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A Bend in the Universe

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It was over.

Ten years earlier, Tony Stark decided to commit to this whole hero business. He made that announcement, he took the code name, he did the PR interviews, he upgraded suit after suit after suit after suit. In the years that followed, he learned what the stakes really were. This was far beyond a betrayal by an old family friend of Tony's. It was even beyond one Asgardian prick who tried to invade New York, or robots taking over the world. During the course of his stint as Iron Man, Tony had learned that the stakes weren't targeted deaths or destroyed buildings, like he'd once thought in a beautiful home on the Malibu coastline.

The real stakes they faced were the end to everything.

And they'd lost.

It was over.

Everything was over.

He was alone on a dead planet, without even the bodies of the people he hadn't been able to save. Those space-faring lunatics had disappeared into nothing while he watched. The big guys just seemed confused, as did the girl with the alien antenna, but the blue one had simply laughed bitterly and shaken her head as she watched herself blow away on the wind. Dead, she was the only one who'd actually been able to accept what was happening.

Tony couldn't accept it. Peter's death was a gaping wound that wouldn't close, like it had felt when Obadiah ripped that arc reactor out of his chest. Back then, he'd had a goal to reach: get to that back-up reactor and he'd have a chance. There was no more back-up, now. They had their chance. They'd lost. He'd lost. And now it was his job to sit on an alien planet, entirely alone, with nothing but his realization of failure to keep him company.

His fingers twitched against his remaining blaster.

He had a way out, at least. But, considering how he'd failed everyone—how he'd failed the kid—it probably wasn't fair to take that easy exit. Dehydration was supposed to be a painful death and he deserved that.

When he heard someone else, it took him a second to realize what that noise meant.

Someone else was alive. With a sudden inhalation, Tony leapt to his feet and spun wildly, searching for whoever was there. Wait. Who was even left? Who hadn't he watched disappear? There was only—

"I'm sorry. It was the only way," Stephen Strange said in apology. He was flat on the ground, hidden behind wreckage from their earlier fight against Thanos. With the red of the Cloak spilling around him, it took Tony a second to notice that red was on his hands, too.

He's hurt, Tony realized. Whatever stupid fucking reason he'd had for handing over that Time Stone, they could deal with it later. There was exactly one person left for Tony to save and he was not going to watch that person die like he'd watched everyone else leave him.

"Let me get that," Tony said and knelt at Stephen's side. His fingers tapped the nano-sealed wound in his own abdomen.

"Wait," Stephen said. Short, pained breaths were coming out of him. "I can tell that I'm developing a hemothorax. It needs to be resolved."

"Okay," Tony said uncertainly, with no clue what that meant.

Stephen didn't bother filling him in. "Can that nanogoop of yours form a tube?" His bloody hand lifted off his chest. Though Tony had expected to see a dramatic puncture wound under it, the only blood came from a relatively shallow wound in his side. His chest, where he'd been desperately clutching, looked uninjured. Lifting his shaking hand, he extended his fingers to show certain dimensions. "About that long, this big in diameter?"

A few seconds later, Tony had formed the requested object. "Now what?"

"Move my clothing enough to expose this spot," Stephen said and tapped a place below his heart, on his left side. "Feel for the ribs there."

Tony frowned. He didn't like where this was going. With the hand not holding the nanotube, he pried one side of Stephen's overlapping shirt material out of the way and sucked in a deep breath at what was under it. Now he saw why the man had been ignoring the wound further down. A purple, bloody flower bloomed under Stephen's pale skin. When he pushed hard enough to feel the ribs, as instructed, Tony realized that the amount of blood was making Stephen's chest rigid and unyielding.

He's dying, Tony realized and felt sweat bead on his upper lip. He's dying right in front of me. Like everyone else.

"Stark," Stephen snapped, "have you located the spot between the ribs?"

The man's harsh tone was a lifeline to reality. "Yeah. Got it."

"You need to direct that tube between the ribs and into the pleural cavity so that the excess blood can drain." When Tony just stared back, Stephen rolled his eyes and clarified, "Make a hole and then shove that tube into me."

"You seriously want me to stab you in the chest."

"I am telling you," Stephen gritted out, "that I need your help to save me. So unless you want to watch me die, I recommend that you follow my directions. Now." His breaths were rapid, shallow drumbeats.

After a sick, cold twist at the base of his stomach, Tony created a small spike of nanomaterial and aimed it at Stephen's chest. That resolve lasted exactly as long as it took for the man to hiss in pain after Tony had pieced an entrance hole for the tube. Tony's courage faltered and his hands lifted free. "You're seriously, actually telling me to really stab—"

One corner of the Cloak slapped Tony across the face, hard.

"Right," Tony said, carefully placed the tube over the wound he'd made, and pushed. As the nanotube sank into Stephen, dimpling the skin around its edges, Tony felt a sudden, clunking resistance at its base.

"You've hit the ribs." Stephen swallowed and lifted his hand to prod at the wound Tony had made in him. Blood spilled from the puncture, and so he was able to slide his fingertips easily around to feel for what he needed. After making that check, he placed his crimson-coated hand on Tony's and applied pressure, changing the angle of Tony's approach. "Like this."

Tony grimaced as he watched Stephen's skin bulge over the nanotube as it shifted inside him, but resumed pushing. There was still resistance, but Stephen's hand didn't let go of his, nor redirect his efforts, and so Tony put more of his weight onto Stephen and prayed for the best.

Oh holy fucking shit I killed him, Tony thought when a spurt of blood erupted through the nanotube, and felt bile rise in his throat. I killed him. I killed him.

Though Stephen's face contorted in pain, a moment later relief followed.

"Wait," Tony asked as he watched thick, dark blood pour free. "That's what you wanted?"

"The pleural effusion," Stephen said in deeper, less strained tones, "is resolving."

"Great," Tony said, and eyed a glob of blood sidelong as it trailed down the exposed length of the tube.

"Help prop me up a little. The excess fluid needs to continue clearing." From Stephen's back, the Cloak exerted gentle upward pressure to lift him to a forty-five degree angle, and then to a full seated position. It was easy for Tony to find an appropriate piece of rubble and slide it behind him, to take over from that piece of magical fabric. "Thank you." He tilted forward a little more and a fresh trickle of blood spilled. Stephen held that position and exhaled, his shoulders sagging.

Tony nodded mutely, not entirely sure what had just happened.

"A blow to the chest can often cause what's called a hemothorax," Stephen explained when he saw Tony's confusion. "Blood fills the pleural cavity—the space around the lungs—and puts pressure on them. Now I can breathe. So again: thank you."

"Got it." Tony couldn't look away from the wound he'd caused, even if the man had wanted it. "So... you're really a doctor." After seeing Manhattan's own Hogwarts, he'd figured the man's name was some affectation by a cosplayer who'd watched a little too much Doctor Who.

"Unlike some of us, Iron Man," Stephen said with a tired smile, "I didn't pick some absurd new name. Doctor Stephen Strange graduated from medical school." The bloody hand that had searched for the tube's perfect angle now lay limply against the ground. His tired eyes looked down at the dirt, which was coated in his own drying blood, and then back up. "It really was the only way."

Oh. That. Right. Stephen had saved Tony's life, too. That move with the Time Stone had meant watching all those people die in front of him, just so Tony Stark could live. If he'd died like he was supposed to, then freaking Dumbledore over there could have popped off to magical safety and kept the Time Stone safe for as long as the universe needed. Tony could die and no one else would have needed to.

Tony would have gladly made that trade.

Still, it seemed unfair to yell at the man with a bloody tube sticking out of his chest, and so Tony sank down next to him and looked out at an alien sky. "Not sure why I bothered to skewer you, considering that we're both going to die abandoned on a wasteland halfway across the galaxy, anyway."

"Do you really think that's what I saw?"

Tony turned back to him. Despite the greyish tones to his skin and the sweat that had beaded, Stephen smiled faintly. "What you saw?" Tony asked. Memories floated up. As one burst free in stereophonic sound, Tony's brow furrowed. "You said... that you saw how we win."

"It was the only way," Stephen promised yet again.

Maybe it was, but Tony didn't want to hear it. Not when he'd watched people dissolve. Not when the kid had begged for his life and Tony could do fuck-all to save him. To save anyone. He'd tried so hard, for so many years, and he couldn't save anyone.

Although... he had just saved the man next to him.

That was something, he guessed.

"I'll let the fluid drain a little longer," Stephen continued, "and then I'll want you to seal it over with a collection chamber at its end. It's not wise to let the tube stay exposed to the open air. I'm still short of breath, but that should resolve within a day or two."

