Chapter 31: Chapter 31


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.

“Okay, I think that’s enough for today.” Stephen said, interrupting Tony’s training session after he was sure that the genius had mastered their latest lesson. The Sorcerer Supreme was still amazed by how easily all of this seemed to be coming to a man who had, until recently, wanted to have nothing to do with all things magic. Perhaps it was rushing to him to prove itself or to make a point? You could never tell with the energies that flowed in the universe. “You did good.”

“I still think I should try a few more times,” Tony insisted but didn’t protest when Stephen put a hand on his shoulder and guided him out of the library of the Sanctum. It was nearing lunchtime so Stephen figured they could end the lesson a little early and he can make sure Tony actually eats something before he goes out to give the other transmitters to the others. He had Scott give one to Barton and planned to send Shuri and T’Challa their’s through a portal before he leaves, but Stephen didn’t know how many of the others were already handed over.

“You shouldn’t overwork yourself. You’re already so far ahead of any other disciples we’ve picked up around the same time you started training. You can rest, every now and then.” He shrugged off the Cloak and ignored the way the mystic artifact was trying to imitate a pout. It’s been spending way too much time around the kids at the Tower if it was picking up their mannerisms. Stephen phased into an outfit similar to Tony’s - a pair of jeans, white sneakers, white tight shirt and a black, plain jersey over it. He also ignored how the Cloak seemed to be glaring at the jersey. That thing was becoming irrational. Tony himself was in a pair of sweats and matching jersey, gray in color with orange military-like designs, a tight, tight dark gray almost black shirt hugging his body underneath. It was the most casual Tony had been in public in a while and Stephen took little shame in checking him out. “You can’t always be working, Tony. It’s not healthy.”

“You know what else isn’t healthy? Letting half of the universe die because I’m resting.” That gave Stephen pause and he looked closely at the engineer, noticing his ragged appearance and the slight dark circles under his eyes. Ever since he started meditating daily, Tony had confessed to sleeping better and having FRIDAY and JARVIS constantly in his head due to Extremis helped him avoid nightmares. Aside from the occasional science or inventing binge, it had become an exceedingly rare sight to see these same dark circles under Tony’s eyes. No, this wasn’t just a night of lost sleep. Tony could go on for days now without them noticing that he wasn’t sleeping, also due to Extremis. The billionaire sighed and caved under Stephen’s gaze, opening up to him like any other time during the past half a year. “I ... I dreamed about it. Thanos coming to Earth. I ... I feel like he’s hanging over my head, like he’s stalking me and if I just turn around or look over my shoulder quickly enough, I’ll see a glimpse of him there and it’s driving me crazy.” Brown eyes looked up at him, haunted and terrified. “I fear we’ve run out of time, Stephen. I just ... I can’t shake that nightmare. And now, suddenly, Loki had to leave the planet and ... It all feels-”

“Too convenient?” Tony nodded and Stephen frowned. “Yes, I thought so, too. I mean, why wait until now to invite New Asgard representatives? It almost feels like-”

“Someone’s trying ‘divide and conquer’? Like they’re stretching us, thinning us apart? Exactly. The Guardians off to only gods knows where - literally - Thor gone to make a magical ax and now Loki going to that Sakaar place with Bruce, Heimdall and a Valkyrie, a fierce enough warrior that even Loki doesn’t mess with her? Not to mention the wedge between the rouges and the Accords approved team, Scott and Clint ditching them, Wakanda still keeping pretty much to itself and your sorcerer buddies keeping to themselves. Inhumans and mutants are only there to help. They don’t want to be active superheroes. And New SHIELD’s doing their own thing ... There’s just ... so much going on that I feel almost like someone is purposefully making things difficult for us to wear us out.” Stark let out a tired sigh and ran a hand through his hair. “Or maybe it’s really just my paranoia and nightmares acting up.”

Strange caught the hand relentlessly tapping the Arc Reactor - a tick Tony never got over, it seemed - and drew it away from the potentially dangerous device - he was sure that thing somehow summoned the armor; he hadn’t seen or figured out yet just how but he was bound to find out one of these days. All he knew for now was that the armor almost magically appeared on Tony when there was a fight - and held it at eye level between them, just a little to the side, gazing calmly into Tony’s eyes. “I doubt it. You have good instincts, Tony, and getting in touch with the Mystic Arts has broadened your perception of the world we live in. Perhaps your nightmare might be a warning sent from the universe.”

“Or it could be Maximoff messing with my head again.”

Stephen scoffed at that. “Now that I rather doubt. Maximoff, getting through both the protection spell I gave you and your own mental defenses? Practically impossible.” Tony huffed at that but Stephen stopped him before he could, predictably, point out that the impossible always becomes possible around Tony Stark. Not that it wasn’t true but Tony didn’t need to think about that right now. “Tony, you have a right to think something is coming. No one will begrudge you. We can just hurry up a few of the preparations and everything will be set.”

