries.
Because the truth is this: no one has ever asked him that before.
Not like this.
Not like they meant it.
Chapter 7: Expectations
Had this all ready to go yesterday and then our internet was down for almost twenty-four hours. My oldest (age 10) was convinced he was dying.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Well, right now I really want to get out of this hospital bed.”
Stephen smiles at the obvious deflection, no matter how sincerely the statement is meant. “Sure. As far as FRIDAY and I can tell Extremis has completed its integration and is stabilized. You should take it easy for the rest of today but after a full night’s rest and some actual food I imagine that you’ll feel better than you have in decades.” Or ever, he adds silently. “If you’re amenable, I would like to give you another bag of fluids tonight.”
Tony’s face screws up in suspicion. “Why?”
“Because you lost a significant amount of blood and a transfusion took too long. I had to administer Extremis straight away, under significantly less than optimal conditions,” Stephen tells him and very determinedly does not think of those frantic moments.
In five previous lives - after spending two million, four hundred thirty-seven thousand, six hundred eleven lives hearing Tony bemoan not injecting himself with the Firecracker variant of Extremis when he had the chance – they had returned to Earth at some point after leaving Titan and Tony had infected himself with it. The initial integration process had always been… stressful but Tony had always been at peak health. Or, rather, what had passed for peak health in a man who had spent decades partying harder than was wise, years with an electromagnet sunk into his chest – some of them also plagued by palladium poisoning – and weeks upon weeks being tortured.
But watching that process when Tony’s heart was stuttering in his chest, when his breath was shallow and gurgling…
Stephen brushes his thumb across Tony’s pulse and lets it linger, the steady thump, thump, thump enough to make his head spin. He wants to pull the other man into arms, wants to feel him alive and whole to contrast with the memory of him broken and bleeding (burnt out and dying). He wants to fall to his knees and lay his head in Tony’s lap, wants to feel those clever fingers dig gently at his skull, feel the strands of his hair catch on the calluses on Tony’s hands.
But he can’t and he won’t. He doesn’t have that privilege.
“Extremis has done a lot of work in the past two days and your body has undergone a lot of trauma and changes in a short amount of time,” he says instead. “Dehydration is a particular risk that you face at the moment. I’d feel more comfortable with you attached to an IV for at least another couple of hours.”
Tony itches at medical tape keeping him from ripping out the current IV. “…fine. I accept your logic as long as I can do it from the comfort of my own bed and not this… thing,” he sneers down at the hospital bed. “Also, I could kill for a cheeseburger. Or a dozen.”
Stephen nods his head. “No problem. Let’s get you resettled and then I’ll pop out and get some.”
“Nah,” Tony dismisses. “That’ll take too long. I think I have some frozen pizzas stashed in my personal freezer. I’m pretty sure Maximoff trashed the communal kitchen.” He presses his lips together until they’re white at the mention of the witch, fingers clutching at the thin blanket covering his legs.
“You don’t need to be afraid of her anymore. She can’t harm you, ever again. Not only does Extremis provide you with a level of natural immunity but I certainly won’t let her close enough to… Wait. What do you mean take too…oh,” Stephen stops suddenly, wincing. “Ah. I may have forgotten to mention something.”
“Portals? Are you fucking serious?” Tony is staring at him, one hand thrown up in the air and the other fisted in the fabric of Stephen’s pants so tightly he can feel the blunt edges of the other man’s nails through the fabric. His voice is tight and angry but his face has turned an unhealthy shade of white, his mouth and eyes bracketed by tension.
Stephen wants to sigh and press a kiss to the other man’s temple. Introducing him to travel by portal is always difficult but in all the futures he has lived he has never actually had to introduce the concept of friendly portals to the other man. Their fight in the streets of New York against Thanos’ children had taken care of that pesky fact for him.
He thumbs the other man’s pulse, feels it hammering against his fingers and gently tightens his grip. “Breathe,” he murmurs. “And yes, I am. It is one of the most basic exercises that a sorcerer masters during their initial training.”
“... most basic,” Tony repeats in a strained shout. “A fucking portal is basic?! So you… you could…”
“It is not like the Tesseract,” Stephen assures instantly. “The Tesseract utilizes the power of the Space Stone and utilizes space to travel. Any so called portals that it opens are just another variation of an Einstein-Rosen bridge. What I do utilizes dimensional energy. In layman’s turns I’m simply folding reality through dimensions until the location that I wish to travel to is located next to the location that I am in.”
Tony makes a choking noise. “…what? That doesn’t even make sense…”
“I could repeat the extremely long, completely scientific explanation you gave me once,” Stephen tells him with a small smile, “but it would take at least two hours and I think you would rather discover all the nuances of it yourself. You and FRIDAY are more than welcome to take readings.”
“Really?” Tony perks up a little at that, his interest caught. “Wait. No. Stop distracting me. Bad doctor. No cookie!”
A bark of laughter bursts out of Stephen’s chest before he can stop himself. “I’m more of a cake man,” he admits. “As for the portals… FRIDAY can show you footage of them, when you’re ready. But I promise you, they are completely different than the wormhole the Tesseract opened over your tower. They utilize a small amount of dimensional energy that is directed by my sling ring to open a doorway to the location I am focusing on.” Stephen directs Tony’s attention to the weathered, angular ring adorning his finger. “Without the ring it is extremely difficult to open a portal.”
“But not impossible,” Tony mutters, looking worried.
“I could do it,” Stephen says because he can. He has. It had hurt and he honestly hopes to never have to do so again. “But there is no one else on Earth with enough power to manage it.”
“Maximoff has a lot of power,” Tony objects with a huff.
“Miss Maximoff’s powers are rooted entirely in the Mind Stone,” Stephen points out. “HYDRA taught her just enough to ensure that when they pointed her at a target she could actually hit what they were aiming at. She has little control of what she possesses and even less understanding.”
“That is not reassuring at all,” Tony tells him bluntly, wrinkling his nose.
It’s adorable and it takes all of his self-control to not lean over and plant a soft kiss on the edge of his nose.
Instead, Stephen explains, “What I mean is that she is powerful but she does not know how to use her power, not fully, and that even if she did she would still not be able to create a portal because manipulation of dimensional energy is contingent upon a sorcerer’s ability to recognize that they are merely a part of a greater whole. It requires a certain disassociation of self to be wielded effectively.” Tony soaks it up like a sponge, brilliant mind racing and making connections faster than Stephen can follow. It’s breathtaking to watch.
“So what you’re saying,” Tony says after a pause, his voice breathless with… something. Laughter, Stephen thinks happily. “Is that Wanda is too much of a self-centered bitch to be able to do the type of magic you do?”
A slow, pleased grin curls across Stephen’s face. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. Plus, I’ve warded the Compound against her. She couldn’t get back on the property if she tried.” To his knowledge, she hadn’t ever done so but things change. The same lives lived over and over are different every time. As far as he knows, Maximoff never stepped foot in the Compound again until after the Dusted were restored and she found herself in a middle of a battle upon her return. But he’s not living that life and already he has changed things irrevocably.
“You can do that?” Tony’s startled exclamation brings him snapping back to attention.
Tony stares, wide eyed and gaping. “Huh.”
“I know your experiences with magic have been bad,” Stephen says softly, knowing what a complete understatement his words are. When your only samples of a group are a crazed demi god and a HYDRA witch he can understand why the very idea of magic makes Tony break out in hives and start dowsing things in string theory and quantum mechanics and computer code like they’re his private versions of holy water. “But magic itself is inherently neutral. Think of it like your arc reactors. I bet you can think of a dozen different ways to weaponize it without putting in any effort whatsoever…”
“…two dozen,” Tony mutters and Stephen acknowledges him with a nod.
“… and I bet that the US Military and every single other military organization on the planet would pay through their noses to get their hands on such weapons. But you didn’t weaponize it. Instead, you launched a clean energy initiative.” Heart hammering in his chest, Stephen takes a deep breath and looks down at where his hand is still looped around the other man’s wrist, where he’s still brushing his thumb across the slightly paler skin and the echo of Tony’s heartbeat. He’s held the man captive this way for over an hour and it’s weird, he knows. Probably. At least from Tony’s perspective. But he can’t make himself let go. Not yet. He can’t… well. Not yet. Giving himself a little shake he looks back up at Tony’s face, at the way the billionaire is watching him with curiosity and what just might be understanding.
Stephen lets out a breath he hadn’t even realized he had been holding.
“You’ve seen magic weaponized. You’ve had it used against you and for that I am so, so sorry. Please let me show you what it looks like when it’s doing something good.”
Tony presses his lips together. “I can’t go through a portal,” he finally says. “Not yet. Maybe not ever.”
Stephen nods. He knows. Some of the time – most of it, really – Tony manages to get to a healthy enough place that he can make use of the portals as a mode of transportation. But sometimes he doesn’t and that’s okay. Nearly thirty million years later and Stephen still gets clammy every time he has to get into a car so he can’t exactly throw stones. “I know. And I would never make you.”
The genius stares. “That’s it?”
“That’s it. I actually brought them up because I figured I would make use of a portal to pop over to that diner that you like and grab a dozen burgers. I’ll be back before the French fries have a chance to get cold. Levi and I can help you get settled well enough on our own. It’ll just take a few extra minutes.”
“Wait,” Tony says, looking concerned. “Who’s Levi?”
So he’d forgotten to mention two things.
On the bright side, it has always been easier to explain a completely sentient cloak to a man who has birthed multiple AIs than it has been to talk about portals and dimensional magic.
“This is the oddest thing that has ever happened to me,” Tony mutters. Levi is floating in front of him, the genius’ face clutched between the upper corners of his fabric, staring at him. Or staring as much as one can without official eyes. “What’s he doing?”
“Probably soaking in the fact that you’re okay,” Stephen admits, feeling slightly jealous of the Cloak even though he’s still got his hand shackled around the man’s wrist. “Carrying you out of Siberia was pretty traumatizing for him. He cares for you quite a bit.”
“Oh,” Tony blinks rapidly. “Well, I’m okay now. See? Good as new!”
Levi shudders, the cascade of his folds convulsing in mid air and then the Cloak melts. Slumping forward, Levi tucks his collar beneath Tony’s chin like a frightened child and just lays there with both of them draped in yards of crimson fabric.
“Oh,” Tony breathes again, looking surprised. “Hey, it’s okay,” he murmurs and slowly, hesitantly he brings his free hand up and gently runs it up and down an expanse of the Cloak. “I’m fine. We’re all fine. It’s going to be okay.”
Yes, Stephen thinks, blinking away the tears that are suddenly burning in his eyes. It will be.
Stephen pauses at the door and looks back to where Tony is sitting on his bed with the wrappers and debris of their dinner shoved into the trash beside his bed and a StarkPad already in his hands. “Yes?”
“What were we in your universe?” The words come out in a rush, nearly tripping over each other and blending into insensibility. Tony looks like he is deeply regretting opening his mouth to begin with but there’s also that insatiable twinkle of curiosity in his gaze, the bone deep desire to poke, to discover, to know reflected in his eyes. “What was I to you?”
“Everything,” Stephen confesses simply, without hesitation. “And before you tell me that that isn’t really an answer, know that I mean that in every literal and figurative sense that you can imagine.”
Tony tips his head to the side and stares at him, the fingers of one hand picking at a stray thread at the hem of his shirt. “So we…” he waggles his eyebrows and Stephen bites back wistful, fond laugh.
