Chapter 41: Chapter 41
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 didn’t know what was happening. One moment, the room was perfectly normal, but then the next, when the Gauntlet snapped snugly around his hand and lower wrist, there was a sudden bright light that nearly blinded everyone in the room. For a moment, it was like eternity flashed before his eyes - don’t ask him how he knows what that feels like to compare it to, he just does, for some incomprehensible reason - and he was hurtling through space - that was at least somewhat familiar through imperial experience he can explain and remember - before he was slammed back to Earth, feeling like his soul had just returned from an astral projection that had lasted hours. But when he blinked open his glowing blue eyes, JARVIS informed him that only a handful of seconds had passed. And when he looked at the still dazedly blinking Avengers around him, Tony knew that was true, no matter how disoriented he felt.
“What the hell just happened?” Clint groused, rubbing at his eyes to alleviate the sensitivity he now felt due to that flash of intense light. He wasn’t the only one groaning and moaning about the visual assault they had all just been through. In fact, everyone was complaining. Tony just kind of felt sorry for those who had enhanced eye sight. This would be ten times worse for them.
“Thor! Why’d you do that!?” Rogers screamed in rage, lunging himself at the Thunder God, wrestling him to the ground and trying to get him into a headlock. “That was our only hope of fixing this and you ruined it! Now I’ll never get Bucky back! All our friends are gone for goodbecause of you!”
"You’re one to talk!” Shuri finally snapped, activating some sort of blasters and aiming them at Rogers. “If you’d just stopped being a fucking prick, none of this would have been happening in the first place!”
“FUCK YOU!” The entire room sans Tony, Nebula and Vision screamed in one voice, the Dora Milaje taking great pleasure in zapping the blond supersoldier again. Nebula and Vision were a bit busy keeping Tony on his feet while the genius himself had never felt so disoriented in his life as he did at that moment. Things felt ... different. The universe had stabilized a little. Even if temporarily. It seems that Thor had made a good call because they have just bought themselves some time, as far as the stability of the multiverse was concerned. Reality was just that bit safer. It probably isn’t enough - it’s really not - and it won’t last long - how could it? Half of the life in the universe was still missing! - but they had a chance. Judging by the looks the sorcerers were giving him, the temporary Sorcerer Supreme, they had felt it, too, and they weren’t the least bit surprised by this outcome.
Tony shuddered to think what would have happened had someone else been given the Gauntlet.
‘Wait!’ A panicked part of his brain shouted at the genius, who was too busy frowning at something glowing, drawing his eye, just beyond his field of vision. No one seemed to have noticed it. Then again, they were kind of busy fighting amongst themselves and with Rogers’ hypocrisy. ‘Didn’t Wong say something about two perfect contenders for the Infinity Stones or something!?’ Then why did the Gauntlet accept Tony? Shouldn’t it have attached itself only to the second contender?
“For a supposed certified genius who can give lectures when utterly intoxicated, it is surprising how stupid you can be at times, Stark.” Tony flinched physically at the familiar voice that he had not heard once outside of his memories and nightmares in the past decade because the owner of said voice was dead. Yet he was hearing it now, whispering not into his ear but ... Into his very soul. Tony looked around, trying to see if anyone else had heard the voice or if the sorcerers could sense a presence that he had somehow overlooked in his limited experience. He had, after all, been practicing only a handful of weeks and while he had somehow managed to open a portal from Titan to Earth, he was far from an expert in all things magic. He may be the new - temporary - Sorcerer Supreme, but he was far from trained enough. But all the other sorcerers, beyond looking concerned by his jerk, didn’t seem to be picking up on anything else, which was worrisome. And yet Tony didn’t feel all that worried. “You should be. You might be losing your mind.”
‘As though it hasn’t been lost before,’ Tony snarked back at the voice, scanning the room and searching for the source of the voice. He ignored how only JARVIS seemed able to reach him, FRIDAY’s voice almost as far away as KAREN’s, VERONICA’s, SARAH’s, JOCASTA’s and SHERLY’s. He ignored his greatest creation’s worried calls and instead focused on the strange energy he could feel just ... just beyond his reach. It was there, teasing him with its presence, but not close or tangible enough to touch.
“Perhaps it has, but I rather doubt it. You left that cave with it, after all.” The familiar male, accented voice retorted and Tony inhaled a deep, sharp breath. “I have been watching you, Stark. You have done some remarkable things.”
