Stephen couldn’t remember when he had started pacing.
Levi had taken to trailing him down the long hospital hall, back and forth, crossing the same tiles over and over. He must have been at it for a while, because when he finally noticed he was doing it, the cloak was hovering over a line of chairs, expectantly if nothing else. Whipping his head around, Stephen checked to see if anyone had noticed his pacing. The motion set his head to pounding, blood loss and lack of sleep making him feel queasy. He sat down in an effort to focus on soothing his rolling stomach, letting Levi settle on his shoulders for the first time since they’d entered the hospital via one of his gateways. Only a few moments passed before Stephen tapped at the cloak covering his shoulder, signalling for them to get off of him.
“It’s too hot”, he lied. The hall, and the entire hospital, he figured, had the air conditioning on full blast in a way that was unpleasantly cold, even in contrast to the muggy day outside. Stephen let a shiver race over him, to which Levi raised one side of their collar in disapproval, but the cloak obeyed reluctantly.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been sitting in that chair, in this hall. He tried to recount the events since the battle, calculating how many days had passed since, but his thoughts were blurred and muddled by emotions in a way they’d never been. He even tried consulting a calendar in the reception area, but quickly realized he had no idea what day the Undusting had happened. The Undusting. It was easier to think of the day as just that, since any thoughts of the battle sent him into a fit of hyperventilation and his cracked ribs couldn’t stand much more of that.
Despite the several battles he’d been in, Stephen was always shocked as to how shaken he was afterwards. This time was different, he supposed, what with being a battle for the entire earth and all. He recognized symptoms of shock within himself, like he could feel parts of his brain shutting down, but pushed through as more jarring thoughts fought for purchase on his mind.
Blood dripping down a face that was supposed to be smiling, it was like sunshine when it smiled, though he’d only ever seen it pinched and distraught. In person, that is.
Stephen took a shaky breath as he leaned forward on his knees, fingers steepled in front of his mouth. One of the doors down the hall suddenly swung open and what looked like an assisting surgeon nodded as Stephen turned to look at him.
“He survived the surgery”, the Wakandan told him happily, but trying to maintain a professional and realistic front. “It should be uphill from here if things go as they should.”
“Thank you”, Stephen managed, remembering what was appropriate for humans to do in social situations, though it might have just been habit as his brain simultaneously spun and shut down. He wasn’t sure if the surgeon was compelled to tell anyone in the vicinity at the medical marvel they’d just accomplished, or maybe he thought Stephen was actually someone close to the patient, but he let it slide either way. His brain didn’t have the capacity at the moment to correct anyone on his relationship, or lack thereof, with Tony.
Another wave of emotion hit Stephen as he thought the man’s name. He’d almost died, should have died based on the situation, but some foresight, okay a lot of foresight, on the sorcerer’s part had ensured the Wakandan hospital was ready to receive him. The man who’d taken the full, direct force of all six infinity stones.
God. Why you?
Keeping him alive long enough to get him off the ground, through the gateway, and into the surgery theatre had been one of the hardest parts and the most nerve-wracking 77 seconds of Stephen’s life. Using his life force to keep Tony alive, maintaining three different spells, and walking while doing so drained half of his energy within that time, leaving the sorcerer staggering as he gasped for air.
He’d quickly disengaged Tony’s suit, to Pepper’s anguished protest, removing the man from his would be nanotech coffin, and lifting him up in his arms with the aid of magic. He’d opened the gateway simultaneously, trying not to be distracted by how small and light Tony felt in his arms, how tiny, wheezing breaths were escaping him every few seconds. There had been a moment of eye contact between them and Stephen had felt his heart jolt as he laid him on the operation table, taking in the already glassy-looking brown eyes that should have been so full of light.
Stephen’s heart started again as he rose from the chair in the hall, mind racing with a thousand possibilities.
Don’t be too hopeful, he told himself. There could still be complications from the surgery, or the amputation site could become infected, or maybe the experimental serum used to help reverse the effects of the gamma radiation would be unsuccessful. But even as these thoughts ran through his head, Stephen’s chest pounded in relief, shuddering breaths leaving him as he pushed down all the conflicting thoughts and emotions, closing his eyes and facing the ceiling in some sort of silent prayer. A wet sob threatened to leave his chest which he stifled quickly, sitting back down in the chair which he found again with shaking hands.
