Chapter 42: Chapter 42
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 two brilliant men just stared at each other for a long time, taking the other one in after that one hellish week that felt like a life time apart. No, eternity. Neither could quite believe they were standing in front of each other again, despite one having seen this moment happen before through the power of one Infinity Stone and the other was sensing the truth of the situation thanks to another Stone. It was as though they were worlds apart still, despite being only a couple of steps away in this pocket dimension.
Tony noticed that this pocket of the Soul Dimension was different than the one he had talked to Yinsen in. In fact, it was why he could tell this was a different pocket of spice in the first place. The place he spoke to Yinsen in was plain, for the lack of everything but the dead man’s presence and the orange tranquility of the place. Here, though, there was golden magic woven through the pocket dimension, belonging to none other than Stephen himself. Tony all but breathed in the sense of the other man. He had not even realized that he was so lonely because Strange no longer existed on the same plane of existence as him and he couldn’t feel him anymore until they were within sensing distance of each other. He had never realized he could miss someone so much and he had been missing his parents and Jarvis for twenty years, Yinsen for ten, JARVIS for two and his friends for the three months of his imprisonment in Afghanistan. Strange had been gone for only a little over a week and it felt unbearable.
Stephen had become a constant in his life when he had been cornered and Pepper and Rhodey weren’t enough to stand up to the pardoned rouge Avengers. Since the very first day they met, when Strange had protected him from first Mordo and then from Wanda, the sorcerer had been an unexpectedly close friend. He had given him back JARVIS and had resulted in a chance of survival for Vision should Thanos ever tear out the Mind Stone, like he had ended up doing, anyway. Stephen had been his support and his companion, a partner and a friend, for all of four months and Tony would be lying if he said that he didn’t secretly want Stephen to be a bit more. He never acted on it and he was a bit pissed that Strange had shown a similar inclination only seconds before he turned to dust.
Actually, his feelings towards the Sorcerer Supreme were extremely mixed right now. On one hand, he was supremely pissed at Stephen for daring to trade half of the universe - he won’t even think about the other half that was endangered because of the imbalance that came to be due to the above mentioned wiped out half - but on the other, he couldn’t help but be touched by both Stephen’s saving him again, putting him above someone else - had anyone ever done that for him before? Besides JARVIS, of course - and putting so much faith into him that he had entrusted the very multiverse he was supposed to protect with Tony despite his record of bad decisions. And, similarly to that dilemma, he both knew Stephen had not meant for Peter to disappear in the snap and was angry at him for allowing it to happen. Because Stephen had chosen this path. He had led them onto it and while it may be the only one that will eventually lead to victory, it still felt like too high a price had been requested. Let’s not even get into the whole Sorcerer Supreme candidate thing. That needed more thought than Tony could afford to spare right now. And Tony was not even sure how to respond to being the one Stephen had chosen to bear the responsibility of defeating Thanos and restoring the balance to the universe all on his own. What he did know for certain, though, was that he was extremely relieved to see him again. Despite the anger, despite the sorrow, despite the loss and the bitterness, Tony was just glad to have him back, even if only for this moment and only in this limited capacity.
“Was it worth it?” Tony asked when a long moment of silence stretched on without either of them saying something. “Was it worth it half of all life? Are we on the right path? Did you get it right?”
Stephen looked sad as he brought his hands together, almost as though in prayer. “I don’t know how much anyone has told you so far,” the former neurosurgeon began. “But this was something that was meant to happen, Tony.”
“Let’s pretend I don’t know anything, which really isn’t that far from the truth, all things considered.”
The sorcerer sighed tiredly but conceded. “The universe doesn’t just start and stop, Tony. There is no beginning and end, no birth or death. There is only a cycle, an unbreakable, unstoppable circle that repeats itself over and over again and in the center of that circle are the Infinity Stones. Ever and never changing, always the same and yet different with each repetition of the cycle. They shape the universe with each ‘rebirth’, make it that little bit different from the last one. That’s how the multiverse is formed but we can get into that some other time. The point is that this cycle keeps existence itself in balance. But the Infinity Stones always get scattered across the virgin universe upon it’s ... creation and they stay together for it’s ... destruction, when it eventually comes in the next repetition of the cycle. Following me so far?”
“I’m not an idiot, Strange,” Tony couldn’t stop himself from snapping, irritated with the pace of the ‘story’ even if he was fascinated by what the other man was saying. Stephen sadly accepted all that Tony was dishing out and continued.
