Chapter 22: Chapter 22
Summary: The rouge Avengers are pardoned under the influence of King T’Challa and it is up to Tony to ‘welcome’ them back. But as he and his new team are at the private airport, an unexpected fight breaks loose and the fate of the whole universe is changed when a wizard places himself as Tony Stark’s protector.
“You really shouldn’t be here, Christine.” Stephen Strange sighed that night as he and his former lover and colleague sat together and sipped tea and coffee in the room/apartment Stark had given her for the night - or for however long she wished to stay. It had been a rough few hours while dealing with how the rouges had manipulated a civilian into coming to the Compound in order to coerce Stark to come talk to them with the rouges’ unimpressed liaison, Nick Fury, Maria Hill and Phil Coulson, as well as the even more unimpressed Accords and UN Councils. Stephen, Tony, Vision and Christine had to give their reports/statements several times, Tony and Stephen purposefully giving theirs with the exact same wording each and every time just to freak the lot of them out. New SHIELD was obviously trying to save the rouge Avengers’ asses, the liaison couldn’t care less about that and just took neutral ground, stating facts as they were and the Accords Council acted pretty much like judge and jury while the UN was the offense. It all looked too much like Judge Judy for Stephen’s tastes, but it was the procedure and it was finally over. All he wanted to do was return to the Sanctum and get some actual sleep, but he hadn’t spoken with Christine in a very long time. Like, since she yelled at him about kidnapping genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropists and dropping them in her lap over two months ago. How much has changed since then. He figured he owed her a chat.
“Dr Stark said I could stay as long as I want.” The woman who had so bravely fought for his life when she didn’t understand what the hell was happening arched a challenging eyebrow at him as she sipped her coffee. “I think I might take him up on the offer for a few days, especially since he arranged me a paid leave from the hospital. God only knows how long it has been since my last day off, let alone something resembling a vacation.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he grumbled, refilling his tea cup magically when he got too close to the bottom. The perks of being a sorcerer. “It’s just ... Quite dangerous to hang around here, around heroes. If you want vacation and a little piece and quiet, you won’t find it here. The Tower’s currently practically a daycare center for a dozen kids and half a dozen teenagers, at least that were the stats the last time I checked, and a dozen or more superpowered and ordinary adults, some of which are crazy scientists who like to blow things up in the name of science. Or stupidity, but that’s just Reed and he at least lives in his own building. Tony wouldn’t build him a lab in here even if it would prevent the apocalypse. I approve.”
“Sounds like there’s quite a bunch here, huh.” Christine commented with a grin. She still looked slightly overwhelmed but had calmed down a long time ago. The wonders of being a doctor, he guessed. They had to learn to stay as calm and rational in any situation as they can be. It helped that the few who had arrived back to the Tower had been so welcoming. “So, how are you with fitting in? Being the only sorcerer here and all.”
“Wong comes around often enough that I’m far from the only Master of the Mystic Arts and, technically, Tony is a sorcerer in training, too, so I am not alone.”
“Really? Dr Stark? But he’s such a man of science that I thought ... But, then again,” she smiled teasingly. “So were you. I just thought ... I don’t know ... He doesn’t seem the type?”
“Wong and I kind of don’t have a choice but to teach him the basics. Remember my coming over to visit Johnathon Pangborn when he was hospitalized, once again completely paralyzed despite the fact that he had been walking just fine for two years?”
“The one with the complete C7-C8?”
“That’s him,” Stephen confirmed, feeling ten times more tired than when they started this conversation. He still blamed himself for what happened to the poor man, the first of Mordo’s many victims. Mordo left the Order of the Mystic Arts only because Stephen had used the Time Stone to create a time loop and force Dormammu into a bargain that saved their world. But Mordo only saw how the natural law was violated and he blamed the Ancient One and Stephen. That’s how this whole sorry mess started. He didn’t know whether to regret it or be thankful, because Mordo’s assault and interest in Anthony ‘Tony’ Edward Stark had resulted in the revelation of a far greater threat coming to Earth, one only said man might be able to help defeat. It was both blessing and a curse.
“You said he was the one who pointed you to Kamar-Taj?” Christine, bless her, didn’t let him dwell into what ifs and could have beens, drawing him back to the present.
“Yeah. He told me Mordo took his powers from him and he was the only one who was strong enough to tell us what Mordo’s goal was. All the others were far too broken in spirit from finding themselves back to square one, only unable to channel and call upon magic at all. He was only the beginning, Christine,” he told her seriously, letting his pain show im his eyes for once. “He was my mentor and he was my friend but now he wouldn’t hesitate to kill me if it meant achieving his goal. Maybe he never would have.”