“In the official timeline we were never more than colleagues. With the way it everything played out we officially only knew each other for a matter of days before you died.” Stephen swallows the sudden lump in his throat, forcing the pain and the regret back down so that his voice doesn’t shake as badly as his hands. “In eighteen lives you murdered me in an attempt to keep the Time Stone out of Thanos’ hands,” he continues and his words slice all emotion off of the other man’s face. “In all of the other lives in which I lived for any length of time after that moment on Titan when I used the stone we were friends, of one type or another.”
Stephen shrugs. “Sometimes more.”
Tony narrows his eyes and like a dog with a bone (like a scientist with a hypothesis). “How much more?”
Levi tightens around his shoulders and Stephen lets out a shaky breath, fingers brushing along the edges of the Cloak. “I have married you three million six hundred four thousand, eight hundred sixty-eight times,” he forces his voice to remain even and calm, to not show how much he had loved every single one of those weddings, to not show how happy he had been to bind himself to Tony over and over and over again. “There were another six hundred forty-one thousand, two hundred sixty-four lives in which we never formally exchanged vows.”
Usually because one of them died before they managed to stand before a literal or metaphorical altar. There had been a handful of lives in which they had made the decision that they did not any official or legal stamp to their relationship but not many. Stephen and Tony are both proud, possessive assholes. If their relationship took a romantic turn they were pretty content to flash it for all the universe to see.
“And is that what you want from me?” Tony’s voice is small but flat as if he’s folded all of his emotions away.
Stephen wishes he were close enough to touch him.
It’s probably better that he’s not, though. At least for this conversation.
He sighs and leans back against the wall. “I already told you want I want. I want you to be happy, Tony. That’s it. I have no expectations for how our relationship will be defined – or even if we will have any sort of relationship.” It hurts to say the words but he makes his mouth form the syllables, makes the sounds walk off of his tongue.
He has lived fourteen million, six hundred five lives and is well aware that the sheer length of his existence creates an imbalance of power in practically any relationship he has. Especially with those that he has interacted with in a perpetual, ever changing loop.
Him, most of all.
“If you want me to leave, I will leave. If I stay, it will be because you want me to – really want me to. Not because you feel obligated. You have no obligation to me.”
“No!” Tony’s response is too hurried and harsh to be anything but sincere and once again Stephen finds himself achingly grateful for the structure he’s leaning against. He would have gone if Tony had told him to, gone without murmur or protest. He would never be like the Avengers before him, taking advantage of a good man’s generosity – demanding his time, money, and talents as if it were their due. As if they were owed it simply because Tony dared to exist.
“No,” Tony repeats in a softer tone, a faint pink brushing his cheeks and the tips of his ears. “I don’t want you to go.”
“Thank you,” Stephen tells him sincerely, “for letting me stay.”
He literally has one foot out of Tony’s quarters when the billionaire’s voice stops him again.
“You really mean that? No expectations? No demands?”
The fact that he sounds so bewildered by the idea, so incredibly baffled makes Stephen want to take a quick detour by Wakanda. It’d be quick. Five minutes, tops, and the Rogue Avengers could start their new lives freefalling through the mirror dimension while he decides how he wants to make them hurt.
He steals one more look back at the king-sized bed, at Tony reclining against a veritable mountain of pillows with the IV hung beside him. The man looks small against the mound of white and beneath the dove gray duvet.
Small, but no longer fragile.
(Not ever again).
“I meant it.” The words hang heavy in the air. “No expectations. No demands. Not now. Not ever.”
Tony searches his face from half a room away, searching for something. Stephen lets him.
“Alright,” Tony says with a swift jerk of his head. “Well, now that it’s official Merlin you should have FRIDAY get you settled in a permanent room. And, uh, you have a decorating budget if you want to change things up so don’t be afraid to go crazy. Make it home.”
Home is a donut shaped ship, exploring the expanses of space. Home is a penthouse on Vatek and a little cottage on the cliffs of Cammoria. Home is finding webbing being used as bookmarks and fishing screwdrivers from between the sheets of their bed.
Home is the man in front of him.
Home is here.
“I’m sure the room is lovely.”
Tony huffs, “Of course it is. The interior decorator made it look like reveal day on one of those fixer upper shows. It’s pretty but it lacks life.” He waves a hand. “Go. Give it life.”
Stephen lets out a small laugh. “As you wish. Goodnight Tony. Do try to get some actual rest.”
“I will, Stephen.”
The fact Tony uses his first name is enough to make him practically float from the room, no help from Levi required.
I wrote this chapter with two endings: the warm, hopeful one seen here and a more cliffhanger-y one that I ultimately decided to integrate into Stephen's next chapter because I re-watched Endgame with my kids this past weekend (Why do I do things like that to myself? Why?!?) and I really just needed these boys to have something nice.
(We also watched Spiderman: Homecoming and... nope. Not touching that.)
“FRIDAY, did that just really happen?”
There is a pause. No doubt his girl is reviewing the recent footage, trying to figure out what he wants. There is a pang in Tony’s heart, so sharp and sudden that he presses the heal of his hand over his sternum to alleviate the phantom pain. JARVIS would have known, he thinks and then promptly shoves the thought down and follows it up with a chaser of remorse. Shit, he needs to stop doing that. It’s not FRIDAY’s fault that she’s young or that he’s hindered her growth with shackles of code to reassure his former teammates that his baby girl isn’t going to turn into a murder machine.
“I am unsure of what you are referring to,” the AI finally admits. “If you could clarify…”
“It’s alright, baby girl,” Tony hastens to reassure, feeling doubly guilty for the hopeless failure he can feel in her voice. “I just…” he stares at the open door through which Strange had disappeared. “Is there really an ancient magician neurosurgeon who controls time and has traveled from another universe with his sentient cape to save me?”
“Yes.” FRIDAY sounds immeasurably happy to be able to answer his question. “Though I think he prefers the term sorcerer, boss,” she corrects after a beat. “And Levi is a cloak.”
Tony rolls his eyes. So much sass. Can’t imagine where she gets it from.
“And he really just wants to…help?” He can’t help but sound suspicious. People don’t really want to help him. Ever. They expect his help. Or flat out demand it. And yeah, he gets it. He’s the billionaire. He’s richer than god. Fuck, he’s rich enough to buy god and parade him around. But he’s never been able to figure out why the fact that he has money (connections, charisma, brains) means that he must give it to everyone – or rather, the fact that he has so much of it entitles everyone else to a piece of it.
The irony of it all is that he’s a giver. He’d be happy to give to those he cares about if they would just ask.
But no one ever asks. They just take.
“He has said so, repeatedly and all of his biometric readings indicate that he is telling the truth.” She pauses again, a certain sort of lull that he’s come to associate with her deliberating over her answer. “He saved you. You were gone and I couldn’t get to you and Vision wasn’t responding and I was… I was so scared,” the AI trips over the words, speaking them in a low, worried hush filled with enough uncertainty to make his heart ache.
She shouldn’t have ever been in that position (he shouldn’t have ever been in that position) and it makes him hurt that he caused her such pain. JARVIS had learned fear during years that Tony still can’t quite all the way remember, that exist in a hazy cloud of alcohol, skin, and weapon schematics and while Tony still feels badly for that (he still remembers the way JARVIS had sounded after the first time they had to resuscitate him on his condo floor) but he thinks that even that might have been better than hearing (watching) him get into a fight with two super soldiers when he’s just hurt and angry and one of them is feral. It’s definitely better than watching Captain America’s shield come down on his chest and then have her connection to him go black and empty.
“I couldn’t reach you – I couldn’t reach anyone. Colonel Rhodes was in surgery. Ms Potts was tied up in meetings and protocol indicates that she is not to be disturbed while taking care of SI crap, seriously don’t bug her,” she parrots and wow, that’s a lot of disapproval in her voice. “But then the Doc was here. He just stepped right through a portal into the common area. I almost shot him.”
She sounds absolutely mortified. Tony’s mouth curls upwards without his permission and he shoots a fond look at the nearest camera. “That’s my girl.”
“As soon as he saw the damage to floor he was frantic,” the AI continues, “and he had override codes that you give to select few. I told him,” she admits, her voice low and hesitant. “I told him that you were fighting with Rogers and Barnes. That I had lost contact with the suit. He promised that he would get you and bring you back. And he did.” Tony can hear the smile in her voice. The relief. The affection. “Everyone else left or was too busy to help but he didn’t hesitate. Not for a moment. I like him.”
“You like him, huh? Should I be wounded that it takes so little to buy your favor?” he drawls with more levity than he feels as he picks at the stray thread. He should stop doing that. Pepper will be mad at him for messing up the bedding. It shouldn’t matter. She’s hardly ever stays the night at the Compound. But still. He picks the tablet up just to have something to do with his hands.
“He saved your life, boss,” FRIDAY responds almost immediately. “He saved you from months of more conventional recovery by being able to access the Firecracker virus. He brought back your suit. He made sure Mr. Parker made it home. He has provided the Compound with magical protection. He visited the ‘bots to update them on your condition so that they would not worry. He…”
“He visited the ‘bots?” he interrupts, his throat suddenly very tight.
“Immediately after Firecracker had integrated and you had stabilized,” she verifies. “He spent approximately forty-three minutes in the workshop talking with them. He played fetch with DUM-E and polished U’s casing. Would you like to review the footage?”
“Later,” he absentmindedly murmurs as he stares unseeing at the list he had started tapping
Strange had gone to his workshop for the sole purpose of telling his ‘bots (his children) that Tony was okay. That he had been hurt but that he would pull through and would be bright and shiny new in a couple of days. Not only did he tell them, in person, but he had stayed and played with them (comforted them).
Tony can’t think of anyone else that would do that. Not even Pepper or Rhodey. They would think to let FRIDAY know but he doubts it would occur to them to tell his helper bots. FRIDAY is a much more advanced AI, who speaks, and they recognize her as JARVIS’s successor so it is, perhaps, easier for them to think of her as real but the ‘bots…
“Oh my god, I have an ancient magician neurosurgeon who controls time and has traveled from another universe with his sentient cape to save me,” he mutters into his hands, his cheeks flushing.
“It would seem so, boss,” FRIDAY hums in agreement. “If he is just doing all of this to get something from you he has already put in far more effort than any of the others. Or all of them,” she adds darkly. “Combined.”
And that is a novel, foreign thing. People don’t save Tony Stark. He saves himself. Always has. He saved himself in Afghanistan. He saved himself when Obie ripped the arc reactor out of his chest. He saved himself from palladium poisoning. He saved himself from a slighted scientist with fiery delusions of grandeur. He’s been picking himself up, getting himself out of fights, fast talking in volatile situations his whole life. Hell, when he was six he picked his way out of restraints, sneaked past his kidnappers, barricaded them in their bolt hole, lit it on fire, and then walked three miles to a dinky gas station in the middle of fucking nowhere and called human Jarvis to come get him.
So really the idea of someone saving him is just… absurd.
He’s Iron Man.
He’s Tony fucking Stark.
The idea isn’t a horrible one.
Tony thinks he should probably be bothered by being the swooning maiden in this scenario but…
Fuck, he’s tired.
He’s so goddmann tired.
And idea of having someone to swoop in and ease some of the load on his shoulders, someone who understands, someone who doesn’t want anything from Tony to be some sort of partner…
Well. That’s a really fucking dangerous thought.
And… quite possibly a hallucination.
“Gotta run before you can walk,” he mutters because this is probably a really bad idea but when has that ever stopped him? Tony Stark doesn’t turn down bad ideas. He sidles up, buys them dinner, takes them home, and fucks them through the mattress. Besides, is it really a bad idea if you know that it’s probably a bad idea? “Alright, FRI, get me everything you can find on Doctor Stephen Strange.” The man might be (supposedly) willing to answer any question Tony might ask him but at this point Tony doesn’t even know what questions to ask.
