Chapter 36: Chapter 36


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 plan had worked, that’s all any of them could think as they had managed to trap Thanos, physically and mentally, Peter and Tony holding the Infinity Gauntlet, none of the Infinity Stones glowing, pulling as hard as either of them can, Strange using the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak to reinforce the trap’s hold on Thanos’s right hand, and the Cloak helping him pull. Drax had been holding his leg and Mantis was on his shoulders, putting him under with her powers. Quill and the new arrival, Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, standing in front of him. They had all thought “This is it. We made it. We won!”

But then Quill had asked after Gamora, Mantis said Thanos was in anguish and grieving and Nebula filled them in on where the Soul Stone must have been - Tony had the coordinates but never had the name, had the map to a place he had never imagined could hold something so important - how he had taken Gamora to Vormir but had returned without her, the Stone in his possession. Quill had snapped and attacked Thanos, dislodging Mantis and freeing the Mad Titan from the trance he had been under just when Peter managed to get the Gauntlet almost the whole way off.

But Thanos was awake and he shook them all off, taking back the Gauntlet. He had swatted Tony away and knocked the Guardians of the Galaxy unconscious when they jumped up and tried to charge at him again. Iron Man zooms back in, his nanite arm cannon manifested, and is head-butted to the ground.

Thanos looks at him for a beat, as if unsure of what to do, how to act, then raises the gauntlet towards Titan’s moon. Stark stares, aghast, not able to believe his eyes or the readings he was getting from both of his AIs. Thanos uses a combination of the Power and Space Stones to shatter the moon’s surface, then bring the debris down on the field of battle at and incredible speed. Iron Man powers out of the way, managing to avoid quite a bit of the debris, but is caught by a chunk of moon about the size of a baseball field, slamming him into the ground.

Thanos was almost sure the man was dead but there was something there that prevented him from relaxing. As if anyone could survive a moon slamming into them. The armored hero must be buried under tons of rock. The impact alone should have killed him.

The Guardians go sailing into the air from the rebound. The Guardians and Avengers are dealing with the gravitic aftermath of dumping a large chunk of moon onto an unstable planet’s surface. The unconscious Guardians are flying upwards uncontrollably, moon-chunks are still making fiery ballistic inbounds, and random debris and massive rocks are floating in any possible direction. Spider-Man is well-equipped to handle this physically, even if he’s freaking out emotionally. So Stephen leaves him to it.

There’s an intergalactic grape asshole he needs to deal with right now.

The Cloak of Levitation sets Doctor Strange down on a relatively stable outcrop as Thanos extricates himself from rubble. The Sorceror Supreme makes a few passes with his hands, producing the familiar golden magic filigree circles, and slams his hands down on the rock before him, invoking the Seven Suns of Cinnibus as a lightning-like effect of immense heat jumping from rock to rock until it reaches Thanos, sending him flying - but he makes use of the erratic gravity to keep control and fire back a blast from the Power Stone.

Strange, ready because he had seen battles like this fourteen million six hundred and five times already, blocks the purple plume with a wall of Mirror Dimension, which he then pushes back at Thanos. It shatters around the Titan, who suctions the magic into a miniature black hole with the Space Stone, volleying it back at Strange. Just in time, Strange raises a shield and changes the dark energy into a swarm of aqua butterflies which return to their master. Thanos can’t help but stare at them for a moment, entranced by their beauty, before he shakes it off and focuses back on the fight.

But because of that small moment of distraction, before Thanos can counterattack again, Strange levitates and invokes the Images of Ikonn, giving him arms like a Hindu deity before dozens of Strange replications rush away, forming a circular wall around a snarling Thanos. They all cast magical cords, wrapping around Thanos’s torso, arms and hands, holding on the best they can. Thanos struggles to close his gauntleted fist, and uses the Soul and Power Stones to discover the real Strange among the many copies, blowing the duplicates away and sending the singular Strange reeling.