“It’s not your fault, the choices he made,” his once colleague reassured him. Christine and his old nurse, Billy, were possibly the only ones to miss him when he could no longer return to his old career. And Billy might not know it, but Stephen had repaid his loyalty by putting many a protection spells on him, his family, his home and especially his car. Christine, he had left his apartment to before he had left for Kamar-Taj, sure that he will never return if he didn’t find a cure for his condition. Now he lived in the Sanctum with the occasional night spent at Stark Tower and even more often in Kamar-Taj, so the apartment should really be hers. He’ll bring it up at a later date. “We all have a choice. You didn’t force him. Even if something you did influenced his choice to leave this ... cult of yours,” Stephen couldn’t help but snort at that and Christine took it as a victory, even if she fought off her grin. “It was still his choice, like he had the right to make it. So don’t go blaming yourself because he turned out not to be who you thought him to be. It’s not your fault.” She paused, letting that sink in before returning to their earlier topic. “But I still don’t understand how this has got anything to do with Tony Stark learning magic?”
“Well, the Ancient One, our teacher, the bald woman I brought in that day,” he took a deep, shuddering breath to steady himself and appreciated that Christine didn’t rush him. “She had a group of Masters secretly watching Tony Stark for years because he has, quite frankly, absurd amounts of power inside himself. His energy signature stood out even with the Ancient One. It drew Kamar-Taj’s attention, so they watched him. Probably ever since he was born. The records are ... very vague regarding that secret little project of hers. Mordo, unfortunately, was one of the Masters that knew about it but I guess he never realized just how much magic, or the potential Tony Stark had for it, he has until recently, so he had attacked Tony. That day you so unceremoniously met, actually.”
“Oh, you mean when I almost had a heart attack when I thought you kidnapped him?”
“I thought we talked about this.” He groaned. Even if she was teasing, his ears still rang when he thought of the scolding she had given him right after he left his fight with Mordo after Tony had been safely put out of harm’s way.
“I’m never forgiving you for that, just so you know.” Dr Palmer informed him, with both complete seriousness and yet amusement as well. She grunted her thanks when he refilled her coffee cup. “You were saying?”
“Anyway, Wong and I decided to protect Stark, but we did some research after the fight and found out about a galactic threat that will sooner or later arrive to Earth, so we teamed up with Tony to start preparing for the inevitable invasion.”
“You remember the Battle of New York?” Stephen himself wished he could forget it, even though he knew he couldn’t and never will be able to. Trauma aside, his photographic memory won’t allow it. It, too, was a blessing and a curse.
“How can I not? We were all in the operating room for thirty hours straight and that’s not even mentioning the minor procedures we made in the hallways.” She shuddered recalling how many people had flat-lined on them, no matter how much they tried to save them. That was one hell of a week, quite literally. The Avengers had set up a perimeter and did their best to keep it, but a lot of people had died and got hurt in it none the less. If he recalled well, Stephen had watched the exact moment, just like the rest of the world, that Iron Man had flown a nuke into that Space Stone created portal and had been witness to the collapse of the alien invaders. Back then, watching Iron Man - unresponsive - falling out of the portal in the sky hadn’t affected him nearly as the memory of it did now. Just thinking what would have happened to Earth, what could and willhappen to it should Tony die, left him hopeless. He tried his best not to contemplate how he himself fare in the wake of such an event.
“Yes, well, those things are coming back and this time, their master is coming, too.” There was no preventing that. It was as inevitable as Tony being the key to defeating Thanos. They could only localize it as best as they could. Which meant that all of their Infinity Stones should be guarded in one place, far away from civilians. Or close enough to advanced countries with shielding that might hold the incoming army at bay.
Christine looked pale at that and he couldn’t blame her. Had he not seen it happening millions of times, he would have reacted much the same way she was. And if he hadn’t faced Dormammu. “And Dr Stark is involved in all of this, how?”
“In many ways. Ways I can’t talk about. Not yet. Maybe not ever. And the first one I should talk about those ways with should be Tony, don’t you think?” She nodded but still kept looking at him expectantly. “Some of the ways I can talk about include things that are both pretty obvious and a damn good secret. Or at least the public is oblivious to them.”
“Like?” The curious civilian asked with another sip of her coffee. Stephen, feeling his throat perched, finished his tea and floated away the cup before answering.