“I know you’re not. It’s just that this is a very complicated matter. This is the truth of our existence, Tony. There is nothing about it in all the books in the universe.” Well, that was surprising enough for Tony to shut up and listen. Stephen took that as his cue to continue. “Do you wonder how the Infinity Stones come to be?”
“I’m guessing the two contenders have something to do with that,” Tony crossed his arms, not daring to look down at the golden Gauntlet on his left hand. The Soul Stone was there, shinning merrily, not at all sorry for the weight it had put on Tony’s shoulders. “I know Thanos and I are them, I just have no idea how the universe could be so fucked up to choose the two of us. There are far better candidates.”
“But that’s where you’re wrong,” Stephen corrected him gently, hesitantly moving a bit closer but still keeping his distance. “The Infinity Stones themselves don’t really care what becomes of the universe. They are aware that the cycle will repeat itself again so to them, it matters very little as to how much longer it might take for the repetition to come or if it will happen right now. That’s the thing with all things infinite: they don’t really care. The universe is stuck on this loop one way or the other and there is no way to leave it, so the Stones know they’re safe, that they will have a job to do soon enough in creating a new repetition. It doesn’t matter to them that the next one will be messier, that so many lives will not be born, that the universe’s population was half what it had been in every other repetition that came before. There will be plenty of time for the numbers to go back to normal, so why care.”
“Are you telling me this happened before, too? Someone like Thanos coming and killing half of all life?” A horrified Tony asked, face pale, arms trembling, fists clenched. “And the Stones lets it happen each time?”
“I think I didn’t explain quite right,” Stephen sighed again. “It’s like this,” he opened his hands and out came a handful of those butterflies he had used in his fight with Thanos. Tony hadn’t had the time to admire them the last time but he did so, now. They were really beautiful. “I created these butterflies from my own magic and they are mine, but I can’t control what they do once they get their own awareness of the world. I could, but that would require me to submit their will to my own, something that the Soul Stone and Mind Stone would be able to do should they wish to in any way influence what we all do to prevent or cause something.” Tony shuddered at the thought of mind control but didn’t interrupt Stephen’s explanation. “At one point, they will have to die and maybe they’ll be too far from me to help them, or there will be too many and I can’t act on my own. I’ll definitely outlive them, but, like with them, I can create more from the same magic I had used before.”
He made the butterflies vanish in a rain of golden sparks, leaving no traces that they had ever existed behind and Tony was sad to see them go. Then Strange put his hands back together before he opened them again and new butterflies emerged. They were just slightly bigger than the last ones and their color was just a shade bluer than the first turquoise ones.
“They will never be the same, even made from the same power they had been made the first time around. Imagine if I cared for every single one of them and if each and every one of their death’s affected me on a personal level so deep that their end feels like losing a part of myself. I’d lose my mind and tear myself apart just so I would stop feeling that pain. And if I do that, who will create the next batch of butterflies? It would mean the end of a cycle and if these butterflies were to be the representation of all of creation, the world would be a very empty place after maybe one or two repetitions at most.” All but one of the butterflies disappeared, the one remaining making a perch on Stephen’s outstretched, offered finger. “So, you see, the Stones aren’t allowed to care for what happens to each individual universe repetition unless they want to stop creation in its tracks. They gave us free will and exist on their own until someone learns of them and tries collecting them. The Infinity Stones’ only purpose is to create everything that is in the universe when they scatter through it upon the beginning of each new repetition. They reunite when it is time for the end of that particular repetition so they can scatter again in the next one. That’s it. Everything else that happens or that they are used for is because they don’t have bodies of their own or the right kind of consciousness for our silly minds to comprehend and so we, as in ordinary, mortal people, no matter the species, use them for our own ends. They have no part in it.”
“Wait,” Tony finally interrupted, slightly confused. “If what you’re saying is correct then what’s the whole purpose of the contenders or whatever? If the Stones only exist to create the things in every new universe that should be there from the beginning and then not interfere at all until the end comes, why would there be any contenders? Because people are constantly trying to use them? Because of others like Thanos?”
“The Stones have no body of their own, Tony. They have a container for their power - the crystals they are made of in the physical realm of existence - but they have no means to act on their own. So they search for conductors of their will, of their power, their energy. Mostly only temporary ones, people who are physically and mentally strong enough to handle them, but they are rare and easily disposable. They aren’t enough to keep all six Stones together, one of the six would eventually get greedy and try to take the other five’s Stones. And people have certain affinities in regards to the powers of the Infinity Stones. For example, I have an affinity for the Time Stone while Loki has for the Space Stone. We’re not exactly the best example because we’re powerful sorcerers and can tame the power of the other Stones enough not to hurt ourselves, but it would be taxing to use a Stone that is not according to our affinity. Anyone else would probably end up dead instantly. And that’s where to contenders come in.”