"Sure." Standing, Tony looked around the wasteland to which they'd been condemned and frowned. Stephen had exchanged the Time Stone to save him. For that one future path in which they had a shot, he apparently still needed to be alive. He supposed it was encouraging that they'd eventually find a way off this rock, but all he could think about was how Peter had dissolved in his arms. "So... Doc?"

Stephen looked up.

"Did the same thing happen to the people on Earth?"

Exhaling, Stephen began, "I swear it was the—"

"I'm gonna yank that tube out of you if you say that one more time," Tony promised, then strode away.

Pepper, he thought miserably. Are you still out there? Happy? Rhodey? Bruce? His recent walls wobbled. Despite himself, Tony found himself wondering about the guy who always came through when the world needed him. Rogers, you'd better still be there to punch that purple nutsack chin real hard in round two.

But he couldn't know about any of their fates, not while he was trapped on Titan with no one but Stephen Strange and that stupid flying carpet for company. Maybe Stephen's powers would be useful for getting them home, but it'd surely take a while for the man to recover.

With a deeper sigh, Tony turned and looked at the remnants of the ship they'd crash-landed in. It had been a vessel in active use, and so there were probably supplies somewhere on it. "I'm gonna go find water," he announced to Stephen, who nodded tiredly. "Don't wander off."

As another drip of blood fell out of him, Stephen managed a new small smile. "No promises."

The guy had a pretty high pain tolerance, Tony admitted as he set off toward the crashed ship. It was good that Stephen was able to still hold a conversation. Until they figured out a way to get home, he supposed that all they could do to pass the time was get to know each other.

Chapter Text

"Knock knock," Tony announced into the empty spaceship. As expected, no voices greeted him. After their crash landing, it was a wreck; if not for the magical shield that Stephen had generated, all of them would have ended up as mangled as the furniture now was.

Off to the side, he saw the spot where his nano jets had patched a hole in the spaceship's hull. Tony tried to ignore that. Maybe the same fate would have awaited the kid if he'd stayed on Earth, but Tony should have tried harder to keep him there. Peter could have spent his last seconds with family, instead of with the man who'd let him get pulled into a life no one should have to live.

Thankfully, there were indeed supplies locked away inside a compartment that had stayed mostly intact. With his remaining sensor, Tony verified that the liquid was simple H2O and that whatever the food was wouldn't be toxic to humans. Though only one man had piloted the ship on that trip, they'd apparently stocked it for an army. He and Stephen wouldn't stress over their supplies while they tried to figure out a way to get home, at least. There were even dormitories, though he wouldn't call them anywhere close to luxurious.

As he popped open a water container to soothe his parched throat, Tony thought back to when he and the kid had launched their rescue plan. Apparently, a single one of those floating crystal spikes was enough to kill a person and Stephen had dealt with the pain of dozens of them. No wonder he'd kept a level head while Tony was shoving that tube into him. Thinking back to the pain he'd dealt with in his increasingly complicated life, with an increasingly contentious relationship with his own personal arc reactor, Tony privately gave Stephen credit for that.

Well, he'd applauded the man's fortitude and magical abilities. Celebrating other people was weird and he wasn't a fan of the process. Now, it was time to depend on something that Tony could usually turn to during times of trouble: confidence in his own skills. (Or, as some liked to call it, his ego. It took a small, frightened man to make "ego" sound like a bad word.)

"All right," Tony began, and knelt to pop a panel off the nearest piece of hardware. "Let's see what I have to work with."

One hour later, he felt very slightly better about their situation. There was zero chance that the ship would ever lift off again; its circular shape had been vital for its power function and balancing. With his own labs, with an endless source of materials, Tony could have reconstructed even the most alien of vessels. Out on Titan, though, they didn't have much to work with.

However, he didn't need something that could fly across the cosmos. An idea was already forming and between the two of them they could make something work. Eventually. When Stephen was up for it.

With a satisfied thump of his fist against a console, Tony informed the Ebony Maw's shattered ship, "Not gonna lie, you're a hunk of junk. But I've worked with junk in the desert before."

Tony walked away from the ship's ruins with his thoughts still churning. As for completing the simple mechanical construction of it all, he didn't think it'd take that long. A week, maybe two. The research might take longer, though, and who knew how long Stephen would need to heal enough to pull this off?

(There was also the chance, as little as Tony liked to admit it, that Stephen's powers would be significantly weakened without the Time Stone backing him up. If that proved true, well, then... they'd improvise.)

As he returned to where Stephen rested, fear crept into Tony. He'd left behind a man who'd just nearly died and now, after more than an hour alone, that man wasn't moving. "Shit," he whispered, then darted forward.

"Strange!" Tony yelled as he hurried, hopping over rocks and stray metal beams. "Stephen!" He'd said that he was going to get water, not to spend another hour dicking around with alien technology after that. Had more blood started pouring out of Stephen while he'd been busy contemplating hardware? He took the leap over another rock at a full run. "Stephen!"

Pale eyes slit open. "What?" Stephen groaned, then flinched at the sun directly overhead. It'd moved in Tony's absence; the planet apparently spun faster than Earth. "You're going to break an ankle."

Oh. He sounded fine. There was no way to explain this that wasn't embarrassing. "I realized I'd been gone for a long time," Tony said, "and when I saw you again, you weren't moving. It wasn't a good look for someone with a straw sticking out of their chest." And I can't lose the last person. I just can't.

They hadn't known each other for long, and that time had been anything from halfway functional to adversarial. They were like the positive poles of two magnets: perfectly designed to repel each other. But as Tony came down from his surge of panic, he realized how terrifying it'd been to contemplate being truly, utterly alone on this alien world. Because of that, Tony was able to also admit, "So I saw you lying there and I freaked out a little. Okay?"

Thankfully, Stephen nodded in acceptance of Tony's honesty. Both of them seemed too tired to lean on their typical bravado. "You don't need to worry. I've told the Cloak of Levitation to get me to you if I start crashing. Not that I expect you to know what to do, exactly, but at least I'd have someone trying."

"Oh. Well. Good." Tony held up his hand. "And I do have my 'nanogoop' to patch you up."

"You do have that," Stephen admitted. Now that the post-Thanos adrenaline in his system had a chance to filter out, he looked like he truly was: an injury victim who'd barely made it out of his treatment alive. He'd had surgery performed without even the slightest attempt at sterilization. Now there were no sensors on him, drugs helping his recovery, or IV bags refilling his fluids.

I cannot lose the last person, Tony silently insisted. "So that carpet—"

"The Cloak of Levitation is an ancient relic, deserving of your respect—"

"—Can float you like a gurney, right?"

Stephen narrowed his eyes at Tony. Around him, the edges of the Cloak twitched like a cat who didn't want to be touched. "It could."

"Good. I found some real beds, and I'm going to guess there are medical supplies somewhere nearby. We probably want to be out from under this sun, anyway. Who knows how much radiation it's putting out? I don't trust some other world's atmosphere." After a moment of consideration, Tony held up a scanner and tested that. Yeah, they weren't yet in danger, but it'd be good to be out of the light.

"All right," Stephen relented. When Tony offered him a small flask of water prior to the trip, he drank it gratefully. "That is a good idea, Stark." Then, despite the discomfort he was clearly in, a small smile curled the edges of his mouth.

"What's so funny?" Tony wondered.

"I was just thinking that perhaps I should call you Tony, after you screamed my name just now."

"I did not scream your..." Tony pointed at a corner of the Cloak when it tilted at him expectantly. "I had a perfectly valid reason for screaming. He looked dead. And now I'm arguing with wizard outerwear."

"I am not a wizard," Stephen insisted as the Cloak gently lifted him, then waited for Tony to lead the way toward the relative improvement in their fortunes. "The proper term is 'Master of the Mystic Arts.'"

"Congratulations," Tony said. He began walking once the Cloak-gurney had steadied itself. "You know how to use a thesaurus for 'wizard.'"

Halfway there, Stephen spoke again. "I apologize in advance if I get... abrupt. I have learned from unfortunate experience that I am not the best patient." Tony didn't reply and after a few seconds, Stephen continued, "I'd rather not have this heart-to-heart, but we might as well admit that we are going to be spending an awful lot of time together in the immediate future."

That was true, and Tony was trying to extend olive branches of his own. "I'm not the best patient, either," he admitted. "So, I'll try to keep that in mind when you inevitably start to piss me off again."

"Ever the diplomat."

Right. Right. Olive branches. "I will remember that you turned into a blood faucet and adjust my reactions accordingly. Though, it'd probably help if we can find you some painkillers. I know pain always brought out my... exceptionally fun side."

The olive branch didn't work. From his floating position, Stephen turned and squinted at Tony. "You really think that I'm going to take unknown drugs stored on an alien spaceship that belongs to a man trying to destroy the universe?"

"I think," Tony replied, and tried his very best to hold onto his olive branches and continue to wiggle them at this stupid wizard, "that you have to be hurting like hell. And so I'm trying to help."