“Because of his careless playboy public persona, people seem to forget that the man’s an absolute genius. And a frankly good leader, when he puts his mind to it. He has, in two months, managed to assemble the biggest, most complex and yet perfectly functional alliance of superpowered individuals that all work with the agreement of the governments of the world and practice accountability. Even some villains have fallen into line when he called. The threat to the Earth has become all of our first priority and the Accords, revised as they are now, have secured even the stop of some villain activity from dangerous groups like the Brotherhood. Magneto and Professor X are finally working together towards a brighter future for all of mutant kind. Inhumans have their rights. Wakanda had been successfully integrated into the rest of the world. I hear Latveria has managed to join the UN and are even aiming for EU. Even Kamar-Taj is coming, somewhat, into the eye of the public. Sorcerer’s have been hiding for thousands of years and we are now entering a new age, working with the governments and the New Avengers. And if there is anything left of HYDRA, they’re in hiding. We don’t have to worry about them for now. The hero alliance has them running scared, even if only for a while.”
“That’s quite impressive.” And indeed it was. It was also a damn miracle.
“And that’s not even the beginning, Christine.” The Sorcerer Supreme urged her. “That’s just the people. Tony, Carol, Logan and Rhodey have started a training course for soldiers all around the world to be at least somewhat ready to respond to this threat. People don’t yet know what’s coming, not the UN, not the Accords Council, not the public. But we do. So we prepare. And we ready everyone else as inconspicuously as we can. Then there is the group of scientists I mentioned earlier. They’re making some damn impressive things in their labs, maybe even as we speak. Tony and a few others, including the Princess of Wakanda, have established a network of satellites that will form a protective shield around our planet, trackers and beacons and deep space scanners that will alert us to any threat that may enter our soler system, or galaxy. We prepared a response team in one month and made our first line of defense in two. SHIELD needed four to just form the Avengers and they were a rather dysfunctional group from the start. And we wouldn’t have managed all of this without Tony. He gives it his all and then some, driving himself mad with stress and worry and overworking himself into the ground. I can safely say we’d be lost without him. Earth would be lost without him.”
“Sounds like you have quite a bit of respect for him,” his friend observed, finishing her own drink and shaking her head when he silently offered to refill it. She set the cup aside and snuggled into the inappropriately comfortable couch that she got with the apartment. Stephen, if he ever managed to get enough money for it, will have to ask Tony where he got it. The seating furniture at the Sanctum was not even as half as comfortable as the armchair he was currently resting in.
“It also sounds like it’s a bit more than just respect.” His head snapped up at that, his spine going rigid and his hands involuntarily clenching into fists as hard as they could, bringing fort some pain. He eyed her warily but Christine just laughed it off. “Come now, Dr Strange. I’ve known you for years. I can tell when you just respect someone - a rare enough occurrence as it is, besides that ... Ancient One, was it? - and when you have a crush.”
He wasn’t sure if it was the teasing lilt to her tone or the words themselves and how childish they sounded, but he felt his cheeks heat. Worst of all, he knew he couldn’t even deny it, even if he did try to sputter some excuses. Christine just giggled at him like a school girl and he hid his flaming face behind his hands. The Cloak, bless it, helped with its high collar, brushing comfortingly against his scarred hands, but that just had Christine cooing at him. Which may or may not have made his blush worse.
Stephen let his friend laugh, even if it was at his own expense, knowing she needed it while he himself fell deep in thought. Christine might have realized he had some affection towards the billionaire, she didn’t realize the depth of his feelings, which was good since she would definitelybe cooing at that. Sometimes, in these last two weeks especially, where he fought to keep at least a bit distance between himself and Tony, he wondered if there was even a right word to properly describe his feelings for the man. Love had seemed so trivial when he looked at the determined man working his ass off so everyone would be as safe as they can be with the lives they lived and the threat coming their way. It was just ... so much more. Seeing this man, in all the futures he had viewed, give everything and more for those he loved, for those he knew and those he never met, for millions upon billions, upon trillions upon quadrillions of people throughout the universe that probably won’t even know he had sacrificed so much for them, had left him with a deeper understanding of who Tony Stark really is and he, more than anything, wanted to just let the Cloak wrap around them both, Tony in his arms, and protect the genius from every hurt.
He had been compromised since the day he had looked into the future.
He had never regretted it.