Reality and Space pull Strange forward, Thanos grasping him by the throat once in range. Strange grabs futilely at Thanos’s hand. “You’re full of tricks, wizard.” He grabs hold of the necklace around Stephen’s neck, crushing the fake Eye of Agamotto, despite Stephen’s protests. “Yet you never once used your greatest weapon.” He looks on in a disappointed manner at the sorcerer, as though a parent admonishing a child. “A fake.” He throws Strange hard enough that Strange’s head hits stone and he passes out. He’s about to make a step towards the unconscious man when, almost simultaneously, a red and gold device slaps into the palm of the Infinity Gauntlet, bracing the fingers open; and a red and gold Avenger makes a fast and hard entrance, standing in front of the downed sorcerer like an avenging lioness.

Iron Man, Tony Stark, Avenger and Earth’s best defender, was really just about done with the wrinkly purple giant grape. “You throw another moon at me, and I’m gonna to lose it.”

Thanos would be lying if he didn’t admit that the human sounded rather dangerous and intimidating when he talked like that. This was his opponent. The one man that had set back his plans for half a decade. The one man that had destroyed the entire Chitauri army, leaving Thanos with only the Outriders and his Black Order. Many of his fights for the Infinity Stones have led exactly to this one moment.

Even without him being able to use the Gauntlet and the Stones, he felt them warm for some reason, as though welcoming a long lost friend.

That only confused Thanos but he knew that the Infinity Stones had a conscious of their own. Perhaps Iron Man had the Time Stone? Guess he’ll have to find out. “Stark.”

That drew up Tony short, despite already having been told by Gamora that Thanos has known of him for as long as Tony has known about the approaching threat. Perhaps he had not wanted it to be true. “You know me?” He asks warily, just to make sure. He tries his best not to show just how much the notion of that terrifies him. Because they had obviously messed up the only future Stephen had seen in which they win. Maybe there was still time. Maybe Tony could change something, do something, to save them.

“I do.” Thanos confirmed, admitting to something only his closest had known for six years. “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge.” Stark was too much like him. They could have been rivals instead of enemies, maybe even friends, partners. Stark was the sort of man Thanos could respect. Too bad the universe had pitted them against each other. A shame. Thanos could just imagine how much faster all six Stones would have been reunited in the Gauntlet had they been working together towards the same goal.

Tony didn’t agree. “My only curse is you.” Small rockets pop out of Iron Man’s back and launch at Thanos. Thanos’ taunting ”Come on!" was almost drowned out by the rockets all exploding on target, momentarily shrouding Thanos in smoke. Before it clears, Iron Man piledrives into Thanos horizontally, using his single super-jet boot configuration. As he bounces off, he flips and sticks his landing, immediately reconfiguring his boots into ground clamps for stability and his gloves into rocket-driven battering rams, punching Thanos into a ruined wall behind him. The Mad Titan grunt from the unexpected force of the attack and how effortlessly it had landed, even if he was only winded.

Thanos shakes it off quickly, reaches forward and tears Iron Man’s helmet off, revealing Tony’s surprised expression before the suit recovers automatically and re-forms his head protection, JARVIS and FRIDAY working overtime to protect their creator. The Titan makes use of the fractional delay and punches back hard, sending Iron Man sliding meters away, giving Thanos time to rip the brace device off the Gauntlet. The discarded nanites rush back to the Iron Man armor as the purple giant immediately uses the Power Stone to stream furiously lambent energy at his opponent, who forms a shield to kneel behind just as instantly, getting pushed back even further by the incredible force.

Tony has never been more thankful for Wong insisting he start his training when he had than he was then, as he formed a second shield with his free hand. Had he not been able to do that, he wouldn’t have been able to slide out from behind the shield without the attack from the Power Stone doing some serious damage to his exposed, even momentarily, side, letting the angled energy push him away for a faster start, and whips back to Thanos at full thrusters capacity. The genius kicks at the Titan with his left foot, turning the boot into a ground clamp at the same time to pin the Gauntlet, and keeps twisting while his left glove becomes a ram again, slamming into Thanos’s face, cutting his cheek.

Thanos is momentarily stunned. It has been ages, beyond decades, since he had been injured but he could feel very acutely the point where Stark had managed to land a blow. The cut burned. A reminder of Loki’s dying words, ‘You will never be a god.’ He felt the first kindles of fear. He dared not look at Stark in that moment. The puny Earthling was living up to Thanos’ expectations of the one man who had defeated his army, six years ago. He was living up to that long ago forged fear that this was the one person in the universe who would stand in the Titan’s way and not lose, not die.