"This is nothing."

"I forced a cylinder made of razor-sharp carbon nanotubes between your ribs and into your... lung hole. Without painkillers. And it's still sticking out of you." Tony folded his arms as he walked and looked pointedly down at Stephen as the Cloak floated him along. "That's not nothing."

"Trust me," Stephen said and smirked. For all that he really had gone through what Tony had mentioned, and for all that his body was showing the hardship it'd suffered, he really didn't seem to be hurting from it. "This is nothing."

For one tiny flash, Tony remembered all the times that Pepper had gotten irritated with him for saying that none of his pain, stress, or imminent medical issues mattered, and that all of them could be ignored until a more convenient day. In the next second, he shoved that thought away. He couldn't think about Pepper, because thinking about Pepper would inevitably lead to wondering if she still existed.

So instead, he returned to what he'd thought about on his first trip to the destroyed spaceship: all of those crystal spikes and how Stephen had held himself to screaming instead of surrendering. "Fine," Tony said. He'd applauded the man for it earlier, but after their argument it was obnoxious. "You really can take pain like a champ. I will allow you to forgo the spooky alien drugs."

"How thoughtful of you." As they passed into the shadow of the ship, Stephen again looked over to him. "I can't tell you what the path to victory is, by the way. If I do, it becomes tainted by people's new intentions and everything falls apart."

Recalling the feeling of his armored hands desperately locked around Thanos' gauntlet, Tony snorted. "People coming up with plans that go hideously, terribly wrong? I'm shocked. Fine. You go rest and I'm going to start work on this, uh, plan I came up with to get us home." He frowned as they passed through a torn-open wall leading into the spaceship's interior. "And now you've got me thinking that any plan I come up with is doomed to failure."

"We have to have some way to get home," Stephen reminded him. Below him, the Cloak waited for Tony to point in the direction of the discovered alien dormitories. "Start your plan." Oh. Good. The plan probably worked, then.

"This way," Tony said, deciding to lead the Cloak there in person. He didn't trust that piece of polyester to get Stephen safely onto a bed. How could it? The thing didn't even have eyes. "So... any spoilers as to how long this is going to take? Just tell me if I'm crossing any boundaries. I mean, I cross boundaries all the time and I won't stop with you either, but you can feel free to complain about it."

"Unfortunately," Stephen said with a smirk, "I get to experience you for a while. Lucky me."

"Lucky you," Tony agreed, with none of the sarcasm.

Stephen looked over, considered Tony, and his smirk grew. "Lucky... you," he corrected after some thought.

Olive branches, Tony reminded himself, and helped steer the intensely obnoxious man onto an oversized alien bed in an unremarkable grey room. Once done, he frowned at the enormous bruise that still marked Stephen's chest. He'd thought that spot would disappear when the other blood escaped, but he was apparently still leaking.

Stephen saw him looking. "Why I was so worried about the hemothorax," he explained as he closed his eyes and contorted his hands into some strange formation, "is that a lack of oxygen makes it hard to focus on anything else. Now that I'm able to collect myself, I'll be able to heal some of the worst that my body is facing."

Fascinated, Tony watched as strange runes emerged in a ring around Stephen's hands, then detached from their boundaries to float in a steady, searching pattern over his body. Once they settled into new positions, golden bands of energy streaked between each point. In the light they put off, both men softly glowed.

"There," Stephen murmured and one of the runes moved directly over the worst of his bruise to hang there. After a moment, it began to shine more brightly than the others.

A second later, the runes vanished. Tony blinked hard in the sudden darkness until his eyes adjusted. When they did, he saw that the bruise was smaller. It looked like a normal injury, too, rather than skin ready to burst from the pressure within it.

"That bleeder is stopped," Stephen confirmed, "and I fixed some of the damage. It's a good balance point between making sure I recover smoothly and not over-exerting myself in the meantime."

"That was," Tony said, and reflexively flexed his hands against the world-class technology covering them, "very slightly cool."

Stephen smirked again. "Go play with your toys, Tony."

"Have fun at Hogwarts, Dumbledore," Tony shot back, but rolled his eyes at himself as he left the room. "Gotta work on my comebacks." After another few steps, though, he began to smile.

The last person really wasn't going to die.

Chapter Text

Fortunately for Tony's big plan, there was material outside of what was available from the Maw's wreckage. He needed expansive pieces of metal, without structural weaknesses, and the ship they'd claimed as a temporary home didn't have quite enough for his satisfaction. "How old is this place?" Tony wondered as he surveyed the exterior of one of the ancient, abandoned buildings that had served as a backdrop to their fight against Thanos. Despite its seeming age and coating of dust, much of the metal hadn't rusted. There was at least some moisture in the atmosphere, he verified, and so it had to be quite a unique alloy to have staved off rust for so many years. (Centuries? Millennia?)

"This'll work," Tony mused as he finished his initial scouting patrol and tapped away from his scans of the various alloys he'd discovered. "This'll work."

What wouldn't work, though, was trying to bring back those big pieces of metal when his suit had been shredded. His hand pieces weren't strong enough on their own and he certainly didn't want to push their limits only to have them fail. For moving the big stuff, he'd wait for Stephen to recover enough to start whipping out more of those portals.

That set his workflow priorities, then. "Miss me?" Tony asked the Maw's central computer as he popped open another console to expose its wired guts. Though night approached, he didn't yet feel ready to find a bed of his own. Work was always his most reliable comfort when nothing else seemed to be going right. "You and me, we're going to get to know each other intimately over the next week."

"I see that you absolutely live up to your tabloid reputation."

Tony jolted, then rolled his eyes and turned to order Stephen back into medical recovery. His determination faltered as he saw who was actually standing in front of him: not Stephen, but some sort of foggy, half-there version of the man surrounded by a halo of what looked like broken glass. "Huh."

"It's an astral projection."

"Huh." Wizards sure did have a grab-bag full of tricks. Tony shook his head. "Aren't you supposed to be resting?"

"My body is in bed. What more do you want?" As Tony rolled his eyes again, thinking that projecting one's spirit—or whatever the hell he was up to—couldn't possibly count as true rest, Stephen walked over to look down at the console he'd exposed. "So, what are you doing?"

As he always loved talking about his latest idea, Tony found himself opening his mouth to explain. A second later he closed it, frowned, and asked instead, "What's the point?"

Stephen's brow furrowed.

"Don't you already know this?" Tony gestured between himself and the console. "You're the one who's already figured out how this is all going to work. I'm supposed to, what, tell you what you've already seen so that you can pat me encouragingly on the head?"

"I experienced more than fourteen million futures. Any details not involving my own significant decisions have gotten a tiny bit hazy. So: tell me what you're doing."

That made sense, Tony supposed, but it also seemed an impossible thing for the human mind to comprehend. The Time Stone must serve as a circuit breaker of sorts, keeping the brain from overloading as it took in that much information during what had only been a handful of seconds in the real world. It did make him feel a little better to know that he wasn't acting out a script in front of Stephen, and that he maintained the potential to surprise the man. No matter who he was talking to, Tony always deeply enjoyed that.

Since their recent time together had centered more upon Stephen's skills, Tony also enjoyed showing off his own knowledge. He shared his trek and scans through the Maw's ship and surrounding territory. In the safety of the setting sunlight he'd found sturdy sheets of metal as big as he could ever want, that were made of some alloy perfect for their purposes and yet that his hand beams would be able to cut through.

"Good," Stephen began, "but what exactly is 'our purpose' at this point?"

Right. Tony had gotten to the specifics, but hadn't yet laid out the big picture. "With the remnants of this comm system and everything else I've found, I can put together one hell of a distress signal." Against most signals, his would be a Hollywood searchlight compared to a flashlight.

"Solid start, but I assume there must be more to the plan."

"What I'm talking about absolutely shouldn't work, I know. Since we used some sort of warp engine to travel here, sending out a distress signal at even light speed would mean that it wouldn't be received for centuries. But," Tony continued, with his excitement mounting, "that's where you come in. There's that book, remember?"

Stephen frowned. "I am... aware of books, yes."

The man needed to let Tony snowball his words down a hillside when he got going and not interrupt. "A Fold... Bend... Wrinkle! In the Universe, uh, in Space..." Okay, fine, he wasn't good with book titles outside of scientific non-fiction. He hadn't read this since he was five or six years old, before he moved on to Asimov.

"A Wrinkle in Time," Stephen said patiently. "Madeleine L'Engle."

Right, whatever. "They were able to travel across huge distances instantly by folding space and boring right through it, exactly like I saw you do with all those portals. So, if you can bend space enough to open up a portal this big—" Tony held up his fingers with not even a millimeter of distance between them. "—As close to Earth as possible, then I can make a signal strong enough to send them our exact location. Bruce or someone will be able to take everything I've got in my lab and figure out a way to make use of that intel, and then pretty soon, bam: we're home."