“You see, that’s where you’re wrong, Stephen.” Tony shook his head but didn’t move away or try to take his hand back. Both their hands had scars. Stephen’s were a result of his accident and the failed surgeries that followed but Tony’s scars were a silent testimony to how much Tony worked and just how much he had went through. What a pair they made, scarred and broken, put back together again through their own brilliance and stubbornness and the greater purpose the multiverse had set out for them. “I’ve been talking about a greater threat - about Thanos - for sixyears. He’s been stuck in my head for six years, ever since the Battle of New York and now he’s back! But no one wanted to believe me, to even listen to me. ULTRON was a peace keeping, world wide security blanket that would have been ideal to deal with Thanos, but the Mind Stone corrupted the program and Ultron, the killer bot, was born and it was all blamed on me! Never mind I lost JARVIS or just how ... awkward Vision was around me. Wanda’s powers came from the Mind Stone but she has no control of them. Ever since a few days before Sokovia, I’ve been seeing my friends dying while I live and they always ask me why I didn’t do more. I tried doing more and, in the end, when it mattered the most, they didn’t listen.”

Tony was now gripping his hand back, careful not to hurt his hand, but seeming to hold on because Stephen was his only anchor to reality. The Cloak took matters into its own ... hands, for a lack of a better term, coming to rest around Stephen’s shoulders and reached out to Tony, wrapping the smaller man into a sort of comforting embrace and pulling him closer to Stephen. It was just weird like that.

“The Accords, in their former, relentless form, only happened because they let Maximoff on the team. I left because I couldn’t be around her and there was suddenly no one to act as a buffer between their fuck ups and the public and the politicians who have been frantic or salivating at the mouth, in Ross’ case, to get people like us under control. And when I tried to point this out, to give a solution that would then be further discussed and worked upon, they spat in my face. So yes, Doc, there are quite a few people who would begrudge my trying to prepare us for something I know is coming, something I know is happening.” Tony stopped fiddling with the Cloak’s fabric and looked down, hiding the anguish in his eyes. “Until you came, Doc, I was alone. Even if you saw the future or whatever, you still listened. Besides JARVIS, FRIDAY and my bots, no one else did. Peter might have but I refuse to put that weight on his shoulders, no matter how strong he is. He’s a kid.”

“He would have gladly shared the burden.” Stephen pointed out, even though he needn’t have. They both knew how eager Peter was to be of help or use to his mentor. And they both knew Tony will fight tooth and nail not to let him. For as long as possible. “But I am glad you chose to trust me to help you bear it. You have ... insanely quickly became very important to me, Tony. Christine had needed several years, Mordo and Wong both have needed about a year themselves and the Cloak is the only exception since I’ve grown fond of it on day two since it came to me. You’re the only person I would consider calling when I am vulnerable because I trust you. Sure, Christine can patch me up but if I needed help with something? I wouldn’t dare call her but I know I can rely on you. Maybe it’s time you can start relying on someone else and not just your own strength?”

“A bit tougher than you’d think,” Tony laughed a humorless laugh. “When all life has taught me is to stand strong on my own.” He sounds almost defeated when he says it. It’s heartbreaking.

Stephen can’t resist. He lets go of Tony’s hand and wraps the engineer in a tight hug that the Cloak most definitely supports, wrapping even tighter around the two men. He rests his chin on his friend’s head and mourns how life has treated the one man that can save it. But perhaps the universe has shaped him this way for a reason. There was not a more stubborn or more determined or more fearless man in the entire universe than Tony Stark and they will definitely need that. He still wishes that Tony could have had a little more love, a little more support than he has right now.

“Well, you don’t have to stand alone now. You have the New Avengers, the Defenders, the ‘Revengers’,” they both roll their eyes at the name Thor had given his group and insisted upon. Loki had looked the most exasperated. “The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Brotherhood, the Inhumans and probably the Guardians of the Galaxy. You have all those other people who live in your Tower and support you and you even have the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj at your back. And you have me and the Cloak.” He added almost shyly, not letting Ton look up to see the mortified pink hue of his cheeks. “You’re not alone, Tony. You don’t have to be the one carrying the world on your shoulders. You don’t have to be some modern day representation of Atlas. You’ve done enough on your own. It’s time to start letting others do some of the things you thought you had to do by yourself. You have a team, Tony. A family. We can help. We want to help. And it would be really nice if you’d let us.”

“Maybe I will,” Tony mumbled into his chest and Stephen startled when he felt arms wrap around his waist beneath the Cloak. He smiled to himself and just held the genius closer. “I guess it is about damn time I learn to play with others.”