Hours passed, or it could have been days when Stephen felt a gentle hand tap his shoulder. His head whirled around too quickly, making him see stars and black and his stomach threatened to upset what he hadn’t eaten. He was finally able to focus on Pepper standing in front of him, still in her armour under suit and a massive cardigan that definitely wasn’t hers. She gave him a soft smile as he squinted bewilderedly up at her.
“He’s awake again”, she said, like she couldn’t believe it, but was definitely willing to. “He wanted to see you.”
“Me?”, he blinked, not believing her. Tony had so many people he cared about, who cared about him, and seeing as he’d only gotten out of surgery a few hours ago (or had it been more than that?), he’d likely only seen a few people. Pepper smiled again, like it had been a silly question.
“Yeah, you. Come on, I’ll show you where his room is.” Stephen’s hands shook terribly as he followed her down the long hall he’d become familiar with, shoving them in his pockets almost angrily. His shoulders were shaking involuntarily (he couldn’t tell if it was from the overzealous AC or his body trying to force itself to stay alive) and he was relieved when Levi wrapped around him protectively. As they walked, Pepper explained some things to him, like how Tony couldn’t speak right now due to the effects of the gamma radiation and would probably need speech therapy. She told him about the amputation, and the burn marks, just to prepare him, though he already knew about those. Stephen’s mind struggled to actually hear her voice; whenever he relaxed his hold on her words, it sounded like they were under water.
They came to a door marked 17A and something in the back of Stephen’s mind told him it was ironic, but he couldn’t remember why.
“You can have ten minutes with him”, Pepper explained in a hushed voice with her hand on the doorknob. “He gets tired quickly.” Stephen nodded, even though there was something in her tone that made him hesitant, but he brushed past it as his heart pounded. Pepper opened the door and walked in, but Stephen found his feet cemented to the floor. He watched her walk to Tony’s bedside and tell him he had a visitor, and she’d be back in ten minutes with a nurse.
“Ten minutes”, she reminded the sorcerer again as she passed him in the doorway. Stephen told himself the edge to her voice was due to anxiety and worry for her husband. She left and he continued to hover in the doorway before making his way over to the right side of the bed, on Tony’s left side.
If Tony had seemed small and weak in his arms, the effect only increased tenfold as the sorcerer looked down at him in the hospital bed. He pulled a chair up to the edge of the bed, feeling too imposing when he was standing. Tony met with his eyes with a look that said he’d been waiting five years just to see his face again and Stephen’s breath caught in his throat. He wanted to kiss him, and hug him, tell him how worried he had been, how much loved him, but swallowed his tears instead. Stephen coughed gently, trying not to think about what those coffee brown eyes had looked like several hours ago. No, it must have been longer than that.
“You look good”, Stephen said, surprised at how his voice croaked. “All things considered.” His words were sly, but his tone sounded like he was fighting tears. The left corner of Tony’s mouth twitched, as most of his face was encased in bandages and it made it hard to express much. The man’s eyes dropped to the drawing pad on his tented knees and brandished the Sharpie from its spot in the coils. Stephen noticed with an aching chest that Tony was forced to use his left hand, the right side of his body looking far too lonely, but Stephen did his best to ignore it. It took several minutes, but Tony finally tilted the pad towards him, looking at the sorcerer expectantly with his un-bandaged eye.
You look like shit, the pad told him after a moment of squinting at the chicken scratch and Stephen gave a half smile. He met Tony’s good eye and nodded in silent agreement.
Well, I’ve been in this hospital for days worried sick about you, he wanted to say.
“Your writing looks like mine now”, he offered instead, voice raspy as he placed the drawing pad ever so gently on Tony’s lap. The other man lowered his brow marginally in feigned offence, though he winced after the motion, obviously having tugged at some stitches. Silence fell over them for a few minutes and, very aware of the clock ticking on the wall, Stephen felt a deep sense of urgency to say something profound, but everything that he wanted to say would either take too long or wasn’t appropriate. Tony seemed to sense his thought pattern and set to work with his Sharpie. Some of the most tense seconds of Stephen’s life ticked by as he waited for Tony to finish, wishing he knew the sorcery necessary to tap into Tony’s brain waves and talk to him via a mental link. When he was done, Tony mustered the strength to hold the drawing pad up facing the sorcerer.
