Chapter 26: Chapter 26
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.
The meeting was ruthless and pointless and downright exhausting but Stephen didn’t dare complain, even in his own mind, for he felt he deserved this. He had seen the moment Tony realized he had kept something this important from him and he knew, whatever friendship and trust they have developed for each other was shaken with his deception. So he endured and answered questions these people really had no business asking - like what gave him the authority to keep the Time Stone or why he and the sorcerers had a special multi-paragraph clause dedicated to them and who decided he was their leader and where Kamar-Taj was - and he had never before been so grateful for Wong as he was now, when the man shot down every stupid question with a one word answer that seemed to frustrate the hell out of the old Avengers.
But the meeting was now over, everyone agreeing more meetings of a similar nature will be required but that it can wait for tomorrow as the Guardians of the Galaxy were shown to their rooms and Tony was whisked away by Scott and Hope so that the three of them could consult with Hank on how good of an idea it is to shrink the creatures they’ve captured. For their own safety while on Earth - SHIELD will never be able to get to them when they are that small - and for easier transport for the Guardians - apparently, there is a containment unit that, as long as it’s locked, can keep them small but will let them back to their normal size as soon as it’s unlocked and opened. Stephen had no doubt that this discussion will probably somehow lead Tony back to one of their own previous discussions about using the Mirror Dimension to contain threats and how it could serve as a form of a prison for superpowered individuals. There is one version of their world where Tony, Pym and the Masters of the Mystic Arts create such a prison - shrunk so no one can get to the prisoners and if the prisoners get out, remain quantum realm small within the Mirror Dimension, where the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj just bring them food. They’d never escape, that was for certain. Stephen wondered briefly if Tony will come up with the same idea in this reality, too.
He shakes those thoughts off, sighing tiredly as he sits and waits in the workshop, waiting for its grand architect to come back. He owed Tony many apologies and possibly even more explanations and he hated himself for not being able to give them yet. Some, maybe never. JARVIS and FRIDAY remain polite to him, friendly, despite how he had done the same as everyone they disliked and kept things from Tony. Dum-E, U and Butterfingers beeped and fretted around him, curious and apparently worried for how ragged he looked. He didn’t deserve this kindness and he didn’t deserve their trust. And he hated himself even more for enjoying it while dreading the moment Tony comes and decides he’s had enough. Stephen always knew he was never meant to keep nice things in his life. He never realized how much it would hurt to lose Tony until he was faced with the possibility. Be had known it would hurt - how could it not? - but it had never occurred to him just how much.
And things had been going so well these past few months, despite the galactic conquerer of a mad man hanging over their heads. They had managed to put defenses in place - although it would seem the shielding around Earth had to be updated to withstand light-speed travel; they had things in place against teleportation of any kind but nothing to counter light-speed travel - and gathered several teams of extraordinary people to help them defend their planet and the rest of the universe. They had managed to get villains to stop making a mess - even having permanent or temporary agreements and truces with some of them, like the Brotherhood or Doom - and had united people who have been living in seclusion or isolation from the rest of the world under the banner of the Accords. And he and Tony had become colleagues, teammates, and, most of all, friends. Stephen hated to think that it was over or on the brink of being over, but he won’t begrudge Stark if he were pissed enough with him to never talk to him again outside of a professional setting, no matter how much it might hurt. He had made his own bed and now it was time to sleep in it. Even if it was to ensure the continued balance and survival of the universe. Hell, the multiverse.
Somehow, it still didn’t feel worth it, losing Tony like that.
Stephen’s head shot up when he heard the almost noiseless sound of the lab’s doors opening and in came the man of his thoughts, looking as ragged as Stephen felt, although his eyes were hard set in determination despite how his body looked on the brink of collapse. It would seem he had overestimated how much Extremis can help him in his sleepless nights marathon and today had only made it obvious. Or maybe it was just dealing with his old team, Pym’s usual brand of ... Pymness and now with Stephen. It made the sorcerer even more guilt ridden than before, to be adding to Tony’s already stress-packed life when he had set out in the beginning to make things easier for the man. If he’s ever given a chance, Stephen swears he’ll do everything in his considerable power to help him.
