Chapter 33: Chapter 33


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.

Stephen knew Tony was glaring at him and he knew he probably deserved the engineer’s ire, but he’d really rather not have it directed at himself if at all possible, especially not now. Not after he’d been tortured and felt the freezing coldness of space. Had it not been for the Cloak and Peter, he’d be out there with Ebony Maw, dead. Had it not been for them and Tony, he’d be tortured until he was brought before the Mad Titan because he wouldn’t, couldn’t give up the Time Stone. Because the moment he does give it up, they enter the endgame and it was too soon. The outcome, under these circumstances, would be catastrophic and irreversible.

He still doesn’t like arguing with Tony as the man calls him out on his bullshit about having it under control and not needing any help. He guessed it was rather hypocritical of him to act like this when he had asked Tony, barely an hour ago, if that much, to share his burdens with others so that they don’t become overwhelming. He knew his words would come and bite him in the ass one day, but he hadn’t expected it to be on the very same day as he’d said them.

Tony was right, though. About more than a few things. It was all partially Stephen’s fault. Maybe even mostly, in regards to their current situation. Had Stephen stepped back like Tony had asked, maybe Spider-man wouldn’t have been beamed up with him and the Cloak of Levitation. Then they would have waited for the backup Tony no doubt already had on the way but he knew they wouldn’t arrive in time. Even the Iron Legion had been busy with the second ship, much closer to the Stark Tower and the hundreds of people in there. Not to mention the Mind Stone. Still, it had happened as it had, which had led to Tony rushing after him and Peter, unsuccessfully trying to get the teen to stay on planet and him nearly being blasted off into space along with Ebony Maw due to Peter’s pop-culture solution from a damned movie. Stephen had never really liked any of the Alien movies. He had much more refined tastes.

Still, the plan had been successful, only it had led to an argument between him and Tony because the engineer refused to turn the ship back around to Earth. It was a good call - and not just because Stephen knew how this had to play out - seeing as the damage just two of Thanos’ ‘children’ had managed to create in a short battle in a semi contained area of the city. The casualties and collateral damage could have skyrocketed if all of the Black Order were to stand together and fight as a united front with the heroes so thinly spread out. Civilians were the priority to them but not the aliens. They’d kill and use anyone they could to get to the Stones and a prolonged fight against them could have ended in injuries they can’t afford to suffer from when Thanos comes. Bringing the fight to Thanos - to Titan, where there is no one to get hurt or worse in the fallout of a mini war going on - was their best option. It put them far away from their friends and any backup they could have had, but Earth had just lost her greatest defender and they needed everyone else to pick up the slack in Tony’s absence.

Hopefully, the genius scientists they left back on Earth will figure out why the shielding hadn’t worked and manage to fix it between themselves, even without Tony.

But even his agreement to go to Titan hadn’t gone over all that smoothly. Saying “If it comes to saving you or the kid or the Time Stone, I won’t hesitate to let either of you die. I can’t, because the fate of the universe depends on it.” and seeing how Tony’s eyes aren’t hurt, betrayed or accusing, instead simply accepting as he flippantly says “Nice. Good. Moral compass. We’re straight.” was more difficult than he’d ever thought a single conversation like that has any right to be. He couldn’t even look at Stark as the man faux knighted Peter an official Avenger. Not YoungAvenger, but Avenger. The words he said hurt more than the possibility of them have been carried out in a couple of thousands of futures he’d seen with the Time Stone and he blames his compromised heart for that pain but he embraces it.

Pain was an old friend that he embraces, as it reminds him he is still human and that the mistakes he’s once made are not to be repeated.

He’s a little surprised when Tony sits next to him and picks up one of his hands, inspecting the old scars. He lets him, figuring he owed the man that much after the shit he’s put him through and the absolute crap he’s going to put him through soon enough. He ignores how the Time Stone’s energy is reaching out to Tony. Mordo was definitely right about the Stones starting to resonate for Stark sooner or later. He just wonders how long he can keep Tony from finding out about it.