“The contenders have an affinity for each of the six Infinity Stones at the same time. They have an equal amount of understanding for each of the features of existence and are strong enough to withstand the onslaught of power that would come from the eventual combination of all six.”
“Then why make two?” Tony had a suspicion - balance in the universe and all that - but he’d like to have his suspicion either confirmed or denied. If Strange was finally so chatty about the future, then Tony won’t be the one to discourage him.
“There’s always the possibility one will turn out to be the rotten egg and that the Stones will need another to right the wrongs of the other one.” Stephen shrugged, letting the last butterfly flutter out of existence. Stark watched it go before turning back to his companion.
“I thought you said that the Stones couldn’t care for the end of every repetition.” He wasn’t even sure if it was a question or not. “That it won’t really matter whether the original number of lives that they enter the next repetition with is smaller than all the other times.”
“Did you simply not care when the Iron Legion was destroyed during the Ultron debacle, even though they hadn’t been AIs like JARVIS? Did you feel no remorse Ultron had turned out the way he had, even though it wasn’t your doing?” Tony winced at that but he could see Stephen’s point. He had been ready to do anything to make up for his mistake with Ultron. Perhaps the Infinity Stones ‘felt’ the same towards how their first contender had turned out and wanted to fix their mistake.
“But why me? I’m not exactly the best candidate for anything, let alone something this important.”
“Balance.” And Tony can’t help but snort at it this time. “No, seriously. Thanos is a destroyer. He sees a solution in destruction. You’re a creator. You search for solutions by creating new ones. Besides, you have that energy in you.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that, anyway?” It’s been bothering Tony for a while now. Mordo had been right about one thing, in all the other things he had been so spectacularly wrong. No one but Tony has ever been registered to have been born with power within them. If Stephen was revealing all, he might as well tell Tony why he was so different. The energy Tony possessed was something between the Arc Reactor’s unique signature, the signature of the power of the Infinity Stones and the signature of the dimensional energy sorcerers drew upon. Maybe Stephen can tell him now?
Apparently not, because he just shook his head with an apologetic furrow of his brows. “I’m sorry, Tony. But there are still so many things that I can’t tell you.”
“Does this fall into the never category or in the at a later date one?”
“Actually, you’re going to find out on your own,” Stephen surprised him with his answer. The Sorcerer Supreme just shrugged. “You’ll see eventually. All I can tell you is that it was partially to prepare you for the surge of power from the Stones, to prevent you from losing yourself.”
“Is that why you insisted - or rather, Wong did - on training me?”
The blue robed man nodded. “Sorcerers do pretty much everything that the contenders can do with the Infinity Stones, only on a much smaller scale. While the contenders instinctively understand all aspects of existence, sorcerers study them. We train to manipulate them. We have to, if we wish to protect our reality. What better advantage to give you, who is a couple of centuries younger than the Mad Titan and don’t have nearly as much experience or knowledge about the Stones due to how isolated Earth is compared to most of the cosmos, than the basic knowledge on how to control the powers you are meant to harness? Training you would make your job so much easier and would give you an edge over Thanos, who can only scratch the surface of the Stones’ powers.” Tony nodded. He could understand that. It made perfectly good sense. It also just so happened to align with Stephen’s need to make sure Mordo didn’t kill him before he could go up against Thanos for the sake of the universe. “And speaking of Wong, how is he? How is ... Everyone?” Thankfully, Stephen didn’t yet ask the How are you question. It didn’t mean he won’t ask it soon enough but Tony was thankful for the stall.
“The sorcerers at large are the best off, even if they’re scrambling for protectors of the Sanctums and Kamar-Taj. They apparently know enough of your plan that they had been ready and waiting to crown me the temporary Sorcerer Supreme,” he made sure he stressed the word temporary enough to convey to Stephen that the man better be back or else Tony was going to go after his magical ass.
The man didn’t even look apologetic, the asshole. “You were the best option. While there were other sorcerers that have more experience, you were the most powerful one left on Earth and had a mindset and personality most similar to my own. Earth and the multiverse would have been perfectly safe.”
“You’re coming back.” It was stuck somewhere between a demand, an order, a statement and a plea.
Stephen just smiled at him, though. “Of course I am. You’re bringing me back.”
