Checkmate

Summary

The first time the sorcerer appeared to him after he had finally completed his mission, Thanos had thought him nothing more than a hallucination. But the Terran sorcerer seems to haunt him, game after game, into eternity. And no matter how well he knows that he had defeated his enemies, he feels like he had lost.

Genre:
Other
Author:
YunaYamiMouto
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
1
Rating:
5.0 1 review
Age Rating:
13+

Chapter 1

The first time the sorcerer appeared to him after he had finally completed his mission and mercifully erased half of the life in the universe so that the other half may prosper, Thanos had thought him nothing more than a hallucination brought on by his now healed injury brought upon him by that Asgardian ax just before he snapped his fingers. He had simply been standing there, unconcerned, transparent but glowing with the Soul Stone’s blessed light. Thanos’ second thought of him was that he was the Soul Stone’s warning and he had dismissed him.

But then the magic user continued coming day after day, never letting Thanos not be aware of him. By the time a week had passed, Thanos got sick of him and was about to use the Soul Stone to banish him, when he saw the sorcerer sitting in front of a chess board on one of his small tables. The Earthly game had greatly interested him when one of his children had brought it back and introduced him to its rules. He thought himself a fairly competent player but he was curious as to how he would fare against this specter. The man was of Earthly origin and he spoke like an intellectual scholar, a type of people Thanos could appreciate.

Besides, this would give him a chance to try and see into the mind of the man who had so casually exchanged an Infinity Stone for the life of a single man. Not even an Asgardain or that green beast. A simple human being with no special powers, no matter how very much not simple Tony Stark was.

The first few days they played in silence, the sorcerer never looking up from the board and Thanos not bothering to speak first. That would give the other an advantage. Thanos was a patient man. He had a long life and had nothing to hurry to, his mission complete. Humans, on the other hand, had very short life spans and were always hurrying somewhere. Eventually, Strange will remember, even though dead, that he was human and he would break first. Yet despite how sure he was of this, Thanos began to doubt when another week passed by, the two of them playing unfinished game after unfinished game of chess, without the sorcerer saying a single word or letting out not even the tiniest of noises.

It was unnerving. The man before his sat like a haunting ghost, yet was as silent as the vastness of space, not a sound to be heard in its vacuum. Weren’t humans the chatty type? You wouldn’t think so when staring at this silent man that was his chess opponent each and every day. Or was he a special case?

What unnerved Thanos even more was that he couldn’t read this mortal. Not with the Mind Stone and not with the Soul Stone, either. It was as though there was nothing there and yet both Infinity Stones clearly registered him. The man was trapped in the Soul dimension with everyone else, for heaven’s sake! And yet he could come out and go back as he pleased. Thanos had at first thought his disappearances because the man did not possess the power to stay longer, but he quickly noticed the lack of strain on this strange human. He stayed for different amounts of time each visit. The first few days, while Thanos was ignoring him, he had been a constant presence. After they started playing the game, he disappeared when he felt like it, resetting his side of the board no matter how in his favor the match was going, frustrating Thanos to no end. They’d start anew when he returned, sometimes a day later, sometimes just a few hours. He had tried reading his mind, more than once, with the Mind Stone but when that didn’t work, he had figured it was like interference between the two Infinity Stones. But the Soul Stone had brought no better results. It was as if the sorcerer was completely removed from such concepts.

The Time Stone hummed every time the man was near. It is what became Thanos’ reassurance that the sorcerer was not a figment of his own mad mind. Not that he ever thought his memory or his imagination to be so colorful as to picture the man perfectly like this.

Thanos let him have that week of silence but he had had enough. So he gave the Earthling one last chance to start a conversation when they started their next match before giving in, for fear of going mad just from this man’s silence.

“Why do you come here, sorcerer?” Were the first words spoken since the Snap. Blue-green eyes finally left the board and finally acknowledged Thanos presence. “Do you haunt me?”

“I have a better way to spend my afterlife,” came the cool reply and the Titan immediately frowned at the attitude the human was showing.

“And yet you come here, each day, some times more than once.” He taunted, awaiting a response as he made a move that he regretted a second later when the Sorcerer moved his queen to take his foolishly sacrificed knight. The move had exposed his king to a check and he moved his own queen to protect the piece. With the king just one diagonal field behind her, taking the queen would be suicide for the sorcerer’s queen. Both would be off the board but it was an immense sacrifice. For both sides.

The so called Master of the Mystic Arts snorted. “If you truly believe that you can hold me in the Soul Stone for eternity, you are sadly mistaken, Thanos. I can leave as I please. I may not possess a physical form anymore, but that is not a new experience for me.” The purple giant bristled at the smug smirk he was bestowed with, especially when a bishop was placed in front of the sorcerer’s queen, in the perfect position to be the sacrificial lamb should Thanos not play this right. The bishop could take his queen and be in turn taken by his king, but that would only further dispose it to the human’s queen. “What you need the Infinity Stones to do, I can do without them, if on a much smaller scale. Does it anger you, that without your Gauntlet, a mere human is more powerful than you?”