Stephen said nothing and studied Tony for a long, long time.

"So, there's my plan," Tony said when the silence grew awkward. "My awesome galaxy-crossing signal ray, constructed from the remnants of an alien civilization, and you bending the universe. Just a really, really little wrinkle," he added when Stephen's face remained inscrutable. "Really little." He held up his hands again, to emphasize how small the portal would need to be.

"Let me get this straight. You think that, given the precise coordinates, I will be able to make a portal across the galaxy."

Tony gestured to his hand again and smooshed the fingertips together. "Really, incredibly tiny." As the pressure on his fingertips made them both turn white, an awful feeling began to grow within him. He'd had to wring respect for Stephen's powers out of himself, but now that he'd done so, Tony had to admit that they were pretty spectacular. So yes, he'd just assumed Stephen could do this.

If he couldn't, though, then Tony had no idea what else they could do. There were no engines on Titan capable of making an interstellar voyage. Tony could get some smaller craft up above the atmosphere to cut down on signal interference and create a flare that could bring rescuers right to them, but he couldn't do anything about the light years between the two of them and everyone else. If they didn't have a way to bend all that empty space out of the way, then the very best they could hope for was for their bones to be recovered after a thousand years had passed.

Stephen smiled. After a surge of relief, Tony wanted to slap his smug astral face. "I'm glad to see that MIT's most famous son has some respect for the arcane."

"Does that mean," Tony said, not sure whether he was more happy or annoyed, "that you can do it?"

"It means I can do it," Stephen agreed, "so long as I'm able to understand the structure of the space around us. That'll take a good long while, but it should probably sync up with the construction timeframe you need, or close enough."

Tony grinned. "We're gonna get home. You're welcome for my brilliant plan, by the way."

"I'll thank you after my feet are once again firmly on Earth."

"I'm going to hold you to that," Tony said and extended his hand. Stephen looked at that with amusement, then swiped his astral hand through Tony's. It sent a chill through Tony, not like winter but like an unexpected memory. "I'll count that as a handshake," Tony announced. "And in the future, please stay outside of my body."

"Hmm." Stephen's eyebrows raised. "Maybe you don't live up to your tabloid reputation."

"Excuse you," Tony sputtered. As Stephen looked around the room and began considering various locations, Tony folded his arms and continued, "I'm sure you have some stories written about you, too, on some... loser occult Facebook group. I'd look them up if I had any wi-fi bars right now."

"And you'd find that I'm published in BMJ, Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine. So please remember that, and be sure to do it later."

Tony snorted and gestured at himself. "Multiple articles in Nature and Science. Are we done?"

Stephen shook his head at one location and continued roaming, presumably to find the perfect spot for his inspection of their local space-time conditions. "I'm sure we're not remotely near done, but we can pause for now." The sidelong smile he gave Tony was the warmest he'd offered since they met. Despite himself, Tony found himself returning it. Jerk.

For two men who'd just tried to bash each other with their justified egos like they were antlered deer fighting for victory, they were able to form a surprisingly companionable silence. At first Tony was reminded of his time spent in labs with Bruce, only to realize that a different dynamic had emerged. Both he and Bruce were experts in their specific fields, but those fields had a lot of overlap. They were able to question each other's work, suggest adjustments, and bring in their own expertise. It'd been invaluable in the early years of his Iron Man adventures, when Tony had excitedly brainstormed about pushing the limits of technology even beyond what he'd already done.

Now, Tony thought as he looked over to where Stephen sat with his eyes closed, there wasn't discussion. There wasn't that back-and-forth, because their fields of expertise were so wildly divergent that they'd have no hopes of explaining to the other how to modify alien communications equipment or form a magical portal in space-time. Compared to his old, chatty lab sessions, this should have felt isolated. For whatever reason—perhaps simple trust that they could each hold up their end of the bargain—it instead felt comfortable.

As two hours ticked by and Tony suspected that it was approaching time for both of them to sleep, he flicked fingers toward himself. The scanners that had been surreptitiously tracking Stephen's astral form buzzed back into his wrist guard and folded themselves away.

Stephen could call it magic all he wanted, but along with Asimov, Tony had read Arthur C. Clarke as a kid. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" had been one of his inspirational principles growing up, and for years he'd been the person bringing "magic" to the world. There was some perfectly rational explanation for each and every wizard feat he'd seen. Because of that, Tony saw no reason not to perform a little research on the side as he built his signal flare.

"Good night," Stephen did announce a few minutes later, then unceremoniously vanished.

Tony spread his hands to the dark, empty space around him. "Welcome back," he drawled. After deciding that he wasn't going to let Stephen set the pace so abruptly, he unsheathed and labeled a few more wires before walking toward what had once served as dormitory space for aliens looking to kill humanity.

At some point Stephen had apparently used some of that water to clean up a little, Tony noted as he inspected the room with a dimmed wrist light. The blood that had poured from the wound was gone, save for a few flecks, and he'd done the same to the hand that had felt its way to the tube's best angle. Remembering that tube, Tony considered its open end. He'd had to design technology that integrated with human systems before and so he had some idea of the basics that would be needed.

"You are welcome," Tony said softly as he expelled more nanogoop—he had to stop calling it that—to form a chamber that would collect any lingering blood, not allow it to flow back in, and would block any external pathogens. After scanning to make sure that no troublesome clots had formed inside the tube itself, Tony smiled proudly and picked another bed.

These were not comfortable, he soon concluded. The aliens they were made for were apparently just big enough that every curve in the surface hit at the wrong spot. They were, however, actual beds. This was a far step up from a cave.

Despite the exhaustion that hit him with a sudden wave, sleep didn't come. With a sigh, Tony adjusted his position again so that the bump in the mattress wouldn't hit him awkwardly on his hip. That meant that his shoulder was feeling a bump, now, but it was better. He tried for sleep again.

What I wouldn't give, Tony thought as he waited to drift away, to be in my own room. He had lots of rooms around the world, but he'd be all right with any of them. In his own bed, with his own clothes in the closet.

With Pepper curled up beside him.

Behind his eyelids, sudden tears formed. Please be okay.

He'd never been good at fighting off things before sleep. It was always the hour when the worst monsters prowling his psyche were able to get through his defenses and sink in their claws. Instead of convincing himself that Pepper was safe, he saw her face crumble like he'd watched Mantis. The hair that he loved running his fingers through blew away like ash from a dying fire and her torso collapsed as he tried to hold her body together.

I'd thought I'd dreamed about us having a kid. As that thought bubbled up, tears edged past his lashes as Tony wondered what his dreams would be like tonight. What would it mean if he spent the next eight hours watching Pepper die as she called his name over, and over, and over? He already knew the answer. He already knew the fucking answer.

Mr. Stark—

"Shit," Tony whispered and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. Panic was hot and sour at the back of his throat.

He'd known this would happen. For years, he'd known. This was what they'd been prepping for, what they'd been training for, and it was all fucking useless. He was fucking useless. He was stranded on an alien planet, in a darkness that felt eternal, and years of fought-off nightmares surged back into his mind. In the end, they were right. He was wrong. The nightmares won. In the absolute shadow of the Maw's ship, there was nowhere to hide from things that thrived in the dark.

Tony? Tony? Mr. Stark? Tony? Mr. Stark? Help me! Tony? Mr. Stark? Please help me! Tony? Mr. Stark? Please—

"Stop!" he begged, and only then realized how loudly he'd spoken. His breaths sounded irregular and wet. It was clear he'd been crying.

For a second there was no sound, but when he heard clothing rustling Tony looked toward the far wall of the room. Dammit.

A golden glow bloomed, dim enough not to hurt their eyes. Stephen didn't speak as he slid off the bed, nor as he walked over. "You were outside for a long time, earlier," he eventually said and offered another small flask of water, "and I didn't see you rehydrate yourself."

"Thanks," Tony muttered, and wondered if they were just going to continue pretending that his audible breakdown hadn't happened. Drinking the flat, lukewarm water was an excuse not to say anything else, at least, and so he downed the whole container.

"If you'd like," Stephen continued, and Tony tensed at the idea that he might actually have to talk, "I could put you under for the night. Without dreams."

After a second, Tony nodded. "Yeah." He'd need sleep to perform at his best, and to get back to Earth and see Pepper again. Who was fine. Who was fine. Who was fine, dammit. "Probably a good idea."

As Stephen pulled his hands apart, the glow he'd carried over split. It was like there were two embers embedded in the pads of his index fingers, and when he placed those fingers lightly on Tony's temples, they felt hot.