(That’s a lie. He could rattle off at least a hundred before he even has to stop and think.)
“Will do, boss.”
“Keep an eye on him. Set up an account, get him what he needs – you know the drill.” Tony scratches idly at his chin and makes a note to shave. His goatee is a mess. It’s disgraceful. He’s got this… thing… growing on his face. He should… probably take care of that. Except he had promised Strange that he would stay put and rest and frankly, getting up to relieve himself half an hour ago had wiped him out more than he’d like to admit, Extremis still working to repair him instead of compensating for his horrible self-care habits. If Levi hadn’t been right there he would have ended up introducing his face to the floor.
Shaving can wait.
But other things can’t.
Tapping at the tablet with quick, practiced movements he pulls up the recent news headlines and with a motion of his fingers they’re suddenly hanging in the air in front of him:
11 Dead in UN Bombing
Captain America Rampages Through Bucharest; 7 Dead and 31 Injured
Avengers Civil War Destroys Leipzig Airport
Cap vs Iron Man: Supers Split Over Sokovia Accords
… and on and on and on scroll in front of his eyes.
“Send an email to PR and Legal. Schedule a meeting for… tomorrow afternoon. And get Pepper on the line. We’ve got some fires to put out and some flames to fan.”
“Tony? Where are you? I’ve been trying to contact you for days. Jim is injured and FRIDAY wouldn’t tell me anything. What the hell is going on?”
Pepper’s questions are barked out in a rapid-fire manner as soon as the call is connected and oh, god, that’s her mad voice. He’s woken the Pepper-dragon. He taps out buy Pep something nice on the list that he’s currently structuring on the tablet as he flicks through news articles and opinion pieces: a quick skim through the internet to catch a quick glimpse at the lay of the land.
Spoilers: it isn’t pretty.
“Hey, Pep, light of my life, long time, no see,” he begins, plastering a smile on his face even though she’s not there to see him and their call is strictly audio. Habit. “Sorry for ignoring your calls – well, more than usual – but it turns out it’s really fucking hard to reply to messages when you’re in a coma.”
“I’m sorry, did you say…”
Tony waves his hand. “I’m fine now, don’t worry about it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry…”
“…No. Tony. Tony, just stop,” Pepper’s voice breaks through the beginning of his expository monologue and ruins it. Rude. “What do you mean you were in a coma? Are you alright? What happened?”
Tony sighs. “Look, I don’t… I don’t really want to talk about it,” he says, pressing his hand against the sunburst on his chest. “It’s… well. It’s a really long story. I’ll have FRIDAY send you some footage because you, um… you should probably know. Because,” he takes a deep breath and prays to Tesla that he isn’t making a huge mistake, “…because it’ll probably come out at some point. Soon. Ish.”
“Tony…” Pepper’s voice is gentle and strained all at the same time and he can picture the tight little furrow that’s appeared on her forehead. The lines that he’s given her because he can’t keep his shit together. Or get it together in the first place. “You’re worrying me.”
“Sorry, dear. Promise, I’m fine. It’s just… Okay. The short version of the story: Turns out my dad didn’t kill himself and my mom with an episode of drunk driving. Instead, HYDRA used the Winter Soldier to assassinate them.”
“… Bucky Barnes? Steve Rogers’ very best friend that he’s been tearing the world apart to find? Yes. Yes it is. And, um. Steve knew. He knew and he didn’t tell me,” Tony gets out in a rush, tapping his fingers where the arc reactor would have rested years ago. There’s a part of him that misses it. “And I saw a recording of it and, uh, lashed out. My bad, I know, and…”
“Tony. Tony. Tony!”
Tony blinks. “Um. Yes, Pep?”
There’s a deep sigh on the other end of the line. It’s the Why didn’t I become a teacher like my mom wanted sigh. Tony swallows nervously.
“Are you telling me that you had to watch a video of your parents being murdered?”
“…yes.” The word leaves in a great whoosh of air, a thousand different emotions trapped within its depths.
“Oh, god. Tony.”
Tony swallows tightly. This is why he loves Pepper. This is why she’s the best. Fuck, she deserves better than him.
“Anyway. We got in a fight…”
“…a fight? Wait. You and Steve Rogers?”
“And Bucky Barnes,” he adds unhelpfully and then smacks himself in the face because why. “It was…it was bad, Pepper,” he continues, talking over the wordless little sputters of fury that she’s making… wherever she currently is. “Really, really bad. I’ve been in a coma for the last couple of days. Just woke up this afternoon…”
“…but where are you? Which hospital? Why wasn’t I contacted?”
He can’t help but smile at the tone of voice that promises that heads will roll. “I’m at the Compound,” he finally says when he can get a word in. “I’ve got my Doctor here with me. He’s new. You’ll like him. And I’ll be better than ever once I get some sleep.”
“Pepper, please,” he interrupts. “I promise I’ll send you more information and that we can talk about it later but I really, really don’t want to talk about it right now. Right now I just want to start some balls rolling and then go back to sleep for a few hours.”
He can practically hear the stare she’s giving him. It’s the one that makes him feel likes he’s two inches tall.
“Alright,” she finally agrees. “I just… promise me that you’re okay?”
“Better than I’ve ever been,” he says and is somewhat surprised to find that he actually means it. One hundred percent. He’s pretty sure that that says some really unhealthy things about his life.
Eh. Not like that’s something he didn’t already know.
“Okay. I just…”
“I know, Pep. I know. Everything about this is fucked up. And Rhodey…”
“I talked with one of his doctors earlier. They’re hopeful.”
Tony settles back into the pillows and runs a hand down his face. “I know,” he murmurs and swallows back the sudden tightness forming in his throat. “FRIDAY told me. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I’m okay. I’m having FRIDAY schedule a meeting tomorrow afternoon with PR and Legal. It’s probably too late to get in front of everything but we need to make some official statements and I’ve got some ideas that I need to run by you. Maybe we can do lunch beforehand? Just there at the Tower.”
“Of course we can do lunch.” The fondness in her voice makes him smile.
“Good. That’s… good. I’ll get FRIDAY to send you the footage and pertinent information. It’s awful stuff and you shouldn’t ever have to look at it but I really need… I need someone,” someone besides Strange “to know what happened without having to retell all of it. And I’m sorry… I just…”
“It’s okay, Tony.”
“It’s not, Pep,” he responds with a sad smile. The idea of exposing her to this is making his skin crawl but he has neither the time nor the luxury to wait until the wound has scarred over before he picks at it by relieving it to her. “It’s going to give me nightmares. But… you need to know. So that you understand why I…” He trails off.
“Why you…” she prompts after several moments of silence.
“Why I’m going to do everything that I’m going to do.”
“I promise it’s all good things. Or mostly good things. Don’t worry, SI will be fine.”
“It’s not the company that I’m worried about,” Pepper finally admits.
“I know. That’s why you’re the best,” he tells her as he scowls at a picture of Ross beneath the headline Secretary of State Calls for Further Safety Measures in Wake of Enhanced Civil War. “But seriously, I… I have to do this. I have to make it alright. I have to make it better.”
“This isn’t making me feel any better.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I…” Tony lets out a frustrated sigh. He’s a mess. He probably should have just sent her an email. Much more efficient, emails. Bullet point lists are a thing. A nice, simple, non-messy thing. But he needed to hear her voice. He needs some outside reassurance that this whole thing hasn’t been some last hurrah by his brain and that he’s not still lying frozen to the floor of a Siberian bunker.
He needs the chance to start saying good bye to what he might have had. To what he might still have if he were truly as selfish as the media painted him.
“I’m not making sense, I know. I should probably go to sleep like the Doctor ordered.” On the other side of the call Pepper is silent and he gets the feeling that she’s giving him a minute to gather his thoughts. “We’ll talk at lunch. But in the meantime just… take a look at what I send over and dust off that proposal you drafted when SHIELD fell to establish the Avengers as their own foundation.”
“I know, I know. I should have listened to you. Story of my life, isn’t it?”
“Tony…” she trails off and, knowing her, she’s deciding whether she wants to push for more details. He’ll probably give them to her if she does. Because he’s tired. Because he wants her to know. Because his ability to stand up to a focused, demanding Pepper-dragon is… well, probably not as limited as he’s always pretended but in this case he’s pretty confident that he’ll fold like a cheap suit. “Alright. Send me the files. You promise you’re okay?”
“I am,” he assures. “I will be. I’ll see you tomorrow, Pep. Love you.”
“Alright. Love you too,” she murmurs and Tony takes those words and holds them close, lets them warm him as he has so often over the past seven years.
He’s going to miss it.
“FRIDAY, send Pepper the footage from the suit starting with my arrival in bunker. Include a summary of the Winter Soldier conditioning. Then bring up the schematics for the nanite suit and make sure the mark twenty-six is ready for me to take out for a spin tomorrow. Also, ask Strange… or leave a message, I guess,” he corrects, catching sight of the time. Oops. He probably woke up Pepper. “Ask him if he’s willing to join me on an outing to the Tower tomorrow around noon. I’ll be flying but he can do his nifty portal thing. Oh, and leave a note for the Bartons and the Langs. Ask if there is a convenient time for me to swing by tomorrow. Late afternoon or early evening will probably be best. And tell Vision that I hope he's okay and that there's a room in the Penthouse with his name on it if he wants a place to stay. And... invite him to tomorrow's lunch? I'd love to see him.”
“Will do, boss.”
Tony takes a deep breath, staring at the hologram kaleidoscope of schematics and news articles arranged before him. He can think of at least a dozen things he needs to do but right now he's just going to tinker with his suit. Maybe think of a few other things that need to get done and then he's going to sleep. That's right. He's going to be an actual, responsible human being. There's a along race stretching in front of him. He knows it. He's always known it but perhaps it's time to stop treating a marathon like a sprint.
“Set a timer for an hour, baby girl,” he adds with a wry smile. “Don’t let me get carried away. Strange will probably murder me if I don’t actually sleep.”
(He won’t. Tony’s sure of it. Or as sure as he can be of anything at this point.)
It’s time to get to work.
OMG, this fic now has art! TouchoftheWind made an absolutely gorgeous banner. You can see it by clicking back to the first chapter OR hitting it up under "Related Works" at the end of the fic. I still make dying pterodactyl noises every time I look at it.
Also, I'm not 100% happy with this chapter but I refuse to pick at anymore. Refuse.
Chapter 9: Better to Ask Forgiveness
Apologies for the late update. In addition to having to rearrange/rewrite some bits my lovely children decided to share their latest plague with me. I have gone through an alarming amount of tissues.
The room is just as lovely as Stephen knew it would be.
Unlike the guest room which had felt like a very high-end hotel room, the room FRIDAY leads him to is more like a one-bedroom apartment. It’s an expansive, airy space that somehow manages to be cozy with dark hardwood floors and plush rugs in grays and deep, vibrant blues. Like every other room in the Compound, with the exception of Tony’s workshop, it looks like a glossy, staged photograph in some interior design magazine.
(The last time he had lived in the Compound he had lived with Tony. Tony’s room had been his. Tony’s bed had been…)
Stephen inhales sharply and pushes that train of thought from his mind.
“Are these accommodations suitable?” FRIDAY asks from the cleverly hidden speakers overhead. “If not, I am authorized to offer you any open room in the private wing. The layouts are all similar but there are different décor styles or views available. You also have funds available to redecorate to your personal tastes. Would you like me to bring up some inspiration pictures or online furniture catalogues?”
“The room is fine, sweetheart,” Stephen assures fondly as he watches Levi zoom away to investigate.
