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We Can Do Better

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"Stop." Stephen groaned painfully. His sharp gaze locked onto the Mad Titan as he sat Tony Stark, Iron man, down on a low rock almost respectfully. That giant gold covered fist leveled at the smartest man in their universe. Four glowing stones started to rise in color, a taunt at how futile their attempt to stop him here was. Stephen had to stop this.

He couldn't believe that the fight they'd put up was for nothing. It was done, everything was coming apart. This was nothing close to the vision of a victory Stephen had already seen through the Time Stone. Fourteen million six hundred and five universes he had witnessed. Only one victory. The parameters of that victory demanded sacrifice; he'd been prepared to take the necessary steps.

Only a scant few inches had doomed them all. 

Stephen stared into the eyes of Thanos, not looking away, showing no weakness. Thought that was all he felt, that and failure. But nothing mattered now, nothing save what he had to do next. Stephen shifted his gaze to the location of Stark's wound. The blade made from Stark's own nanobot armor was stabbed high, buried between ribs rather than below them. Blood poured from the wound, even as the suits nanobots fought to stem the injury.

Stephen's medical mind never turned off, and he knew with only a glance, that Stark's wound was fatal. From the quantity of blood pouring down his broken and fractured armor, Stark had been stabbed most likely in the spleen or near it. That was arterial blood overflowing from the wound. There was no sealing that injury, no surviving it. 

This meant abject failure to Stephen's plan. 

Without Tony Stark their whole universe was lost. This battle was over, they couldn't survive what was to come without him. Stephen's mind had been racing over the visions he had seen, fragments of things that could change this moment. Things that needed to happen, and things that didn't need to happen. Another part of his mind had been racing over spell work, blending all of his gathered knowledge in this universe with the knowledge accumulated by fourteen million versions of himself. In his visions of the multiverse, he'd lived millions of lifetimes and absorbed all of it. He only had one shot at this new last-ditch plan.

"Spare his life-," Stephen growled out seriously. He glared and shifted where he lay. He planted one hand on the ground and gritted his teeth at the pain his damaged nerves communicated to him. That was fine, at this moment the pain was a constant he needed. The end was here, and his fear sat like frostbite deep in his stomach, "And I will give you the stone."

He ignored Stark's horrified eyes. The mixture of terror and fury blended in his dying gaze. "No tricks?" Thanos asked and flexed his fingers on that infernal gauntlet.

Stephen shook his head, knowing this universe was doomed. It was a cold thing he was about to do. A cruel thing to decide in a moment. Stark would be furious, but he was a genius. He would see this chance for what it was. He would undo the terrible fate they had been dealt. Simply by not being stabbed in the right place as another Tony Stark had in the universe that survived this Mad Titan.

"Don't-!" Stark coughed blood as he protested. His body convulsed slowly, but he forced his eyes to stay on Stephen. They begged him not to give up the stone. Begged him not to destroy their universe. Stephen wished it wasn't so. He desperately wished he had more time. But this was all they had. This risky, foolish, disaster of a chance he was going to give them. 

By the Vishanti he was a bastard for what he was going to do. 

Stephen struggled to his feet with the Cloaks help. He let it control most of his weight, trusting his relic as he'd come to this past year. Stephen couldn't make his hands straighten his robes. They hurt too much, but it didn't matter. It was time to put his new plan in motion. 

His mind finalized the image in his head of what he wanted. Karl Mordo would be disappointed in him; Stephen was disappointed in himself. He'd sworn to live by the natural order, as Mordo had been correct. Stephen was going to forsake that vow. Things had to change then, and it was certainly changing now. Stephen apologized mentally to his mentor, then apologized again to the Ancient One. He was going to fail her in his duty to protect the Stone. 

Stephen held out his hand once he had Thanos' full attention. The green stone, in its raw form, appeared. It didn't lash out at him; it had accepted him as its guardian when he experimented a year ago in the Kamar-Taj library. If he did this right, perhaps it would find him worthy once more. If he could help save this universe. 

As Thanos held his hand up Stephen took a shaking step forward. Exhaustion burned through him. The fight had been brutal, his hands shook even as he lifted the floating stone. The ache was so familiar that he reveled in the pain. It was keeping him focused. This moment was as precise as surgery, everything slowing before his vision as he saw exactly what he had to do, how to do it. It was amazing that he could still reach this state in between seconds in a way that didn't involve surgery. 

The next move was clear to him. Thanos' mistake was that he was a fanatic.  Stephen knew just how to beat fanatics. They thought themselves perfect, their cause unchangeable, their outcome set in stone. No room for growth, no chance for change. Only the accumulation of power consolidated for themselves. Dormammu thought himself absolute as well. The difference between Thanos and Stephen or even Tony, was that Thanos was willing to sacrifice everyone for his vision. Stephen was willing to sacrifice himself to stop it. 

