Chapter 50: Chapter 50
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.
Stephen guessed he should have been expecting this. It was a long time coming and it finally closed an era on the world and yet he had still been surprised when he received an invitation to the party that celebrated Thanos’ defeat and Rogers’ and the other rogues court results. Well, at least it was a celebration meant for the New Avengers, all their constant allies and SI’s secret service, which meant the party had to take place in either the Avengers Compound or in Stark Tower. Of course, the Tower was chosen because everyone was way more comfortable there than at the Compound, which had become a place of strictly business and only an emergency base. It could house the Milano, though, so it was the Guardians’ parking spot on Earth, too, but rarely anyone had any good experiences there so only Accords and UN meetings were held there. The Tower was the natural choice for something so casual as this was.
Tony had went well out of his way, with the help of Danny, Pepper, Shuri and Hope, to make this party a spectacle to be remembered for years to come. There was no dress code while the setting was something between a club and a ballroom, all tastefully decorated, including the new addition of a mural of all of their hero symbols on a giant diamond wall that caught the light in a most beautiful fashion that Stephen had ever seen, T’Challa’s, Tony’s, Hank’s and Danny’s gift to them all for a job well done. The music was a mix that they could all dance to, not too loud to discourage conversation, bubbly enough to be celebratory but most of it was meant for a very casual setting. There were drinks and food for all tastes and a giant dinner table had been dragged from somewhere and placed in the kitchen on Tony’s floor - the only floor big enough to house them all - even if there were smaller tables for anyone who might want some privacy or alone time. The whole Tower was engaged in the party, all floors, even the ‘candy land’ that were the R&D department and all the offices since SI employees were also invited, as well as their families and any guests they’d like to bring.
Most people had brought something along for the party: drinks, food, decorations, music, snacks, ice, a smoke machine and even a DJ stand. The entire Tower was so full of people that the sorcerers opened portals from the three Sanctums and Kamar-Taj or extended the big balcony on Tony’s floor with magic so they could all fit. Tony at some point figured using the Infinity Stones can’t hurt and pulled a Doctor Who, making the Tower bigger on the inside and cackling when Clint pointed out he could probably make a real life TARDIS now, to the horror of everyone. What was even more worrying is that Hank, Reed and Shuri insisted that they had to be a part of that project if he ever got bored enough to try it, which instantly drew Peter and Harley into the mix and all of Tony’s minions in R&D in on it. Bruce had insisted he’d keep an eye on them but his, Betty’s and Jane’s scientific interest had been peaked. At this point, Stephen wasn’t sure anything could stop them, especially if Selvig was somehow brought into this. And he actually looked tempted. Talk about a horror story.
The Guardians of the Galaxy had chosen to come back for the party. They had been traveling the universe, checking galaxy after galaxy to make sure every world was recovering but as soon as Thor and Nebula contacted them about the party, they had turned around and came for the party. Stephen felt like punching everyone who had ever caused Tony to be surprised when Nebula had declined to leaving because of him, having become so close with the genius and finding it unbearable to leave the one person who had accepted her like no other. The mutants had all come, as had a good number of Inhumans and Asgardians, the sorcerers coming in a slightly lesser number since someone had to be watching the multiverse for threats. Still, there was so many people there that Stephen had not been able to catch Tony alone the whole night.
Barton and Wilson were the only ones from the rouges that were there and Wilson actually had to come with his parole officer. He was on house arrest for the next twenty years of his life due to the damage he had caused when following Rogers. Yes, the former SHIELD agents had had a say in this, suing him, Rogers, Romanoff and Barnes for all the grief and damage they had caused them during the fall of SHIELDRA. That, combined with Germany’s demands after the Civil War mess, had landed the four a disaster of a lawsuit not even the most optimistic or skilled lawyer would attempt to tackle. Wilson even got off lightly, compared to Romanoff and Rogers. Barnes has yet to get a real trial, needing to become psychologically stable before he can be taken to court. Romanoff had the great misfortune to have the Soviets after her head. The Russians demanded that the last remaining offspring of their infamous Red Room be handed over so they could put her into an equivalent of a Black Widow RAFT and she can never be seen or heard from or inflicted onto the world ever again. Barton, since he had singed the Accords, agreed to retire and was serving his house arrest sentence without complaint, much like Scott - except the retired thing, that man won’t quit being a hero just yet, not by a long shot - was pretty much free to go.
