Chapter 35: Chapter 35
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.
Tony was the first to be alerted to their approach of Titan, as was expected of the man who had been using Extremis to study the ship since he and Peter had saved Stephen from Ebony Maw. He and his two AIs were so deep in the ship’s systems that Tony had bragged to him that JARVIS and FRIDAY were starting to learn the language in which the code was written. It made sense that he would be the first to notice. Peter was the second to notice, his spider senses alerting him to the danger of the ship entering Titan’s atmosphere at too high a speed for the ship, and them, to survive the impact. Stephen himself only got a warning when those two became tense.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Peter was the first to ask, looking to his mentor for an explanation. He may be aware of the danger but his spidey senses weren’t all knowing or anything. He knew something was happening but he wasn’t sure what.
“I think we’re here.” Stephen was the one to answer, watching their rapid descent towards the surface of the orange planet. He was already preparing his magic to draw a shield around them. This looked like it was going to be a rough landing.
As if reading his mind, Tony went over to the controls, armoring up and sticking one hand into the right hand hold of the controls. “I don’t think this thing has a self-park function.” His eyes had been blazing electric blue before the armor closed around him. “Get your hand into this steering gimbal.” Peter hurried to do as his mentor said, following Tony’s urgent instructions. “Close those around it. You understand?”
“Yep, got it.”
“This was made for one big guy so we have to move together, at the same time. JARVIS and FRIDAY can handle only so much with so limited coding resources on this thing. We gotta land this flying space donut. Gently and intact, if possible.” Tony continued, sounding a lot calmer than he probably felt and Stephen felt impressed. He was keeping it together only due to his many years as a doctor who wasn’t allowed to let emotions influence his actions during a surgery. Tony must have had practice in front of the press that followed him his whole life.
“Okay. Okay,” Peter took deep breaths before nodding to his mentor just as they broke through the atmosphere, for the first time having a clear view of the planet before them. “Ready.” On the monitoring screen in front of them, they can see that their ‘space donut’ was heading straight for some strange buildings that looked a hell of a lot like a colossal game of jacks and slight panic entered Peter’s voice. “Uh, we might wanna turn. Turn. Turn! Turn!” KAREN must have decided to throw up Peter’s helmet, because his head was covered seconds before their ship almost clipped one of those star shaped things. JARVIS and FRIDAY were giving it their all to help with the engines but the controls weren’t cooperating with Tony and Peter. Iron Man and Spider-man both had considerable strength, both of them being (partially) enhanced, but the ship was stuck on autopilot or whatever and even Tony and his two AIs were having trouble disabling that and activating the landing protocols.
“Strange, a little help here!” Stark said with a strained voice. Stephen was ready, already stepping in between them and weaving his hands around, creating the Shield of Seraphim around them. Should they crash and burn, this spell will save them the consequences. Just as he was anticipating a rough landing, the ship’s flight smoothed out, much to the surprise of Peter and himself. “Hey! I think I’m getting a hand at this. More thrust, J. Find us a landing spot, baby girl. Peter, let’s bring this thing’s ... frontal should-be-a-nose thingamabob. Doc, you do what you do and hold on tight. We’re about to land this donut!”
Stephen could only shake his head and keep up the shield, all three of them doing their best to keep their footing as the ship swerved a few times and clipped a few of those giant metal star things before FRIDAY started guiding them towards an open spot where they could land the ship. Tony and Peter pulled with all of their might and managed to bring up the ship like one would a plane, JARVIS controlling the speed of the engines and KAREN reading off the distance and other such data since her older AI siblings were too busy trying to steer the ship with the minimal amount of code available to them. The landing was rougher than the ship should have to handle, but the thing held and it was nowhere near how bad it could have been had Tony not had JARVIS, FRIDAY and Extremis in his veins to help them land the thing. This way, they had a means of going back home unless the thing was destroyed in the battle to come. They could always open a portal, but the strain on the body that would cause could land Stephen in a come and Tony in the grave if either of them were to try it. Especially not after a fight. That was bound to exhaust them both beyond the needed energy levels for such a feat.
The landing might have been safe, but there was suddenly a boom and the corridors above and bellow them suddenly shook, giving out on them. Tony flinched back from the steering ‘wheel’, the perfectly normally working circuit of the ship suddenly snapping and stopping, throwing him out. A few more booms followed before the bridge, with an ominous groan that spoke of nothing but trouble, detached itself from the ship. Peter screamed as gravity took them but Stephen still, thankfully, had the Shield of Seraphim out. The glowing sphere of golden magic did it’s job and kept them safe as the entire bridge crashed down onto the dirt, banging up the heroes within. The donut that now had a chunk bitten out of it crashed sideways, obliterating something that might have been a building at some point, raising a dust cloud so thick, it would have been nearly impossible to breathe for the humans. Thankfully, only a little bit of it made it into the ruined bridge and the Shield of Seraphim also further filtered it. Tony and Peter would have probably been fine, their suits filtered the air, but Stephen could have been in trouble.