Tony grunted in his direction before slumping into his chair at the work station, his eyes flashing blue and holograms appearing between them. It felt like both a dismissal and a challenge: would Stephen take the opportunity to leave and never answer Tony’s question with such a clear dismissal or will he stay and face the consequences of his actions? Stephen stayed, because it was all about accountability. It’s always been about accountability. The rouges had not accepted it - except Scott, but he actually had a brain in his head, not just a single cell he shared with several others, despite how adorably foolish (Tony’s and Hope’s words, not his) he acted most of the time - and it had led to the Civil War. When he had come to Stark, Stephen had insisted that he was all about accountability since he was a doctor. Since Tony didn’t outright tell him to leave and never come back, Stephen stayed.
He stayed there, sitting and doing nothing - as opposed to how previous such outings have taken place, what with him studying or meditating if they weren’t in the mood for conversation - for an hour when Tony finally deemed he had tested him enough, shut off his workstation but did not disconnect from the web. Stephen had no doubt that JARVIS and FRIDAY were monitoring his reactions to biologically and chemically confirm whether he was telling the truth and presenting Tony with all the readings they find. The lack of trust stung but Stephen accepted it. He had done this and now he will live with the results. He knows it will never affect their working relationship - Tony would never put himself before the safety of everyone (It’s not about you) - but he still hurt, right in his heart, at the thought of their strange brand of intimacy disappearing like dust in the wind.
He will not begrudge it, but he will regret it.
“Would you have ever told me?” Tony asked and that was not the first question Stephen expected of him. More something like Why didn’t you tell me? I deserved to know! Or maybe I thought we agreed to talk about things, to solve them together. Or This is not how a partnership works. Maybe even This is how the Avengers originally broke up.This? He never expected this.
“What?” He asked helplessly, confused. Tony just sighed and looked at him with tired eyes. Stephen hated that look and resented himself for being the one to put it there, this time.
“I can already guess as to why you didn’t tell me - it’s obvious, you being the magical guru of the Time Stone and all - and I won’t lie and say I’m not a little disappointed, but, hey, whatever keeps everyone safe, you know?” Stephen stared at him in wonder as he shrugged. Of course Tony had figured it out. Stephen shouldn’t even be surprised. He’d seen Tony do the impossible before, why was he surprised now? He still winced at the disappointment part. He deserved that, he knew. “But if there was a safe way for you to have told me, would you?”
Steohen hesitated for a moment before deciding to be as honest as he could be. “I ... I don’t know.” He admitted and watched Tony become rigid as a wall. “There are many things I cannot tell you. Not now. Some maybe not ever. But there are still many things I could tell you, but only after this is all over. I was not joking when I said this is a universal threat, Tony, or a danger to the multiverse itself. This battle we are preparing to fight will be a turning point, for better or for worse. And it’s up to us to see it through.” It’s up to you to see us all through, he thinks, wants to say, but knows he mustn’t.
“What did you see?” The scientist in Tony was rearing its head and Strange couldn’t help but smile fondly at him.
“Fourteen million six hundred and five possible futures.” He watches as his companion takes in a sharp breath, unbelieving eyes trained on him and his smile turns bitter. “Thanos is a tough opponent. Our chances of victory, as they had been when I first viewed them, were slim to none. I’ve done the only thing that seemed to make a difference. I threw you into the equation from the start. I don’t know if it - this,” he points between them, indicating their working together, their partnership, their friendship. “Will make a difference. If it does, we’re preventing a horrible nightmare from becoming reality. If it doesn’t, I’ll know when to push or prod to steer it back to a place where we are fixing the situation.”
“Don’t you know that trying to prevent something usually makes it happen? It’s, like, the rule of all paradoxes when time traveling, Harry Potter.” Strange doesn’t know whether he should be relieved, stunned or not at all surprised by Tony’s apparent infinity capacity for forgiveness. It may sound like nothing special to anyone else, but Stephen knew only people Tony liked got infuriating nicknames from the man.