As always, he was struck by the confidence Strange had placed in him. It had been there from day one and Tony had never stopped being surprised by Stephen’s trust. He wasn’t going to betray it, though. He won’t fail him. He won’t let him down. “Of course I am. Good. Glad we have that established.” He looked away she he wouldn’t see the gentle smile Stephen was sending his way. “The others are as well as you can imagine. Pumped up, though, now that we are making a plan. Ready to do some Avenging. Always ready for a fight.” He huffed and looked at the taller man from the corner of his eye. “I’m still angry with you, though.”
The doctor didn’t even need an explanation. “I’m sorry to have put you through all of this. I won’t try to defend myself by saying it was necessary or the only way. I refuse to insult you like that. I can only hope that you can find it in yourself to forgive me one day. Because I really am sorry, Tony.” Those blue-green-gray eyes were boring into him with nothing but honesty. It was hard to stay mad at someone who was so sincerely sorry. “You didn’t deserve to go through that.”
Tony gave an exaggerated sigh and turned back around to fully face Stephen again. “I guess I can forgive you.” They shared a grin that soon fell off of Stephen’s face and Tony’s followed, worry fulling his being instantly. “What? What is it?”
“You won’t have much time to prepare for Thanos when you return to the real world. It might not have been more than a few seconds out there as opposed to here, but as soon as Thanos realizes what had happened, he will set out to search for the missing Soul Stone. The energy from your Starkenium core won’t fool him for long. I give you ten minutes at most to get into battle stations.”
Tony glared, angry not at Strange but at Thor for so callously putting the Gauntlet on his hand without wondering at the consequences. He’ll seriously have to have some words with the original Avengers about responsibility and accountability. “Is there any way you might be in the position to tell me what strategy will work for the best?”
That drew Tony up short and he squinted at the doctor. “And that is?”
“Don’t get killed.” Stark rolled his eyes at that and huffed. “No, seriously. Don’t. If you die, there goes the rest of the universe.”
“You said it won’t just end but it feels like it’s going to implode in on itself any day now.” He had apparently managed to surprise Stephen with how well he sensed the energy of the universe because those blue eyes widened in shock. Only for a short while, though, before Stephen furrowed his brow and thinned his lips. “What? This can’t be another thing you can’t tell me about! This is serious, Strange!”
“You will find out soon enough,” was all the sorcerer said, shaking his head. “You should go now. You have much to do, still.”
That set a panic in Tony not unlike a fire and, strangely enough, the Soul Stone responded, the pocket dimension around them shivering and shuddering in response. Both men looked around, watching in curiosity and waiting for it to settle again before facing each other again. Tony tried not to show the panic that he was feeling, but Stephen must have picked up on it anyway because his eyes softened in that way that they do only for him and he marched forwards. Before the shorter man could register it, he was being hugged, a shaking hand drifting through his hair soothingly and Tony immediately wrapped his arms around Strange, too. The last time they had been even remotely like this, Stephen had turned to dust and drifted through his fingers. Tony knew they couldn’t stay like this but a part of him instinctively clung to the younger man, as if he could drag him back into the real world with him by force of will and the tightness of his hug alone.
“I know it’s going to be hard,” Stephen murmured in his ear, voice gentle and steady. “But I also know you are strong enough to take it and to undo this mess. You’re Tony fucking Stark. The universe should bow down to you for all the shit it’s put you through.” That, at least, got a snort from Tony, who didn’t feel at all up to laughing. “You just be you, Tony. Just do what you always do and don’t give up. That’s never failed you before and it won’t now, either.”
“I’m scared,” Tony admitted. He was. He was terrified. What if he couldn’t do it right? What if he somehow messed up? Sure, Tony has no plans of giving up, that would be as though he had simply rolled over and died for Thanos’ pleasure. Why do stubborn, ingenious doctors have to put such a high price on his life by sacrificing themselves for him? He wasn’t worth it.
Strange shushed him and Tony wondered if it was only to his admission or for his thoughts, as well. He wasn’t sure how much power Strange had in here but he wouldn’t put it past him to somehow be able to read Tony’s mind in here. “It’s all going to be alright. I left a gift for you. I’m sure you’ll like it. It will help you.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Tony insisted, bunching up Stephen’s robes in his fists. It was so strange that the Cloak was nowhere in sight. Tony had gotten used to its constant presence in the past week and it was downright weird to see it away from Stephen. He missed it right now. It would have been an even better hug had it been present.
“Then I will impart one more gift to you.” And just like that, Stephen gently gripped his chin with his shaking fingers and tilted the genius head up, his face leaning down and Tony could feel his warm breath on his his face. He closed his eyes and waited-
Tony awoke in the real world, surrounded by his dumbfounded fellow Avengers and a glowing Soul Stone on his left hand.