Why’d you do it?
Stephen’s heart thudded traitorously in his chest as he read, not daring to meet Tony’s intense, but morphine-addled gaze. He couldn’t tell him about the futures he had seen, what he had seen of their relationship, of the life they could have had. He couldn’t tell him about mornings spent in bed after they’d both actually slept through the night for the first time in years. He couldn’t tell him about the morning coffee they’d shared, how they’d learned how to combine sorcery and technology to become the strongest duo in battle known to mankind, how they’d have gotten several cats and dogs as they got closer to retirement, and finally how they would have grown old together, sharing their twilight years in a certain cabin on a lake.
“It’s my job”, he choked out, focusing on his fiddling hands. “Wouldn’t be much of a Sorcerer Supreme if I had let you…I’m glad I could help get you out of there”, he finished lamely, trying and failing to keep his tone professional. Tony regarded him for a moment and the sorcerer could see him resisting the tug of morphine trying to pull him under. Again, the Sharpie was dragged over the page slowly, painfully so, but Stephen watched every movement as if it were precious.
What did you see in those other futures?
Stephen tried not to sob, but one made it out of his throat just to be trapped under his teeth as he bit his bottom lip. Hard. He felt the hot trickle of blood run into his facial hair, but he didn’t pay it any heed.
“I, uh- can’t tell you that?”, he tried, even though he knew Tony wouldn’t accept that. “I saw what would happen, what would be our only chance, and saw that I had the chance to save you, so I took it. That’s…”, he cleared his throat and tasted the copper on his bottom lip. “That’s all that matters, really.”
Tony didn’t believe him. He didn’t believe him and Stephen saw the betrayal in his good eye. He didn’t move for the pad again, but kept asking questions. Stephen could feel them, could see them in the deep ochre centre of his iris. Burning underneath, drug-induced sleep being pulled over the top.
What aren’t you telling me?, the good eye asked. Why are you lying when you’ve obviously seen something important? Why am I important enough to you now for you to have risked your life to save me?
The questions faded as his good eye fell shut, and the clock ticked, and Pepper returned with a nurse as she said she would. Stephen quickly rose from his chair, hands shoved in his pockets, giving Pepper a polite smile as he turned to leave. Motion caught the corner of his eye, and he was met with sight of Tony struggling under the hold the morphine had on him, dragging the Sharpie across the pad diligently. Pepper picked up the drawing pad when he was finished, frowned in slight bewildered confusion when she read it, and held it up for Stephen to see.
Thanks anyway, asshole.
Stephen wasn’t sure anyone saw his teary smile in return, as both Pepper and the nurse had turned back to Tony who’d finally succumbed to the heavy pain medication.
Stephen stumbled out the door, only staying upright thanks to Levi pulling him up by his shoulders. He let the door shut quietly behind him, slumping against the wall as his trembling legs nearly gave out on him. He considered seeing if he could get his wounds tended to here, looking down at the bloodied cuts drying black on his hands, but then decided he would heal better at the Sanctum. Tears dripped down his cheeks to land on his dusty robes, a sharp, wet sob finally escaping him. He almost allowed another, but Pepper opened the door suddenly, making him jump.
“Are you alright?”, she asked, brow creasing slightly as she studied him, scanning his tired, pale face. She took Stephen’s silent nod in turn, closing the door behind her and regarding him with a quiet smile. “Looks like you wore him out”, she joked lightly, though her eyes were tired and haunted. For not the first or last time in his life, Stephen wished people would be a little more honest in situations like these, bypassing the attempts at normality, washing over how truly terrible they felt.
Pepper inhaled deeply, wringing her hands in front of herself as she mulled over her next words.
“I have to say…I’m beyond grateful for what you did.” Stephen’s breath hitched and he wondered for the fifth time that day if he was having a heart attack. He managed a nod and a grimace. Pepper swallowed before meeting his eyes.