Rogers ... Well, Stephen usually wasn’t a vindictive man but he was glad Rogers was out of their lives once and for all. And he was pretty sure no one here - except maybe Sam; they had been friends, after all - would disagree with him, least of all Tony or anyone else from the TSDS - was it weird that it sounded more like a disease when said short instead of Tony Stark Defense Squad? Maybe it was just his doctor side rearing its head. Steve Rogers had finally gotten what he deserved for all his hypocrisy and the things he had done. Sure, it was admirable to try and protect your friend, but innocent people were dying or getting injured or losing people they loved. Stephen is a doctor. He’ll never condone hurting others.
What really stumped them all was that Tony was one of the few people who will mourn the loss of Captain America. Perhaps more the ideal itself than the man, but it was still fact Rogers had been a big part of Tony’s growing up. Rogers had partially made Tony Stark into the man that he was now, today. Had Howard Stark paid more attention to his only son instead of chasing after what could have been a long dead man, Tony could have been a completely different person. Had Rogers not kept accusing him constantly about pretending to be a hero - and Stephen’s blood boiled each and every time he thought of that - Tony would have been a lot different. Had Captain America stopped blaming him for Ultron, Tony would have probably started the preparations a long time ago instead of waiting for Stephen to come around with news of the incoming end of the world type of shit and they would have been ready for Thanos when he came. And had Steve not barely killed Tony ...
“You look like you’re contemplating the time we have left until the next alien invasion we have to deal with and you don’t like the looks of it.” A very familiar and very dear voice said from next to him and Stephen looked down to Tony, who had come to stand by him and was nursing his first alcoholic drink since 2012, not counting that one time he had a drink with Loki while they discussed the Tesseract - that had been watered down to almost not even tasting like alcohol, for Tony at least. Loki had greatly enjoyed that old scotch. It took Stephen a second to realize just what Tony had said and his eyes widened in surprise. Meanwhile, the Cloak had been all too thrilled to wrap itself around the genius who was now watching Pepper, Christine, Carol and Hope talking. Wasn’t that a nightmare in the making.
“Did you seriously think Time wouldn’t tell on you? He’s a bit of a snitch.” Stark shrugged, still not looking at the flabbergasted sorcerer, instead warily watching Dante and Johnny doing fire tricks for Kamala and Storm. “Or a gossip. I can’t tell, all I know for sure is that he needs a laugh or five. He likes your reactions, apparently.”
"He?!” Tony now turned to look at him, a completely unimpressed look on his face, as if the say ‘Seriously?’ Stephen tried not to flush. “I wasn’t aware that you can talk to an Infinity Stone.”
“Oh, yeah! They’re all chatterboxes once you get to know ’em. Power and Space are a bit grumpy and Reality is like an overexcited child. Mind is the mature, cynical old dude and Time is the wise old man that can totally fit in with the youngsters. Soul is really sweet and kind and my favorite so far, but you didn’t hear it from me,” he said the last part in a stage whisper and Stephen watched how all the Infinity Stones glowed in protest or enjoyment. How he could tell that apart, he wasn’t sure, but he found the entire thing hilarious. “But I’m pretty sure we have other, more important, more immediate things to talk about. Like how you’ve been practically avoiding me since you guys came back.”
Stephen’s face gentled and he leaned down until he was eye level with the genius and enjoyed the blush it produced. So he had read that right. He tried not to get giddy about that fact. “Sorry. I had to reassert my ... dominance, you could say, in some dimensions as the Sorcerer Supreme. And between Mordo and Maximoff ... ”
They both made a face at that. Neither Mordo nor Maximoff were an easy case to handle, either for Kamar-Taj or for the Accords and UN Councils. Both sides just wanted to get rid of them and dump them on to the other side, but that was easier said than done as both sides were involved in this or that way. There were a lot of headaches involved but it was all solved now. Wanda had a year to change the err of her ways or else her powers will either be sealed off or removed entirely. She had no chance of ever becoming an Avenger again, not even as a consultant, and she won’t ever go out into the field with the sorcerers. The best she can do is become stable for her own sake and the sake of all the people she could end up hurting. It’s the best they can do for her. If she doesn’t change, as Sorcerer Supreme, Stephen was obliged to make sure she can never again use her powers against anyone. T’Challa’s previous efforts to secure her a pardon and prevent her from facing the justice she deserved after that Christine-Tony incident still stood, but she was on thin ice. One more mistake on her part and that was it. As for Mordo, Tony becoming the temporary and then the Vice Sorcerer Supreme had worsened his case. It had already been decided he will never get his powers back, but they can’t let him go, either. Magic or no magic, Mordo was a skilled fighter and he would go after the sorcerers who didn’t use their magic for ‘the right reasons’ - were there any real right reasons? - either way. He was dangerous and he had tried to escape Kamar-Taj a couple of times now, so he had been sent to keep Thanos company in their new, impossible to escape prison. Stephen still mourned the lost friendship and his mentor, but he was the Sorcerer Supreme and it was up to him to make sure all magic users on Earth used their magic safely and not to the cost of others. Mordo, at least, admired him for that, even though he still cursed Stephen’s name for allowing Stark to get all the Stones and the other Masters for voting Stark into a place of power within the multiverse.
