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A Cold Day in July

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Tony glanced down at his phone and furrowed his brows. It wasn't too often that Stephen called him, let alone in the middle of the day, so he held up a hand to stop whoever was talking and excused himself to answer the call. He could feel eyes following him as he stepped into the hallway, but he didn't care. If Stephen was in danger, or if there was an emergency, then that trumped whatever was being discussed in the meeting.

“What's wrong?” Static hit the line, and through it he could just barely pick out Stephen's heavy breathing. Fear slid into his veins at the prolonged silence. Say something, damnit.

“Tony. I am not sure if you can hear really this, but I'll just speak anyway. Maybe FRIDAY can record this somehow and then send it to you. As you might already know, I'm not on Earth at the moment. I've been through so many dimensions these past few days – has it been days or weeks? Anyway, I don't really know where I am. I just wanted to update you on the mission because you like to hear about things like that. Right?” Tony hurried to his office, FRIDAY recording and tracing the call without Tony even asking. Once he closed the door to his office and slid into his chair, he opened his laptop to see what progress FRIDAY had on Stephen's location. He didn't expect much since Stephen did say he was dimension-hopping again, but there was no harm in trying.

“So, this particular mission involved magic eaters invading a place they don't usually inhabit. I've been chasing them through portals and sending them home. Rather harmless work.” Was he relieved or suspicious of this information? Stephen sounded...well, he sounded okay. The heavy breathing probably from using his magic too much. But...Stephen never called to 'update' him before. That was why he was still trying to figure out how to get to him; how to find him.

“Stephen? Can you hear me?” The wizard didn't stop speaking, like he was unable to hear Tony's words. Great.

“A lot of magic wrangling with a few allies. These little guys seem harmless, but they've been known to drain worlds if their infestation escalates too high. We have to control them now and send them home before they find Earth. The magic on Earth is already pretty weak at the moment; it would be catastrophic for the sorcerers if these creatures found our home.” FRIDAY had nothing for him, sensors unable to locate the cell phone signal or any of the trackers he clipped to Stephen and his cloak.

Probably disabled by magic, now that he thought about it.

His only other option was calling Wong.

“FRI, can we locate Wong and call him? Something is wrong.”

“I think that's all I have to report. FRIDAY, be a good girl and show this to Tony. Maybe Peter too. I love you guys so much. Really. Nothing pushes me to finish these missions and come home like knowing you two will be there when I return. I'm proud of you. I better go.” Tony scrambled from his desk, nanotech surrounding his body as he hurried out of his office, screaming at Stephen to stay on the phone, to please keep talking, but the man couldn't hear him. The call disconnected from his phone and was sent to his suit, Stephen's picture appearing on the HUD while FRIDAY set the course to where Wong was.

“I'm really just trying to stretch this out as long as possible, I guess. I miss you. It feels like decades since I've been home. A millennium since I've kissed you. I always wanted to quit this job, but the multiverse just loves getting into trouble, right? I mean, you understand. You're Iron Man.” Tony landed in front of the Sanctum and immediately calls for Wong, desperately trying to listen to Stephen's rambling and find Wong at the same time. When Wong finally poked his head out of the library, Tony stormed in and put Stephen on speaker.

“...I bet you would try to buy this place. Make it your summer dimension or something. It really is that beautiful. Of course, it hardly compares to our home, but it is still amazing.” Wong's eyes widened and he scrambled for something.

“Where is he, Wong?” The bald librarian wizard flicks through a book and moves his arm in a circular motion. Tony realized he was about to open a portal and assures Stephen that they are coming. They will see him soon. He will be safe.

“I think I have to go now. I'm just really tired, Tony. Don't forget to get a good night's sleep for me. For Pete. I love you.” The call disconnected right as Wong's portal springs to life. Tony charged ahead and nearly tripped to a stop when he found Stephen. No. No!

His robes were torn and tattered, any pieces of fabric left caked in mud and blood. His normally immaculate soft black hair was in disarray, chunks missing in places and blood making it sticky. His cloak was nowhere to be found, but if it wasn't trying to help Stephen, then something bad must have happened. Stephen's face was ashen, eyes closed and skin covered in cuts and bruises. He could almost be sleeping, except Tony had FRIDAY check for vitals and she reported back there was nothing. Blood pooled around Stephen's body where he was leaning against a tree for shade. His goatee, normally perfectly trimmed and groomed, was unruly and growing into a beard.

Tony bit back a choking sob as Wong knelt next to their wizard, checking his wrist for a pulse before dropping it back down and bowing his head. How could this happen? He told Tony not even five minutes ago it was a harmless mission. How was he....?

“Can you carry him home, Stark? He needs to be checked over. Find out what happened. Then we can prepare him for burial.” Tony stared down at Stephen, tears brimming in his eyes and heart hammering painfully against his sternum. He was gone. One minute, his voice was in Tony's ear. And now...

“Stark?” He cleared his throat and knelt down next to Stephen, reaching out to cup his cheek.

“Why didn't you say you needed help? We could have saved you!” Wong said nothing as Tony's suit retracted and he lurched forward to press close to Stephen's body, the warmth he normally radiated already cooling. He cried. He screamed into what was left of his robes. He kissed the unharmed skin of Stephen's face. Then, he pulled back and pulled Stephen into his arms, Wong leading them back to the Sanctum with dragging steps.

It was a cold day in July, the day that Stephen Strange-Stark died.