‘Not nearly enough.’ Tony protested, eyes fixed on a point right across from him, within arm’s reach, glowing a pretty orange. It reminded him, quite frankly, of the shade that JARVIS’ holographic presentation took on and was, as such, far too comforting and familiar for something so foreign and potentially dangerous had any right to be. Tony could easily feel the power coming from that small point so close and yet so far away and he was both humbled and drawn in to it. He felt no hesitation or fear and yet he did stall so as to not reach out for it.
“Then it is time to do that much more,” the specter’s voice stated and Tony had a feeling that a hand was outstretched to him. Waiting for him to take it. To make his decision. It suddenly felt like he was in that damned cave in Afghanistan again, a car battery attached to his chest and a week to live, odds stacked highly against him. This same voice had offered him sanity back then, too. A purpose. A goal. Had offered him a legacy that he won’t be ashamed or regretful of. It was offering him something, too. A way to fix this. To fix everything Thanos had broken. “There is a way. A chance. Will you take it?”
Tony reached for the orange light, as swiftly and as unexpectedly as the Gauntlet had lit up and the world around him was simply gone.
When he opened his eyes again, he found himself in a strange Neverland with orange skies and orange waters, stretching out for eternity, into infinity. There were no borders here, no rules, no laws, no clear distinction between one thing and the other and yet Tony felt perfectly welcome and at home here. How odd, that. He couldn’t see anything or anyone, stretching on for miles and miles and miles. Was there even any real concept of distance, of space here? Wherever here was, anyway.
He was standing alone, feet touching the surface of water but never sinking into it, defying any laws of gravity or physics - then again, there were no laws here - as he surveyed his surroundings. He couldn’t feel Extremis or his AIs, so foreign a sensation after months of having them constantly in his head. He swears he can still ... hear them, but it’s like their comforting voices were millions of miles away, under water and Tony was only pressing his ear just bellow the surface. Or was it the other way around? Was Tony deeper than his copilot and baby girl can reach him? He somehow wouldn’t be surprised. Not even JARVIS, who had stayed directly connected to Tony when it had happened, could pick up the orange light, that voice that brought back memories that Tony both hated and cherished and the energy emitting from the light.
But Tony had. Just as he was feeling and sensing the energies that flowed here - once again, wherever here was - and now - was there even time in here? - stimulating the senses that Stephen had helped him discover, tune and train. Tony could only compare this feeling to entering the astral realm, only far more intense. In here ... It felt as though his soul was bared completely. The astral realm possessed some sort of ... barrier, he guessed, or a boarder with the physical plane of existence. It’s why an astral projection can marginally interact with the ‘real world’ despite having no corporal form at the time. He guessed this was the opposite side of that boarder, beyond the astral realm, because here it felt so much more real. He couldn’t quite explain it. He’d never experienced something quite like this ... Or at least he thinks he hadn’t. If he did, he couldn’t quite remember. It was comforting, though. It felt like the energy of this place was wrapping around him, welcoming him, caressing him, calling to him ... Yes, now that he thinks about it, he had felt something similar, once or twice. If only he could put his finger on it when and how ...
“I am glad to see that you have accepted,” the same voice as before said in way of greeting and it, too, wrapped around Tony like a comforting blanket. “Though I had no doubt you’d do it. The last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark ... That has a long time yet until it comes to that one moment.” Tony turned around, noting the absence of the Cloak of Levitation as he did so, to face the owner of the voice. “It is good to see you again, my friend.”
“Yeah,” the genius engineer said, eyes burning with unshed tears and fists clenching - which is when he noticed that the new Gauntlet was still strapped to his hand - as he looked at the middle aged man with gentle, kind, wise eyes shinning behind rectangular glasses, smiling at him. “It’s been too long, Yinsen.”
Ho Yinsen chuckled and shook his head. “Not nearly long enough.” The dead man disagreed. “I had hoped to not see you for many years to come. The world needs you yet. The dead do not.”
“I should be dead.” Stark countered, recalling how many times he had already defied death. He should have died four times in Afghanistan at the very least, what with the shrapnel, the open heart surgery in a cave, the waterboarding and his crash landing after his escape. The testing of his suit - both during the testing stages of the repulsor systems and the first flight that hadn’t been planned at all - his fight against tanks and F-22s, Stane removing the Arc Reactor from his chest and his fight against Stane should have taken his life, too. Let’s not even go into the mess that was Ivan Vanko, palladium poisoning and the Mandarin, that was just too much. And everything Avengers related ... New York, Ultron, Sokovia, the Accords and the Civil War ... Thanos ... How was he even still alive?
“Perhaps,” Yinsen tilted his head as he consented. “But the universe would be all the worse for it. Reality would have suffered. We might have all long since been destroyed had you not survived all of your ordeals. The universe is not keen on imploding in on itself. You were needed, Stark. Perhaps you were always needed. There are, after all, only two contenders for all of the Infinity Stones. The universe made sure of it.”