They are both intimately familiar with most of the ins and outs of the common areas as well as the rooms that Tony frequents but they have never had cause to be given official quarters before. Despite the exhaustion he can feel pulling at him and the weight of all the things that still need to be accomplished resting on his shoulders he takes a moment to look around him. After spending so much of his existence living variations of the same thing over and over finding something new – even something as simple as a room – is something worth taking a moment to treasure.
After taking several minutes to put his things away and get a drink of water, Stephen takes a deep breath and steps back into the fray. The portal takes shape in front of him, a familiar spiral of gold and orange that grows and grows until he can move from his new living room to the organized chaos of Tony’s lab in a single step.
The bots let out excited noises at his entrance, gathering at his feet like ducks at the park, waiting to be fed, and DUM-E nudges at his elbow with his solitary claw. “Sorry, DUM-E,” he murmurs and runs a gentle hand down the length of the ‘bot’s arm. “I have something that I need to take care of right away so I can’t play fetch with you. But I will come back tomorrow, okay? I’ll even bring Levi back and you can chase him. You’ve always enjoyed that. He has too,” he adds in a confiding whisper.
Levi isn’t here, having stayed up in their rooms, but if he were he would no doubt be flaring in irritation over such accusations. Such totally and completely true accusation.
DUM-E lets out a series of high-pitched beeps that can only be described as a giggle and rolls away after giving his arm another pat. U, on the other hand, whirs along behind him stubborn and relentless in his pursuit of attention.
Either that or he’s planning on lighting Stephen on fire.
Really, it could go either way.
“FRIDAY?” he asks as he closes a shaking hand over the Eye, the pulse of the Time Stone a familiar murmur echoing through his veins. The reassurance of it a crutch he has long since learned that he cannot exist without. “Has Tony revoked my access to the Firecracker virus?”
“Boss his indicated that no restrictions are to be applied at this time,” she answers promptly, but Stephen knows her well enough to hear the faintest notes of suspicion purring through the soft lilt of her voice.
Stephen lets out a small sigh of relief and lets his hand fall. “Very well. Please prep another dose. Override code: alpha-seven-six-charlie-three-foxtrot-nine-zero-zero-bravo-bravo-four.”
“Passcode?” the AI dutifully inquires.
“To live would be an awfully big adventure,” he quotes.
“Voice confirmation accepted.”
A faint click reaches through the hum of the idling workshop and Stephen unerringly crosses to the small canister sitting small and unremarkable behind the ‘bots charging stations. It looks a bit like a metal trashcan but Stephen imagines that quite a few people simply mistake it for another ‘bot station or a discarded piece of scrap metal. Crouching, he places his thumb against the small screen that has emerged from the case’s side.
The first time he had done this he had needed to press Tony’s thumb here, stiff and bloodstained, the tips turning black with frostbite but now…
FRIDAY’s announcement is followed by a slight hiss as the top of the cannister twists open and rises far enough to reveal a small glass vial nestled in the case. He transfers it to his trouser pocket as quickly as he can, not trusting himself (his hands) to keep it unbroken.
Stephen rocks back on his heels and straightens. “Yes, FRIDAY?”
“Are you intending to use Firecracker on yourself?”
He can’t stop the instinctual flinch that whips through him. “No,” he says shortly with a violent shake of his head. “Fuck, no.”
They had tried it once. Tony had gifted it to him: something that could finally heal his hands with the added bonus of letting him live alongside Tony for the rest of his (presumably) long natural life.
It hadn’t gone well.
It hadn’t gone well at all.
“Magic and Extremis don’t play well together,” he finally adds, hoping that it is enough to satisfy FRIDAY’s curiosity.
It had taken him four days to die.
Four days of being shredded in a war between two superpowers.
He has no intention of trying it again.
“Someone who deserves the choice now and not when the world is ending,” he tells her calmly. “Someone Tony won’t think to offer it to because he automatically assumes Extremis is something that he has to hide: a burden, a screwup. I have my phone,” he adds with a glance to the ceiling, referring to the Stark Phone she had equipped him with before he had left to meet Peter at the airport. “Don’t hesitate to call if you or Tony need anything. I don’t anticipate being in Berlin for too long.”
“Berlin?” FRIDAY asks after a pause, her tone hopeful.
Stephen smiles. “Berlin.”
In five out of fourteen million, six hundred five lives Tony Stark injects himself with the Firecracker version of Extremis.
All five times are a success.
He extends the offer to Stephen all five times. Only once does Stephen accept.
It is an act he will regret for the next nine hundred eighty thousand, four hundred thirty-five lives. And whatever else comes after.
Stephen has never been quite sure if it is the simple act of being a sorcerer, of becoming a conduit for dimensional energy that renders Firecracker so volatile in him or if it is because of how deeply he has become entwined with the Time Stone by the time he attempts to integrate it into his system.
James Rhodes, on the other hand, has no such issues.
Tony Stark offers his brother in all but blood his version of Extremis five times.
Rhodes accepts it four times.
It has always been successful.
It is certainly one of his smallest information pools but still, Stephen likes his odds.
Thanks to FRIDAY hacking into the hospital’s security system Stephen is able to portal directly into Rhodes’ ensuite. It’s just past three in the morning so the man in question is sound asleep – or as sound asleep as one can possibly be in a hospital – in his bed, which gives Stephen the opportunity to move across the room and pick up the chart from it’s place at the foot of the bed and flip through it.
“You’re not a doctor.”
Stephen hides his smile at how quickly the man had woken up to the faint sounds of papers turning and focuses on rereading the post-op notes to give the man time to finish waking up. “Neurosurgeon, actually, though I don’t practice anymore,” he replies and holds out one of his hands. “Hard to perform brain surgery when your hands won’t stop shaking. Doctor Stephen Strange, pleasure to meet you.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. And what’s a nonpracticing neurosurgeon doing in my room at fuck o’clock in the morning?”
He has never seen Rhodes like this before, gray-tinged with bloodshot eyes, trapped in a bed with his only source of defense the call button that he has likely already pressed or, at the very least, has his hand on.
“Giving you options,” he tells the man blandly. “I would have been here sooner but I was busy patching up Tony.”
The other man’s entire countenance morphs in an instant. He’s still suspicious but there’s a familiar mixture of hope and worry writing lines on his face and filling his eyes. “Tony? What happened to Tony?” he asks, fingers fisting in the faded blue of the hospital blanket.
“That’s not my story to tell but I promise you he is back at the Compound, perfectly fine and resting. Or, more likely, tinkering with suit schematics and talking to Ms. Potts.”
Rhodes lets out a scoffing laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like Tony. You talk like you know him.”
The suspicion is back. Just a little.
“I do. We first met back in 2008 at the Maria Stark Foundation’s New Year’s Eve gala. We’ve talked since then,” he tells the other man. Technically, it’s not even a lie. “I recently found myself in a position where I could not carry on my medical career,” he draws attention to his hands once again, though now he is both close enough and Rhodes is awake enough to really see the results of the accident and all the surgeries he had undergone. “I thought I might be of use to the Avengers. When I arrived at the Compound to see what I needed to do to apply FRIDAY decided to make use of my abilities to assist Tony.”
“Your abilities,” Rhodes repeats. “As… a neurosurgeon?” he gives Stephen’s hands a pointed, skeptical look.
Stephen scoffs. “Of course not. My abilities as a sorcerer.”
“… a sorcerer? Like Wanda?” Rhodes eyes narrow pointedly, quite effectively pinning him in place with the force of his disdain.
Stephen drops his chart back in the little bin at the end of his bed. “Don’t be insulting,” he replies shortly. “Maximoff is a witch and a barely functional one at that. I am a sorcerer – someone who utilizes dimensional energy to perform acts of magic. I am quite proficient in offensive and defensive magics but what caught FRIDAY’s attention was my ability to create portals.”
In addition to being an egotistical asshole, Stephen has always been a bit of a showman. So when Rhodes gives him a look of utter incredulity Stephen steps back and opens a portal at the base of the man’s bed.
A portal that very obviously leads back to the Compound. To Tony’s very recognizable workshop.
An excited flurry of beeping greets their ears and DUM-E whirs over to the portal, arm waving excitedly, a red rubber ball clutched between his two talons.
It is, Stephen admits to himself, very satisfactory.
“Not yet DUM-E,” he chides gently as the bot reaches through the portal and attempts to shove the ball at him. “I still have to talk to Rhodey for a little longer and I should probably ask your dad before I take you on any field trips,” he adds after moment of thought. “Why don’t you have FRIDAY call Levi down to the lab? I’m sure he would be happy to play fetch with you.”
If Tony is the ‘bots' dad than Levi is some strange combination of older brother and devoted, eccentric uncle. The sort of being that takes kids to rickety, old amusement parks that probably don’t quite meet safety standards and feeds them nothing but cotton candy and deep fried corndogs before dropping them off at home three hours after bedtime.
“Will do, Doc,” FRIDAY’s cheerful voice echoes through the portal. “Do you need anything else?”
“Not at the moment, sweetheart,” he assures, “but I’ll let you know.”
“Holy shit,” Rhodes breathes, staring wide-eyed. “Holy shit.”
Fifteen minutes later Rhodes looks like a cartoon character that Stephen has hit in the face with a two by four.
“So what you’re telling me, is that if I let you inject me with this version of Extremis that I’m what… immortal?”
“Technically,” Stephen agrees. “It will heal and regress your body to your physical and mental prime and then keep you there. Perpetually.”
“Holy fuckin’ shit. So if I take this I can’t die.”
Stephen shakes his head. “You can,” he corrects. “It just takes a lot of effort.”
Like the full force of multiple infinity stones. Or being caught at the center of a nuclear blast. Or dropped into a sun. Or jettisoned out of an airlock into the frigid void of space. Or being slowly simultaneously crushed and drowned in the darkest depths of the ocean.
“Trust Tones to accidentally discover the secret of immortality during an insomnia fueled binge in the shop,” he gasps out with a strangled, almost hysterical laugh that makes Stephen smile because, well, it is a very Tony thing to do. “I’ll do it,” he adds after several moments of quiet.
Stephen raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure? There is no going back. Once it is done, it is forever.”
Quite possibly literally.
“Think I don’t know that?” Rhodes scoffs. “I’ve been looking after Tony since he was a skinny-ass fourteen-year-old. I’m not planning on stopping now. We might not always see eye-to-eye but I knew Tony was forever the moment I met him.”
Stephen envies him that, he thinks.
How different things might have been if he had gone home with Tony all those years ago. Or maybe they would have turned out the same.
If there’s one thing his life has taught him, it is that there are patterns that the universe likes to weave. Many of them inescapable.
“Then let’s get you home and settled. If we’re lucky, you should make it through the initial integration before noon tomorrow.”
Tony falls flat on his face.
“Son of a bitch,” he mutters into the rug and seriously contemplates just forgetting all of his plans and lying here forever.
It’s one thing to get injected with a not-really-legal, not-really-tested virus and have it reconstruct you into physical perfection – more or less. It’s another thing to look in the mirror and realize that you don’t look a day over thirty. Actually, fuck that. He hadn’t even looked this good when he was thirty. Booze, babes, bongs and… well, pretty much everything else had been a wild haze that rendered most of his twenties nothing more than a blur in his memory and they’d left their mark. He’d been hot at thirty but he hadn’t been this hot. Fuck, he’s going to develop a complex.
So all of that…it’s a thing. Definitely a thing.
It’s another thing entirely to seemingly forget how to use his own goddamn body.
He’s not sure if it’s from the freshly healed injuries or from Extremis itself but he’s suddenly about as graceful as he’d been at thirteen. Well, thirteen and drunk. All long limbed, coltish and flailing and (apparently) tripping over his own damn feet.
Frankly, it’s embarrassing.
Even if FRIDAY is the only one around to see it.