Instead, they weren’t even any dirtier than they were before the landing procedure. Stephen got up from where he had been holding the shield and made his way to Tony, helping him up. “You okay?” He asked, his eyes flitting over the suit and the now unmasked face. Tony didn’t look any more banged up than before but the armor was self regenerating. The sorcerer briefly wondered just how many nanobots and extra nanobots (for emergency’s sake) Iron Man armor Mark L before he shook that thought away and focused on its creator.
Tony was panting, just like him, both from adrenaline and the effort he had put into the landing. His eyes were alight with a dozen different emotions, the excitement from a moment ago and the adrenaline still coursing through his blood making them glint. He looked over Stephen, too, absently nodding, dismissing Stephen’s worry. “You alright? That was close. I owe you one.”
“Think nothing of it.” Strange reassured, about to ask what had happened when Peter descended from above - how the roof of the chamber even held was a question of structurality that Stephen will have to ask Tony later to explain as it made no sense - in the classical Spider-man, fashion, hanging upside down from a thread of his webbing. The two adults stare incredulously at him, because seriously? Is there any need for that?
“Let me just say, if aliens wind up implanting eggs in my chest or something, and I end up eating you, I’m sorry.” Yeah, forget the hanging upside down thing. Stephen groans at the reference while Tony actually starts looking a little pissed. It was the stress, fraying him at his edges, but still. Stephen completely agrees with his response of “I don’t wanna hear another single pop culture out of you for the rest of the trip. You understand?” Peter at least looks rightfully sheepish at that. Still, he continues and Stephen wants to groan again that he hadn’t started with this. “I’m trying to say that... something is coming.”
As if summoned by his sheepish warning/explanation, a grenade rolls into their view, at their feet, and Peter, Strange and Tony get thrown well back when it fires its energy pulse. Which is when things got crazy, since the Guardians of the Galaxy just barged in, guns blazing - sort of - without even checking out who they were supposedly fighting. Drax’s yell of “THANOS!” had the Cloak charging at him, Stephen just stopping several daggers from killing him by activating a mandala shield. A little fight ensues, with magnets, guns, Tony’s impressive missals, Spider-man’s webbing and then it all comes to a standstill when Tony has Drax on his back with a repulsor pointed at his head, Stephen and the Cloak watching his back, and Starlord has Peter all tied up and a gun pointed at his head, Mantis tied up in a web behind him.
Which is when they all register just who they are fighting. Rather, the Guardians realize they had attacked three Avengers, far from home as they might be. Quill looks crestfallen. “Where’s Gamora?”
“How are we supposed to know?” Stark asks, turning his repulsor into a cannon when Drax tried to pull a fast one on him. “You mind letting the kid go or do I need to threaten your buddy here?”
“Ignore him, Quill! I can take it.” Drax says, completely and misguidedly confident that a Stark made proton cannon’s blast won’t obliterate his head. Stephen may not know just what species Drax is and how much his physiology can actually take, but Mantis gave him enough confirmation that he had assumed right.
“No he can’t take it!”
“She’s right, you can’t,” the resident doctor decides to make an appearance in Strange and deadpans as he informs the remaining green alien. He tries not to think of Gamora and where she might be if Quill is this pissed.
“That’s fine. You don’t even work for Thanos, anyway. We’re allies.” Peter the elder lets go of Peter the kid and Tony in turn let’s Drax get up, who glares at Mantis but relatively quickly gets away from Tony and his very intimidating cannon. After checking over the teenager, Tony turns around and heads out of the now destroyed bridge of what used to be a perfectly good ship, giving Quill a stink eye for that which made the half human a bit sheepish, coming out onto the soil of Titan for the first time. “The heck happened to this planet? It’s eight degrees off its axis. Gravitational pull is all over the place.”
Stephen glances at Quill from where he had been studying Tony studying Titan, no doubt his own instruments giving him tons of information. Starlord had a small, pen like device that apparently measured the gravitational pull of the planet and was frowning as he looked around the planet. Stephen tried not to let his own looking-into-the-future-acquired memories get to him as he saw Tony silhouetted in the orange, sickly lighting of the practically dying planet. Now was not the time for him to freak out. He’d managed not to do it many a times throughout this trip, he’ll just have to hold out for a while longer.