A new darkness offered itself up to Tony, but unlike the violent one that had awaited him after so many failed missions and injured friends, this one seemed quiet, peaceful, and safe. It didn't demand his presence; it offered a welcoming hand. After a second of hesitation, Tony let himself be led into sleep and into the first night in years without memories.

Chapter Text

"It's probably stupid to ask," Tony began the next day, "but it'd be a bad idea for you to just portal us straight back to Earth... why?" Since waking, neither man had alluded to Tony's breakdown the night before. He appreciated the courtesy.

"Well," Stephen began as his astral form settled into another seated position, "let's see. Over these extreme distances, being off by a tiny fraction of a degree would send our calculations off by a light year. I would rather have a radio signal emerge into the empty space between solar systems, rather than our human bodies."

"Fair point," Tony allowed. Though he had every confidence in his mathematical abilities, the price of even a minor error there would be unacceptably high.

"Also," Stephen continued, and folded his legs before rising to float several inches above the floor, "you never bothered to ask what sort of condition I'd be in after making your really, incredibly tiny portal across an entire galaxy. Over those distances, even a pinprick portal will be quite draining."

Oh. That was true, he hadn't asked. Frowning, Tony wondered, "Then... are you up for it? I guess you're right, I did just assume."

"I'd regret trying anything bigger, but I'll be fine after a while. Just don't commit me to too many other feats of wonder without my input." As he brought his hands together in a pose that looked uncomfortable to maintain but was probably some ancient mystical method for centering his mind, Stephen looked back over. "That does mean that I will greatly appreciate correct calculations on the very first try. If you screw up, it'll be about a two-day reset for me each time that you miss."

"I don't 'miss,'" Tony said.

"That doesn't match up with some news footage I've seen," Stephen said before flickering in and out of existence. Once that began, his attention seemed firmly locked elsewhere.

"Okay, fine," Tony said. "I have occasionally misaimed with firing a personal missile at a killer robot or something, but... you're not listening to me, anyway." He sighed and began to walk back to his console, but turned after a few steps and insisted, "I'm not gonna miss. I'm not gonna miss!"

A few hours later, after he was well into investigating the communications protocols of the Maw's ship, Tony had to conclude that they should tackle the other half of the supplies he'd located. Water was water and so they'd had no surprises there, but 'food' could be anything. However, his stomach was far beyond distracting by that point and was actively starting to hinder his work. Besides, whether he was doing his own work via astral projection or not, Stephen's body still needed nutrients to heal.

"Wake him up," Tony told the Cloak and started brushing his fingers along its edge to bother it. Stephen's astral form had vanished some time earlier and hadn't yet returned, so he needed to go straight to the source. The Cloak slapped him back, but he continued. "C'mon, rug."

"Do not," Stephen said, and opened his eyes, "call the Cloak 'rug.'"

Tony smiled. "But it got you up."

Sure enough, Stephen was slowly sitting, though he grimaced and grabbed at his injured side as he did. "This is why I wanted to stay in astral form while I worked. Fewer things competing for my attention."

"And you can go all Casper again in a minute, but right now it's time to eat." Tony extended one of the food bars taken from the supply compartment and wiggled it at him. "It's been at least a day for both of us, so..." His shoulders sagged and Tony let out one rueful laugh. "And it was a hell of a day."

"One hell of a day," Stephen repeated and rubbed his eyes before accepting the offered bar. "Are you positive that this is safe? If there are any risks, we'd be better served just subsisting on water for as long as possible."

"I have no idea what it's made of," Tony admitted, "but my scanner recognized amino structures and vitamins that we'll be able to use, and zero dangerous chemical compositions. It'll keep us alive, at least, and keep our stomachs from distracting us." He unwrapped his own bar, catching a slight whiff of something burnt, and raised it like a toasting glass. "Bottoms up."

Resigned, Stephen took a bite at the same time he did. Both men chewed once, then stopped. After a second Stephen resumed chewing with forced, mechanical motions, while Tony reached for a flask of water and washed the bits down. "It tastes like hairspray," he coughed.

"I refuse to believe that's not toxic," Stephen said, then took a long drink. "That very nearly makes our attempts at survival worth abandoning."

"No kidding." Tony eyed the size of the bars they'd just forced down. "Hate to say it, but we should probably do another."

After a long groan, made with more humor than he'd expected out of the man, Stephen extended his hand. "I cannot wait to escape my physical taste buds."

"Find anything interesting outside?" Tony asked after they'd finished eating, before heading back to the main chamber and leaving Stephen to once again zip off into the astral wherever. Tony had done an adequate job while searching for usable metal, but he could only move so fast. While non-corporeal, Stephen could probably cover a lot more ground.

"Nothing we can use, really. I was just trying to get a feeling for the space I'll be manipulating. It's very different than Earth. Besides, we do already have a plan."

"We do have a plan," Tony allowed, but immediately resolved to go look again. He'd always stumbled into some of his best discoveries when others couldn't see a way through. Plans could always be improved, and since he was about to launch a calibration cycle on the Maw's software, he'd soon have three or four hours of downtime.

Everything on this godforsaken planet was orange. It was like the driest, most remote deserts of Utah or Arizona, with decaying alien buildings instead of towering cliffs. Tony squinted into the distance, then tried to think back through their unfortunate fight with Thanos. Even getting back bits of his own destroyed equipment would help speed the process of regenerating his nano supplies, but he couldn't recall exactly where the man had shredded his suit in the process of shredding him.

"I am looking for little bits of red," Tony announced to no one in particular, "in the middle of the universe's biggest blob of orange."

Maybe the silver bits would catch the light as it moved, Tony thought as he squinted into the sun. It was already past its zenith. To be on the safe side under its radiation he'd pulled up his sweatshirt's hood, but he hadn't overheated. Despite the cruel sun, the planet felt cool. "All I want to do," Tony informed the empty air, "is get home. I was not supposed to be on that spaceship." Pepper had told him that but he'd ignored her. Their last words wouldn't be signal static. They couldn't be.

He bent down where he thought Thanos might have attacked him, but soon sighed and shook his head. That was the crumbled remains of a darker rock, not his own dried blood. There was a lot of that crumbled rock, he soon determined, and it made it impossible to track where Thanos had speared him. Where had it all come from? It was like a whole mountainside had gotten obliterated, exploding its rocky components like bombs going off.

"No," Tony remembered and looked back up to the sky. The adrenaline of battle could blur a lot of things together. In an impossible display of his might, Thanos had pulled a entire moon down during that fight. Huge chunks of it had landed around the area. They were lucky that their small spot of safety hadn't been smashed by one of the many pieces.

Well, that had probably destroyed some of the ancient alien tech he otherwise could have used. At least the buildings were still standing, Tony thought, and began hiking to what he thought were fresh areas for discovery. The orange dust did hold footprints, at least, and so that served as the tracking for his exploration.

Oh look: more orange. Over there, orange rocks. Over there, darker rocks covered with broken moonrock orange. Over there, old buildings covered in... orange dust. "Strange said we should follow the plan," Tony told himself as he maneuvered around another chunk of felled moon. It'd landed on a couple of other chunks, forming an impromptu cave. He didn't trust that the rock wouldn't fall on him if he tried to explore below. "This will work. Right? This'll..."

As Tony rounded the obstacle he'd been avoiding, something so impossible filled his vision that it took him a few steps to stop walking. From this angle, sunlight reached a bit further under the rock. Because of that, he could see a new color hidden in the shadows: blue.

Tony didn't dare to speak out loud, because a possible truth had just flooded his mind and he didn't want to shatter it. Though he didn't know what their vessel had looked like, those spacefaring lunatics had to have traveled to Titan on something. In the shock of everything he'd forgotten them. Barely daring to breathe, Tony lifted his hand and turned on a beam of light.

It was a spaceship and it was intact.

"Holy shit," Tony said, then broke out into the first genuine and complete smile he'd felt since the world ended. A quick test showed him that he had no hope of moving that chunk of moon away himself, and angling the ship out with its own engines likely risked collapsing the rubble, but that was fine. They had another option.

So much for the plan, he thought giddily as he hurried back to the Maw's ship. They weren't going to need to painfully eke out an existence until they made a patchwork signal flare and gained an understanding of the local space-time landscape. All they needed to do was to have Stephen manipulate that ship out from under its obstacle with one of his portals, have Tony repair any damage, and they were home. Tony would be home, he'd see Pepper, and he'd see that she was fine.

Hope was suddenly intoxicating and it carried him all the way inside. His head felt fuzzy and slow with wonder.

"A spaceship," Stephen repeated after Tony had once again bothered him back into his body, then filled him in on the discovery.

"It does have a big chunk of moon currently on it," Tony allowed, "but from what I can tell, it's probably in flyable condition. That's a hell of a lot more of a surefire bet than sending a signal flare into space and hoping that someone picks up the phone."