The second he neared the giant warlord, a gigantic mandala bloomed beneath Stephen's feet. Perfect, stunning in its complexity and shape. It was green as Stephen siphoned power from the Time Stone. It's energy given willingly as if a parting gift to him. Like it knew it was going to return to its fellow Stones and had thanked him for protecting it. If only for a short time. The watch on his wrist, broken as it was suddenly started to tick as Time itself bent to his will.

Thanos jumped back and Stephen tipped his head back a hint of his old smug nature showing through. Just like precision free hand surgical extraction. Success. It might not be a battle won, but it was a strategic move to hopefully win them the war. 

"What are you doing?!" Thanos roared but was rebuffed from the mandala. No one save himself and Stark would be permitted within. His magic and Stark's blood had keyed it to them alone. 

"What I said, I'm giving you the Stone." Stephen deflected. He held out his hand and the Stone floated to Thanos. Dangerous eyes gazed at Stephen debating as he looked at the spell unfolding under the sorcerers feet. Suspicion reigned until the Stone settled right into the gauntlet. It was visible in the toxic aura that surrounded Thanos, that the fifth Stone had pulsed powerfully through him. Too much energy. 

"One to go." Thanos breathed completely distracted by the energy roaring through him. A bellow of rage echoed over the outcropping of dusty desert they stood in. Quill came flying through the air, shooting both of his guns at Thanos. The ammunition bouncing off the warlord like it was nothing. The distraction was enough for Thanos to back into a portal made by the Space Stones. In a blink he was gone. 

"Where is he?!" Quill roared as he rolled through his dive as the portal evaporated. "Did we just lose?!" 

Stephen slumped to the ground as the spell began to glow the orange gold he was familiar with. The additional energy from the Stone had allowed him to jump start this spell. Now it was up to him. Stark tried to move but his arms refused to work. If this had been that winning universe, that stab wound would have been on a lower quadrant of the torso. Slicing into empty space, missing organs entirely. Thanos' unfamiliarity with human biology their only saving grace. Stark was not so fortunate in this universe. Stephen's magic could not help him survive such an injury. Everything undone by a few inches. Their entire universe doomed because of a difference in fatal and non-fatal injuries. 

Stephen caught Stark as he fell, the Cloak helping him settle the genius inventor on his back. He adjusted himself accordingly to lift the genius' neck and settle him on Stephen's thigh to help him be comfortable. The spell kicked up and a massive drain began on Stephen's life energy. Not long now, he'd done the hard part. 

"W-Why w-would you d-do that?" Stark choked on his blood and looked up as Stephen looked down at him. It wasn't going to be pretty how Stark died, choking on blood as he hemorrhaged it internally. An agonizing end, but Stephen was going to be here for it. He may not have afforded his patients this dignified courtesy. He'd been a bastard for his whole life. Stark didn't deserve his cold manner; Stark was dying in the line of duty to their planet and universe. Stark deserved Stephen's full attention in his final moments. 

"We've lost Stark." Stephen looked down into the genius' paling face. He knew his own body was losing vitality with the way Stark was looking at him. Stephen kept his eyes locked on those whiskey brown irises. Terror filled him knowing his own death was coming. He hadn't even begun to live with magic the way he'd wished to. But this was the role he had to play. 'It's not about you.' The last lesson of the Ancient One was as engraved into his bones as his magic was. The universe came before himself. His life of selfishness had come to an end the moment he accepted his destiny. Protecting their universe entailed what happened next. He was giving them a shot at fixing everything. "When you wake up...find me and we will try this again."

"Wha-Wha-...?" Stark's eyes furrowed as his breathing hitched dangerously. Stephen felt his body coming apart at the back, his cloak hugging him tight one last time. Then it floated back as the rest of their unlikely band appeared. The cloak wrapped around Peter Parker, keeping him away as he shouted for 'Mr. Stark?!' 

He was about to abandon them in this timeline. If things changed maybe they could fix all of this. He looked away from them, focusing back on Stark as tears filled his eyes. Accepting that he was dying, allowing himself to be consumed by his magic was a good way to go. 

"I'm sorry, our circumstances-...out of all of the universes I looked at... We were not the winning one." Stephen spoke as his legs came apart into a swarm of glowing orange and blue butterflies, Starks eyes widened even as they dimmed. Stephen bowed forward and pressed his forehead to Stark's. Of all the versions of Tony Stark he had met and fought with, the ones that saved him, the ones that sacrificed him, the ones that abandoned him, even the few that killed Stephen...one thing was true. Tony Stark had done so to save the universe. Stephen trusted him. "Forgive me."