Yes, he had seen it all happen upfront and had known what he will face, but experiencing it firsthand was not at all pleasant.
He’d dealt with months of repressed nightmares and PTSD inducing memories after he had seen the future with the help of the Time Stone. There were so many things that had happened in those fourteen million six hundred and five futures that he had viewed from this point in time alone, let’s not even go into the things that could have happened before Thanos arrived. It would be enough to give anyone nightmares for life, but meditation helped, most days, and on the days that it felt like it wasn’t enough, he’d just follow Tony around, either in astral form or his own body. Tony was the key and as long as he was alive, Stephen had known there was hope, a chance, for the greater victory that will end with universe-wide peace and happiness, no matter how temporary.
He left Tony and Peter to deal with the three Guardians of the Galaxy, mostly ignoring them as he fount a place to sit down. He crossed his legs in the traditional meditating pose and first got a feel of the place. The energy flowed here differently from Earth or from the vastness of space, like when they had been on the now scrapped space ship. He’ll need to be in tune with it to better draw upon interdimensional energy without disturbing the natural flaw here. It will be easier that way and safer. It took him longer than he expected, but he attributed that to the devastation this planet has faced.
But after he had a good feel on the planet, he drew on his magic and opened the Eye of Agamotto. He’d glimpsed fourteen million six hundred and five futures but, when he’d been watching the future, he had realized he’d have to watch them all over again because that hadn’t been glimpsing, it had been watching, studying for details. Which is why he was accessing the same futures again, letting the Time Stone show him everything.
The first future he saw showed Thanos arriving through a wormhole-like portal, as blue as the Tesseract and the Space Stone inside. They had been waiting for him, just behind a bolder and they had jumped out at him, half of them tackling the hand with the Gauntlet, the other half trying to kill him. Not coordinated at all. Thanos crushed Mantis’ skull under his foot, choked Quill, shot Stephen himself with Quill’s gun, broke Drax’s neck, broke Peter’s skull with his bare hand before obliterating an enraged Tony with the Power Stone. He destroyed the Eye of Agamotto and took the Time Stone, went to Earth and yanked the Mind Stone out of Vision’s forehead, snapping his fingers and wiping out half of the universe.
Stephen flinched away from that future as soon as he could and continued screening the other futures until he came upon one with a wholly different plan and not just small details differing that only extended Tony’s life for a few seconds. This time, Tony met Thanos in the open when the Titan exited the portal onto his home planet. The sight of him had Thanos stopping in his tracks before he launched himself at Iron Man with the single-minded intent to kill him. The rest reacted too slowly, especially when Thanos used the Reality Stone to reduce them to ribbons, but the fight between them was spectacular, to say the least. Tony held his own for a long while before Thanos ripped off the Arc Reactor and used the Power Stone to kill the genius. In comparison to his duel with Iron Man, Thanos made quick work of everyone but Stephen, who held his own almost as long as Tony had but he was defeated in the end. Thanos left for Earth and the snap happened anyway. The last thing the Stephen of that future saw was Stark’s corpse, a huge hole in his chest from where Thanos had blasted him with the Power Stone.
The next few futures were variants of that one before he came upon one where he himself simply left Titan, running with the Time Stone. He hid at the edges of the universe as it trembled from the injustices Thanos bestowed upon it. He hid for years, resorting to drawing energy from the Dark Dimension to keep himself alive and strong enough for when the day comes that the Titan comes for him. In some futures, he didn’t and when Thanos came, he crushed Stephen’s frail old body with a single fist. Other times he did and Thanos actually had to work to defeat him. In one, he had even given himself over to Dormmamu and he unleashed him on Thanos, but also the universe as well and he hadn’t cared. Another time, he had won and had the Gauntlet in his hands. He added the Time Stone and the power of all six Infinity Stones drove him mad and he destroyed the universe instead of saving it.
When Thanos came to him, only once, with Tony’s skull - and he could feel it was Tony and not someone else - in hand and crushed it before his eyes, Stephen had broken down and not even fought.
Running was not an option. He could see now why he had discarded it.
By the time he had viewed ten million futures, he was already so, so tired. He watched, over and over again, how his friends fought and how they died. Once, Stephen opened a portal back to Earth in the middle of the fight and dragged the Guardians, Peter and Tony through it, staying behind to fight Thanos by himself, unleashing some of the scariest dimensions on the Mad Titan, destroying the desolate planet in the process, but when the fight was over and he was exhausted while the purple giant had protected himself by using the Infinity Stones he had in his possession, Thanos simply choked him to death and then went to Earth. Rogers and Tony had tried working together, but when the decision between the Mind Stone and Tony’s life was to be made, Rogers all but threw Tony under the Mad Titan, dooming the universe when Thanos used the Time Stone to age Tony out of existence.