"What did I tell you," Stephen began after a short pause, "about committing me to actions without asking?"

Tony blinked. He didn't seem thrilled about this. He didn't even sound happy. "All I need you to make is a portal. Like all the ones you were making against Thanos. What's the problem?"

"All of those person-sized portals, yes." Stephen pushed himself up, still flinching when he needed to move his torso, and turned to face Tony. "Let me explain something to you about the manipulation of reality."

This didn't sound like it was going to be a fun lesson.

"I know Earth. I know how it should feel, and thus when I want to alter its reality it's easy to make that shift. I have a firm foundation on which to build. I don't know Titan and its existence is... off." Stephen gestured expansively to the space around them. "As earlier noted, its axis is tilted and the gravitational field is altered. Everything about this planet feels wrong. Until I understand its logic, it's much harder for me to alter it."

There was a way for Tony to see Pepper tomorrow and it wasn't going to happen. Despite his best efforts, Tony felt hot, shameful tears prick at his eyes. "If we don't do this," he began, "then it means that I won't even know if she's okay for weeks. Minimum. You haven't even looked at it, yet."

"As near as I can tell," Stephen tried to argue, "the amount of energy needed to open a portal operates on a logarithmic progression, dependent on both width and distance. A portal seems equally easy to form up until a certain point, and after that, expanding the radius by even a foot will suddenly demand ten times more energy than I can expend. And while I'm sure I could handle a ship's size on Earth—"

"You haven't," Tony yelled before reining himself in, "even looked at it, yet." Pepper had to be wondering if he was still alive. She would have watched the world blow away, too, and have no idea whether he still existed or not. Hell, she had no idea if he'd been killed before he even had the chance to blow away. There was exactly one man standing between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts and the asshole wasn't even trying to help.

Stephen said nothing. Tony tried again. "Please. Just try."

"I'll look at it," Stephen said in resignation. The Cloak settled around his shoulders so that he wouldn't need to make the trek by foot, and Tony led him back to his discovery.

"Can you do it?" Tony asked insistently as Stephen settled on the ground and then studied the scale of the lunatics' ship.

"What exactly do you want me to do?" Stephen asked. That wasn't a no. It seemed possible, then?

"Make a portal under it," Tony began, swirling his hand in a pattern parallel to the dirt, "and have it drop to the ground somewhere else from just a couple of feet up. Say..." He turned and found an empty, flat piece of land. "There." Recalling what Wong had done during their fight in the park, Tony finished, "When the rock on top of it also starts to fall through, cut the portal. There'll only be a sliver of rock left. I can push that off and get to work with repairs."

Stephen said nothing and studied the ship, hidden in the shadows of the immovable rock on top of it. It was so much larger than it'd been in Tony's first memories of seeing the craft, and the scale of the wings seemed impossible for Stephen to handle. This was nothing like the portal size that Tony had seen before. Still, they were so close. There had to be a way.

"Please," Tony said. "The last words Pepper said to me were begging me not to leave. I did, anyway." Stephen still hesitated, and so Tony added, "To save you."

With a sigh, Stephen closed his eyes. "I'm not deliberately dragging this out. I don't know if I can do anything worthwhile, here. I honestly don't. The energy will either be enough or it won't, and if it's not, it doesn't matter how deeply I root my spirit into this place and try to bend it to my will. Based on how it felt fighting here earlier, even completely grabbing that cockpit is going to be right on the line."

"Then try. Just try. We have a plan, right? If this shortcut fails, then we just keep on going with Plan A." Tony swallowed. His throat had gone dry again. "No harm, no foul. If you have to, then yeah, just do the cockpit. The middle part. I can repair the wings and vents after you get those next. One step at a time. Get me some nice, stable modular parts and I'll figure out a way to reconstruct them."

With another sigh, Stephen extended his arm and began tracing a circle in the air.

I'm coming home, Tony thought as his heart jackhammered in his chest. I'm coming home, I promise. In the shadows of the space under the rock, golden sparks appeared. They followed a racetrack far larger than anything than Tony had previously seen, and the glow was soon intense enough to light up the spaceship like the blaze from a thousand welding torches. He's doing it. Tony's heart sped. It's gonna work.

A soft hiss of pain drew Tony's attention away from the ship. Sweat had beaded on Stephen's forehead and his face was grey and tight with effort. Every motion of his arm was increasingly strained. A second later, blood started trickling from the skin around the tube Tony had forced into him not a day earlier.

Eyes wide, Tony turned back to the ship. "Wait," he whispered as he saw the sparks flare brighter. "Wait!"

Even as he yelled the word, the ship began to fall through the portal that had just grown large enough to surround its center. As it fell, so did Stephen. He collapsed heavily to his knees, gasping as his hands hit the dirt.

The instant his hand stopped moving, the portal snapped shut. A hot, throbbing feeling washed over Tony as he watched the bottom third of the spaceship's cockpit land heavily on the dirt nearby, while the top part that had been neatly sliced off clattered to the ground with the rest of the damaged vessel. Tony swallowed convulsively, trying not to vomit, then gasped for breath. The air tasted like industrial coolant.

Sometimes Tony found a new plan when the slow, plodding path seemed inevitable to everyone else.

Sometimes his big ideas just managed to screw everything up.

Stephen didn't apologize, only shook his head in silent resignation. Tony didn't apologize either as he knelt next to the fallen man. He balled one sleeve of his sweatshirt over his fist and used it to dab away the trickling blood. "Is it your lung again, or...?"

"No." Stephen pushed himself up and accepted Tony's offer of an arm to guide him back to a full standing position. "Just superficial damage." When he turned to meet Tony's gaze, his skin was still pale and his eyes were faintly bloodshot. "When I understand the planet more, I'll be able to draw more energy to affect it. I'll be able to do our plan. Just... just not yet."

The shocked, grieving core of Tony's heart was moving unhappily to acceptance. Not that much of the ship had been damaged. There'd be a lot of modern, well-maintained parts that he could still use. It'd probably speed things along, at least. "So. I guess you knew this'd happen." Stephen didn't argue with that and Tony looked away. His fist thumped heavily into his thigh. "You could have told me, you know."

"We have a plan. This was part of it."

"This was part of..." Tony's face flushed again, but with anger instead of shock. It took the sight of another dribble of blood to cool his temper. "Look. There was a guy who saved my life. He put something into me," Tony added, and tapped where the nano housing now sat in his chest, "and then we worked together, day after very long day, to escape the prison we'd woken up in. It came time for him and me to fly the coop, and you know what happened? He deliberately got himself killed right in front of me, and told me, 'This was always the plan.'"

Stephen didn't reply for a while. "That must have been a decade ago. I see that the moment stuck in your mind."

"I can deal with no convenient spaceship," Tony said as his voice pitched toward yelling, "but we didn't have to have that crash, first! You didn't have to start bleeding again! God, just tell me, okay? Tell me whatever you can that won't ruin things, because I'm saying right now that I cannot take hearing about your super special secret plan only after things go to shit."

Stephen studied him and said nothing. As Tony opened his mouth to start yelling again, Stephen held up a hand. It was covered in the planet's orange dust. "Hold on. I'm trying to think of what I can tell you. Keep those sensors on me, I suppose."

Tony blinked, too startled to hold onto his anger. "You knew I was...?" One hand twitched against the other's wrist, where he hid the sensors he'd used to track Stephen's astral work during the previous evening.

"Of course I did. Keep doing it. It's fine. It's necessary, in fact."

"Necessary," Tony repeated blankly. Had it been necessary to bust open this ship, too, instead of just telling Tony that he knew it wouldn't work?

"Tony," Stephen said tiredly. "I'm sorry. We're going to be here for a while. There's no way around it. But I saved you for a reason and I hope you can trust in that."

One day, Tony would demand to know what could have possibly been worth turning over the Time Stone. For now, all he could do was nod. Gaining hope and then watching it crash to the ground had centered him on the task ahead more than anything else could have. Maybe that was why this last hour of frustration had been needed. "Fine. But seriously. Are you okay?"

"Another day or two, and this can come out." Stephen managed a tired smile. "Once I'm sure the internal damage is on the mend, you can patch me up with your nanogoop."

"Stop calling it that," Tony said with his own exhausted humor.

"No, I probably won't." Stephen let the Cloak lift him above the ground for their return journey, but turned back to Tony before moving on. "Do you want me to put you to sleep again later?"

"I..." Tony looked aside, shamed at the reminder of the weakness he'd let overcome him. He'd thought, like gentlemen, they'd agreed to pretend that he'd never humiliated himself. But despite that scream Tony had made the night before—and the pain he'd just caused Stephen—there was no judgment in the other man's face. Without saying anything, Tony bowed his head.

"All right."