“That’s why I’m not trying to prevent anything. All that has led up to the original attack stayed the same. Mostly. I let it run its course. I know about loops and paradoxes in the fabric of time, Tony. I have to.” Messing around with the Time Stone could more easily break reality than even the other five Infinity Stones put together to preform that same task. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” He adds after a pause, letting the true depth of his regret and honesty bleed into his tone. Just a couple of years ago, when he was still a world class neurosurgeon, he would have rather spent two whole weeks working in ER (his own arrogantly, horribly misleadingly perceived hell) than apologize, let alone show so much weakness by being this sincere. He knows very well how big his ego was - still is, from time to time, much to his chagrin when he realizes - and he’s not proud of it. Apologizing had been beneath him.
Now, he would beg for Tony’s forgiveness. Well, maybe not beg but something awfully close.
“It’s okay. I said I understand and I really do. I mean it.” Stark sent him a significant glance and only then did Stephen realize he had shut off the Extremis and his connection to the web. “I know I’m probably the worst imaginable person to tell the future to because I’d probably end up changing everything and messing whatever carefully laid plans you have. Doesn’t mean you couldn’t have said something, Doc. Like, oh, I don’t know: Tony, a mad, intergalactic warlord who wants to destroy half of life in the universe knows you by name and wants to kill you because you blew up a good chunk of his army some six years ago. I would have appreciated that.”
“To be fair,” Stephen began, relaxing a little now that he saw he wasn’t going to end up in the dog house, do to say. He felt he had at least a little bit of right to defend himself. “I only saw glimpses of the future - or futures, I guess - because knowing the future in any form beyond possibilities is too dangerous for the continued natural balance of the multiverse. Since my job was to protect it, I looked only at glimpses. Besides, even with the Time Stone and my eidetic memory, not even I can access all the memories of all the things that I’ve seen. It’s humanly impossible.” He pauses, frowning at Tony in thought. “Although you might, since technically you are now three genius minds at once. With FRIDAY and JARVIS there to help you process everything, maybe you could have done it.”
“Jealous that my science beat your bibbidi-bobbidi-boo?” The engineer grinned from ear to ear, voice easy and teasing and Stephen snorted good naturally.
“Dream on, wonder boy.” They just grinned at each other and whatever tension had been in the room when this discussion started, vanished. Stephen took a moment to bask in it before risking the discussion. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or relieved or honored and touched and humbled, all at once, about you forgiving me, but I must confess to a curiosity regarding it. I haven’t exactly been the most forthcoming with you and yet you continue to trust me. Why is that?”
Tony leaned his elbow on the workstation, resting his chin on his propped hand, the other fiddling with something Stephen couldn’t see from his lower vintage point but was sure looked a lot like a bracelet. What a man like Tony Stark would need with a bracelet - although probably the most technologically advanced one on earth, whatever it was that it did because there was no way it didn’t do anything - befuddled him but Stephen was willing to ignore it. For now. He can always ask later.
“Well, several factors. One, you actually had a legitimate reason and the authority not to tell me and you did warn me that there will be instances like that at our first meeting. I had agreed and as such have no right to complain. Much.” He grinned playfully and the sorcerer rolled his eyes. He ignored the jibe at Rodgers and his need to keep a personal secret regarding Tony for no other reason than because he didn’t want to let the man be rightfully angry at his parent’s killer. Stephen knew Tony would be pissed but would calm down, get over it and see things rationally. He’d probably just punch Barnes and be done with it. As opposed to him, Stephen’s secret had kind of been a little more universal-threat and he couldn’t be expected to remember every detail of what he had seen.
There was a difference and Stephen was glad that it had been pointed out by the genius himself.