“I had JARVIS send Vision instructions to go hide in Wakanda since the planet-wide shielding seems to be offline, for whatever reason.” The shorter man tells him and Stephen winces at how tired he sounds. Many hours had been put into those shields, by all parties involved. Stephen knew that magic alone couldn’t stop a wormhole created by the Space Stone from breaking through the Earth’s atmosphere, which was why Tony’s Arc Reactor powered satellites were put in place, since the reactor’s energy is so similar to an Infinity Stone’s that it can cancel out its power. Starkenium and Vibranium canceled out each other’s created energy fields around the satellites, which is why the Master’s of the Mystic Arts created shielding for the satellites themselves as well as a shield against portals similar to their’s or to the Bifrost. The shielding of planet Earth was so complex and layered that the failing of the shield was impossible. None of the satellites can be destroyed, not to mention that they were guarded by both VERONICA and several Asgardians all around the globe. Which meant someone on the inside had shut the shielding off. Stephen understood that much.

He dreaded to think that they had a traitor at such a crucial moment in the turning of the universe. How had he not seen that in any of the futures he’d viewed? Had he missed it? Where there signs he had somehow ignored?

“JOCASTA is spreading the Iron Legion throughout New York to help with a swift cleanup effort. The Defenders are staying, so they can keep the Tower and the Sanctum safe with Wong, Barton and Lang. Their families and friends are being sent to the underground bunker in the Compound, in case this becomes a global war or something. I’m sure Wong got the memo to the other Masters and to Kamar-Taj. Carol is officially the second in command, so she’ll probably take over the command of the Avengers. I think FRIDAY might have managed to send a message to Asgard about Loki before we got out of VERONICA’s signal reach. I had VERONICA contact Shuri about the shielding. Hopefully she and the others will manage to find out just what the fuck happened. That shield shouldn’t have failed like that! We tested it against the Tesseract’s power! Could it be a miscalculation due to how much power the casing was restricting?”

Stephen twisted his hand in Tony’s hold to grip one of the engineer’s fidgeting hands. “I rather doubt it. Loki knew how to push that thing and we all did the calculations many times and we all got the same results. I know you’re thinking the same thing I am.”

“I was afraid of that.” Tony gripped back, somehow tight and yet infinitely gentle with Stephen’s so easily vulnerable hands. “An inside job, at a time like this? It’s making me regret I didn’t activate the Last Dying Breath Protocol. A single Jericho missal would have done the job.”

“I thought you didn’t make weapons anymore.” Frowned the doctor. Tony just chuckled bitterly.

“The Jericho uses many heavy or potentially poisonous and radioactive metals in its construction. None of that metal could be used safely for anything else, especially not long term, so I couldn’t melt them and use the parts for something else. So I decided to keep them, for darker days. Turned out to be a good decision, if you ask me. Besides, something in me never allowed me to get rid of that. After New York, I’ve never been more glad to be the proud, sole owner of enough Jericho missals to sink Australia.”

Stephen wasn’t sure if that was more impressive or terrifying. “You think it could have been useful?”

“I thought about forming SWORD, a pandan to (New) SHIELD, mostly formed from the ex agents that now work for me. It would be a big space station that wouldn’t monitor just Earth, but rather space and act as a first line of human defense. I would’ve given them all the Jericho missals I have left so they could protect our planet but I thought about just how many lives I would be sacrificing if I allowed that project to become a reality, so I scrapped it. Besides, I can just hear how the governments of the world would react and what the rouges would say. I’d be too tempted to let them launch Rogers into deep space within a day.”

“You’re a saint. I’d have let them before the first hour was up.” Strange deadpanned and was immensely glad when it resulted in a startled laugh from Tony, some of the tension leaving him. Stephen let him enjoy his mirth while he pondered the continued existence of what are the most powerful weapons Stark Industries had created while they were in the arms race. Perhaps using them could have changed some things but he doubted Tony’d let anyone other than JARVIS, FRIDAY or himself initiate that protocol. “Did your plan work?” At the confused glance, Stephen touched the side of Tony’s temple with two scarred fingers. Tony understood and nodded, looking relieved.

“Yeah, I still got J and FRI with me, thank goodness for that. Space is really not my thing.” Stephen said nothing and instead studied their interlocked hands. He didn’t want to let go. “Did you see this? With the Time Stone, I mean?”

“It was one of the possibilities. It ended better than if we had stayed on Earth.” The rouges could never agree or accept any of the plans and compromises Tony tried to make and so, when the Mad Titan himself landed on Earth, Iron Man was indeed killed by Thanos and the two Infinity Stones were almost handed over to him with how bad their fighting went. This was the better option, no matter how far away from home they were.