And something he definitely needs to get over real quick or the next couple of weeks are going to be even more difficult. Half of his power is his ability to play an audience – reporters, politicians, the public. Tony has lived his entire life on the stage of public opinion. He either needs to be legitimately injured and speaking from a wheelchair (or, more preferably, a private hospital bed) or he needs to be the showman that he’s always been.
A loud, steady hammering on his door jolts him from pity party and he gets to his feet so quickly that he trips over the edge of the rug, slams into the bedside table, knocking it over, and promptly falls flat on his ass. Again.
For a moment he can’t breathe, fingers scrambling, peeling across the floor and reaching blindly for the watch. For a weapon. Shit. Does he still have that gun in that safe under the bed?
It’s not Strange at the door. He knows it. FRIDAY would have announced him. And he wouldn’t have knocked like that. He wouldn’t…
Tony tries to breath past the sudden tightness in his chest, past the feeling that his ribs are squeezing down that they’re going to…
There’s not supposed to be anyone else in the Compound.
“Boss,” FRIDAY’s voice is distant and muffled, fuzzy in his ears. He shakes them. Tries to hear her. Tries to… “It’s just…”
“Mechanic!” Another voice, aching familiar, breaks through the white noise of his thoughts and pours over him like a bucket of ice water leaving him feeling unsettled and cold, blinking up at nothing from where he’s half lying on the floor.
A door slams shut.
“Mechanic!” Another yell. “FRI let me in so if you're naked please put some clothes on! I’ve got donuts and smoothies from that place you like. Your magic friend said you hadn’t eaten yet and kind of just shoved them at me before walking through a portal to somewhere. Which, two questions – one: how does he do that? Is it a controlled wormhole or is he just slicing holes in the some mystical fabric of reality? I’m kind of hoping it’s more the former because SG-1 doesn’t make my head hurt to think about but, I got to be honest, it really looks like he’s pulling some subtle knife bullshit and…”
Harley trails off as he rounds the end of the bed, one of those flimsy drink trays with two cups held in one hand and a large white paper bag clutched in the other. He’s in jeans and a worn band t-shirt. One of his, Tony realizes with a start. The faded gray cotton something he had given up lost to the laundry services or U’s latest nest months ago. The kid’s hair is getting long, flopping over his forehead and eyes in a tangled of dark waves and god, he’s taller now isn’t he? He had already been nearly as tall as Tony when he’d gone down to Tennessee for a few days over Harley’s spring break a few months ago.
“Why are you on the floor?” he asks, brow knitting together.
Tony blinks. “Why am I on the floor?” he repeats, aware that he sounds a little hysterical. “Why are you here?” he shoots back.
The kid’s mom is going to kill him.
Forget Rogers. Forget the Winter Soldier. Forget Ross, the public, and whoever else is waiting in what Tony is sure is very long fucking line but Mrs. Keener will murder him.
At least it’s not during the school year, he thinks wildly. Maybe his death will be swift and merciful.
Harley gives him an odd look. “I told you I was coming.”
Tony is pretty sure he would have remembered if his kid was coming up to see him. Mainly because he wouldn’t have let his kid come up to see him. Not here. Not with everything going on. Not where he could so easily be made into a target, a hostage…
(Howard Stark never paid a cent of ransom money for Tony. Half the time he never even knew his son had been gone. Tony doesn’t have to think to know that he’ll pay whatever price, commit whatever sins are required of him to get the kid back in his hands. And then he’ll burn whoever took him to the ground and salt their ashes.)
(He’s already lost one child. He’ll be damned if he loses another.)
Some of what he is thinking must show on his face because Harley seems to fold in on himself without moving, a movement that suddenly has him looking more like the child that Tony had first met than the adult he’s becoming. “I did tell you,” he repeats stubbornly. “You didn’t reply to my texts or phone calls for three days. You never go that long without replying. Not even when the murder robot was trying to take over the world.”
Which is true. Wary of ULTRON pinpointing him or any weak points but being utterly fucking terrified that the kid wouldn’t know what was going on he’d snuck off the Barton’s farm and used a pay phone half hidden behind a dusty, broken down gas station to call the Keener family in the dead of the night.
“There has just been so much on the news and FRIDAY wouldn’t – couldn’t – tell me anything, really. Just that you were at the Compound and that you were unavailable and she said that you’d received my message so when you didn’t reply yesterday evening I just got on a bus and…” he shrugs, looking away. “I had to make sure you were okay.”
Tony is not quite sure how he manages to get off the floor, pry the smoothies and pastries out of Harley’s grip, and set them on the bed without falling back down or dropping something but he does. Manage it. And then he’s got the kid in his arms and…
Well. For a minute Harley is as stiff as a board, bristling and prickling like some sort of angry porcupine beneath Tony’s arms but Tony simply pulls him closer and tucks the kid’s head under his chin. Or tries. God, he’d wanted to be wrong but he isn’t and the kid is officially taller than him now.
His disgruntled huff at the realization is enough to make Harley let out a little, choked off laugh and then he’s melting into Tony. Shrinking down until he’s got his head buried under Tony’s chin and his arms wrapped around Tony’s waist so tightly that if he hadn’t just had some superhuman virus juice up his chest and a decade of issues and abuse he’d have a really hard time breathing right about now. Not that he cares. Moments of physical affection between the two of them are limited and rare and usually consist of fist bumps, hair fluffing, high fives, and the shoulder nudge. Tony can count the number of times the kid has relaxed from his rigid need to be on guard (to be in control, to be self-sufficient) and given him an actual hug on one hand. With fingers left over.
Which, fair. Tony has a PhD in avoiding emotional intimacy of all flavors and has completely flunked out – if not missed entirely – the super secret seminars where people are taught how to deal with feelings and, you know, how to feel things in a functional, healthy way.
Tony’s fucked up with abandonment issues. Harley’s fucked up with abandonment issues.
It’s probably why this whole thing works, honestly.
That and the pure, binding love of sweet, sweet science.
“It’s okay, kid” Tony rumbles once the natural order of things has been restored to the universe. “I’m sorry I don’t have better sub routines built in for contacting you in case of an emergency and I’m sorry that I didn’t reply to your text last night.” He remembers it now, remembers FRI relaying the message that if Harley doesn’t hear from him by a certain time that the he’ll be coming north to the Compound. But then he’d caught sight of his chest and freaked out. And Stephen had come. And… “I got… distracted. There’s a lot of shit happening right now.”
“No kidding,” Harley mutters into his shoulder. “The news outlets have all gone crazy.” He squeezes Tony one more time and then backs away quickly, dashing away tears that Tony pretends not to see. “You going to tell me what really happened, Mechanic?”
Yes, Tony thinks instantly. Yes, he is.
(He’s so tired of secrets.)
“You sure you want to know?” he asks, rocking back on his heels a bit. “It’s a long story.”
And an ugly one, but he doesn’t say that.
Harley crosses his arms over his chest and gives him a mulish expression. “Well, it’s a good thing we got breakfast. You can tell me while we eat.” And then he juts his chin out, daring Tony to contradict this plan. To insist that Harley is too young. That he doesn’t need to know or that nothing really happened. That Harley doesn’t need to worry. That Tony will fix it.
All of it.
Instead, he plucks the paper bag off the bed and mutters, “There better be a bear claw in here.”
In the end he doesn’t tell Harley that Strange is a universe hopping, time traveling, ancient sorcerer that is hell bent on making sure Tony gets a happily ever after but he tells the kid pretty much everything else.
Tony tells him about the Accords and how the Avengers reacted to them. He tells him about the UN bombing and everything that came after. He tells him about the airport.
He tells him about Siberia.
About Rogers. About Barnes. About the Winter Soldier.
About his mom.
He tells him about being pulled out of that frozen hellhole by a sorcerer and a sentient cloak.
He tells him about Extremis.
He catches the kid as he barrels into him, practically toppling Tony out of his chair, and hugs him tight.
He tells Harley that everything will be okay.
He might even believe it.
(Ask him again after lunch.)
Originally this chapter was almost double its current size with a great deal more Tony and Harley conversation but so much of that dialogue ended up fitting better in a later scene so here we are. Still, IronDad has officially (finally) entered the building.
Chapter 11: Ohana Means Family
Stephen is face down in his bed for less than two minutes when FRIDAY’s quiet voice drags him back into consciousness. “Doc?”
It’s obvious she’s pitching her voice to be quiet and soothing, something that would hopefully not actually wake him if he were already dead asleep. He wasn’t, but it wouldn’t matter. After nearly twenty-nine million years FRIDAY’s voice could probably drag him from a brain-dead coma and while it has definitely been a very, very long week since he had, officially speaking, landed on Titan he is no where near that tired. Not yet.
Stifling a groan he rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling.
“I am sorry for disturbing you but there is an incident at the entrance gates.”
Stephen sits up immediately, suddenly wide awake. “What’s going on? Ross trying to break through?” He wouldn’t put it past the bastard. The motion activated surveillance that he had deployed to both the Barton and Lang residences had activated this morning as men in black tactical gear had crept through the rooms, making him incredibly grateful that he’d enacted the Fox in the Hen House Protocol even as he’d been levitating Tony up onto a gurney. Without Tony wrangling everything from a publicly visible hospital bed, Ross is losing whatever is left of his damn mind. Without Tony to leash the rabid beast with bribes, blackmail, and sheer bravado the Secretary of State is making so many blunders that they’re not even going to have to lift a finger for the man to hang himself.
Still, there’s a dark part of Stephen that deeply, desperately hopes that the Secretary of State will so completely lose sight of all sense and launch a frontal attack against the Compound (against Tony). That wants the bigoted bastard to just try him.
“No,” the swell of disappointment at FRIDAY’s reply is probably disproportional to the situation at hand. “It’s Harley.”
Stephen blinks. “…Keener?” He feels the need to clarify. “Does Tony know he’s here?”
“Boss is still asleep,” FRIDAY tells him, “and while I relayed Harley’s intentions to travel here if Boss did not reply to him by a certain time I do not think that…”
“…he heard in the midst of everything else,” Stephen finishes and drags a hand down his face. “Alright. What do you usually do when Harley visits?”
“He doesn’t visit.”
Stephen blinks. “Pardon?”
“Boss prefers to keep Harley away from those that might pose a security threat,” FRIDAY tells him and that definitely sounds like Tony. Of course, by the time Stephen had officially come into the genius’s life Harley had been in his senior year of high school and in all but three of the lives in which the had actually met they hadn’t done so until the kid was in his early twenties. What Stephen does know is it had been Harley’s impending graduation and official, socially recognized adulthood that had spurred Tony’s initial desire for another child. “Not even Ms. Potts knows the extent of Boss’s involvement in Harley’s life.”
Now that, Stephen had not known and honestly, he’s not sure how to react to it. This is not a situation he’s had to deal with before.
“My data indicates that Harley’s presence will be noticed by either the press or envoy from the military in approximately one minute and twenty-nine seconds,” FRIDAY informs him, which is really something she should have probably told him first.
Stephen swears. “Does he have a phone? Contact him and direct him to the nearest location that is out of the view of any of the press and then show me a picture.”
One minute and thirteen seconds later, Harley Keener is stumbling through a gold and orange portal, swearing and kicking at Stephen’s shins.
“What the hell!” he screeches, stumbling backwards away from Stephen, one hand slipping into the pocket of his hoodie. Stephen would bet the Infinity Stone around his neck that the teen has some sort of weapon in their – a taser, perhaps, or something similar to Tony’s watch. The pocket isn’t big enough to hide a potato gun.
“Sorry for the sudden relocation,” Stephen tells him, staying put and holding his shaking hands out to show that they’re empty. “FRIDAY informed me that you were in danger from the press and possibly the military so I thought it best to get you out of there.”