The thought is both sobering and enraging. This puny creature, to stand in the way of his conquest? Unforgivable. He swipes at the blood that wants to seep out of the wound and stares at it for a second. “All that for a drop of blood.” He looks at Stark and smiles breifly before he punches Iron Man, sending him pinwheeling, then starts beating him with his fists. Tony attempts to block the blows with his forearms, but Thanos is relentless, picking him up by the helmet and blasting his midsection with the Power Stone. The gaps in nanite coverage are now gaping, as the armor loses the ability to recover from the intensity and extent of the damage, JARVIS staying with Tony while FRIDAY focuses on calling back as many of the nanobots as she can reach as fast as they can come back.

Iron Man lands hard from the Power Stone’s blast, struggles to one knee and fires his right hand repulsor at the inexorable Thanos but the beam is easily deflected by the Gauntlet. He gets to both feet as the suit tries to complete repairs, nanobots rushing from all over the field, adding the beam from his left hand as well. Thanos walks right up to him, and backhands the incomplete helmet completely off Tony’s head. His AIs are already panicking, forcing the suit beyond anything that they had tried before and Tony is too busy to activate Extremis, the fight too fast that he won’t get those few seconds needed to adjust. He crosses his arms to block a blow from Thanos’s Gauntlet, and has his left hand caught over his head.

In desperation, he forms what’s left of his right glove into a shortsword, which is also easily caught by Thanos, snapping it off clean and making to drive it through Tony’s middle, but FRIDAY reacts faster, dissolving it back into the armor. It blocks most of the power behind Thanos’ thrust into his middle but it doubles Tony over, none the less. JARVIS takes over in his creator’s distraction, proving to all the world why he is the co-pilot by using a short burst from the unibeam to push the Titan away and he rushes the armor back. The purple giant shakes off the blast and comes after Tony again, but Tony’s had the few seconds needed to activate Extremis and for the first time he feels just how enhanced he had actually become as his perception sharpens, his reflexes quicken and he feels only the slightest bit less tired.

He forms a mandala shield before Thanos can punch him again, startling the Titan when the blue light prevents him from hitting his target. Tony uses this instance to create the spell Stephen had thought him just a couple of days before Mordo attacked him, forming the three rings and sighing in relief when two of the three light up. His suit had been repaired enough that he has both repulsors, his unibeam and one of his proton repulsor sentries, all of which he aims through the three rings.

Thanos had not been expecting the force behind the attack, not after having felt the same attack over and over again throughout the battle and it having only so much as a stinging effect due to the Power Stone. But that thing in Stark’s chest packed a mean punch that the Power Stone could not absorb. Even though he could deflect the other attacks, the unibeam was giving Thanos a continued stream of unadulterated Arc Reactor energy, the Starkenium core’s energy signature too similar to an Infinity Stone’s for Thanos to so easily deflect it. The amplifier spell Stephen had taught Tony was making it only worse for the Titan and he was being pushed back.

Which is why Thanos used the Space Stone, creating a portal behind himself and falling into it, only to open another one just in front and a little to the left of Stark, picking up a random sharp piece of debris and slamming it into the man’s middle on his left side like he had planned on doing with the man’s own weapon, only for it to dissolve in his hand and form armor. Well, not this time. The second he delivered the blow, Stark let out a gurgling gasp and doubled over, the attack forgotten and the three rings flickering out of existence.

The fight is over.

Thanos walks Iron Man back until he sits, and places the Gauntlet almost comfortingly on Tony’s head. He ignored the haunted look in the man’s eyes, looking at this small human, so ordinary and yet so exceptional. Thanos couldn’t remember the last time someone had made him break out into a sweat. Certainly not an Asgardian or that green beast he had encountered when he went to get the Space Stone. Tony Stark was really something.

Too bad he had to kill him.

(Unnoticed by the two, but not by a waking sorcerer, the four Stones in the Gauntlet glowed in protest.)