“Two, you actually faced my possible - probable - wrath and said you were sorry for not telling me something that in some way affects me. I can respect that. I admire that. And you said it to my face, which is a big fat bonus for you. Three, you earned my trust. You didn’t demand it.” Tony shrugged, firing up the holographic displays with a motion of his hand. Extremis or not, two genius AIs to filter everything or not, genius or not, the amount of information going through the Internet, even when not being used directly, would be too much for a human brain. Tony uses Extremis only when he doesn’t want anyone to realize he was doing something or no convenient good enough computer or any other electronic device was nearby. “Four, you didn’t lie. You didn’t even try. And I appreciate that, perhaps more than you can realize. And five, you always seem to be looking out for me.”
Stephen’s heart thundered at the soft smile the genius directed his way. He was sure it was actually pretty hazardous for his health.
“Maybe that’s normal for most people, but until just a few months ago, I only had Rhodey, Happy and Pepper. And my bots, but you could have guessed that. Well, there is Peter but he is also a relatively recent addition, and Harley lived too far away to always be around back then, so yeah.” He looks away, back to whatever it was he was now working on. “Then you came along and even though you heralded the end of the world, you also brought to me things I haven’t had for a year and some months. I can honestly call you one of my closest friends, Stephen. I don’t have many of those.”
‘He called me Stephen,’ was all that was spinning in his head. Tony rarely addressed him by his name. He’d usually use every magic reference under the sun or call him Strange or Doc or some combination of all three, but Stephen was a very rare occurrence.
“Besides, if J didn’t zap you the second we all realized you kept secrets from me, you have to be redeemable, if nothing else. JARVIS is a nightmare for anyone he doesn’t like. Ask SHIELD, they know. And I also have my baby girl now, too. They’d ruin you.”
“Indeed, Boss.” The younger AI said ominously.
“For you, Sir? Always.” The promise threatened to send a shiver down his spine. It felt almost like a threat. Almost.
“Thanks,” Stephen breathed out, content to just be in Tony’s presence now that the air has been cleared. He considered reading a book before deciding against it and just crossing his legs, getting into a meditating position and preparing to search the multiverse for any trouble. Before he could, though, Tony spoke up.
“So, are your sorcerer friends really peeping on me for years now or was that just an excuse?” Please do excuse Stephen for choking on his own tongue because, yeah, he should have seen that one coming if Tony had somehow, miraculously, figured out the Time Stone without anyone telling him about its powers and the abilities that it grants.
“It’s actually a little bit of both. I didn’t know about it until Mordo started targeting you and one of the Masters deigned to be all ‘Oh! That might have to do something with the whole monitoring Tony Stark since he was a kid things that the Ancient Ones has had us doing for years! Just so you know, Master Strange.’ Seriously, I know I’ve been Sorcerer Supreme for an infinitely shorter amount of time than the Ancient One but how am I supposed to protect the Earth and the multiverse if they don’t tell me these things.”
Tony grunted in understanding. “So they’re a mystical, magical version of SHIELD that expects you to dance to their pipe without telling you the song first? Yeah, no. I couldn’t do that. I hacked SHIELD within my first thirty minutes within the Helicarrier.” Stephen sent him a look and Tony chuckled. “Not that I haven’t done it before that, too, but that one was memorable, okay? Rodgers and I nearly had a brawl right there, in front of the Hulk and the Mind Stone. God, have we always been destined to fight? Sure seems like it with each passing day.”
The Master of the Mystic Arts hummed and started levitating above the couch, if for no other reason than to annoy Tony. “I don’t know if this helps or if it will make you feel worse, but you and Rodgers often go down this road in the other timelines. Sometimes it is really about the Accords, other times you clash long before they are even a thought in someone’s mind. There are, of course, timelines in which you stay friends but usually one of you dies before five years pass since your first meeting.”
The shorter man scrunched up his face. “I really didn’t need to know, Doc. Now, on to more important matters than other Rodgers and mes.” Tony suddenly pulled a hologram right in front of Stephen, startling him for a second. He looks at it as Tony asks one question that nearly has him in stitches due to its irony. “What do you think about making a microscopic prison within the Mirror Dimension in Kamar-Taj?”
It is good that some things never change.