Harley doesn’t take his hand out of his pocket. “And who are you?”
“Doctor Stephen Strange – and yes, that’s my real name,” he adds at the rise of an incredulous eyebrow. “I’ve known Tony for a while.”
“Uh-huh. Then why have I never heard about you before?”
“Probably for the same reason that he hasn’t spoken about you to me.”
Out there, out in space, in all of the millions of lives in which they had lived long enough for Tony to open up to him Harley had always been one of the hardest nuts to crack. Well, him and JARVIS. Stephen suspects it had much to do with the fact that neither were where he could keep an eye on them. The ‘bots, he knew, were safe in the compound. The root of FRIDAY left on Earth would never let anything happen to them and Rhodes and Ms. Potts would certainly ensure that, if nothing else, they were carefully and safely stored away. Peter and FRIDAY had been right there with them but Harley had been stuck on earth – assuming of course that he hadn’t perished in the Snap.
He hadn’t but it been thirty-three thousand, one hundred eighty-nine lives before Stephen had lived a life that allowed him to discover that.
Harley lets out a disgruntled little huff but he’s not kicking, swearing, or trying to attack Stephen with whatever he has in his pocket so Stephen is counting it as a win.
In four different lives, Harley Keener had punched Stephen Strange in the face the first time they met.
By that standard, this time they’re off to a positively pleasant start.
“You’re a doctor,” Harley says after several moments of silence that Stephen will admit to being too cautious to break. “Is he okay?”
It’s the question of a child so desperately afraid for his father that he traveled over a thousand miles over the course of a single night. Even at the height of his arrogance he would not have hesitated to offer whatever truthful comfort that he could. He wouldn’t offer false platitudes or minimalize potential outcomes just to make someone feel better – a trait that had annoyed quite possibly every adult he had ever worked with or treated – but he knew what it was like to sit there unknowing and afraid and be given nothing more than a conciliatory pat on the head and it is an injustice he would not ever willingly inflict upon others.
“He is now,” he offers simply and Harley’s eyes instantly narrow.
“But something happened to him,” he presses.
“What happened to him is not my story to tell,” Stephen tells him, “so if you want the details of it you shall have to ask Tony. I assure you though, that I will not allow it to happen again.”
He has never meant anything more than he means this. He can feel the echo of it, the weight of it in his bones.
A reassurance for Harley. A promise for himself.
He offers the teen a small smile. “How about I grab some breakfast and you can take it in to Tony?”
Stephen has been face down on his bed for nearly three hours when FRIDAY wakes him.
“It is eleven in the morning on June 28th, 2016. You are at the Avengers Compound. It is currently 73 degrees and sunny with a projected high of 80 degrees. You have agreed to meet Boss for lunch at the Penthouse at noon,” she rattles off, the smooth Irish lilt of her voice achingly familiar and so welcome that Stephen can feel tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. “Boss left for the Tower approximately an hour and a half ago, Harley is sleeping in his room, and Colonel Rhodes is still sleeping.”
“…vitals?” Stephen manages to ask, his voice thick and sleep heavy as he rolls over and arches against the softness of the mattress, feeling his muscles tense and pull, the strain a stinging ache beneath his skin.
“The Colonel’s body temperature is holding steady at 99.7 degrees and his blood pressure is currently 134 over 70. Heart rate is steady but still occurring twenty percent faster than the average according the information I have stored.”
“Good, good,” he murmurs and wipes the evidence of his heartache from his eyes, though no doubt the AI has already noticed and filed it away. “Is he showing signs of waking?” Tony had been unconscious or sleeping for nearly three days after Extremis had been introduced to his system but Tony had also been bleeding out and hypothermic with decades of poorly or barely healed abuse to compound the situation. By comparison, a broken spine and a little nerve damage is nothing in the face of the virus Tony had perfected. In the past, it had taken Rhodes significantly less time to wake – a very notable eleven hours in one life.
“Not yet. Extrapolating from Boss’s data, I calculate there is a sixty-eight point four chance of the Colonel waking in approximately six hours.” She pauses. “I apologize for not being able to provide you with more accurate information.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” he assures. “You only have a data pool consisting of one person. It’s amazing that you’re able to predict that accurately at all.”
“Do you really think so?”
Stephen smiles at the camera. “Of course. Based on past experience, if Rhodes is still sleeping deeply then he likely will not wake for another eight to ten hours. For all that his integration took less time, his Extremis does not burn as hot or as quickly as Tony’s,” he explains, “so his reaction times will be a little slower.”
FRIDAY hums, interested. “And why is that?”
“We never figured out for certain,” he admits as he hauls himself out of bed, ignoring the swollen sort of ache in his hands. He did too much yesterday. And the day before. And the day before that. And… well. It’s been a very long week. “It could be that Tony’s Extremis was thrown into the deep end, as it were. He was dying,” and if his voice cracks, FRIDAY certainly isn’t going to draw attention to it. “Rhodes was not. It could be that Tony still has traces of Starkanium and Vibranium in his system. There is also the fact that that he already had a version of Extremis in him.” Even if it had, technically, been deactivated.
“Fascinating,” FRIDAY murmurs. Stephen smiles.
After Levi helps him shave, Stephen showers and once again finds himself pulling on a dress shirt, cursing his past (present) self as he fumbles with the buttons.
Stephen wonders if he can get away with just wearing a suit jacket and nothing else. He’s pretty sure Tony did it somewhere in the early nineties. Of course, he’s not Tony. “Yes, FRI?”
He nearly screams when the button fails to go through the hole. Again.
“I may have overstepped but I…”
He looks up as she pauses, clearly hesitating. “FRIDAY?”
“I have noticed the difficulties you have with the clothes available to you, so I took your measurements and ordered a few things that you might find easier to get on and off. They have been delivered to the Penthouse. I’m sorry. I should have asked first,” she continues before he can actually say anything “research indicates that you might take that as a sign that I don’t think you are able to care for yourself. Or that I pity you. And I don’t! I don’t! I just… you helped Boss. You saved him,” she says and if she had a human body there would be tears in her eyes, Stephen is sure of it. “You saved my dad,” she murmurs, “You helped him when no one else could. I just wanted to do something for you. I’m sorry if I overstepped.”
The trouble with having a noncorporeal daughter, Stephen reflects, is not being able to take her in his arms and hold her.
“It’s okay, FRIDAY,” he finally gets out, voice thick. “I appreciate the gesture and buying more suitable clothing has been on my to do list. Maybe you can assist me later? It’s… it’s been a really long time since I’ve had to buy new clothes on Earth.”
“I would be happy to!” she replies instantly, her voice more cheerful than he’s heard it in… well, years, if he’s being honest. It’s nice. It’s nice to hear that spring and pep in her tone again.
“You coming with?” he asks Levi once he’s finally managed to get himself dressed. The Cloak perks up from where it’s leaning against the wall near the floor length mirror and wraps himself around Stephen’s shoulders in a blur of red wool. “Silly question,” Stephen mutters to himself.
The Cloak slaps him and bounces, for lack of a better term, around him.
“Fine, fine, we’re going,” he tells the Cloak, moving Levi’s collar away from where it’s tapping against his cheeks.
It has been three thousand, four hundred and twenty-one years since he stepped foot in the penthouse of Stark Tower but it is much as he remembers it. Oh, the furnishings are a bit different, and there is more art on the walls than he is used to but if he ignores the lack of half-built web shooters, random magical tomes and paraphernalia, and at least one deconstructed small appliance then it is pretty much the same.
The last time he had been here he had pressed Tony up against that window and kissed him breathless. Had watched him tilt his head back and smile until his eyes had sparkled like sunlight through a glass of whiskey. Had told the other man that he loved him.
Stephen shakes his head and lets the portal close behind him.
That is not this life and it won’t do to dwell on something that no longer exists.
The first days (weeks, months) in a new life are always the worst, the memories of all his other lives jumping up and flashing before his eyes at the barest provocation.
Once he settles in, gets established, things get better.
“Boss will be right up,” FRIDAY tells him as Levi launches from his shoulders and begins to speed around the room, taking in the minute differences and pausing several times to flutter majestically in front of the large, floor to ceiling windows. “He says to make yourself comfortable. Lunch is already set out in the kitchen if you’re feeling peckish.”
Stephen suspects that the last bit is a direct quotation but gives his thanks to FRIDAY nevertheless and, for lack of anything better to do, ambles over to the kitchen area where an array of sandwiches and tureens of soup are laid out on the enormous island along with a selection of fresh fruit and what looks like a double chocolate caramel cheesecake – which he absolutely does not pick at. Not even a little.
Stephen freezes, fork with a bit of honeydew halfway to his mouth, and stares at the woman standing on the other side of the island. She’s got a pair of heels in one hand, which explains why he didn’t hear her coming, and is staring at him with a look that he can’t quite identify.
“You’re him,” she repeats, staring at him as if he is the second coming of Christ.
“I’m afraid you will have to be a little more specific than that,” he tells her apologetically and she shakes her head.
“You’re him,” and then she is around the short end of the island and wrapping her arms around him, squeezing him so tightly that he can barely breathe. “Thank you,” she whispers into his shoulder and Stephen is stunned to feel an unmistakable dampness sinking into his shirt beneath her cheek. “Thank you.”
Swallowing roughly, Stephen wraps an arm around her narrow shoulders and runs a comforting arm up and down her arm. “No thanks necessary Ms. Potts,” he finally replies. “It was my pleasure.”
Beneath his arm the woman who across the years has been friend, rival, confidant and nearly everything in between tightens her grip and sobs into his chest.
Chapter 12: Free
Tony had forgotten how much he loves flying.
Considering how much time he spends in highly specialized personal body armor (a glorified tin can) that flies the very idea that he could forget is fucking laughable. It’s only been four days since the last time he flew!
(And holy shit, it’s only been four days since the last time he flew. Only four days since he touched down in Siberia. In so many ways it feels more like four years.)
Here he is, shooting through the air in lazy spirals that will still get him to New York City in less than fifteen minutes and he can’t believe he forgot how much he loves this. How much he’s always loved this. From the very first time he achieved true, sustainable flight with the Mark II he has felt…
From that moment in Afghanistan, there in the desert as he broke free from the Ten Rings, with the monstrosity of the Mark I falling apart around him even as it enabled him to find his freedom, to save himself he has felt…
Home, as fucking ridiculous as that sounds.
Taking to the air had been finding himself in a truly cosmic, come-to-Jesus sort of way.
He had spent years (decades) searching for who he actually is behind Howard’s expectations. He’d looked in bottles and needles and bodies. He’d looked in the dizzying heights of money, influence, and intellect. He had built himself a mask and a grin: Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist. Something that he had bitten out at every opportunity - words that he crafted into a personal anthem the world will never forget.
But the moment he had soared, however briefly, over the blood and the sand had been the moment that he had truly found the heart of Tony Stark. It hadn’t mattered that he had been exhausted and aching, that he had been terrified to death that it wouldn’t work that he would find himself back in those caves (back in the water).
He had flown.
He had, for perhaps the first time in his life, been free.
(The truth is… I am Iron Man.)
And he’s forgotten.
Somewhere, in all of the mess that has rained down on his head since the battle of New York, he has forgotten that.
“I’m okay,” he tells her and for this moment it is actually, absolutely the truth. He’s not great. He’s not even fine but he is okay. He’s alive. He’s healthier than he’s been in… ever and he’s flying.
He had thought that he might not be able to get back into the suit, that the moment it closed around him he would be back in that bunker (back in the cold). Trapped, dying, and unable to do anything but chase his own failures and insecurities around and around his head.