Thanos snorted and placed his remaining knight to threaten the sorcerer’s bishop. If he does not move it, Thanos can take it and check his opponent’s king. If the sorcerer does not eat it with his queen, it is a check. If he does, his queen will be vulnerable to Thanos’ and he can easily take the most powerful piece right out of the game. And then, the king would be vulnerable to his queen. An easy victory. “Don’t be so rash and arrogant. I have lived two of your lifetimes already, if not more. Experience is the mother of wisdom and you are but a flicker of light in the infinity of time. I thought you, as the keeper of the Time Stone, would understand this the best. Perhaps I have overestimated your intelligence.”

“Perhaps you have overestimated your own.” The sorcerer moved his bishop, as Thanos had expected. “You think in too small terms and believe them to be big.” Only he ate Thanos’ queen, which he had not expected. The bishop was now literally one hop away from capturing Thanos’ king and the only way to save it was to take the bishop with it. “The secret is thinking of the bigger picture and finding it small.” Thanos eyes widened as he realized he was in direct line of attack from the sorcerer’s queen. Now, even if he were to place the knight where he had planned to earlier, it would only serve to close the distance but not change the outcome except to stall it for one more turn. Thanos didn’t have anywhere to move his king, as he had surrounded it by other pieces in a circle that was now the noose closing around his own neck. Looking into those intense blue-green eyes, the Earthling knew it. “That is what rare few understand. I know of only one. To him, you will lose.”

And the next instance, he was gone, as though he had never been there before. The pieces on the board, for the first time since they started their game a week ago, remained as they were, mocking Thanos with how sure his defeat had been, how inevitable. He could have bought himself one more turn, but the magic user had not allowed it. He was already gone and Thanos’ grit his teeth and clenched his fists. His king, surrounded by the other pieces except for one vulnerability. The sorcerer’s king, protected by all sides as well and yet not in such a tight circle. Only the queen and the bishop had stayed close to the king. The bishop had been a distraction and the queen had dealt the final blow.

The sorcerer came late in the evening of the next day, leaving Thanos to himself for the longest time since his first visit. He just appeared, sitting in the same position as the day before, staring at the once again reset game. Thanos had felt humiliated when he had been forced to clean up his own defeat, even though his king had not officially been toppled. He was silent, as he always was, and Thanos didn’t beat around the bush this time where speaking was concerned. He had by now learned that the sorcerer could quite possibly spend the rest of eternity silent if he chose to. His patience was infinite.

“Do you know what happened to your world, sorcerer?” He asked not three turns into their newest game. He watched carefully for any sneaky moves that the magician might try to pull, but the man remained straightforward in his game, silent and graceful and so infuriatingly calm. “To your people? Your friends and family?”

“I met a few of my acquaintances in the Soul Stone.” Came the casual reply. “Thankfully, most of those I might dub myself close to are still alive.”

“Do you fear for them?” The Titan taunted, taking a pawn from the sorcerer with his rock. He scowled as the knight took it from where he hadn’t noticed it before. “Your planet is not strong when all of your population is present. How will they protect themselves now?”

The cloak wearing man gave a fond little smile. “I fear for the fool who might decide to go to Earth and try to pull something. I pity the fool who might try to do them harm. But I do not pity you, Thanos.”

“As you shouldn’t,” the Titan replied warily, not seeing where that had come from. “I don’t plan on making a move against your planet. I am retired. I can finally rest. For what reason would I want your puny planet?”

The sorcerer remained quiet for most of their game and Thanos felt he had finally gained the upper hand for once. The sorcerer was every bit as intelligent as how he spoke and carried himself. Thanos found he could admire and appreciate that. It was a shame such a bright mind had been selected, but it was at random and the universe will lose much with this man gone. The game was almost boring in comparison to the one from the day before. Thanos watched out for linked moves that might bring him into the same position as the last time, but he found none and seemingly too soon, the sorcerer leaned away from the board. Thanos was intrigued that he didn’t just disappear like he usually did, instead lingering for a few moment in silence.

“Do you know why I don’t pity you, Titan?” That threw him off guard and that seemed invitation enough for the human to continue. “I don’t pity you because you have messed with the laws of the universe and you will pay your due, as you deserve. The universe has judged you, Thanos of the planet Titan. Those Stones were never meant to be yours.” And he was gone, further confusing Thanos, who now looked down at the destroyed Gauntlet, wary. The Stones seemed dull and accusing. He concentrated on them, on all of them, trying to get a general feel of the universe, and found them barely responding. He put down his hand and did not look at the once glorious gauntlet again.

The next few days, whenever he felt the sorcerer appear, the Time Stone glinting and humming in greeting of its former keeper, Thanos did not approach him, staying away. He wished he had never indulged himself, never gave in to his curiosity and tried to probe the sorcerer into speaking. Just two conversations with that human had left him shaken when not even the death of his favorite daughter or the destruction of his home planet could. There was something more to that man in his blue robes and red cloak. At times, Thanos swore his eyes were like laser beams and that the human saw right through him, knew all his weaknesses and wasn’t afraid to use them. What was even more unsettling was how he didn’t seem to react much to anything Thanos said to taunt him. There was something there, something that made those strange eyes spark but Thanos had no hope of understanding what.

