Chapter 46: Chapter 46
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.
When he opened his eyes next, Tony found himself facing ... nothingness. Like the black vastness of space but with no stars, galaxies or planets in sight. There was only ... empty space in front of him, as though nothing existed in the cosmos. There was nothing. It was all empty, void of life, of matter, of energy and Tony was the only one there. He was all alone, not even JARVIS or FRIDAY there to keep him company. The only thing that existed here - wherever here actually was - was Tony himself and he was the only thing giving light to this plane of existence - was it existence at all if nothing besides himself existed here? - because he was apparently glowing.
Or rather, the Arc Reactor was still in his chest and it’s familiar blue light was making it possible for Tony to see at all. Had it not been for the one thing that had set him on the right path, that had been keeping him alive for years, that reminded him that he had so much more to do and give to the world, he would have been surrounded by infinity darkness and Tony hated darkness ever since Afghanistan. JARVIS had had to keep holograms on in his bedroom - when he bothered to go to his room for sleep at all, that is - for years. New York had reinforced that fear of darkness and cold and Siberia had driven it home that he will never be comfortable with darkness around him ever again. Extremis was a blessing where that was concerned because it was never dark behind his eyelids. Not to mention that FRIDAY and JARVIS could interrupt any nightmares that tried to take hold. But he had neither of them here to remind him that he wasn’t left alone in front of a burning Chitauri army in far space with the fallout of a nuclear explosion about to kill him. He didn’t have the Cloak of Levitation or Peter making a ruckus close by to assure him that he wasn’t isolated from everything and everyone he knows in a place where he has next to no power.
He didn’t have Stephen to show him that he could have power even here.
He was alone. He was all alone and it was terrifying.
Until it wasn’t because he wasn’t alone anymore. He felt six presences around him, surrounding him and suddenly the blackness around him was no longer so infinite. A feeling of snide amusement surged through him, but it was not his own. The world took on a purplish tinge as a booming voice made itself known, snorting.
-How easily these little creatures define everything without a foreseeable end ‘infinite’.-
/Do not be so hasty to judge./ The world turned green, the voice sounding far more patient and much, much wiser. It reminded Tony of a certain doctor wizard he knew, but the intonation of the voice was all wrong, almost like Stephen’s voice patterns were turned upside down. It was raspy and not as deep as Stephen’s, but his way of speaking reminded Tony the most of his Awesome Facial Hair Bro. To be expected. Tony was pretty sure these were the Infinity Stones he was somehow communicating with so clearly like this and he guessed they had chosen their own voices and the Time Stone - if the green sheen of the world was anything to go by - had chosen to imitate its Keeper to an extent. /Human lives are rather short and swift but some of them see far beyond what long lived races never understand./
::I agree. Although that, sometimes, is not a good thing.:: Tony flinched at the familiar, synthetic voice of none other than Ultron as the world turned yellow. He had half expected it to turn red or maybe even that electric blue that had indicated mind control back in 2012, even if he knew Scarlet Witch’s powers and the Tesseract are nothing like the pure power of the Mind Stone.
\That, though, is not entirely their fault.\ The world did turn red this time, as a voice that sounded like a thundering, loud version of Jane Foster’s voice that had been put through a Thor filter. \They are such curious creatures, wanting to understand and explain everything in their own layman terms.\
::I rather doubt that it is layman to them.:: The world turned back to yellow as the Mind Stone replied.
)They can be a bit annoying, at times.( The new voice sounded like a female version of Loki’s voice as the world became the color of the Tesseract and the Space Stone it had once housed. Tony did his best not to let his face show his reaction to the - so far still - dead Asgardian’s voice.
/I find my own rather interesting./ Tony swore he was going to get epilepsy simply from how much they were changing the color scheme of what had once been a very dark world as it changed back to green.
::Yes, I guess observing the world through another’s eyes is somewhat entertaining.:: There goes yellow again. Seriously, he would prefer being color blind right then.
-At least your handlers were not hellbent on abusing your power to eradicate all that you helped make at the new ‘big bang’, that’s what they call it now, yes?- The Power Stone actually complained as purple took over again. Tony was reminded of the way Peter and Harley or, especially, Kamala complained when Dante was teasing them. He will be honest and say he had never expected the Infinity Stones to act as unruly teenagers, but if that was their drift, then he wasn’t complaining. After all, he at least had some experience in dealing with kids and next to no experience in dealing with eternal entities the likes of the Infinity Stones.