If there were guards in the prison itself, Stephen didn’t doubt they’d gag the man after only an hour.
Tony shook his head and turned to fully face the taller man, Strange mirroring him, the party long since forgotten where the both of them were concerned. “You still could have told me.”
He felt like looking away, not in shame but in discomfort. Mordo had been right about one thing. The bill comes due, always. And it had. A long time ago. Stephen had just never been aware of it until he looked into the future. “I wasn’t ready to accept it myself and we both had enough on our plates without having to discuss my mortality. Or lack, thereof. Apparently,” he sighed, now actually looking away from those all too understanding amber eyes that he had come to love. “The price for defeating Dormammu by upsetting the natural law the way I had with the Time Stone is becoming timeless myself. Dormammu will not dare leave the Dark Dimension as long as I draw breath, so I will draw breath forever more. I am the last Sorcerer Supreme Earth will ever have, because I am quite immune to death. I guess Thor and Loki will get pissed when eventually even they turn old and gray and I still look younger than them.”
Stark chuckled at that, saluting with his drink in a rather mocking manner. “Cheers to immortality. At least I won’t be lonely in waiting for Galactus.” Stephen whipped around, startled, at the name of the Devourer so easily slipping past Tony’s lips, alarmed by him even knowing it when he only knew it from having used the Time Stone to study their future, this future outcome, to the very end. Not to mention many others where the universe didn’t live even this long if the Snap wasn’t reversed.
Thanos put up a great fight, but you cannot battle a being older than the multiverse itself.
“Did you think I wouldn’t know?” Tony interrupted his predictable question, he being the one to avert his gaze this time. “I knew since I snapped my fingers to bring you guys back. The Stones told me all about them and their origin and how this cycle begins and ends. In great detail. They asked for me to stay with them.”
“If you had, you wouldn’t have been ... restarted.” Stephen figured it was the best word he could find, staring at Tony with new understanding. So that was why it was so hard to get him breathing again on that day. Communicating with the Stones on a plane of existence where they can speak probably interfered with, well, living. If Tony had decided to stay ... What would have happened until this repetition came to an end and Galactus came for the power necessary to recreate the next universe? Would Tony have even been aware? “You’d remember everything that happened here but would have lived in a new version of our universe. You could have changed so many things ... ”
“It was tempting.” Tony admitted with a shrug. It was only natural to be tempted by the prospect of doing things differently, fixing any mistakes you may have made in your first attempt at life. A second chance. Not many are offered it. Countless others would have accepted immediately. Not Tony Stark. “But I knew it wouldn’t be fair. I’d look at all these people I knew with the eyes of an old man and I’d try to change them, mold them into a shape they weren’t meant to be yet. I’m not God. It’s not up to me to decide how life goes. And I’d know how it all ends, when all things are said and done. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be right. And it would be lonely. It would hurt, having to watch certain events happen again. I’m a very selfish man, Doc. I don’t want to feel that pain and loneliness.”
Stephen was tempted to snort at the selfish comment - if there was ever a person in the entirety of existence that wasn’t selfish, it was Tony Stark, the man who saw no worth in himself and was ready to die for everyone else; just how had Romanoff declared him to have narcissistic tendencies? Was she blind or stupid or something? Probably both, seeing how she had misjudged both Tony and Rogers - but he refrained from doing it. It wasn’t the time for that. “You’ll probably get the offer again, when the time is up.”