When over a week changed and the stranger didn’t try to bring him back to the chess board while completely ignoring him if he happened to pass by in front of his shack of a home while the human’s spirit was still present, Thanos finally caved into his unexpected ... Not loneliness, but maybe something similar. He sat in the same seat he did every time and watched as a scarred hand moved the first white piece on the board. The Titan never tried to switch the sides of the board. Black pieces were his and the white pieces were the sorcerer’s. Just this quite acknowledgement of his presence eased the edge off, although he was nowhere near comfortable around the mortal. Again, there was more to the shorter male than Thanos was willing to explore. He actually feared to find out what might be hidden behind this man’s calm demeanor. It’s always the quiet ones, or so the Earthly saying goes. They play a game and he doesn’t say anything and the sorcerer is as forthcoming where conversation is concerned as ever, but he’s there.

The next day, Thanos can’t stand the silence, hearing Gamora’s last words over and over again, feeling her small hand in his as though it had happened a minute ago, not nearly a month already. “You come here every day. You know my name. You know what I’ve done. And yet you don’t rage. You don’t curse me. You don’t attempt to kill me or convince me to try and change things back. Why is it that you come, sorcerer?”

“I have a friend,” the sorcerer surprises him by saying. Thanos looks up from where he was studying to board, his move, to watch the Earthling, but the younger man is not looking at him. Nothing unusual. Half of their interactions happen with no eye contact. “He is quite a bit like you. Gifted and cursed at the same time.” Well, that sounded interesting. “He can see the world for what it is, the tragedies, the lies, the deceptions, the pollution of our planet, and he can move past it. He can see the possibility in it all. Where all others see nothing but despair, he sees hope. He’s raised from the ashes of destruction wrought by weapons with his name on it, like a phoenix personified, to greater heights than he’s ever been to. Than anyone’s ever been to. But he’s alone.”

“I’m afraid I see very little between myself and this friend of yours.”

“Oh, you are nothing alike in the ways that matter the most.” The sorcerer chuckles bitterly. “And yet the world doesn’t see that. He is the star that lights the way through the mundane everyday life, offering to lead them somewhere better, but they only take one hand. They spit on his name and ridicule him while basking in his light and following him only halfway there to the better future. He sees this, he sees how finite our resources are and he tries, so hard, to make others realize, too, to bring it to their attention that our planet is dying. But people don’t listen.”

“Just like me.” No one on Titan had listened when he told them what would happen and now Titan was a wasteland that not even the Infinity Stones could make fertile and life-giving. It’s axis is a few degrees off, the air is halfway there to polluted, the gravity field is in tatters. Earthquakes had buried entire cities under the ground, subterranean volcanoes had swallowed millions of lives, famine and droughts finished the rest off, along with every disease that could have struck. Instead of only half of the population dying, like Thanos had suggested, he had been ignored and he, the one who saw it coming and exiled himself from his home, was the last Titan. And now even one of its moons was gone, though Thanos knows he is to be blamed for that.

"No,” the sorcerer says firmly, finally looking up and his eyes are on fire how intense they are. “You let that happen to your planet. My friend doesn’t. People don’t listen? He damn well makes them listen and if they don’t, he fixes it anyways and makes them believe that’s what they wanted. The people of Earth have shown him so many times that they don’t want him, but he refused to let them break him. He is Earth’s best defender and you’ve seen nothing yet.”

This was the first time Thanos had heard so many words leave the man’s mouth and also the first time he had seen real emotion flicker across his face and into his body language. So the sorcerer does have a vulnerability. It’s this friend he speaks of. Thanos wonders what this man must be like to earn the sorcerer’s favor so. “When people don’t listen, you can’t really make them. They will change for a day, a month, a year, it doesn’t matter. It’s not forever. Sooner rather than later, they will go back to old habits and start abusing your planet’s resources. If I haven’t done what I did, life would not flourish on your planet, or anywhere else in the universe.”

“You see, that’s where you’re wrong,” the sorcerer was once again cool and unflappable. He gestures for Thanos to take his turn and waits until he does before he continues speaking, casually making his own counter move. “You could have just as easily achieved balance in the universe by tripling the resources of each planet. Not doubling, but tripling. It would have given the planets time to recover from over-exhaustion of resources and a lot more time. Halving the life in the universe? That’s just postponing the inevitable.”

“How so, sorcerer?” Thanos asks, although it’s more to keep the man talking than because Thanos might change his mind. He knows he was right to do what he did. The sorcerer’s delusions are what gave him such a naive solution. He looks down to the board and made a quick move, truly more interested in the conversation than the game. Who knows when the sorcerer will be this chatty again.

“Simple,” the man from Earth says lightly. “You only halved who uses the remaining resources. You didn’t replenish them. It’ll take longer for them to run out, oh, but they will. They will run out. Then, it’s back to square one. And you just decimated half of every planet’s defenses all throughout the universe. Those who had relied on mostly numbers to scare off invaders? They will die. Those species, sentient or animalistic in nature, that feed on other species? They will run out of food. And they will die. The food chain system is very fragile, Thanos. You didn’t bring balance to the universe. You sped along its destruction. You really didn’t plan this through.”

“I think that you’ll find that I did.”