)Yes, but his handler is either an idiot or a genius for handing him over in exchange for a human life.( The Space Stone snarked and Stark wondered if he had misheard or if the Stone had just referred to the Time Stone as a he. Did the Stones have that much self-awareness for them to consciously give themselves a gender? Why weren’t there more texts on the Stones that had the power to both make and unmake the universe!?
~We are self-aware and sentient enough to realize you will feel far more comfortable with genders instead of genderless, abstract beings without voices or separate personalities, so we adjusted.~ A new voice filled the space around him as it lit up, for the first time since the Stones had started speaking, that same comforting orange of the Soul Dimension. The same shade Tony had given JARVIS digital representation since day one. And the voice that spoke for the Soul Stone was one that had Tony on an emotional roller coaster, since it wasn’t truly only one voice. It was an intertwining mix of JARVIS and FRIDAY, Jarvis and Aunt Peggy, Maria and Howard and Yinsen and Pepper, sounding feminine despite it containing the echo of all these voices speaking in sync, like a chorus. It was the strangest but most comforting sound Tony had ever experienced in his life and he wasn’t sure if he was relieved or saddened that Strange’s voice wasn’t in the mix somewhere. This was his family and the people who have changed his life. Stephen deserved to be in there, too. ~And Stephen was indeed a genius for saving our Chosen. You know that, sister.~
)Oh please.( Came the Space Stone’s voice again. )He could have protected our Chosen instead of dooming the universe and every future repetition of it. There had to have been a way.(
/I was under the impression that I was the only one with such foresight./ Came Time’s voice again and this time it was definitely filled with all of Stephen’s sarcasm. Tony snorted because he couldn’t help himself. This was ridiculous. These were entities older than existence itself, trapped in crystallized matter to act as conducts of their power that could create and destroy the universe with the same ease as merely, simply being with infinity - quite literally - power and they were acting like childish versions of his friends, bickering like ... Tony froze at the thought, eyes widening. ‘Like me and my friends.’
\We find your kind very entertaining.\ The Reality Stone said with a giggling sort of impression in her? voice, reading his mind. \It is quite fun, watching how you interact.\
/I thankfully have first row view of the best fun./ Tony wanted to roll his eyes at Time’s amused voice as the world bled green again. /The way my Stonekeeper reacts to the world is hilarious although his infatuation with you is not all that pleasant to watch. It is pathetic, if I am to be honest./
::My own position to watch has also given me a perfect view of a pathetic romance and it was not your own crush with the Sorcerer Supreme.:: Tony flushed under Mind’s sarcastic remark and hoped that the Infinity Stones couldn’t ... feel it?
~Oh, we can.~
“Fuck.” The world around him vibrated and filled with all six colors of the Stones and Tony was sure he flushed harder. Judging by how his own aura of electric blue spread, he may as well have. His mind was filled with amusement that was not his own and Stark groaned. Great. He was now sharing his mind with a bunch of childish, moody teenagers.
/I take offense to that./ The green took over as Time spoke with a huff but Soul only chuckled. She? agreed with the genius and was not afraid to show it.
-Who are you, who is not even five decades old, to call us ... teenagers of your own species?- Purple took over next as Power sent the sensation of scowling at him. Tony could not quite place his voice. It sounded like a mix of Fury and Quill, maybe with a filter of Hulk and Nebula’s accent? Or he could be wrong. For all he knows, besides the Soul Stone, the other Stones might as well all have their own voices or had took over voices from someone else and not Tony’s friends and family - yes, even Ultron was family. He was just the black sheep. -Oh, no. We did take the voices of your friends and family that we liked or found suited our own personalities. Although I find the green beast appalling.-
/Then why choose to add it into the mix?/ Time challenged and Tony imagined he was arching an eyebrow just like Stephen would.
-Because he is, unfortunately, one of the physically strongest individuals in the universe.- Came the equally challenging retort. -Unlike your little flesh-bag.-
/My little ‘flesh-bag’ is one of the most powerful magic wielders in the multiverse and actually has a brain to be proud of. I approve of my Keeper. You are just jealous, brother./
~I can see why you attribute them to children.~ The Soul Stone sounded sympathetic and Tony found the entire situation hilarious and he wondered if that was because he was also partially hysteric by what he was going through. After all, he had been through a quite literal hell in the past decade of his life, most of all in the past year. Although what made the past year so unbearable was actually the fight against Thanos itself, although dealing with the rogues wasn’t exactly something he had enjoyed.