“How?” Tony asked, clenching his fists again and feeling the new, alien - quite literally, but metaphorically, too - metal shift with his left hand as though it were a second skin, always having been meant to just be there. On his hand. Only on his hand. The orange world around them pulsed.
“Balance was needed. Titans were a strong people and Thanos’ drive and determination to fulfill his mad plan ensured he was strong both physically and psychologically. He was a perfect contender, but the multiverse did not approve. The Stones did not approve. His plans would destroy us all, so the very essence of existence decided to put the world into balance. They needed some time before they got it right. And then you were born.” Yinsen smiled at Tony, something akin to awe shinning through in his eyes. “Anthony Edward Stark, Iron Man, the universe’s greatest defender.” Tony wanted to correct him on that last title, for more than one thing - he was far from the best and it should be only of Earth, not the whole universe; or at least it was the last time he had checked the news and tabloids - but Yinsen beat him to it, not letting him say another word. “Don’t try to deny it. I was sent here by Them.”
“The Infinity Stones,” the should be older man replied at the genius’ confused echo. “I was sent here to help you understand some things.”
“How?” Tony had always suspected some level of sentience in the Stones - the Tesseract reacted in certain ways to certain people, Jane said the Aether was defending itself and Jane both and the Mind Stone definitely held sentience, so it made sense that the other three followed that logic, too - but he never dared experiment that sentience ever again after Ultron. But apparently he needn’t take a risk. They contacted him first.
“We are currently within the Soul Stone, in a different, secluded section of its realm that no one can access.” The man that had saved him in more ways than one explained patiently, indicating at the world around them. “The Soul dimension is made up of several subdimensions, including this one and the one that holds all of the people who have ended up here after the Snap, people who died, people who are yet to be born and this little pocket we’re standing in. Oh, and one other, but you can go there later. The doctor can’t see you now.” Tony wanted to point out Yinsen was a doctor, too, but his heart took a leap when a certain pair of changing blue-green-gray eyes flashed through his mind and hope and excitement fluttered in his chest. Before he could dwell on it, Yinsen continued his explanation. “Due to your affinity to the Stones, the Soul Stone was able to pull you into its Soul Dimension and bring you here. To me. They seem to be under the impression that I am important and dear to you, so they chose me to greet you and explain some things. I must admit, I am flattered, Stark. I often wondered if you considered me a friend, too.”
A tear threatened to fall at the admission that he and Yinsen were friends in the other man’s mind. But he didn’t know how long he could stay here and if he was on a schedule, so he had to go back to business instead of just chatting it up with an old, long lost friend. “What sort of things? And why the Soul Stone? The Mind Stone could have probably done it a lot more easily.” After all, it had so easily gotten into their heads in the past. “Is it because it doesn’t have its own dimension or something?”
“Partially,” Yinsen admitted. “But mostly? Because this is the Stone you have the most affinity to.” At Tony’s dubious expression, he just chuckled. “I am assuming you are thinking something along the lines of the mind and logic being more likely associated with you than the matters of the soul and heart?” Stark hesitated before nodding and Yinsen shook his head. “Tell me. Your AIs? They’re all individual people with their own personalities, preferences, characters, opinions and choices, yes?”
“Of course.” Even Dum-E, his oldest and quite frankly simplest Artificial Intelligence, was a person, so to say. None of them were a copy of each other, not even Vision and JARVIS, despite them both practically sharing their basic coding.
“If they are people, does that not suggest they have their own souls?” At the shocked look Tony must have been sending him, Yinsen laughed in good, fond humor. “You are quite possibly the only person in the multiverse capable of creating true, artificial life. Your affinity was always closest to the soul, Stark. Thus the Soul Stone had the easiest approach to you. As for what sort of things,” Yinsen’s voice turned grim and serious and the genius drew himself out of his shock to pay attention. “I don’t know everything. I just know that you were always meant to wield all six Infinity Stones. You were born for primarily that purpose but then you became individually important for other things as well. The universe - and multiverse - depend on you. Your legacy, Stark, are not your weapons.”
Tony’s left hand flew up to the Arc Reactor in his chest. It wasn’t the same one that Yinsen had installed in his chest - hell, it wasn’t the same socket - but it was the ultimate form of the thing that had started his true journey. Not as the Merchant of Death, but as Tony Stark, Iron Man.