“Oh?” Thanos was always fascinated how some species could life one eyebrow like that. It can express a wide range of emotion. Right now, it feels like his chess opponent is both unimpressed and challenging him. “Really? Then tell me, oh merciful Thanos.” Said Titan glared at the sarcasm. Humans were exceptionally good at that, he’d heard. “Half of the universe is gone with the snap of your fingers.” The sorcerer even snaps his fingers to demonstrate, toppling over half of the figures on both sides of the board. Thanos watches as a few more fell when they were knocked over, frowning when the human didn’t righten them. Before he can question him, the blue clad male continues. “How many of them were driving vehicles? How many were doctors saving a patent’s life? How many were ER services? How many were engineers or construction workers? Caretakers? How many lives did the Snap really take, Thanos? Because even if you stop time, or rewind or forward it, you can’t stop life on every individual planet in the perfect moment for you to delete half of it while not causing any more damage. And if you think otherwise, you are a damn fool.”

The sorcerer left him as soon as he finished his speech, leaving, for the second time, the board untouched. Thanos sat there the rest of the day, staring at the toppled pieces, Gamora’s words even louder in his ears. He spent the night without a wink of sleep, thinking of all of his lost ‘children’. Only Nebula remained, now, and he wasn’t even sure if the Snap had taken away or if she had stayed with Stark and whoever was left back on Titan. And then his mind was stuck on Stark, a man the sorcerer obviously respected. A man he himself respected, for Stark was very much like him. Stark was a man who would do what was necessary to save his planet. Thanos was sure, had he known of the Infinity Stones, how to control them and just what they could do, he would not have hesitated to join the race for them with the rest of the universe. Thanos wasn’t even ashamed to admit that the Earthling might have won. A man who survives a moon thrown on him is a man who can do anything. He still remembers his shook when Stark, a mere human in some pretty impressive armor, survived the full blast of the Power Stone.

He still remembers Stark making him bleed.

The cut is still on his cheek and still stings when he runs a finger over it, more a phantom pain than an actual sensation. He had not bled in so many years. That cut hurt more than the axe the Asgardian king had drove into his chest. And it was ten times more humiliating as a mere human had made it. But Stark was not an opponent to be ashamed of. That much Thanos will admit to.

But was his life worth the Time Stone? The sorcerer seemed to think so. A waste. A bad tactic. For the likeliness of Stark surviving on Titan were minimal. No matter how many of them had survived, without the sorcerer to open portals for them and without a stable, safe and strong space vessel, Stark won’t reach any sustenance he might need in time to continue surviving. Humans are so fragile and Stark, despite all his more redeeming features, like his intellect and his drive, was nothing but a human. So why would the sorcerer care for Stark’s life. ‘Is that his weak spot? Like the friend he mentioned?’

That thought didn’t leave him for the rest of the night, or in the morning or the afternoon, when the cloaked man finally deigned to appear, still as ghostly as ever. Thanos should probably look into it how anyone can escape the Soul Stone. He had used all six Infinity Stones to erase these people from existence but he knew not even the Infinity Stones can destroy mater or energy. So mater had been transformed with the Power Stone into energy and merged with the soul, ending up stored in the Soul Stone. The Mind Stone was supposed to erase awareness of reality from the people’s minds, the Reality and Time stones creating a world for them to live in a different plane of existence made by the Space Stone. The process was absolute and inescapable. And yet the sorcerer had escaped and was bothering him every day. He was conscious and as sarcastic as when Thanos had first met him, finding out about Maw’s death.

This man was no ordinary man.

“You never answered my first question, sorcerer. Why do you keep coming here?” Thanos asked when they were well into the game. He had lost many pieces, but he still had his queen and he still had both rocks, a bishop and two pawns. The sorcerer had both bishops, the queen, one rock and many pawns left. The sorcerer’s king was close to the queen, always just one step away from the most powerful piece while Thanos’ king was hidden behind his two rocks. His own queen was threatening his opponent’s rock but both bishops were protecting it. It would be a suicidal move. He needed to think of another.

“What do you think my answer would be?” The sorcerer asked, as calm and cool as always, nonchalant as though he wasn’t technically dead. As though he wasn’t cramed into a gem with trillions upon trillions of other people, half of all the life in the universe.

“That you are seeking some hope of escape or a way to trick me into doing what you want.” Anyone else would do that. Anyone else would be trying to get into Thanos’ head to try and figure out what makes him tick. But the human before him just shakes his head minutely, the corners of his lips twitching.

“So you have not yet figured me out at all, despite the time I spent here.”

“Hard to get to know someone when even their name is unknown.” The Titan countered, figuring it was time to ask. He had been calling him ‘the sorcerer’ or ‘the human’ for a month now, both out loud and in his thoughts. He figured it was time to learn the name of the man who had given up the universe for a dingle life. A life Thanos would rather do without - he’d only gotten a glimpse of what Stark can do during the first invasion but he had seen just how much the man had improved since that time, in only six years - but a single, measly human life none the less.

His opponent actually chuckled, toying with the king with scarred fingers, an oddly fond shine in his eyes when one finger brushed the queen right next to it. The sorcerer never let the pair be separated and the bishop on the queen’s side was also never lost track of, never endangered, never sacrificed. At times, Thanos swore the queen was more protected than the king because the human had allowed a few checks in cases where he could have sacrificed the queen instead of maneuvering the king into a safe position. Which was silly. If the king is toppled, it was game over. Why would he protect the queen? It was a powerful piece, but not of the greatest importance. He really didn’t understand the human.