\Perhaps we should focus on the matter at hand.\ The world turned red again, overwhelming the other colors as she pointed to the elephant in the room - or rather Tony in this strange void when he should have been back on Earth. Or dead. Reversing the snap should have drained him of his own energy or killed him if the core in the Gauntlet was even one percent off. To be here could mean a whole lot of things. He could be dead, for all he knows, and the Stones had given him these last few moments to accept that. Or he could be getting his bill due, as Mordo likes to say and insist it always eventually happens, for all that he has done so far. And not just his own magic but also for using the Infinity Stones now. Everything had its price, even saving the universe.
::You are not dead, not to worry, our Chosen.:: The Mind Stone drawled in a bored sort of voice, obviously not really interested in the worries of mortal men about their life/death in the same manner Ultron himself had not cared about the human race’s, well, humanity. ::It would be a great travesty for you to have expired from such an easy feat.::
“Easy!?” The incredulous genius exclaimed, trying to find a source to glare at or direct his disbelieving gaze onto, but, as had been noted before, the space around him was still as empty as it had been when he had first opened his eyes. It didn’t matter that there was now color, it was all still a void of nothingness. “That wasn’t easy! Restarting the universe is not easy! Not for us who are not blessed to be an Infinity Stone!”
\You didn’t seem to be having difficulties in doing it.\ Tony didn’t know how to react to that because he hadn’t had any problem in actually achieving what needed to be done. There was some strain but it hadn’t been painful or unbearable. Injecting himself with Extremis had been more painful, if he was honest with himself. The burn of the serum as it rewrote his body to heal it from all the punishment it got dealt over the years was far worse than the sensation of the Infinity Stones leeching his energy in order to correctly fulfill the task he set before them. That had indeed been ... easy. Simple. His energy intertwined with the energy of the Stones without a hitch or so much as a second of hesitation, aided by the Arc Reactor’s own unique energy signature that absorbed any strain that might have come his way. And since the Arc Reactor was acutely connected to Extremis, which was connected to Tony’s own brain, Tony had created a perfect loop for himself to take the strain of the Snap reversing without being damaged in return.
/I don’t think that he had wanted that pointed out to him, sister./
::Human minds are so easy to break.::
-Can we please return to the important business?- The purple took over again, silencing the other Stones before it returned its - and their’s - attention back to the only human here. The only mortal being here. -Your journey does not end here, our Chosen. There is still much for you to do.-
“Um, okay?” Tony said a bit uncertainly, eyes flicking from side to side in the habit of looking around for an explanation on someone’s face but there was no face to give anything away. That was both disconcerting and annoying. “Mind elaborating that?”
)Thanos is far from the most dangerous threat in the universe, let alone the multiverse, to deal with.( The Space Stone finally spoke up after its long bout of silence. Its blue wasn’t exactly the color of Extremis and it certainly didn’t leave Tony feeling safe but he was getting used to its color as much as the Mind Stone’s voice. Slowly. Very slowly.
~We don’t want this repetition to be over just yet.~ The Soul Stone explained after feeling Tony’s confusion. Sure, Strange had said that the Stones would like to keep each repetition as similar to the last one while having dozens of differences, but he had never exactly expressed that the Stones might like some repetitions more than others.
\There are still so many things that can be done.\
/There is plenty of potential here that would be wasted if this repetition were to end too suddenly, before its time is up./
::We have many plans that have yet to be executed.:: Tony was getting a whiplash from all these sudden color changes. He may be in need of a doctor by the time this was all over.
-These threats endanger our plans and shorten our time to execute them properly. It may eventually lead to some grave consequences in future repetitions that we cannot undo if we don’t do things right here and now.-
)But we can’t do these things on our own.(
/Nor can we fight these threats./
\Which is where you and the six ambassadors come into play.\
“I’m sorry, what?” The human interrupted, trying to follow, making the right leaps to do so but this was seriously confusing him now. Ambassadors? What ambassadors!? And six of them? Oh, this was just great. How was this his life again?
~Ambassadors of our power, our Chosen.~ The Soul Stone was kind enough to enlighten him. ~Besides our two contenders, we choose twelve ambassadors who will be loyal to one or the other contender. Six for each.~
/We try to choose those who we believe will be able to live long enough to see the beginning of the end./ Tony frowned in the green light, now truly stumped.
“Well, I hate to break it to you, but Stephen isn’t immortal to see this ‘beginning of the end’ thing. He’s as human as I am. Probably more so, what with the Extremis now in my system. He won’t exactly last all that long unless he draws on the energy from the Dark Dimension, which I can tell you right here and now that he won’t. The longest he’ll live is maybe a hundred plus. And while we’re on the topic of ‘here’, where am I?”