By halfway back to the ship, Tony found it in him to speak again. The two of them had worked well against an external enemy and the threat of injury. Left alone, they'd settled into a companionable silence as their interests diverged. Now they'd apparently moved past a direct conflict with each other, exactly like they hadn't been able to do in the foyer of a Manhattan townhouse, what seemed like years ago. "We should talk. Tomorrow. When we're not doing stuff, we should talk." Tony Stark was not a man to easily share his feelings, and so he jammed his hands awkwardly into his pockets and looked off at the horizon. "About, you know. Whatever."

"About whatever," Stephen agreed.

When his hands touched Tony's head again that night, the heat of those magical embers was welcomed.

Chapter Text

There was in fact a lot of salvageable material in the lunatics' ship. It'd never fly in its current condition, Tony concluded after scanning the sliver that had been separated from its base, and then the remaining frame. Stephen couldn't have disabled the entire vessel more effectively if he'd been trying to. Maybe he was trying to, Tony allowed. His portal had managed to slice precisely through the gut's mechanics in a way that would make warp speed impossible to control. Back home, it'd be a finicky repair; here, it was impossible.

Another idea was growing, however, that would be an improvement on a basic signal flare. Since it would apparently take Stephen quite a while to know Titan well enough to manipulate its space, Tony figured he had the time to expand his initial plan.

With that larger goal in mind, he pried himself out of the damaged spaceship sliver and tossed more first-round supplies through Stephen's small, very manageable portal. He'd asked for this one, instead of demanding it. Probably because of that, Stephen had been far more cooperative. Or, perhaps it was in apology for dismantling the ship that had so excited Tony.

"There is no way that's moving," Tony concluded as he looked at the horizontal chunk of the moon that had fallen on top of the ship, propped up by two other chunks like plinths at Stonehenge. "Hopefully." Though the ship had settled after losing its belly, the stone above hadn't moved at all. It seemed as stable as could be. Still...

"Keep that portal open," he yelled through it. Once confirmation came, Tony stuck himself through it up to his shoulders. "I wanna check out the ship under the rock. Can you follow me with an escape hatch in case there's a collapse?" Stephen nodded, and so Tony pulled himself free of the portal and began walking into what he was now starting to think of as the ship's cave.

The minutiae of strangers' daily lives soon surrounded him. As Tony climbed his way into the personal quarters of the lunatics' ship, guilt grew over what they were doing to the former home of their very temporary companions. Behind him, a swirling golden portal trailed silently after, compressed to a foot wide, and expanded again once it was past the door. "Sorry, man," Tony whispered as he knelt and started rifling through the current space's drawers. This was the captain's quarters, as he had guessed, and so there were clothes that the two of them could wear while—somehow—laundering their current ones.

"Retro," Tony said, bemused, when his searching hands revealed a lone audio cassette tape. A quick follow-up revealed a battered Zune, of all things. (To his eyes, that was equally retro.) "Catch," he instructed, bundled the music inside some clothes, and tossed all of them through the portal.

"I thought I was your safety hatch," he heard through it, "not your garbage disposal."

"We're going to want to wash our clothes at some point, yeah?"

"I would certainly assume so, yes."

Tony prodded an action figure that Star-Lord had affixed to his shelving. "I'm sure you're a real swell fella, but I insist on at least two full dates before you see my naughty bits."

There was a long pause. "All right, good call with Quill's clothes."

Tony smirked. He had the feeling the guy was a bit on the uptight side. "There's a player inside the bundle. I've got exposed wires leading to the comm system. Try playing with some and see if you can get music going, unless it'll offend your delicate wizard—"

"Not a—"

"—Sensibilities." Though having his hopes so violently raised and shattered shouldn't have helped, it somehow had. Every step they now took seemed to give confirmation that they were still aligned to Stephen's one victorious plan. For once in his life, Tony had decided to just go with the flow. A sense of justified optimism could overcome a lot of recent trauma. Plus, he'd gotten two full, restful nights of sleep for the first time in years. Whenever his mind skittered to bad things—

Mr. Stark?

—He had the ammunition to fend them off. They could be dealt with later, when the current problem had been resolved. He was well-practiced with dealing with the minefield that was his emotional state.

Much to his delight, his next patrol found what looked like food. It smelled like swampy mud, but only tasted half as bad as expected. Perhaps they could save these few packets for an indulgence in the middle of their hairspray-tasting protein bars, Tony thought, and pitched the stockpile through the portal and into the Maw's ship.

His next search took him into a small compartment just off the central corridor. "I think I just found a shower. Maybe. How did that big guy ever fit in here?" Tony wondered as he scanned the interior. He couldn't make out any water pipes, but the tight space coupled with what looked like a nozzle overhead seemed like it could be nothing else.

"From our short acquaintance with him, I suspect that he didn't."

"Good point." Seeing what looked like an electronic switch, Tony verified that the escape portal was still waiting and then tried turning on his discovery. Sonic waves ran up and down him, sending shivers through his fillings and the fading nanopatch in his abdomen, but once he fumbled to turn off the switch Tony noticed that his scavenger-hunting hands were less grimy. "It is a shower. A very weird shower."

"Well, good. For being stranded on an alien planet after the end of the universe as we know it, we're doing relatively well."

A rolling drumbeat abruptly blasted through the portal, followed by a thumping bass line. "Nice musical taste, Mr. Lord," Tony murmured as he continued raiding the rooms of their recently departed, very temporary comrades. His head bobbed to the rhythm that poured through the portal tagging along behind him, and for a few blessed seconds it was possible to believe that he was doing all of this by choice.

That pleasure died soon after choosing one of the bunks in a collective sleeping chamber. The space was spartan in comparison to Quill's, with much less in the way of kitschy decorations. At first glance, Tony had assumed it was Drax's. Tony reached over to the bunk's storage bins to see if Drax had any knives or other tools that they might find useful, but his hand stopped on the way to the first drawer.

Gamora's, the drawer said. Stay out.

The upbeat music through the portal seemed suddenly wrong and Tony's smile faded at the memory of all those strangers' agony over the news of this woman's death. She'd died at Thanos' hand, just like everyone else had. Like everyone. Everyone. Everyone. Mr. Stark? The emotional house of cards he'd constructed wobbled, threatening to bring along all of the other memories he was fighting off. When Tony spoke, his voice was too loud. "Coming back. Can you open the portal a little wider?"

"Everything all right?" Stephen asked as Tony re-entered the Maw's ship. Once Tony was clear, the portal disappeared in a shower of sparks. "That was an abrupt return."

Tony fumbled for the music player, absently noting that he wanted to clean up that sloppy wire splicing, and nodded as the drumbeats stopped. "Yeah. I accidentally wandered into the room of... whoever Gamora was." Neither man said anything, but they both clearly remembered the agony in Peter Quill's voice as he demanded to know what had become of the woman he loved. "I don't know why that felt more like walking over a grave than raiding Quill's closet. We actually knew him, at least." But those disappearances had been a sucker punch, while Quill's screamed, lengthy pleas had been a knife slowly twisted in their hearts.

Fuck it.

He had to ask.

Balling his fists, Tony stared at the floor and demanded, "Tell me what happened to Pepper." Stephen said nothing. With a pained expression, Tony looked back up. "Come on, don't make me ask again. You saw all the futures. I can't take not knowing this any more. One minute, I've accepted that she's gone. The next, I've gotta get back to her."

Apology filled Stephen's eyes. Though terror instantly struck Tony, he instead heard, "I don't know. Remember how I said details not involving my significant decisions against Thanos are fuzzy? I'd tell you just so you could have closure either way, but I don't know anything for her."

Shit. Tony sighed, ran his hand through his hair, and sank to the deck plating. "Fair enough. Anyone that you can actually tell me about?" He quickly amended, "Only if they're still alive."

"Well," Stephen began, and started tidying the various components that Tony had pitched through the portal, "Banner is fine."

A lopsided smile drilled its way through Tony's resignation. "Good. That's really good." God, he hadn't even realized how good "good" could be until he'd heard that Bruce had made it. Life still existed off this dry orange rock.

"There's someone I think you might know. An astrophysicist?" 

Tony squinted. "I know an astrophysicist?" He probably didn't mean Bruce again, although that might well be one of the that PhDs Bruce held. Those formal degrees had all started to mingle together in Tony's head after their relationship became more about the capabilities they'd demonstrated in the lab. "Oh!" Tony said, snapped his fingers, and tried to remember the man's name. There were so many people who'd become involved over the long years, and it was increasingly difficult to keep all the names in mind for what now felt like Avengers, Inc. Their science labs alone had what felt like four potential Nobel laureates. "Older guy. Losing his hair. Thor introduced him. Sim... Sil... Sel... Selvig! Erik Selvig."