“Strange.”

“Yes, I believe it is.”

That actually got a laugh out of the sorcerer, long and amused and Thanos wondered how someone who had lost everything can smile, let alone laugh without a care like this man. The sorcerer shook his head when he calmed down and gestured at himself. “I am Doctor Strange. That is my name. I am answering your question and you are failing to make your move.”

The purple skinned giant glared at the mocking tone in the other’s voice but didn’t comment - not that he would win that snark competition; he knew humans were masters in that field - instead looking the situation over and moving one of his pawns a space forwards on the board. “You have yet to correct my opinion.”

“I am waiting.” The doctor answered after he took his pawn with one of his own. “And before you ask what for, my friend. He is ... busy at the moment,” and there when that same fondness again. That was confusing. “But I will meet him soon enough. I must admit that I am somewhat impatient.”

“More than a friend, is he?” Thanos couldn’t help but prob at the weak spot that Strange had uncovered. Let’s see how he likes being left fundamentally unsettled.

“You have no idea.” The sorcerer rolled his eyes, watching as Thanos used his bishop to eat the pawn that had taken his pawn in the last turn. “The irony is, neither does he.”

“A misunderstanding?” Thanos asked even as his bishop was taken care of by Strange’s remaining rock. He was not pleased by this turn of events. Especially as he didn’t have the means to immediately dispose of one of the sorcerer’s pieces.

“A clusterfuck, actually. From a time before I knew him.” Strange said with a derisive snort. “Now I’m left with dealing with the consequences and I can only hope for the best.”

“Then why do you hope to see him again soon? Is he in the Soul Stone?”

“No, he is quite alive.” That, if anything, confused Thanos. He studied the man for a moment before an arched eyebrow prompted him to make a move. He carelessly moved a pawn one step forward and was glad to see that Strange didn’t have the immediate counter for that move, either.

“Then why do you wish to meet him again soon? That would imply him dying.”

Strange smiled, bitterly and fondly, as he moved his queen. Within the king’s immediate reach but now threatening Thanos’ queen, which was a bit away from the other pieces but not unprotected. If Strange were to take his queen with his own, both queens would be off the board. That seemed like an unusual move for the man. Perhaps the talk of his friend was clouding his judgment. “Because he will rise from the ashes and take the world by storm.”

Seeing that both queens will be eaten either way, Thanos took the lead, taking Strange’s oh so precious queen off the board. The victory was short lived, as Strange took his right after it. Still, Strange might take the loss of his queen as a far more devastating defeat than an actual lost match. The purple man almost swore the pieces had meaning to the Terran. “There is a story of a great warrior. He could survive any battle and Death did not want to take him. But then fate told him that he would not survive the next storm. He didn’t die in a blaze of glory, like a warrior like him should. Are you sure your friend can take it?” He put his rock almost in position to put the sorcerer’s king in check. Maybe even checkmate, because he won’t have anywhere to go or would keep repeating his moves in a few turns. The only piece close enough to protect the king was a bishop and it was on the wrong colored field to protect the king. One more move, and it would be check and the start of a checkmate chase. “Can he survive the storm?”

Strange gave him a chillingly pleasant smile as he moved his pawn to the far end of Thanos’ last row on his side of the field - when did he get there!? - and swiped his pawn for his queen. The queen which was directly attacking Thanos’ king with an overwhelming check. The chase was on, but not how Thanos had thought it would be.

“He is the storm.”

And then he was gone and Thanos swore he will use the Soul Stone on him the next time he comes back, because it was the third time that the board was left as it was after their game. The resurrected queen mocked him and Thanos took it up into his hand. He was tempted to crush the white piece, so favored by Strange that it was mocking him. Now, more than ever, he hated humans, he hated Doctor Strange especially. He almost hated him more than Stark. Not that he properly hated Stark, either. They were too much alike but Stark was all the worst parts of Thanos: weak, arrogant, naive, stubborn, putting the few he is close to above the rest, no matter how greater the numbers. And being around Strange was almost like being around Stark. No matter. When the sorcerer returns, Thanos will get rid of him once and for all. He’s had enough of his silences and cryptic conversations. It was time to end this.

The doctor did not show up the next day. Or the day after that, or the day after that. The Infinity Stones were inactive, the Time Stone seemingly especially dim. Thanos had not felt his self imposed exile so acutely until this very moment, when he waited for his chess opponent to arrive. None came. At first, he had admitted to relief. He had been dreading what was next to come out of the sorcerer’s mouth. He was glad to have a moment for himself. But as the days stretched into a month, Thanos began to wonder if the doctor had really been able to escape the Soul Stone at all or if it had been nothing more than a rouse his tired mind had constructed. He found he couldn’t sleep at night, thinking of the sorcerer and trying to figure out this game he was playing. It made little sense. Strange made even less.