~You are at the point where the elements of existence collide, where nothing but us can exist. Here, the universe begins its cycles each time and here they end.~ The Soul Stone replied, the nothingness taking on that pretty orange shade that reminded Tony of home because it reminded him of JARVIS and a little bit of Stephen and Wong, whom he had always felt safe and at ease with. Wasn’t it ironic that a pair of sorcerers made Tony more comfortable than most other people, especially with his experience with magic. ~This is our domain.~
“Then how come I’m here?” The inventor all but demanded, pleased to be getting some answers.
/You are now a part of us just like we are a part of you./ The world was green again and Tony closed his eyes against the familiarity of that voice but knowing his friend wouldn’t be there to look back at him. /You can be brought here through our combined power should we wish an audience with you./
“And why am I here?” That was the million dollar question, wasn’t it? Tony would really like to know because he had absolutely no idea. They kept spouting things about ambassadors and contenders and longevity and who knows what else. He was too old for this shit. And that threat they kept talking about ... Tony had suffered through six years of knowing about Thanos when no one else would believe him. He couldn’t go through that again. Never again. It had been too much the first time around. He can’t just ... go back to something like that and live through it again.
/And you won’t./ He almost jumped at the suddenness of the words when he had been getting lost in his own thoughts. /My Keeper would never leave your side. He has sworn to himself an oath to protect you and help you however he can and however much you let him./
)My own ambassador would believe you.:: The Space Stone stated with surety that was so usual for Loki that Tony wasn’t even surprised by it in the Space Stone’s feminine drawl. ::He had been too often on the receiving end of scorn and disbelief to not know what it is like to have no one listening when you are giving them fair warning. He has seen enough to know never to brush someone off.(
::My chosen ambassador has already sworn to always listen to you. He had seen how much you need someone lending you an ear. He had seen you need someone to believe you. That your concerns are rightful.::
\You only need the Ambassadors to listen to you.\
-Everyone else is of little consequence. The Ambassadors are meant to help you. The rest matter not.-
~As for why you are here,~ the Soul Stone continued, answering his question once again. ~We have summoned you here to ask whether you would wish to stay here. With us.~ At his stunned silence, the comforting voices of his dearest and nearest rushed to explain. ~It would be like falling asleep, outside of here. Your body would be fine. But you would be here, away from all that has been causing you this pain and suffering that you don’t wish to ever repeat. We would keep you safe and away from all that upsets you and would only send you back to your body if there was a need for it, for your and our intervention. You can come and go as you please, of course. It is your choice.~
“But why would you want to keep me here at all?”
-You are not the same anymore, our Chosen. Our power has changed you. You are not the same measly human you were.-
“I’m sorry, what!?”
~We need you, Anthony Stark.~ The Soul Stone once again was quick to speak with him. Its power washed over him, as comforting as the voices, as the orange light it emitted, and Tony couldn’t help but stop mid-panic attack. ~The universe needs you. We all do. Because only you can help us. There are threats bigger than Thanos that would bring about a swifter end to this repetition. We should like to avoid that, if at all possible.~
/We would like to know whether you will help us./ The Time Stone continued. /What we would ask of you to do is not easy. Especially as we wish to remain with you until the very end of this repetition. Some events have been set into motion that threaten to accelerate the coming of that finish. There will be many obstacles and many hard places. The decisions you make will have many consequences and you will have to watch them take place. There is much to do and many preparations to make before the Devourer comes./
\There is much you must yet learn.\
-The fate of many lives rests on your decision.-
::Several whole dimensions and dozens of planets are at stake.::
)There are at the very least three civilizations that depend on you.(
Tony got the feeling that the Soul Stone was very sheepishly smiling at him as it said ~No pressure.~ He rolled his eyes. As though he needed to be persuaded to do all that needed to be done to save people. He had spent too many years endangering and taking lives with his weapons while letting Obadiah take the reins of his company and dealing under the table with terrorists. He still had much making up to do. He may not have fired or sold those weapons, but they were his creations and each of his creations had a little piece of himself in it. It was usually a good thing because it meant his things were better than other people’s products but it also had the unfortunate side effect of it being a personal thing when his creations in any way negatively affected the lives of others. He never allowed himself not to care - not even to pretend not to care - ever again. Obadiah’s betrayal and Yinsen’s sacrifice had given birth to Iron Man and Tony stark had nourished the hero through his own hardships over the years. It was practically instinct now to throw himself in the way of danger to save or protect someone.
The Infinity Stones were asking him to do just that. To protect and save. To fight for those who can’t fight on their own. To do what Iron Man has always done. Not to avenge. To protect and preserve.
“What do I need to do?”