And for a moment he had been.
But then the HUD had sparked to life before his eyes and the hum of the arc reactor had pierced his panic and he had thrown himself into the sky laughing until tears of relief had spilled down his face.
Inside the expressionless mask Tony lets out another whoop and punches through the air, the gray smudge of the New York skyline appearing on the horizon.
“Alright, FRI,” he says with a grin, “let's give them a show.”
Pepper is waiting for him on the landing pad, hair neatly coiffed and her charcoal suit pristine. He walks towards her, ignoring the way the suit is taken apart and retracted around him, and doesn’t stop until he’s standing in front of her.
“I’m Iron Man,” he says and wow, that is… that is not what he’d meant to lead with. Like at all. He thought he might try something low key (ha!) like Honey, I’m home or… well, it doesn’t really matter because apparently he’s talking. It’s a thing.
“I am Iron Man,” he repeats because apparently now that he’s started he can’t stop. “I thought I could step back, that I could give it up to make you happy. Because you deserve that. You deserve to be happy and all the best things that money can’t buy and I would really know because I’ve literally tried all of it but…” he lets out a shaky breath. “It’s not just a suit, Pep,” he says and wills her to understand with all the power of his not insignificant brain. “It’s me. And you deserve to be happy and not have to worry about terrorists invading your home or evil Nazis kidnapping you off the street or…” he sucks in another breath. “You deserve to be happy,” he says again, “and so do I. And I won’t be happy if I give up who I am.”
And Pepper – sweet, fiery Pepper – actually takes a step back from him and he winces.
“Hi, honey. Sorry. I didn’t… I didn’t mean to say that? I mean, I did but not…not right now. It just kind of…you know me. I open my mouth and I just can’t keep it shut.” He lets out a little laugh that he doesn’t feel. Not even a little.
Fuck. He’s fucked this up. Like he does everything. He just… code makes sense. Mechanics make sense. Engineering makes sense. People? People not so much. He doesn’t understand people.
(He never has. He never could. He built himself friends and coded himself a family instead.)
“Tony, Tony…!” Pepper almost lunges forward in her efforts to get to him, wrapping him in her arms and pulling him down until he’s got his head buried against her neck and it’s nice but it’s not exactly how he imagined this… going.
“Um, Pep?” he asks after a frantic minute because he doesn’t know what to do here. In his experience, women (or men) don’t really hug after you’ve broken up with them. Or tried to break up with them. He’s not really sure what’s going on here anymore.
(He wants trembling fingers looped around his wrist, can almost hear the deep rumble: “Breathe”.)
He inhales sharply.
“I love you,” Pepper murmurs in his ear. “And I want you to be happy too,” she tells him. “I also very much want to shake you for scaring me like that. I can’t believe you! Two super soldiers, Tony, what…” She shakes her head and steps back, leaving him bereft.
“Please,” he tries to smile, “You know me. Go big or go home.”
Pepper rolls her eyes.
“You idiot,” she mutters. “Now, you’re going to come inside and while you’re signing all the paperwork that has been waiting for your signature for weeks you are going to tell me everything.”
Tony doesn’t use his shop at the Tower much anymore. Partly because he spends more time at the Compound and his workshop/lab space there is bigger and better equipped to dealing with errant explosions and bot instigated instances of arson but mostly because this is where JARVIS died. The mere act of sitting here is much like a slow death inflicted by a thousand papercuts and gallons of lemon juice.
Still, at least in his lab no one else can get to him. Not even Pepper and Rhodey’s override codes would work right now unless FRIDAY judged him to be an imminent danger to himself.
Can he even be an imminent danger to himself anymore? What sort of force would it take to rip himself apart now? It would have to be something quick and brutal to outrun Extremis. Maybe if he…
Tony shakes his head.
Nope. Not doing that. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not next week either.
He sighs and flops over the workstation, hiding his face in the crook of his arm.
He just… he just needs a minute.
The talk with Pepper had gone… well, actually. He’s not sure if it’s the fact that she already viewed the videos and data packets that FRIDAY had sent over or if it’s because he’s already told the kid what happened but it had been easier to go over everything than he’d thought it would be. Like with Harley, he had left off the time traveling, alternate universe bit from Strange’s story but had pretty much vomited everything else out all over her magnificent shoes.
And then, after he had finished, when he was pacing the room like a caged animal, hands buried in his hair…
“You’re right, you know. I don’t like failing and I don’t like things not going according to whatever plan I had for them. I love you and I want us to work out and I want you to be okay but…I have this image of us in my head, Tony, and every time you deviate from the plan I get angry and frustrated with you – which isn’t fair to you! Because, perhaps surprisingly, you’re not actually doing anything wrong. You’re just not acting how I decided to expect you to act. Which is ridiculous because you haven’t acted the way anyone expected you to in the entire time I’ve known you.”
She had laughed and brushed away her tears. And god, he had felt like a bastard. He had almost stopped her. Almost laughed it off and launched into a rambling confession of love designed to keep her, to make her give him another chance to live up to that picture in her head, that ideal that he had wanted and been in love with for so long: the Super Hero and his Kick-Ass Girlfriend who secretly ran the world and loved him and worried about him and all that other romantic, comic book shit. She would have let him, he thinks. She would have let him stop this, no matter what words he had already spoken.
He had kept his mouth shut and kept his hands shoved into the pockets of his jeans so that he didn’t reach out to touch her.
“I love you,” she had told him again, “You’re my dearest friend and I can’t imagine my life without you but I think… I think if we continue the way that we have been that eventually someday – five, ten years from now – we’ll wake up and realize that we’re miserable. I know I can be a harsh task master but I don’t ever want to actually make you miserable, Tony. I don't want us to give up everything that is important to us individually because we love the idea of us.”
There had been more, of course. They had passed apologies as well as assurances of affection and friendship back and forth a dozen times or more, drinking it sip by sip like a bottle of fine wine.
And that had been that.
He feels… raw. Scraped out and hollow. But at the same time he can’t help but feel like he can stand tall for the first time in years, no longer bowing beneath the weight of someone else’s expectations. His entire life he has danced to the tune others have sung for him but now he… he is simply free.
Tony lets out something that it both sob and laugh, sitting up abruptly and scrubbing his hands down his face. Right, enough of that.
Unwilling to open… well, anything and get sucked into days of work Tony settles instead for taking out his phone and unlocking it, fingers dancing across the screen as he pulls up the messages waiting for him.
Sent 06/25/2016 at 2:21am
Hi Mr. Stark! It’s Peter Parker. Mr. Happy said he didn’t know where you were and I was just wondering what I was supposed to be doing? Don’t worry about it though! The room is super nice and everything! 😊
Sent 6/26/2016 at 1:50pm
Holy crap! You didn’t say you knew a wizard, Mr. Stark!!!!!
Sent 6/26/2016 at 1:51pm
That portal thing is so cool!!!!!! How does it work?
Sent 6/27/2016 at 10:37am
Mr Stark, are you okay?
Sent 6/28/2016 at 12:09am
Sorry for bothering you
Sent 6/28/2016 at 11:56am
Not a bother, Underoos
Sent 6/28/2016 11 at 11:57am
Things have just been busy.
Sent 6/28/2016 at 11:57am
I’m sure you’ve seen the news.
Sent 6/28/2016 at 11:58am
I’m in meetings for the rest of the day but don’t think I’ve forgot about you. I’m thinking you, me, your aunt – dinner at the Tower tomorrow
Sent 6/28/2016 at 11:59am
I want to talk to you about an internship. A real one.
“Boss, Doctor Strange has arrived.”
Tony shoves his phone back in his pocket and tries to ignore the hint of warmth that blooms in his chest at the sorcerer’s arrival.
“Tell him I’ll be up in a few minutes. I think the caterers have already laid lunch out in the kitchen if he’s feeling peckish,” Tony tells her and smiles, knowing that he’ll do it too. He won’t just stand there and wait for Tony to arrive. He’ll move through the Penthouse like he’s been there a thousand times.
(He probably has.)
There’s something oddly comforting about the thought of the sorcerer and his super awesome outerwear moving through Tony’s space as if they’ve always been there. As if they belong.
(He doesn’t have to convince them to stay.)
In his pocket his phone buzzes.
Sent 06/28/2016 at 12:04pm
Sent 06/28/2016 at 12:05pm
Sent 06/2016 at 12:06pm
Sent 6/28/2016 at 12:07pm
Don’t hurt yourself Underoos.
Sent 6/28/2016 at 12:08pm
Let me know if that doesn’t work with your aunt’s schedule and we’ll pick a different time.
Sent 6/28/2016 at 12:09pm
I’ve got some people I want you both to meet.
“Alright, FRI,” he murmurs, leaning back against the elevator wall. “Take me back up.”
In fourteen million, six hundred five lives the Vision dies in Wakanda.
In seventeen of them he is killed by the Scarlet Witch, torn apart by someone he loves in an attempt to keep Thanos from the Infinity Stone he holds.
In one thousand, eight hundred twenty-three lives he dies on an operating table in Shuri’s lab, falling into disjointed pieces once the Mind Stone is removed from his head. The Android might exist, technically, separate from the Infinity Stone but it’s the stone that holds him together, that stitches all of the pieces of him into a whole. Without it he is nothing but disjointed pieces that don’t quite fit together.
In the remaining thirteen million, nine hundred ninety-eight thousand, seven hundred sixty-five lives Thanos tears the stone from the Vision’s head.
Fourteen million, six hundred five lives and this is the very first time Stephen and the android have stood in the same space. It’s the first time he has gotten to meet the being who, under certain lines of thought, can be termed as Tony’s grandson.
The first time Stephen had voiced that thought to Tony, the genius had sputtered and turned red and dismissed it out of hand. Later Stephen had caught him looking soft and fond and sad.
(“I never got to know him. Not really. Not like I should have. It hurt too much, to hear J’s voice coming out of his mouth. To realize every fucking time that my baby boy was gone. That I’d killed him. And then he got involved with the witch and well… magic and me, baby, we’re a volatile mix. It was better to just stay out of the way.”)
“Vision, you came!” Tony’s greeting is excited and friendly but… restrained. The genius is there at the edges of his eyes, poking around his mask to study the android and Stephen hates it. He hates that Tony feels like he must be quieter, that he must be less. “You look good. Are you alright?”
The android, if anything, looks a bit like he has walked into wall. Which, Stephen supposes, would be more shocking than normal to one with a propensity to simply phasing right through them.
“I… I am unharmed,” the Vision replies hesitantly, still frozen a step into the penthouse’s expansive, open concept living space. “And you… you are unharmed?” he asks, staring at Tony as if he is trying to peer beneath the billionaire’s skin. For all Stephen knows about the android’s abilities, he might very well be. He wonders if the android notices the difference in Tony’s appearance“I saw… In Siberia. I went. Even after FRIDAY said that you had been retrieved. I went… and…”
The words are stiff and fragmented and Stephen doesn’t know Vision, doesn’t know anything about him beyond the things that Tony has passed on to him over millions of lifetimes but he thinks that this inability to find the right combination of words illustrates just how deeply unsettled the android is.
Good, Stephen thinks viciously. Because he doesn’t know Vision but he knows how long Tony lay on the frozen ground, broken and bleeding and dying. He knows how long FRIDAY called for help, how long she reached out to Vision before the android deigned to surface from his own grief and confusion to answer.
He knows how long it would have taken Tony to be rescued had Stephen not opened a portal and carried him back to the compound. He knows and, remembering how Tony felt in his arms, how he had bled and convulsed beneath his twitching hands, he thinks it is nothing short of an inexplicable miracle that Tony lived long enough to fight Thanos on Titan. Long enough to be only being in the universe to make the Mad Titan bleed.