The days turned boring and long. They seemed to stretch out for weeks, an hour feeling far longer than 3600 seconds. Sleep evades him most nights. He’s so tired at one point that he doesn’t feel the Soul and Mind Stones registering the arrival of potential enemies. They gang up on him when he is aimlessly walking through the fields his shack overlooks, but he easily disintegrates the offenders with the Power Stone and wonders why he doesn’t feel some sort of regret. Taking life was never his favorite activity. He’d only ever done it for life. For the sake of the universe and its continued survival. But killing this group of seven ... it had almost felt good. It left him exhausted and for the first time since the sorcerer stopped visiting, he as soon as his head hit the pillows.

He dreamed of Gamora, of Nebula and his other children. He heard their cries. He didn’t know if any of them was even alive. He dreamed of the seven he killed that day. It had been quick and painless in real life, but in his dream, it seemed to go on four hours upon hours without end. He dreamed of when Strange practically begged him for Stark’s life and wondered what someone do much like him had done to earn the loyalty and respect of a man like Strange. And he dreamed of when he snapped his fingers and half of the universe was wiped out, their souls screaming as they were transferred in the Soul Stone.

He woke up to the rustling of cloth and the bell chime of wind. When he looked around, Thanos found Strange’s ghostly form hovering in front of the chess board, as though a month and more had not passed since he was last in that position. Seeing him filled Thanos with both dread and relief, a strange combination, fitting for the doctor. His back was turned towards Thanos but the ghostly apparition of his cloak seemed to be fluttering almost threateningly at him, as if to say ‘Try me.’

“Was it necessary?” For once, the sorcerer spoke first, startling the Titan. Of course, he knew what the younger male was asking about but he did not reply. Not straight away. Because, he realized, he didn’t have a good enough answer.

“They were warriors, going into battle against an enemy they knew they could not defeat. It was their choice.”

Strange hummed, never looking over at him as Thanos sat up, eying the human warily. “No they weren’t.” He says with certainty that a man who had not seen how clumsy their grips on their weapons and how tense their movements were should not possess. He was right. Thanos wondered how he knew. “Did their deaths bring peace or balance to the universe? To anyone?”

“There must be someone who will benefit from the resources they don’t use.”

Strange finally looks at him at that and his face is cold. “And those they would have provided for? Will they benefit from the resources they didn’t bring? Balance is a delicate thing and no mortal being is meant to play with it, Thanos. You are not a god.”

“Funny. The Trickster said something much along those same lines when I strangled the life out of his supposedly godly body.” The Titan stood to his full hight and pointed the Infinity Gauntlet at the specter that haunts him. If Strange is dead, he will finally find the peace he had craved for so long. He can finally rest then. “Time for your last words, Doctor Strange.”

“Wait.” The human sorcerer said and Thanos paused, feeling a sense of, as the Earthlings would call it, deja vu, for he had stopped when the sorcerer had called out like this back on Titan. He might have left the planet with what he had come for but he had felt no sense of victory then. Something had been left unfinished and the feeling had stuck with him through all this time. The way the doctor was looking at him then, Thanos wondered if this encounter will leave the same aftertaste in his mouth. “Let’s play another game. If you win, I will not stop you from whatever it is you plan on doing to me.”

“And if you win?” This was intriguing. They’d never played a full game before. The sorcerer had always cut it off when he felt like it by leaving and resetting the board, except those memorable three times. What’s more, there were stakes now. This was no longer a meaningless game. It felt like war. And Thanos had never quite ran away from war. “Are you going to request I free you from the Soul dimension?”

Strangely enough - ugh, he did not intend for that pun - Strange did not seem all that interested in his own life. He had an air about him as though he had faced death countless times and found it no longer of interest or worthy of his thoughts or fear. Then again, seeing as he was the only one capable of leaving the Soul Stone, perhaps he had a way of avoiding death altogether. His body may be gone but the sorcerer had already once said this was no new experience to him. “As I have already told you, I needn’t my body to exist in this dimension. Not to mention I will be free soon enough, as well as the rest of the souls you’ve so carelessly trapped here. I don’t need you to free me.”

“Are you going to ask to continue haunting me? Or maybe make a bet that requires me to reset what I’ve already done and don’t regret.” Thanos challenged, unnerved by what Strange was saying. No way was he powerful enough to leave the Soul Stone, with all his powers intact, permanently and exist as nothing more than this specter. Or the rest of the lives that he’d taken in order to achieve balance. “I will not bind myself to undo my greatest work.”

The human laughed at him, the mocking sound seeming to echo. “As if you could fix what you’ve already broken. You need to be a mechanic to do that.” That, for some reason, pulls a benign smile on his lips. “A futurist. An inventor. You lack the imagination to fix. It is easy, oh so easy, to destroy something. But to build something? To save it, to fix it, to restore it? To give it life? It takes a lot more strength than you have, Thanos. I give you my word that undoing your own work won’t be something I ask you to do.”

“Then what is it?” The purple skinned giant finally demanded, just ... tired of dealing with Strange. The sorcerer has a way of utterly unnerving him like no other. Thanos swears the man has made a sport out of it, whether he’s silent or if he’s talking his cryptic nonsense.