“So this was the only way? For us to win?” Stephen curls his free hand into a painful fist. Like always, Tony is spot on, without even realizing it. Sometimes, being a genius brought Tony more trouble than it eased things for him. But that was Tony Stark. The universe never gave him a break. “I’m glad. I’d rather not make another mess the size of New York or Sokovia. Or worse.” Said man sighed and Stephen looked back at him. “Did I ever tell you the vision Maximoff showed me, three years ago?”

“You said you saw all the Avengers but you dead.” They have had that conversation several times since they started actually openly trusting each other. When they let it show that it was mutual. “And that Rogers, with his dying breath, asked you why you hadn’t done more.”

“That’s right. What I never went into detail was that Thanos’ army had come back to Earth, coming through a giant wormhole. I know Wanda is far from a prophet, but what if the Mind Stone itself was warning me?” Tony asked, meeting Stephen’s eyes. There were so many questions in those hazel eyes and yet Stephen couldn’t answer them without revealing just how deeply he looked into some of the futures. Glimpses for him did not mean the same thing to the Time Stone. Some things, it insisted on showing him itself. Other things he could not have brought himself to look away from. “I know it sounds crazy, but could it be true?”

Stephen said nothing for a while, thinking. There had to be a way to phrase this without revealing the things he had found out about regarding Tony and the Infinity Stones. That might reveal his plans for the endgame and he knew Tony would not agree. And if Tony doesn’t agree - which he won’t - then he’ll try to change things and that will only end in a disaster that none of them can afford. So he thinks and thinks and for all of his brilliance, he can’t think of a single way to express what he knows is fact without somehow cluing Tony in on what the endgame contains. He knows that Tony will take every hint and explore it, either on his own or by questioning him, and Stephen will eventually either relent or slip up. There was simply no way to tell Tony why the Mind Stone might have taken it upon itself to give him a warning for what is to come without revealing what else the universe has had planned for both Tony and Thanos for a very long, long time.

Luckily, Peter was done doing ... whatever it was that he had been doing and gad swung back to the two (five, if you count the two ever present AIs and the Cloak, even if they had been staying out of this discussion so far) of them, vibrating in his new armor like an over-excitable puppy with the biggest grin on his face that Stephen’s ever seen on anyone. “Wow, Mr Stark! This suit is so awesome! KAREN and I just went over all the new features and those leg things are awesome and all those new webs! Gosh, Mr Stark! I can’t believe you did so much! This is so cool! Which alloy is this? Is this nanotech? Is your armor nanotech? What’s the formula you used for the webbing? Did you really read all my research on it?! Do you like it!? I know it’s still a work in progres-” And Peter went on and on and would have never stopped had the two adults not chuckled at his antics. That shut him up and the boy crossed his arms, pouting.

“Relax, kid,” Tony said in good humor, smiling with pride at his ward. “I was really impressed with your webbing formulas and the crazy ideas you have for them. I took the liberty of getting them patented for you. It’s nothing public - that’s up to you - but if anyone steals your idea, they’ll get sued faster than you can say ’You’ve been served’. By the way, MJ? Freaking awesome, that kid. If you don’t ask her out, I’m arranging your marriage and you can’t stop me because that is one hell of a girl and she’ll become an even scarier woman. You don’t get to mess that up. Capish?”

“Wha-?! Where’d this come from!?” The teen squeaked, face red. Stephen leaned back and watched the father-son back and forth, beyond amused. He liked MJ, too. The girl got spunk and a fire in her that she hid behind bland sarcasm and sharp wit. And she seemed to genuinely care for Peter and kept his identity safe - how was it that only she seemed to figure it out when even Peter’s best friend hadn’t known until Peter practically dropped in on him as Spider-man? That girl was smarter than she let on. No wonder she caught Tony’s attention - despite having had countless perfect opportunities to do so. She was the grounding presence her two nerdy friends needed since she had no heroworship for anyone, although she did seem to favor him over most others, except maybe Hope out of all of the adults and maybe Susan. She was the no nonsense type of person so Stephen guessed that might be a part of it and she was interested in becoming a doctor ...