“From what I’ve gathered, you're the only one who could have done what you did; the only one who was powerful enough. Though that still doesn’t explain why you did it.” Stephen was preparing a half-assed response when she continued. “And, Wong, was it…?” Stephen nodded. “Yeah, Wong said it was a near miracle you survived using your life force like that. You could have ‘gotten your dumb ass killed’”, she said, quoting the senior sorcerer.
“I’m still waiting for the day Wong approves of anything I do”, Stephen returned hollowly, hating himself for following along with her fake facade of half-hearted jokes. He tried desperately to ignore all that was sitting so physically in the air before them. It was like their discomfort and distrust of another had taken a physical form and was sitting on the cold tile between their feet. The redhead stared back at him like she could feel his tension.
“Still”, she insisted. “You almost died.”
“At least Tony would have been alive”, he muttered, not daring to look her in the eyes. Several beats of silence passed before he forced his head up and was taken aback when he saw Pepper’s mouth has dropped open slightly, faced screwed up quizzically, like he’d just declared himself suicidal. She brushed past her expression and the moment with visible great effort.
“Wong also said it was forbidden. To give another your life force.” This time Stephen had no problem with staring into the tired, grey blue depths of her eyes.
“Well, I obviously didn’t give it to him fully, or you’d be talking to a ghost”, Stephen rasped, gesturing weakly at his shattered self. This threw her off, and she tossed her hair over her shoulder quickly like an unconformable cat grooming itself. She toyed with the edge of her oversized cardigan, furthering cementing the comparison.
“Why?”, she begged suddenly. “Why’d you do it? Is there something I should know?; why a complete stranger would almost kill himself to save my husband’s life.” Something in her face changed, angered, as her cheeks coloured and she took a step towards him. “Did you keep him alive just so he can go and get himself killed later? Is that it?” Stephen met her eyes fully, feeling colder than ever, grateful for Levi around his shoulders to keep himself from shaking.
“No. I’ve already done that”, he said, broken and bitter. “Almost.” Pepper blinked, awkwardly looking away, her teeth gritted as she held this information between them. Stephen felt himself swaying on his feet, his head pounding, Levi keeping him standing more than his legs were. He really needed to get back to the Sanctum. The next words out of her mouth didn’t help his weak knees.
“Tony told me about the 14 million and something possibilities you saw?”, she said, more as a question than a statement, like she was pushing her cards onto the table, but wasn’t sure what doing so would bring. “You saw this one, you knew what was going to happen?” She was more sure now. This was a challenge. Stephen swallowed.
“It was the best possibility”, he lied. Okay, half-lied. It was mostly true. This was the future where the mad Titan was destroyed, the Dusted were returned to life, and he was able to save Tony. It was also the future where he and Tony wouldn’t see each other much after this hospital visit, though he hadn’t seen the end of it when Tony had jolted him out of his meditative state on Titan. The very thought was menial and selfish and made him sick to dwell on, how ungrateful he was after all the luck he’d had in successfully bringing this future about.
“What were some of the other possibilities?”, she asked, like she already knew, but didn’t want to know.
“We lost”, he replied simply. You lost, he could have continued. You died, your daughter never existed. Peter and I survived the snap, and so did all of the other important people in Tony’s life, so he was able to move on. We had a life together. We had each other. The words ran through his mind, but his mouth stayed clamped shut as she watched him, like she was trying to read what was going on behind worn, glistening eyes. She was trying to decide if his tears were tears, or from exhaustion.
“I’m sorry for badgering you”, she said finally. “You must be exhausted.”
“I haven’t done much the past five years”, he quipped dejectedly, trying to will some life into his voice. “A little excitement did me some good.” Pepper offered a weak smile for his efforts and something switched in her eyes as she reached out to place a hand on his arm. Stephen wasn’t sure which side of her he wanted to trust yet, and felt himself involuntarily stiffen under the contact.
“Thank you, really. What you’ve done for me…”, she teared up suddenly. “And for Morgan…there’s no way we could ever thank you enough.” I didn’t do it for you, Stephen thought, forcing a smile. He went to pat her hand, but his trembling fingers just hovered. He tried not to choke as she continued.