“I only ask that you consider the words I will tell you at the end of the game.” Will, not would. The Gauntlet wielder glares at the arrogant confidence of the Terran. Does he honestly believe he has gathered more strategic wisdom in his puny life time to match the wars Thanos has led and fought in, some of which had lasted twice as long? Chess might be a game originating from Earth, but Thanos had mastered the rules and will no longer let his own intrigue with Strange distract him from the board. He no longer has an interest in the sorcerer’s words. Thanos is a brilliant strategist. He’s conquered many planets in his search for the Infinity Stones and balance. Time for Strange to learn that.

“Very well. I accept. For your sake, I hope you were content in your last moments.” He lowers the Gauntlet and takes his regular seat. Beside it, he finds the skull of one of the seven that had attacked him. He had been planning on giving them their traditional funeral ritual by burning their bodies and burying their skulls after thirty days. He will get to it after he rids himself of this pest. But he knows doctors are trying to play god by delaying death and that they abhor wasted life, are uncomfortable around killers. Thanos picks up the skull with his Gauntlet covered hand and places it on his knee, in clear sight for the sorcerer. He hopes the man sees it as his friend’s skull clutched in Thanos’ mighty fist and that he feels fear.

But Strange looks on in pity for a second before his eyes focus on the board. “Then let us start.” And he, as the white player, makes the first move. And so the game starts. It is long and tiring and lasts until the sunrise of the next day, when they finally find themselves at a devastating standstill, the white queen taking the black, standing right in front of the black king. The white king, as is usual, is right beside the white queen, protecting it as always. All other pieces have long since left the board. Thanos had managed to take Strange’s queen a couple of times but the man had always gotten it back and returned it to the king’s side, where its minimal protection kept the strongest piece in play safe. He had sacrificed several pawns to protect that bishop that usually stands with the ‘royal pair’, but the piece was taken and could not be brought back any more than any other piece. A rock and another bishop had lasted slightly longer, the rock checking Thanos’ king twice before it was taken out of the game and the bishop being taken out when attempting to take his queen. The other pieces had had their moment to shine a few times but had all been ultimately eaten by Thanos’ pieces, out-shinned by the ever returning white queen and some of the spectacular moves made with the treasured bishop.

Thanos, on the other hand, lost all of his stronger pieces save one rock and the queen early on. He was mostly left with pawns that could do little in the game but the rock and the queen near devastated some of Strange’s strategies. The rock had once taken out the white queen with a surety that Strange can’t bring it back, reminiscent of his surety that Stark won’t survive a moon being thrown at him, but Stark had returned, as had the white queen. It was taken out the next time by Thanos’ queen and it came back and then by the black king. But the white queen came back one last time, just in time to save the white king by eating the black queen and coming ‘face to face’ with the lone and powerless black king. He has no place to run and rules dictate that the two kings must never come to be one field away from each other. There must be distance. Besides, a player who is left only with the king who can only move one space at a time has lost by default.

Rage overtakes Thanos and he glares back up at the winner of the match. He expects gloating. He anticipates jabs at his strategic skills. He waits for arrogance, just to obliterate even this spirit left of the Earth sorcerer. He finds calmness that is unaffected by the though victory, uncaring of his indignity and totally unafraid of his anger. Blue-green eyes watch him and Thanos feels ice dosing the fire in his veins. There is nothing there. No emotion showing through. Thanos is reminded of surgeons back on his own planet, when they are delivering bad news to families of their lost patients. The seeming nonchalance that hides everything away. It would seem that is the universal ‘doctor’ look, patented on every planet. Compared to the eyes of the other humans and humanoid species he had seen - but especially humans, especially Stark, while he fought, when he was defiant and protective, even when all was lost and yet he was spared - which always seem to be brimming with emotion, Strange’s eyes ... Are like space, empty and cold and endless. Danger lurks there. Knowledge and wisdom and experiences the likes of which a creature so young should not possess, no matter how old he may seem for his specie’s average life span.

He looks back down to the field and sees that the black king is no longer black or the normal chest pieces it used to be. It is a bust of Thanos, in color and highly detailed, a fist over his chest. The Infinity Gauntlet is not on it. The white king remains plain and faceless. An ordinary chess piece on the chess board. But the queen Strange had always put so much faith in, which he had always protected, always brought back, was not white, not an ordinary chess piece. Not even close. It was a bust as well, shorter and smaller than the bust that the black king had turned into. It was bold, gold and hot rod red, with a familiar looking Gauntlet, only smaller to fit the smaller hand, the same and yet so different, holding the six contently glowing Infinity Stones and the power over the universe, resting in Tony Stark’s hands, almost blending in with the Iron Man armor.

Shocked, confused, frightened and outraged eyes turned back on the calmly sitting sorcerer. Thanos had not expected this. Seeing as Strange had sacrificed the Time Stone for Stark, he had assumed Stark would be the king if the pieces were ever to have a greater meaning, and Strange would be the all powerful queen on the chess board. After all, Stark was nothing without his armor while Strange possessed powerful magic. Je thought he was sure he got it right, especially when Strange kept bringing the queen back. It had looked like a rendition of Strange’s return from the Soul dimension.

And yet the roles were reversed all along. Stark is the endgame, not Strange. Stark is the endgame.

The sorcerer finally showed a flicker of emotion in his eyes. Pride, affection, fondness, love, respect, protectiveness, loyalty, trust, devotion, sadness, determination, joy, hope. It all showed as he looked upon the bust of Iron Man before cool eyes returned to Thanos, challenging. Remembering their bargain, Thanos grit his teeth but said nothing.