(Long enough to put on the gauntlet and snap his fingers.)
“And what did you see?” Tony asks, eyeing the android with a weariness that doesn’t belong on such a youthful face.
Stephen doesn’t know Vision but he knows what he would have seen there in the abandoned bunker. He would have seen the marks made by repulsor blasts and the distinctive denting made by a certain vibranium shield. He would have seen the place were Tony lay, where his blood pooled and froze on the ground. Stephen had taken Tony, the suit, the shield, and Barnes’ arm from that place but the evidence of what had happened there still exists for those that care to look.
And the Vision is young and naïve – innocent, but not stupid.
“You… fought,” he says it hesitantly, like a child waiting to be corrected. “Why did you fight?” he asks when no correction comes.
Tony stares at him for a long moment, fingers tapping on his chest where the arc reactor once sat. “FRI?”
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“Send Vision the same data package on Siberia that you gave to Pepper.”
Beside him, the woman stiffens. She obviously thinks it is a bad idea.
Stephen doesn’t know what Tony showed her, but he can guess.
He quiets her with a touch to her arm.
“Wait,” he murmurs in her ear, so softly that even she can barely hear. “They need this to happen.”
He needs this to happen.
Whatever this is… it didn't happened before.
There are no words exchanged to show that the transfer of information has been completed but words are unnecessary for those who are patient enough to watch. Vision is an android, born from multiple sentient AIs and held together by an Infinity Stone. For all Stephen knows there could be hours of video footage in that file and literal terabytes of documentation but it doesn’t take Vision more than a few seconds to view it all.
Vision is an android. He does not possess blood. It cannot drain from his face and leave his skin white to showcase shock and horror.
It doesn’t matter.
He manages to convey such a reaction anyway.
“You…” he stares at Tony. “They… he…”
The last word is venom in the being’s mouth and Stephen feels a slow, satisfied smile curl at his lips.
“I’m fine. Promise. Pinky swear,” Tony assures. “Good as new. Better than new,” he corrects with a smile and a showman’s gesture at his frame. “But you? You’re good?”
The Vision stares for so long that Ms. Potts twitches beneath his touch as if she means to go to him – or, more likely, to Tony.
Once again, he stays her with a touch and a word. “Wait,” he breathes, heart hammering in his chest as he watches. Around his shoulders Levi is so still he almost seems to vibrate. Movement through lack of movement.
“I am unharmed,” Vision finally repeats, voice strangled. “I am perfectly fine. There is not a scratch on my form. But you…”
Tony tips his head to one side. “Yeah, not really buying it,” he interrupts, deftly derailing the rising hysteria in Vision’s voice and turning the conversation back on the much younger being. “I mean, admirable attempt, bravo, but I’m kind of like the master of bullshit and this is just…” Tony waves a vague hand. “You do realize that there are more hurts than physical ones, right?” It’s gently and almost dismissively said. No doubt there are those that would call it pity but Stephen can see the fear lurking in Tony’s eyes. The fear that no one has taught Vision this fundamental part of being sentient: that living hurts.
(“I hope he got to experience the best of everything. I hate Wanda, but god, I hope she treated him well. I hope she taught him how to laugh. I hope she told him its okay to be angry and sad. I hope she didn’t leave him alone. I hope she didn’t just use their connection to prop herself up.”)
The android’s brow furrows and he tips his head in unconscious mimicry of Tony’s movements. “I am unharmed,” he repeats slowly, clearly unbelieving and dismayed that they are talking about him when Tony had been murdered by a man he trusted, “but I find that I am angry. I am… I am sorry,” he apologizes quickly, rocking backwards and straightening his shoulders. “That is unworthy of me.”
Stephen feels his lip curl in disgust at the use of the word and he knows Tony feels it too, the genius retreating before it’s casual utterance like it’s a slap to the face.
(“He could lift Mjolnir. Of course, we trusted him.”)
Given that Steve Rogers successfully wields Mjolnir in eight thousand, thirty-two lifetimes Stephen feels that the hammer’s discretionary standards of worth are… less than desirable. Or much laxer than Thor believes.
Stephen himself has wielded Mjolnir six hundred ninety-five times.
(The Cloak has been officially Not Impressed™ six hundred ninety-five times.)
James Barnes manages it twice.
Tony Stark is a resplendent loop of electricity and power, technology and magic, a grand total of four thousand, seven hundred forty-six times.
“Yeah, no, that’s not happening,” Tony snaps out, covering the distance between him and the android in a handful of quick, easy strides. “That was a one-time schtick, Vis, no one is expecting you to be perpetually worthy of lifting a magical, physics breaking hammer. Or they shouldn’t be,” he adds in a growl, running his hands through his hair until it sticks on end like a hedgehog that has gotten a little too friendly with an electrical outlet. Stephen loves it. “Honestly, what does “worthy” even mean? It certainly doesn’t mean you’re a good person because Thor totally almost crushed my larynx because someone else fucked with my head and er…” The genius blinks, trailing off once he realizes what he’s said (who he has implicated) and shakes his head. “Um. What I’m trying to say is that trying to measure yourself by some arbitrary stick passed on by the All-Daddy is…probably a bad plan. Odin’s a dick. He and Howard would have gotten along a little too well. Well, no, they would have never made it past their dick measuring but the idea is still solid and – for fuck’s sake Tony, get to the point.”
The genius stops his frantic pacing and Stephen barely dares breathe as he looks up into the android’s face. Something is happening here. Something that didn’t before.
The endgame is changing.
It already has, of course. Stephen is here, possessing knowledge and powers that were inconceivable to the him of 2016. Tony is not only alive but better, stronger – a perfected, self-regenerating marvel. Rhodes is safe in the medical wing of the Compound, Firecracker eating him up and spitting him back out. By the time the day is done the Colonel will have been recoded and rebuilt into his best, sharpest version and Stephen almost feels sorry for the next person that tries to get to Tony through him. (Almost.) Harley has come to New York, something that never happened in the official timeline of his previous universe and Tony has not yet handed the care and keeping of Peter Parker off to Happy in an attempt to both distance the child from the dangers of Tony’s life while simultaneously keeping an eye on him.
Things are changing.
But it’s one thing to change them yourself and another entirely to watch them change in front of your eyes.
“You are your own person, Vision,” Tony finally manages to get out. “And I should not be the one telling you this. Seriously, ask anyone on the street and they’ll tell you that Tony Stark knows shit about being an actual successful human but… You are allowed to be angry. You are allowed to be sad. You are allowed to learn and grow and explore. You are allowed to be happy. You are allowed to be disappointed. You are allowed to do anything you want, really. Just… whatever you’re doing? Do it because it means something to you, because it is you. Don’t do it because everyone expects or demands you to act a certain way. That’s a dangerous trap to fall into. Trust me, I know,” he adds with a self-deprecating huff that mask just how much his own words have hurt him.
Stephen grips the granite edge of the island as hard as his mangled hands can manage to keep himself from striding over to Tony, to where the genius has gone pale and flinched, almost imperceptibly at the mode of address.
Vision, at least, seems to catch that something is wrong pauses for a moment, and Tony – wonderful, anxious, precious Tony – instantly rushes into the void.
“Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I’m sorry if people have made you feel like you have to be worthy and I’m twice as sorry if I’ve made you feel that way.”
Vision is quiet for a long moment.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he finally says and all the air seems to leave Tony in a great rush. For a moment Stephen thinks he is going to collapse in the center of the room: a marionette with its strings cut. Even Levi thinks so, if his twitch around Stephen’s shoulders is any indicator.
Instead, Tony swallows roughly and nods.
“So, I know you don’t eat but do you want to join us for lunch?”
Tony’s eyes widen just enough that Stephen gets that the man is surprised by the fact that Vision didn’t notice the other people in the room but he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t draw attention to the lack of normal situational awareness. Instead, he flashes the android a grin that has been known to blind reporters in the past and makes a grand “ta-dah!” gesture – like a magician revealing the end of his trick – towards where Stephen and Ms. Potts are standing on the other side of the kitchen island.
“You’ve met Pepper, of course but the giant next to her with the awesome facial hair is Doctor Stephen Strange. Say hello, Gandalf.”
Stephen laughs quietly. “Hello,” he greets obediently.
He can pinpoint the exact moment that Vision registers his presence. All visages of humanity fall away leaving something still and cutting in its place. The android straightens, shoulders squaring, eyes narrowing and fixes Stephen with a look that would pin most men to the floor and the stone in his forehead glows just enough to cast the blue-white light across the magenta skinned face.
But Stephen is not most men and he has an overabundance of experience in fighting wielders of Infinity Stones. Vision isn’t an enemy and, more than that he is frightfully, innocently young. He has no experience, no knowledge in truly wielding the power that weaves through his being. He is nothing but instinct and distant, objective ideas. The mere threat of Vision’s gaze isn’t even enough to make Stephen blink.
“You…” the android breathes out, his gaze moving swiftly across Stephen’s features, obviously searching for the stone that echoes his own. “You have…”
Stephen lifts the Eye of Agamotto away from his chest. “I do.”
Vision stares at it: awed and confused and fearful, though he doesn’t know how to show the emotions on his face. Not really. Not like a human would. But Stephen can read them all the same. They hang in the air around the android like a thick fog all but visible to those used to looking with more than their physical eyes.
“What is that?” Pepper asks from beside him, leaning forward to peer at the Infinity Stone. It glows through the cage of the Eye: a soft brilliant green that filters out until it is splashed across his hands and down his front to trickle along the lines of the floor.
“An Infinity Stone,” Stephen answers, still looking at Vision. “There are only six in the entire universe so I imagine it was jarring for the Vision to come across another unexpected.”
Vision has his head tipped again, once again mimicking Tony’s gesture of contemplation, staring at the stone hanging around Stephen’s neck.
“It feels…” the android trails off unable to find the words necessary to explain the feeling of happyhomefriendwronglostworry being broadcast by the stones.
“There is an innate danger in having them so close together,” explains Stephen. “Their very nature repels such closeness as a safety measure while at the same time their sentience craves the nearness of their own kind.” Something Stephen can understand. Existing alone – or practically alone – the only one of your kind in the never-ending expanse of space and time is maddening. It’s exhausting. It’s being unmade and remade constantly. It’s being hedged in on every side by every crystalline moment: every word, every thought, every deed replayed constantly across the landscape of self-awareness.
It is clinging to something (someone) or risk being buried in the ever-expanding horizons.
The Infinity Stones have each other – distant, but there. The building stones of the universe – of all the universes – the essences of what was left over at the birth of creation or the beginning and ending of all things, depending on the story being listened to. The balance each other, ground each other, a tangled weave of contrasting and complimenting forces.
Stephen has none of that.
One of the darkest days of his existence had been the day he had stared Thanos in the face over Tony’s torn and bloodied remains and realized that he understood the Titan. That in the deepest, darkest corners of his soul lived the potential to become a monster as powerful and terrifying as the Mad Titan: a vicious beast that swept from one end of the universe to the other and left nothing but destruction in his wake.
And had he not done so? Fourteen million, six hundred and five times he had plunged the universe into chaos, trying to find his way clear of the tangle. In the end he had been forced to throw his hands in the air in surrender, to submit and move on. A selfish move on his part but it had either been that or rip the universe apart.
He is the only one of his kind. He does not have five others to keep him from spinning into madness. He has just the one touchstone, a staccato beat in his veins:
Tony. Tony. Tony. Tony. Tony. Tony.
Across the room Vision nods his head. “I would be happy to join you,” he says, turning to Tony. “It is obvious that there is much to discuss.”
I always forget how busy I get in December. Ugh.