Stark died in his arms, the breath leaving his lungs wet and weak. The fight leaving his muscles like his invisible strings had been cut. Stephen watched as his left hand came apart into raw magic, as he touched Stark's face as his life left him. The genius' body began to be consumed as well, brightening and bursting into crimson fireworks. Fuel to take them right where they needed to be.

Stephen turned his remaining hand as half of his face disintegrated into magic. It didn't hurt to let his magic devour him. The spell began to spin, capturing Tony's soul. Sight left Stephen as only his hand was left. With a last flick of his stiff fingers the spell completed. His body used as the catalyst as his soul was freed from its mortal bonds. 

 


 

Stephen no longer existed in their universe where they had fallen. His soul felt much like his astral form did. But he could not see in the sense of sight. What he saw was raw energy, existence in the impression of it. The same energy he harnessed when he pulled from the universe and dimensions around him.

A sense of triumph roared through his soul. Coloring him the blue of his butterflies. In fact he was certain his entire soul was made up of them. Near him, wreathed in energy that moved and crackled with combustive energy was Stark's soul. Stephen coiled his soul essence around it protecting it. Just in time too.

Universes and realities existed all around their two small souls. Wet were insignificant. Moving, living, dying, exploding again and again as they drifted through the vast expanse of it all. They were nothing in the face of EVERYTHING around them. Reality, unreality, life, death, eternity, nothingness. All were just concepts, precepts by which existence was formed and fueled. It was as overwhelming and devastating as it had been when the Ancient One had made him see it within the constructs of his mortal body.

Then they weren't as alone as they had started. Suddenly entities greater than he could ever aspire to be lowered their attentions to Stark and himself. Stephen pushed his soul outwards, broadcasting the notion that he would give himself up to ensure the spell that cast their souls out into the multiverse would work on at least Tony Stark. He was willing to be obliterated if they allowed him to send Stark to where he needed to be. 

The entities that were beyond even his comprehension battered him at all sides. Focused solely on his soul. Testing him and searching for his intent. So Stephen left his soul bare for these higher things to see. They drifted through him. Entire universes spilled forth from the touch of their might to his unworthy feeble existence. Those universes reacted to his decisions, his life as it unfolded in shards of mirror all along them. Each little thing formed from him broke, reformed, transcended, and then ultimately died. 

If he'd possessed a body, a form bound by natural laws, he would have broken. Wept as his mind shredded itself. Fourteen million universes, a few moments to the others, but lifetimes to him, had nearly drove him mad. But this, this would have shattered him. Might still do so. Instead he was but a concept of himself, a remnant of a selfish life turned selfless. Perhaps if he was bound by a physical body he could have made sense of these entities that existed even above those the sorcerers worshipped. As it was he saw them in full glory and it was too much. So he bent and was torn asunder and remade by these higher things. Finally, after what felt like millions if eternities, he was returned to his soul shape. Still standing in nothing over Stark's untouched soul. Sleeping and ready for rebirth.

It was this moment that Stephen impressed his goal upon these higher beings. That his goal was not for personal gain, it was to ensure his universe's survival. His one reality out infinite versions and possibilities. He was nothing but the catalyst, changing the destiny they had been dealt only because of a few differences to the universe that won. Stephen remained under scrutiny for an indeterminate time. Desperately begging to not be found wanting.

Something changed, the universal entities, concepts of reality that reigned over everything receded. Death came forth, examining his feeble soul. The vast entity reached out and touched his soul. Stephen accepted this. His soul given as sacrifice for Stark. This final end was fine. Nothing like his 1062 deaths to Dormammu. But fine all the same. Because he didn't matter, his universe surviving Thanos' destruction. Those innocents were what mattered.

Suddenly a different entity appeared. And if Stephen could truly see, all he would see was light. The absence of everything, inclusion of everything. An amalgamation of both concepts. A being of such immense presence idled close to Death. Examining Stephen anew. Then it reached out with Death, and a deep resonating connection formed between his soul and Starks. So profound it ached with a sense of right. He knew this entity, only because it impressed upon him its majesty. The One Above All. Maybe it was talking to him, maybe he was conversing back. He couldn't know, language wasn't a concept he could focus on much less perceive in this state. 

Then everything vanished, all of the entities vanished back to wherever they dwelled. Stephen felt as if they were falling through the universe, just like he had when he arrived at Kamar-Taj. Just as maddening, just as wondrous, because now he was experiencing it on a soul deep level. Not constricted by his human body, his human mind. Only Stark and himself as a speck of living souls amongst everything.

He felt Stark vanish, but he could still feel that tether between them alive like the strange gift it was. Not alone, not anymore it seemed. He drifted through realities until all of a sudden he was ripped from the universe once more. Catapulted back into real awareness, true existence. Physical and alive. Stephen re-entered the universe with a ragged wet cry.