Which was why he had been glad to see Tony’s swift advancements in the Mystical Arts, even if they were still only at meditating levels. Tony had managed to create a wall to protect his own mind in two weeks. Stephen had not been able to do anything for two months because he couldn’t surrender to the current of the river of power. He really was incredible. People call him a narcissist and yet you need to know him to realize that, not only did the word’s ‘It’s not about you’ apply, but the words ’It’s never about you’ were perfect for Tony Stark. The engineer, if asked to list all that he loves, would never list himself, not even at the end of the list. And because of that, magic easily came to him. People easily came to him.
Tony was like a dash of color in a gray world, new and amazing and different. He was the light in the darkness that always goes forward yet doesn’t forget the past. He doesn’t turn around but he doesn’t let go of his burdens either, dragging his past mistakes with him so he could never forget them. Master Hemir once told Stephen, while he was still trained by all the masters in Kamar-Taj after the Ancient One’s death, that she used to teach people not how to fight their demons, but how to live above them. Tony Stark walked hand in hand with his demons and used their constant whispers and reminders of what he could have done better, should have given more, to do better and give more. He lived with them as his constant companions and he never suffocated.
Now that he knew Stark personally, Stephen knew there was indeed no one better to save quadrillions of lives throughout the universe. From the ashes of the Merchant of Death rose Earth’s greatest defender and he kept rising each day, with each new person he saved, in one way or another. Tony Stark has already been willing to die for an ungrateful world twice and Stephen had little doubt that he will be ready to do it again and again, countless times, into eternity and infinity and beyond. Stephen Strange, as a man who had been ready to die again and again in the loop he had made with Dormammu in the Dark Dimension, could respect that.
Strange knew that their meeting wasn’t by chance. He knew too much about how the power of worlds worked for him to believe in coincidence now. He didn’t know everything and he never will - he wasn’t so arrogant as to believe that, even with eternity, he could unravel all of the universe’s mysteries - but he knew that him needing to protect Tony form Mordo wasn’t by chance. They were too similar to each other for their meeting to be anything but a part of something greater that the powers of the universe have planned, perhaps for billions of years before even their planet was formed. They were put on the paths that took them to where they are now, so that their roads can intertwine and they can be each other’s support.
He just wasn’t sure if the cosmos had taken into account for one of them falling in love with the other.
“Oh my,” he looked up at the suddenly somber tone to his friend’s voice, arching an eyebrow at her in question. Christine had a sad-ish smile on her face, no matter how fond it was. It looked bittersweet. She even looked a bit envious, which only confused him more. “It’s more than a crush, isn’t it.”
It wasn’t even a question. Stephen couldn’t meet her eyes. He knew she had loved him in a way he never could have loved her, even back then. Especially back then. Back then, he didn’t know ‘It’s not about you’. He had always been far too selfish, even in his own - rather twisted - version of love for her. And when he had finally had the requirements to actually learn how to properly love her, he had become already a Master of the New York Sanctum and knew that he could never go back to how his life was before. And it would have been unfair to her if he asked her to put up with his shit any more than she already had for years, especially the hurtful things he used to say to her after his accident, especially their last conversation before he went to Kathmandu.
He had learned to love and appreciate her, but it was too late. So he let that love morph into what it had been far longer, respect and friendship. It was too late for them. Maybe it had always been. But he had not wanted to hurt her like this, when he yearned for another and she still held some sort of love for him that she regretted never getting such feelings directed at herself.
“I’m happy for you, Stephen.” Now that surprised him even more. Scratch that, the grin on her face that she now sported was the surprising thing! “Especially now that I can tease you about it!”
“You, um ... ”
She waved his half formed question off. “Of course I don’t mind. I’ll admit to having wanted that from you once - god, it feels like a life time ago, when magic was fiction and sorcerers were legends like Merlin-”
She put up a hand to stop him. “Don’t. Let me live in obliviousness.” Stephen huffed a laugh at that and her twinkling eyes. “Anyway, as I was saying, I used to want that once. But I knew we could never work. I always thought you were meant for greater things and I was right, I just assumed it was going to happen in an operating room. I knew I couldn’t follow you where you are going so I am glad that you have found someone who can. Or is at least stubborn enough to find his own way to do it. I am still your friend, Stephen, and I want you to be happy.”
“Christine,” he didn’t know what to say in face of her acceptance after all the crap he put her through, but, luckily, she knew.
“And I like your tastes. Still nothing but the best for Stephen Strange, huh?” She winked at him and he chuckled, even if he felt his blush returning. “Besides, this is good.”
“I can now tell you that Nick asked me out on a date and I said yes.”
Christine just laughed at his face of utter incredulous disgust.