“I’ll still decline.” The billionaire replied casually, not even hesitating. What threw Stephen off balance were his next words and he felt a bit winded. “It won’t be you.”
“What?” ‘Great, Stephen. Just great. Show off how smart you are, how many words from a dictionary you memorized thanks to your photographic memory. That’s sure to impress him.’ Stephen could have thrown himself into the Dark Dimension with how embarrassed he was to have been reduced to one word questions for most of this conversation, which was also long overdue.
“It won’t be you, in the next repetition. You’ll be someone else. You won’t know me. And I don’t want that.” Somber brown eyes met his evenly, conveying the sincerity of Tony’s words. “Not to mention that I will know what will happen to you and that I’d have to let it. I don’t want to live in a world where I could stop your pain but will have to let it be for the good of the universe. You’re not the only one feeling this way, Stephen.”
Said doctor’s eyes widened at those words, watching as a flush came over his companion’s cheeks but Tony didn’t turn away to try and hide it. Instead, he stared stubbornly up into Stephen’s eyes, clutching at his drink with his right hand while the left one was twitching, as though he was fighting the urge to tap a rhythm on the Arc Reactor like he usually did when he was stressed. The Sorcerer Supreme could hardly believe what he had heard. It just didn’t sound possible that his feelings were returned, that this ... thing between them was mutual. There was, of course, the possibility that Tony felt this way because he knew the two of them would one day probably be the only living beings remaining as they waited for this repetition of the universe to end, but Tony Stark had never been the type to simply roll with something if it seemed to be out of his control. This was real. It was actually happening. It wasn’t a dream or a far-fetched possible future of a dying universe. It was reality, this reality.
Stephen couldn’t hold himself back, sweeping in and doing what he had wanted to do almost from day one. He cast the Mirror Dimension around them and pulled Tony into his arms, hugging him tight as their lips met for the first time. They both ignored the shattering of Tony’s glass of whiskey as he threw his arms around Stephen in turn, reciprocating the kiss as they clung to each other as if the world was ending right then and there. The Cloak of Levitation thrilled around them as it wrapped itself around both men and drew them closer, not that either man minded. The Cloak was as part of their lives as Tony’s AIs were and they were likely to stay that way until it all came to an end.
The Infinity Stones shone brightly with their chosen contender’s happiness and Stephen knew that Loki, Thor, Nebula, Vision and JARVIS were all too aware of what was going on away from prying, curious eyes in the Mirror Dimension, since he himself could feel it, too, the Time Stone sending echoes of Tony’s feelings through the bond it shared with its Stonekeeper. The Ambassador of Time wondered if JARVIS and Nebula will try to take retaliation or give him even more shovel talks when they see him next. Quite possible. It was also quite possible that the Infinity Stones themselves will give him one, too. And yet none of that was nearly as important as holding Tony close after all this time.
Yes, hell awaited them in the upcoming years, watching their friends grow old and die and them realizing that the two were cursed with immortality. Yes, there will be demons and monsters and aliens and tyrants to fight in the years to come, but it was their job, their burden, one which they carried with pride and determination. And yes, they were bound to see the end of it all and feel it all end, when it does, but they will know that they have done their best to extend this repetition, to the very best of their abilities, and that they have done good. They will lose so many people, but meet so many others, as well! And they will always have each other, even when the other Ambassadors no longer live - even androids, cyborgs and Asgardians have a date of death, long after the death of many worlds as it may be - and that will be enough. It will be enough until their own deaths. They will have not wasted their lives, because they will have saved so many people, perhaps even finally setting the balance of their past mistakes and their attempts to right them.
Death is what gives life meaning, the Ancient One had told Stephen in her last moments, holding his hand like a lost, frightened child, even with all her knowledge, years and experience. He was glad he will have someone’s hand to hold when his own end comes. And, as he looked into Tony’s eyes when they pulled apart, silly smiles on their faces even as tears rolled down their cheeks, Stephen Vincent Strange knew he would have never wanted anyone more to have in those moments than Anthony Edward Stark. They were birds of a feather, two of a kind, meant to see this through together and he will never regret any of his choices if they have led him to this here moment, right now.
They have reached the endgame, but this is only the beginning.
And they will see it through. Together.
Like they were always meant to.
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