“Good.” The Sorcerer Supreme grunted. “And if the rouges ever bother you again, I am definitely sending them to the Dark Dimension. You can’t change my mind.” They had been incredible pricks when Tony had offered them a peace offering in the form of a device that was currently quite possibly the most powerful and important piece of technology Earth will ever see. It, after all, controls the shields around Earth, their only real defense against Thanos and his army. He grunted again when Tony tried to elbow his way out of the hug.

“I’m not complaining but I am hungry, so how about we go get something to eat? I haven’t finished breakfast this morning before Bruce came to tell me he was going with Loki to Sakaar and I could do with a good New York sub.”

Stephen could help but laugh at that, shooing the Cloak when it tried to draw them back together. There were limits to such things before you freak someone out, not something an article of clothing, no matter how sentient or how ancient, will ever really get since invading a human’s personal space is kind of their thing. Still, he needs to understand that humans don’t operate like that when interacting with each other. Not as friends, at least. He did his best not to show Tony his bittersweet smile as he knew that he and Tony will probably never get a chance to actually be anything more.

“Wong! We’re going to get lunch! You want anything!” Stark called out and Strange rolled his eyes.

“Don’t buy him food! He’ll get lazy.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” the Asian sorcerer grumbled as he met them at the staircase, Tony still tugging Stephen towards the front doors. “If I didn’t occasionally bring you a meal, you’d die of starvation by free will.”

“Is that you way of saying you have no money and want us to buy you something?” Stephen challenged and was surprised when Wong didn’t answer him. The Cloak just watched from the upper floor, probably entertained by the silly humans it was surrounded by. Stephen often wondered what sort of thought ran through a magical Cloak’s mind. The thing was freaking ancient. It must be exasperated by them, at least a little. ”Seriously? You don’t have any money?”

“Attachment to the material is detachment from the spiritual.” Wong lectured matter of factly as he descended after them. Tony chuckles at their exchange but Stephen is so not letting Wong win this one.

“I’ll tell the guys at the deli.” He replies wryly, sarcasm dripping from each word. “Maybe they’ll make you a metaphysical ham on rye.” He steals a satisfied glance at Tony, whose shoulders are shaking with how hard he was trying to suppress his laughter. Good. His earlier mood was gone. Happiness definitely was meant to be worn by Tony Stark.

Wong, not wanting to go hungry and knowing Stephen could be just that spiteful, starts searching through his pockets. Even if he doesn’t have enough to buy his own meal, Stephen will pay up the rest, he just likes messing with the usually composed Asian man. “Oh, wait, wait, wait, I think I have 200.”

“Dollars?” Both he and Tony ask at the same time, exchanging glances. Tony knew just how much sorcerers struggled to get the finances for food, water and clothing since protecting the Earth from metaphysical threats wasn’t exactly a paying job. Two hundred dollars was an entire fortune for a sorcerer.

“Rupees,” Wong replies almost sheepishly, or as sheepishly as Wong can. Stephen rolls his eyes and sighs.

“Which is?”

“Uh, buck and a half.” The doctor can’t help but groan. Seriously?

“What do you want? I’m buying,” Tony decided to take pity on the librarian and asked with a smile. Stephen wanted to shake his head at the genius’ generosity. Sure, this wouldn’t even be noticeable to his fortune but it still surprised him that anyone could say Tony Stark was egotistical. The man just gave and gave and people just took and took.

“I wouldn’t say no to a tuna melt.” Stephen is at least glad that Wong has the decency to sound thankful and be modest about his request because they both knew that if they had asked for it, Tony would have delivered a buffet table with a wide variety of food that would be enough to feed all of the sorcerers at Kamar-Taj and the other Sanctums. Maybe after this whole nightmare of the upcoming threat is over. A celebratory meal would be in order.

As though it was summoned by his thoughts alone, Tony got an alert that the shield was opened for the Bifrost and not a minute later, something bright and hurtling at amazing speeds crashed into the Sanctum, through the room, sending debris everywhere. Stephen and Wong had pushed Tony, a lesser sorcerer, a disciple, by the standards of Kamar-Taj, back, shielding their faces from the debris with raised hands before running up the now ruined stairs, the Cloak wrapping around his shoulders as his clothes phased back into his sorcerer outfit.

To his and Wong’s great surprise, they found a slowly shrinking Hulk back into Bruce Banner in the ruins of the stairs, huffing and out of breath, eyes terrified as though he had seen death itself. He’s half naked, only having his ruined pants on, his hair is disheveled and he seems to be covered in sweat, sooth and dirt, smelling distinctly of garbage. His frantic eyes searched Wong’s and Stephen’s faces but his words sent chills down the two sorcerer’s spines. Stephen didn’t even want to think about what Tony might be feeling.

“Thanos is coming. He’s coming...”

The battle had come.

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