More than once, Stephen had brought them all back to Earth, hoping the big team Tony had formed would be able to help. Sometimes, they were all there to answer the call. Most often, though, it was only the rouges, Rhodes and Carol and Black Panther, in Wakanda, and none of them fought to save Tony’s life. Vision tried but he was killed before his creator’s eyes. In those futures, where they brought the fight back to Earth, once he killed Tony, Thanos would crucify Stark’s body and use it as a banner for his army, a taunt. It demoralized more than just Stephen, more than he had expected. Earth’s mightiest heroes raged and they all died, the last two Infinity Stones ending up in Thanos’ possession and the universe halving itself with the snap.
Future fourteen million six hundred and three nearly broke Stephen, when Thanos went back to Earth instead of going to Titan first, bringing back to Titan Vision’s broken body and letting Tony see, through the wormhole that gave him nightmares for six years, the vision that had been plaguing him for half as much time. The Avengers, old and New and Young, official or a team for itself, all dead. Earth, ten times more devastated than Titan, the rest of Thanos’ army destroying the planet until there was not enough mass to hold the moon in it’s orbit. No life on Earth at all. The Mad Titan then trapped Tony with the Mind Stone and made him kill the Guardians, kill Peter, fight Stephen. Then released him and let him see what he had done. Stephen, bloody and immobile, would have to watch as Tony broke down and took his own life while the Time Stone was being ripped off of his slowly cooling body.
Fourteen million six hundred and four actually broke something in Stephen when he was forced to watch glowing Tesseract blue - so unlike the Arc Reactor blues when Tony was using Extremis - fade to brown as his magical saber penetrated Tony’s heart. Brown eyes full of pain and desperation and guilt and sadness and relief and gratitude as they grew dimmer and more glassy by the second. Stephen simply gave up the Time Stone of his own free will, clinging to a cooling, bleeding corpse as he broke down on Titan, not even caring for the snap.
For a moment there, Stephen started to panic. Had his tempering with the timeline changed it so much that there was now no future in which they won? Sure, the fourteen million six hundred and fifth started off promising enough, with the plan Stephen was vaguely aware of Tony and Quill making right there, a few feet away from him, but then Quill lost it - like every other time he learned about Gamora’s death - and Thanos floored them all and then he was fighting Tony - Tony, brilliant, magnificent, determined, stubborn Tony - and Stark was holding his own and then Thanos stabbed him in the gut, all the way through. He raised his Gauntleted wrist and prepared to kill Tony and that’s when the moment of clarity hit Stephen and it all finally made sense.
“Strange! We alright?” He hears, as though under water and far away, but then the Time Stone, deeming he had seen what must be seen and that he understood what must be understood, stopped glowing and closed the Eye of Agamotto around itself. Strange snaps out of his trance and falls forward, letting out a cry. Metal clad hands caught him before he could topple over, his backside already hurting from hitting the rock floor below, but that’s a small discomfort compared to how fast his heart was racing, almost bruisingly hard against his ribcage. The fourteen million plus futures were still running through his head, before his eyes but there was something grounding him and he knew what - who - it was and he wanted to see him. “You’re back. You’re alright.”
Stephen relaxed a little at Tony’s voice, resisting the urge to lean over and hug him. He can’t. Not now. It’s not about him, he can’t take that comfort now or he might tip Tony off to something. Instead, he simply enjoyed feeling Tony’s armored hands - armored, protected, safe as safe can be right now - holding him steady as he regained his breath.
“Hey, what was that?” Peter Parker asked a few paces behind his mentor, where he was standing next to the perplexed Guardians of the Galaxy, all of them watching Stephen with worry and a bit weirded out by however he must have looked like while viewing the future. Wong had told him it looked a bit sick when he had asked the last time since Wong had been asking about his neck a lot.
“I went forward in time to view alternate futures. To see all the possible outcomes of the coming conflict.”
“How many did you see?” The other Peter asked next. An expected question. One he didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Fourteen million six hundred and five.”
“How many did we win?” It pained him to hear Tony ask, almost hopefully. Tony knew he had said there was only one way to better their chances of winning and so he was asking how much Stephen’s interference had helped.
He wished he could say they had multiple ways to win, but he hadn’t lied to Tony as of yet. Staring intently at him now let him know that now would be the worst time ever to start. He had Tony Stark’s utter trust, something rare few could say they had and he refuses to ruin it. He won’t waste it. He won’t betray Tony with lies the way his old teammates had, the way the other Steven in his life had.
So he held Tony’s gaze and took one last deep breath before telling the truth.