“Your legacy is Infinity. There are trillions of lives depending on you, Stark.” Yinsen told the gobsmacked engineer. “The universe has created you for the sole purpose of bringing back balance and ensuring its continued existence. The Stones call for you. Have you not felt Them?”
“No,” Tony automatically answered but was almost instantly frowning and shaking his head. “Yes? Maybe? I don’t ... I don’t know.” The brunet held his head with his right hand, his left indulging in an old nervous tick of his by tapping his fingers against the Arc Reactor. “How can I not know?”
“It is not the most obvious of siren calls, or so I was told.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Tony asked with a tired groan, massaging the bridge of his nose. He swears if he wasn’t just a soul in here that he’d have a raging headache right about now.
“You have the new Gauntlet. It is operational. You know what you have to do.” Yinsen snorted, saying it like it was obvious and expected. It kind of was but Tony didn’t really appreciate the sass.
“And just how the hell do you expect me to get the Infinity Stones into this thing? It will only work after I have at least one Stone in it in order for it to overpower the pull of Thanos’ Gauntlet. And in case you haven’t noticed,” he raised his Gauntlet-covered hand to show it off. “I don’t have any.”
“That can be changed.” Yinsen assured him and extended a hand, fist clenched and turned downwards. He walked closer to Tony, hand still extended, until he was within reach of the shorter man. Tony hesitated when Yinsen approached him, not mimicking his gesture because he was reluctant to cut this conversation short. Will he ever see or hear Yinsen again? Can he live with that? Knowing Yinsen was just ... floating somewhere inside the Soul Stone? “Stark, I know that this is too much to be asked of from you, even if it is the multiverse itself asking, that you are tired and that you have had enough,” the good doctor said in a gentle, understanding voice, hand still patiently offered to Tony. “I know you have fought so hard to do the right thing, to change your legacy, and I can’t tell you how honored and humbled I am that you have done it, even if only in small part, in order to honor my memory. I am so proud of you, Tony. You’ve changed the world all by yourself. But Earth is not the only one who needs you. You are the only one who can do this, Tony. I don’t mean to pressure you or anything, but I would be grateful to you if you could do this.”
Tony snorted at the attempt at a joke despite the truth of the words. “It’s not as if I can really say no, nor will I, Yinsen. I’m not that selfish.”
“A man who has been willing to die for a planet of people who have rarely given him anything but scorn three times is hardly a selfish man, Stark.” Yinsen said, his voice scolding and Tony was reminded of a different doctor who once had steady hands and had given up his life for him and his heart ached. “It is now time for you to stop trying to die for everyone, actually. You need to live for us now.”
Their hands were outstretched towards each other, but Yinsen did not open his fist even when Tony turned up his palm to accept whatever it was that the other man had wanted to give him. Confused, Stark met Yinsen’s eyes and the two just stared at each other until Tony sighed and turned his left hand over so that the back of it was facing Yinsen’s down turned fist. “I swear to you, as the man who made me the man I am today, that I won’t die for the universe but that I will live for it. I will live to make sure it prospers.”
“The word of the Sorcerer Supreme is more binding than any contract, Stark.” The doctor warned but the grip of his fist was already lighter, ready to open. “Even if he is a temporary one. Can you keep that promise?”
“I guess we’ll have to find out, won’t we?”
Yinsen smiled and his fist opened, revealing a brightly shinning orange crystal. It pulsed with power, dancing happily over the Gauntlet before it surged downwards to attach itself to the Gauntlet. Tony gasped at the energy that coursed through him at the contact, the power of the Soul Stone filling his very being, extending his awareness beyond the world as he had known it. Being in the astral dimension couldn’t compare to directly being connected to all of existence at once. It was definitely a new sensation.
When he opened his eyes - he wasn’t even aware that he had closed them in the first place - his surroundings remained the same, nothing and no one in sight or sensing distance, but Yinsen was gone. Instead of brown eyes meeting brown, they met incredible blue ones that had a special shade in the orange lighting. Lips surrounded by almost identical facial hair to his quirked in a smile as Tony’s eyes widened.
“Hello, Tony,” Doctor Stephen Strange greeted, as magnificent and mysterious as always and Tony’s eyes pricked with a surge of tears. “It’s been a while.”
“Yeah.” The genius said shakily. “Yeah it has. Seven days, I think.”
“I think we need to talk.”
Tony regarded the Sorcerer Supreme with mixed emotions that he couldn’t be bothered to even begin deciphering. They were too jumbled a mess. But he knew he felt one thing upon seeing Strange. “Yeah. Yeah we do.”
And that was surety.
There was still time.
There was still hope.
Tony was not going to waste it.
“Then let’s talk.”