“Whatever made you do it, what ever you saw in those futures, what ever made you risk your life to save him, I’m glad you did.” Stephen felt his heart hammering brokenly, with grief above all else and was struggling with what to say when the pounding in his ears mixed in with the pattering of little feet. He turned to see Morgan charging around the corner, running towards her mom with Peter in tow, tugging on his hand as though they had been siblings for life. The sorcerer felt his heart thump painfully as the teen who had been like a son to him in another life greeted him with a weak smile. The boy was worried to death for Tony, no doubt, and Stephen wondered if he’d gotten to visit him yet.
Have you seen your dad yet?, he almost asked out of dream-like habit, but bit his tongue.
“Hey”, he said softly instead, heart singing when brown eyes met his with a small spark of light.
“Hi, Doctor Strange”, the teen muttered, a shell of his former self, and unable to keep his eyes from flicking towards the door behind Pepper. Stephen didn’t blame him.
“Go right in, you two, just make sure to be quiet. Dad’s having a nap”, Pepper said, guiding them towards the door. “I’ll be right there.” The kids went in, Morgan giving Stephen a suspicious look as they passed. Stephen didn’t realize he’d been watching them go until he heard Pepper cough discreetly. He blinked back into present, looking at her as though wondering why she was there, which she looked past. She began to extend her hand and then stopped herself.
“A handshake seems a little formal”, she said. No. It seems just right, Stephen thought. Considering we don’t know each other. You know who I’d like to hug? Tony.
He tried not to tense up as she pulled him into a careful hug, like she might be able to guess how much his ribcage felt like dry kindling in a fire. Their awkward embrace was cut off mercifully quickly when Levi patted Pepper’s shoulder and she jumped back in shock.
“Oh, God! Sorry, I didn’t know, um…” She gave the cloak a suspicious glance before jerking her thumb back toward the door. “I, uh, I better check on the kids.”
“Yeah, I should be heading back to the Sanctum”, he muttered, simultaneously ripping his own heart out. She gave him one last gentle, almost pitying smile, like she knew the kind of loneliness he’d be faced with back at the Sanctum, just rows after rows of ancient, dust-lined books, and a disgruntled colleague who was dutifully working his way through the nineties top hits.
The searing moment was broken as a whirlwind of long, dark hair and a purple t-shirt came tearing back out the door. Morgan’s eyes landed on Stephen and she bolted towards him.
“Doc!”, she called, though they had never met before this, Tony’s nickname for him obviously passed down in the past few moments.
“Morgan”, Pepper said, trying to call her back, but the little girl ignored her mother’s call. She bombarded Stephen’s legs at half-speed and Stephen was certain that, without Levi, she would have knocked him flat. Short, chubby arms wound their way around the back of his knees as she looked up at him, eyes sparkling dark and bright and all too familiar.
“Doc”, she repeated urgently in her small voice. “My Daddy said I should thank you. He said you saved him”, she said simply, and clearly expecting confirmation from him. Stephen swallowed the burs that had suddenly formed in his throat, keeping the wetness in his eyes at bay as he looked down at her.
“Er, yes. That’s…right-I.” He stopped and the words came. “It makes me very happy that I got to save your Dad. He’s a very good man.”
“I know”, Morgan agreed, absolutely entrenched in her response, brow lowered in a determined way Stephen had seen too many times. Over fourteen million times. She hugged his legs with surprising strength and he chanced a quivering hand on her shoulder, letting his fingertips ghost over the soft cotton of her t shirt in what he hoped was a comforting way.
“Make sure you give him lots of love, so he gets better soon, okay?”, he muttered, quietly enough that Pepper wouldn’t hear, finally letting the tears fall. The love I would have given him. Morgan looked up quickly, enamoured with her new mission.
“Yep”, she confirmed. “I’ll give him lots of extra love. He’ll get all better.”
“Good girl”, he rasped. She released him, running back to take her mom’s hand, who Stephen didn’t raise his eyes to meet, and they walked into the hospital room with the life he wished he had. He raised his left hand with his sling ring somehow still on, trying not to think about all he would miss, everything he wished he could be there for: Tony’s therapy, his recovery, being there to comfort him during the bad days, and to celebrate the small victories when they came.
Tears flowing freely down his face, Stephen began to move his right hand in a circular motion in an attempt to open a gateway to the Sanctum. His vision flickered and he felt his legs buckling before he could register what was happening, and the world went black.