“Consider this your last warning, Thanos.” The sorcerer said witch certainty, for the first time standing up in front of the Titan. The new height only put him somewhat at level with Thanos but the size difference didn’t seem to bother him in the least. “Those Stones are not yours. They never were. They never will be. They belong to no man. You speak of balance but never consider what the universe has done to ensure the Stones will not be used. Balance exists as the universe sees fit, not mortals, not gods. The universe. The Infinity Stones are a result if that balance. If one being exists with the wish to wield them and possesses the ability to, did you not consider the universe will create another but who lacks that wish to counterbalance you? The Stones have long since chosen. The universe has judged you and found you wanting. It said no.”

Thanos flinched at those two sentences, Gamora’s voice echoing them in the depths of his mind and of his soul. The Soul Stones seems to be viciously enjoying his discomfort.

“Give the Stones to the one they have chosen and you might find mercy.” And just like that, he was gone, the pieces back to how they always look, black and white and plain. Ordinary.

The white king and queen stand, as a united front, ahead of an army of white pieces and two black ones - Gamora and Nebula, the Soul Stone mocks him - before the lone, defeated black king, all the black pieces knocked over behind him. Dead.

He knew he should have killed Stark when he had the chance. Now he is unsure whether he should look over his shoulder or not.

The sorcerer doesn’t appear again.

00000

“You okay?” Stephen blinks his eyes open to the sight of Spider-Man, Peter Parker, looking down worriedly at him when he returned to the dimension created within the Soul Stone. The orange planes and skies are now as familiar a sight as the Sanctum or Kamar-Taj, although the Dark Dimension was equally as familiar but he’d rather never see it again. The Soul dimension was nearing that kind of familiar. Other than Parker, the Guardians of the Galaxy, now complete save for one member, have gathered around him, watching on with some concern as he settles back into his ‘body’. Astral projecting was even weirder from the Soul Stone than from his own physical body but it was also immensely easier. There was nothing tying him ‘here’ so he can almost effortlessly travel through the dimensions as he pleases.

Which he had used, plenty of times.

“I am fine.” He tells the teen as he stands up, the Cloak of Levitation patting his cheek gently as if to confirm it wasn’t just a mask he was putting on for the others. “Moreover, everything seems to be going like I saw it. Tony, thankfully, is indeed brilliant enough to figure out what I expected of him. It is now a matter of days before they are ready to face Thanos.”

“And the purple nutsack?” Gamora stomped on Quill’s foot and he yelped in pain. “What!? You hate the guy!”

“There are children present.” The green skinned redhead hisses at him as Quill pouts. Stephen just ignores them and shakes his head at their bickering, briefly casting a look at all the other souls gathered near them and then all those beyond. He looks at Loki, who had of course escaped actual death and had instead still perished in the Snap, mediating as his own astral form was dealing with the very opposite side of the universal balance scale than Thanos was. And god did Stephen miss Tony but both the Trickster god and the Sorcerer Supreme had known who was needed where. He looks back at the Guardians of the Galaxy and Peter, the only ones who he and Loki bothered to wake up since only they had any idea about the other Infinity Stones or had fought Thanos on Titan, and is glad only these silly people were aware besides himself and Loki. Anyone else would have demanded answers and far too many explanations that neither sorcerer had time to give - and wasn’t it just ironic that the keeper of the Time Stone lacked time? - when they had a genius to help and a Mad Titan to distract/freak out.

Gamora seemed to be finished berating Starlord because she turned to him, all serious business and no more shenanigans. “And what of Thanos?” She repeats Quill’s question and Stephen smirks wryly.

“No regret on his part, I’m afraid. But I’ve given him a warning and am no longer blocking the Stones from sending him clear messages that, could they choose, they will choose another.”

“And is he ready?” A worried Mantis questioned, her antenna bowed to accent the expression.

“As I said, it is only a matter of days before the fight for the Stones begins. The battles on Titan and Earth may have been lost, but the Infinity War is far from over.” The Master of the Mystic Arts says with confidence. “The universe will not rest until the Infinity Stones are reunited in balance, not destruction.”

That seems to mollify the group and they start making plans for when they return, not if. For them - The two Peters, Gamora, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Loki, Stephen and even the Cloak - it had never been a matter of if. Only when. Because they knew they will come back soon enough. In just over two months, Tony Stark had managed to ensure that, like Stephen had seen in that one out of fourteen million six hundred and five futures he’d seen with the Time Stone. He may have had help but Stephen had known this was how it was going to be.

Tony Stark is the key to saving them all.

He was Stephen’s endgame all along.

Thanos had simply not seen it. The king is the one who ensures the game continues but it is the queen playing the game. It is she that covers all fields, all directions, that is closest to the king. Stephen might not be royalty, but he is the authority where the Time Stone had been concerned. He continued the game and took back his queen, giving away a pawn that is ultimately of little consequence because Stephen’s queen will always defeat Thanos’ queen. Not even Infinity can stop Tony Stark. The game was over the moment Thanos allowed Stephen to save his queen, his strongest and most precious piece.

Now, it was only a matter of time.

‘Checkmate.’

THE END

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