“You have my respect, Stark. When I’m done, half of humanity will still be alive.” He takes a good look at the man’s features, determination still burning a fire in his eyes even as he accepts his inevitable death. Yes, Stark is a man he respects. He lets go, straightens and steps back, distancing himself from what he was about to do, the bright future of a world he was about to take away. “I hope they remember you.” He’ll make sure of it. It’s the least he can do for his equal.

Iron Man’s just a little distracted with the pain, and blood drooling out of his mouth, and compromised breathing. But he’s fighting to stay conscious, to continue fighting, eyes flickering between electric blue and hazel brown, trying to get back up, like he had done so many times. He can’t stay down. The universe was at stake. ‘Now is not the time for a nap, Stark!’ But he needed a moment, just a moment because god he was just so tired. ‘Maybe this is it,’ he thinks and closes his eyes, only for a second, because he was never one to give up, to go down without a fight. He can’t. So many people depend on him. Peter, Harley, Vision, his bots and AIs, Pepper, Rhodey, Bruce, the other kids, the Avengers, Earth ... Stephen. ‘I need to get up.’

Stark tries to get up, to stand and not just helplessly lean on the rock that Thanos had practically seated him on as Thanos raises the gauntlet, closing his fist, all four Stones glowing-

“Stop!” Both their heads nsap around, incredulous and panicked - in Tony’s case - eyes turning to Doctor Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme of Earth, whom Tony had never heard sound so weak and damaged and wrecked and desperate before. He was barely sitting up but there was a look of desperate determination on his face as he stares at the pair. There was no hesitation in him. “Spare his life... and I will give you the Stone.”

Had he had the strength for it, Tony would have gawked at him, maybe raged, maybe launched over there to shake some sense into him or check him over for a concussion because there was no way Strange was giving up the Time Stone he had sworn to protect no matter what for Tony’s meaningless life! He can’t! There were trillions, quadrillions at stake!

Thanos, though mostly confused, was intrigued and very interested. “No tricks,” he warned and Strange shakes his head as Thanos points all four Stones at him instead.

“Don’t ... !” Is Tony’s half formed protest but the injury was taking too much out of him coupled with the two days of sleep he had missed due to some project, the lesson at the Sanctum just before the fight and the lack of food since last night. He wasn’t even sure how much time had passed since he had eaten and JARVIS and FRIDAY were a little too busy trying to keep him from bleeding out to ask them, directing the nanites to staunch the wound around the thing impaling him.

Strange reaches up and plucks the Time Stone out of its hiding place in the stars, Tony couldn’t help but watch just like when Strange had hid it, an amazing feat of magic that shows just how little they knew about the world beyond their narrow perception. Stephen opens his hand, the scars on his fingers and their inherent trembling particularly obvious now, and the Stone floats to Thanos’s bare hand. Strange watches him intently, as he takes the Stone and drops it into the thumb setting, the energy pulse making the Titan wince. Tony looks away, already feeling the blame building up in him.

Because of him, an ‘hitherto undreamt of’ number of lives were going to be wiped out of existence.

He doesn’t even notice when Thanos leaves in a fiery vengeance of Quill’s gun, or Quill’s incredulous question, busy pulling out the thing impaling him and spraying some of the medical nanobots on the wound so FRIDAY and JARVIS can better take care of him, much to their relief.. Instead, when the haze of pain lessens, he looks over to Strange. “Why would you do that?” He asks sadly with anguish, meeting those ever changing eyes.

Stephen watches him just as sadly but there is a determination and a hope shinning in his eyes that wants to give Tony hope. “We’re in the endgame now.”

Peter comes over and he and KAREN check over Tony’s injuries, JARVIS and FRIDAY directing them into doing the few things they can’t from within the suit without actual hands. The Guardians of the Galaxy had drawn to each other, seeking comfort in each other and the calmness with which the sorcerer seemed to be taking this all in. The blue one, Nebula, was standing aside in her own grief and Peter was taking comfort in being beside his mentor. Tony’s just enjoying the exchange between his AIs, needing their voices to wash over him lest he descend into a panic attack because he had failed.

“I’m sorry, guys. This is all my fault,” he heard Quill say and Tony hated how the younger man sounded so broken, having found out that the love of his life was probably sacrificed for a dumb stone by a being who had viewed himself as Gamora’s father. Tony’s heart ached just thinking of all the people they have lost. Loki, Heimdall, Brunhilda, Gamora, maybe someone else back home ...