He shuddered at the thought of her and Christine teaming up. He’ll rather face Thanos, thank you.

“You like her, she’s not annoyed by you and she’s cool about all this bullshit.” Tony gestures between them all, indicating their superhero status. “And the way she told the rouges to stuff it? Gold. I want that in my family and since Harley’s secretly crushing on Shuri, you have to bring her in. No excuses, young man. Either grow balls to do it yourself or be prepared to get an invitation to your own wedding.”

The Sorcerer Supreme didn’t know whether he should laugh or be sympathetic at the red Peter’s managed to achieve in his face. It raced down his neck and beneath the two suits he was currently wearing - the Iron Spider was a thing of beauty; Stephen had caught glimpses of it since he and Tony started working together on protecting their planet, but seeing it in action was definitely a treat - and his head looked ready to blow. How steam wasn’t coming out of his ears, Strange will never know. He’ll also never know whether it was from embarrassment at being called out on his crush or if it was a meltdown at finally realizing Tony indeed did see him as a son.

“Only if you let Mister Doctor Wizard take you out on a date!” Stephen lost all sympathy for Peter. He was a little too busy sputtering in indignation at the kid’s gall to feel sympathetic for him. Especially since he was sure he actually matched the boy’s blush. How Peter managed to look challenging and still embarrassed as all hell was a trick Stephen would like to learn because, right now, dear Vishanti, he felt like letting the Dark Dimension swallow him and never coming back.

The Cloak was watching all of this with more interest than a piece of fabric should rightfully have.

“And how do you figure that?” Tony sounded strangely calm but his hand held a little more tightly on to Stephen’s. The sorcerer was honestly surprised Tony hadn’t wrenched his hand back after Peter’s bold ... condition.

“Well, if I have to make a fool of myself in front of my future spouse, shouldn’t you, too?”

“So you do admit that you’d like to marry her!” And Stephen had to admire the way Tony had, once again, deflected the situation back at Peter. But the boy was more singlemindedly bullish than Stephen had given him credit for.

“That’s only because I know that once you get something into your head, you won’t stop until you get it done.” The usually-easily-flustered-around-Mr-Stark Parker stated boldly but with bravado. It was as though he was waiting for the other shoe to drop or to stuff his own foot into his mouth. “Which is why it surprises me that you and Mister Doctor are still not dating.”

Ah, there it was.

Foot, meet mouth.

Peter should have stopped while he was still in the lead.

"Excuse me,” was the dangerous sounding response and the flustered Peter was back, while the Cloak perked up. Stephen wanted really bad for the Dark Dimension to open up and swallow him.

“I didn’t mean to say that!” Peter tried to save face but it was already too late.

“KAREN, put a lock on his play list and all the games I had installed in that suit. Spiderling’s grounded.”

“No~!” Bemoaned Peter his fate as KAREN cheerfully conformed her Chief’s orders. Tony sniggered at how Peter then proceeded to make dramatics with KAREN for taking Tony’s side, to which she promptly reminded him that he was her creator while Peter was her charge. She was the Iron Spider’s co-pilot and she had a hierarchy of command to listen and refer to, which included Tony, JARVIS, FRIDAY, Vision, VERONICA, Pepper Potts, JOCASTA, Happy, Rhodey, Carol and Stephen himself in front of Peter. The resulting sulking episode only had Tony laughing louder and leaning against him as he tried to control his breathing.

And despite the mortified embarrassment that still covered his pale cheeks a lovely pink color, Stephen found a wonderful warmth filling him, spreading from his chest outwards to the rest of his body. As he listened to Tony ribbing Peter, JARVIS, FRIDAY and KAREN occasionally pipping in with comments of their own and the Cloak of Levitation fluttering around them all, he couldn’t help but memorize this moment and lock it away in his heart for the dark times that are coming. Because he can’t remember the last time he felt this content. It was like having a family again.

He wished, for one very tempting moment, that he could freeze time, just so he could enjoy it, just to make it last a little bit longer, perhaps even eternity.

Recalling a small, calloused, delicate but strong hand in his own as one moment was being stretched into infinitely smaller ones while snow fell and lightning lit up the sky in slow motion stopped him.

“It’s not about you.”

So, instead, he treasured this moment and squeezed the hand in his.

After all, it will be a while before he can hold it again.

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