“It’s not your fault,” he replied when no one else seemed to know what to say. “Don’t kick yourself over this. It’s how anyone who’s not a sociopath would react. It’s. Not. Your. Fault.” It was Tony’s, because he had known this was coming, why hadn’t he done more, prepared better, protected everyone, died!? He should have died.

He felt guilty that he was grateful he wans’t dead.

He jerked when a strange feeling washed over him, looking around, as if expecting to find something there. Looking over at Stephen and expecting the same reaction, figuring it had something to do with the mystical, he was surprised to see neither sorcerer nor magical artifact, which was even more perceptive to these things than humans were, had noticed. He wondered if it was just paranoia or blood loss, but JARVIS and FRIDAY had prevented that so what was going on? Since not even Peter’s spidey senses were picking up on it, Tony figured it was just exhaustion and ignored it as Peter helped him up as though he weighted nothing.

“Something... is... happening.” They hear Mantis saying not a few minutes later before she suddenly fades into ash, being blown away by an inexistent wind. Horror surges through Tony as he realizes that the six Stones must be in the Gauntlet and that Thanos must have snapped his fingers.

“Quill?” Drax says next as he also fades, leaving the lone Guardian to start panicking. Tony notices first and tries to comfort, to reassure, to something the younger man.

“Steady, Quill.”

“Aw, man.” But Quill also gets disintegrated into ashes. The current population of Titan had just been halved. And it would seem that the universe isn’t done yet.

“Mister Stark? I don’t feel so good...” Cold dread filled Tony as he rounded on Peter, taking the stumbling and slowly turning to ash teenager into his arms, holding on tight as though that alone will keep him together, will prevent him from fading away, from leaving Tony, from dying in his arms. There were no words to describe what Tony was feeling in that moment, his horror, terror, despair, panic, anguish, loss. Please, not his kids, anything but his kids. Not Peter, not Harley, not any of the kids, please, please not his family!

“You’re alright,” he says, trying to be calm, his voice shaking as he looks at Peter in terror, willing it to be true even though he knows it’s not because Tony Stark never get a happy ending, always only a to be continued, his hell never ending.

And Peter was so scared, so panicked, just clinging to his mentor, forgetting his strength and Tony let him, god, he would let him crush him if it meant Pete stayed alive, please. “I don’t know what’s- I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t-” He completely collapses into the man, crying, asking for that same strength everyone seeks that Tony was supposed to have in spades because he’s the invincible Iron Man, always strong, always on top. “Save me, save me! I don’t wanna go, I don’t wanna go, sir, please. Please, I don’t wanna go. I don’t wanna go...”

But Tony doesn’t posses that strength and the two of them collapse to the ground, Tony still holding on to Peter for dear life, thinking ‘No, take me, take me you stupid son of a bitch! He’s innocent! Take me! I’m tainted! He deserves to live!’

Peter looks at him with terrified eyes, knowing he was leaving his mentor to deal with the one thing Peter had promised himself he would never let Tony deal with. His death. “I’m sorry.”

Tony tries futilely to catch him when Peter disintegrates into ashes. Tony mourns silently at their failure, holding the small pile of ashes he had managed to catch to his mouth, kissing the ashes of one of the few kids he could have ever called his own as a tear streaks down his cheek. He startles when gentle, shaking hands drape a red cloth over his shoulder and he whirls to the side, horrified to have forgotten about Stephen. His horror grows when he sees the man already fading into ash.

The taller man takes a shuddering breath and leans forward, touching their foreheads together as he takes Tony’s left hand and presses a reverent kiss to it. “Tony,” he whispers the name like a prayer, a desperate prayer and a desperate plea to be believed and trusted. Tony didn’t understand but Stephen cut through his thoughts before he could go spiraling into his own head. “There was no other way.”

And Stark breaks down as his friend is turned to dust, the last straw that broke the camels back, the weight he as Atlas had managed to hold up for so long suddenly too much, too heavy for his frail, tired shoulders. Grief unlike any other before overtakes him and Titan burns.

The last thing Tony sees before a sharp pain knocks him out is the edges of a torn red cloth trying to catch him.

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