"That sounds right. Well, he's fine."

Tony's eyebrows raised slightly, like a shrug. Selvig wasn't anywhere near the top names he cared about, but he certainly wasn't mad to hear that the guy had made it. Also, he did have to be one of the world's top experts on the energies put off by Infinity Stones. "So, I'm guessing Bruce and Selvig work on receiving our message, huh? That'd be how you know about them. Makes sense." In the awkward silence that followed, when it became apparent that Stephen had no other remembered names to share that would mean anything to Tony, Tony gestured back at him. "Any good news for you?"

Stephen also sank to a seated position. "In extremely good news for everyone on Earth, Wong is fine. He'll be excellent at researching any potential magical methods of countering Thanos."

Good. Tony might only have known the guy for a handful of minutes, but by the end, he liked him.

"Beyond that, not a clue. I know there's one path that works but right now it's hard to be certain of more than the most vital points of it. The more that we talk, though, the more I'm able to recall." With a faint frown, Stephen looked up toward the ceiling, though he seemed to be studying the sky far beyond. "Until then, with the exception of launching a rescue and assisting with the research against Thanos, most of my remembered personal future is still blurred into a grey smudge."

That made sense, Tony decided. Dreams faded away only to come back with prompting. Seeing fourteen million futures in rapid succession had to make reality itself feel like a dream. Picking out minor bits of one specific future, even a very important one, would require those memories being jogged. When Stephen had been looking at the lunatics' ship, he really didn't seem to know if he could handle the size of its cockpit. Tony believed he'd been telling the truth, even though he'd been sure after the fact that their plan did not involve flying Quill's ship. The more Stephen experienced in the timeline that was supposed to happen, the more certain he'd be of what to do next.

"Of course," Stephen continued, heedless of Tony's musings, "I am not a jetsetting playboy like some magazine cover figures that I could mention. I have a lot fewer people to concern myself with."

Tony snorted. He slung his arms over his bent knees. "The playboy days are long, long over. They were fun," he admitted, "but being with the right person is better."

At that, Stephen looked the tiniest bit wistful and Tony wondered if he'd put his foot in his mouth like he was so prone to doing. If he had dug up some bad memories, though, they were short-lived. Stephen soon gestured back to him and asked, "Tell me about the woman you've been so worried about, that I met so very briefly." Apparently, they really were going to have the conversation Tony had requested the day before. Like the two of them were actual people, talking to another actual person.

God, what to say? With a grin, Tony thunked his head against the console at his back and studied the ceiling high overhead. "The biggest compliment I can give Pepper is that she will always, without a doubt, call me on my bullshit." Based on their prior interactions, he never would have expected Stephen Strange to laugh so loudly. With good humor, Tony looked back down from the ceiling and continued, "She tells me it's a full-time job. I have no idea how she juggles that and running a Fortune 500 company. She's pretty good at that, too."

Stephen was still smiling warmly—for him, anyway—but the moment began to feel awkward with such a one-sided conversation. Though he'd already gotten indications that these were dangerous waters, Tony gestured in his direction and asked, "So... anyone...?"

"Not for a couple of years. Before the whole..." Stephen let his hand trail off to the side. "Magic thing."

Tony tried to hold back any visible surprise. The guy had wielded an Infinity Stone and was about to make a magical gateway halfway across the galaxy, and he'd been practicing this for 'a couple of years?' Damn. Maybe Tony needed to give Hogwarts a try, too. Those portals for moving spaceship supplies had been handy.

He'd apparently covered his reaction well, for Stephen continued, "She was a much better person than I deserved. The me of four or five years ago would be horrified to hear those words coming from me, by the way. I was... very proud of myself."

Again, Tony tried to control his reaction. This was Stephen Strange after a come-to-Jesus moment with his ego?

This time, he apparently failed. Stephen's smile turned more sly. "To unreasonable levels," he clarified, "unlike my totally justified modern existence." Fine, fine, Tony Stark couldn't give anyone shit about big egos. He motioned Stephen onward and the man nodded and continued. "She'd started a few months earlier at Metro-General. We had the best neurophysiology facility on the East Coast, and openings were unbelievably competitive."

"What's 'competitive' in medicine?" Tony wondered. He'd benefitted from the MIT name, but ultimately, robotics and engineering prestige came from the innovations people made. With the right inspiration, someone from Washington could easily outshine a student at MIT or CalTech. (Of course, Tony always had the right inspiration.)

Stephen apparently picked up on that underlying meaning. "A big part of it is your research output, especially in neurology. That's why a lot of us get PhDs, too. If you're further along in your career, then any notable surgeries can come into play. If it's your first attending position, though, it's all about that research, where you got your degree, and where you did your residency."

Something about his tone gave Tony an indication of what was coming. That 'very proud of myself' comment had reminded him of a man who'd once poured champagne and taken selfies while on the way to give demonstrations for weapons of mass destruction. "And yours were better than hers."

"Degrees from Johns Hopkins, residency at NYU. Hers were from San Francisco, then a residency at Baylor. They're both excellent," Stephen clarified, "but—"

"But not the shiny, hot shit equivalent of MIT," Tony guessed.

"Right. So, I had the biggest names. The growing East Coast reputation. And here comes this new hire from California and Texas who beat out an applicant from Harvard. He was the one I wanted there. Spectacular research on prions. And instead of a dedicated neurologist like him, Metro hired an emergency doctor with overlapping interests."

"Bet you were super nice to her," Tony drawled.

Stephen didn't even bother describing how intolerable he'd clearly been. "A few months later, a patient presented with an apparent neurodegenerative disorder. We couldn't figure it out, though, because labs revealed changes in glial cell function but he wasn't displaying other indicators: muscle rigidity, fasciculation, nothing. In any case, neurodegeneration can't be reversed, meaning that I couldn't cut him open to fix something. I wasn't interested. I told the other doctors that it would probably resolve into classic ALS or Parkinson's and moved on."

With a loose, easy grin, Tony sat back and listened. He might not have all the specific vocabulary to keep entirely up with this story, but he could see that he was talking to an expert in an interesting field. It'd always been fun to listen to Bruce talk about radiology, too. When he'd walked into Hogwarts for the first time, after getting surprised by a fireworks portal, this really wasn't what he'd expected.

"Christine, on the other hand, had done her PhD in biochemistry and she wasn't so intent on spending every last second in the OR. She'd read a Neurotoxicology article over lunch that day, and it got her taking the patient's full history and asking him all sorts of things that I would never care about. The next thing I knew, she was reading news articles in the Times from two years back." Stephen shook his head ruefully. "At the time, it was confirming everything I thought I knew about her."

"So," Tony laughed, and guessed where this was going, "how'd she show you up?"

"It turned out," Stephen finished dryly, "that he'd been laying and repairing sewer lines in Queens. Thanks to a supervisor who was trying to be nice to him in his old age, he was the one person who kept getting assigned to the jobs right around his house: about a mile away from the old Stark Expo site."

Tony's grin slid away and he blinked.

"For two full years, he'd been disturbing the ground where a lot of flying drone suits exploded."

Tony's frown deepened as he recalled a desperate battle. "The ones that Rhodey and I...?"

"One and the same. Their explosions had introduced a very low level of methylmercury to the surrounding area, and exposing sewer lines means generating a lot of dust. Christine pinpointed the cause and was able to halt further degradation of the patient's neurological functions. And soon everyone knew that she'd solved the case that I didn't, which morphed into her solving the case that I couldn't."

By the end, Tony had stopped listening. After the Department of Damage Control had been founded in the wake of the Battle of New York, it had received a report about trace levels of methylmercury in some areas of Queens. It was one of countless reports that had piled in. Off the top of his head, Tony couldn't remember what had happened with it.

Stephen apparently hadn't noticed Tony's distracted state, and so he'd kept talking. Tony tried to catch up. "God, I was on edge for months. All she'd done was care about a patient that I'd ignored, but that was enough. She'd fixed something that I hadn't, and I was NYU and she was Baylor, and I needed to set the world back into its proper order."

Tony cleared his throat to interrupt. He wasn't usually one to admit this, or even think it, but it appeared to be honesty hour. (Damn, he wished he could remember what happened with that methylmercury report.) "Just an observation: I think the people sitting here right now may have very slightly inflated opinions of themselves. Slightly."

Stephen smirked. "Slightly."

"However," Tony continued, "I also get the very distinct impression that the people sitting here used to be absolute, unbelievable pricks." He had no idea what had sent Stephen off on that arcane path away from surgery, but all he could think about was how his own comfortable universe had suddenly bent to the left when he got some shrapnel in his chest.

All he'd wanted to do was talk to the man about anything in order to bridge the gap between them. Reaching a basic understanding seemed vital when their lives rested in the other's hands. Never had Tony expected that they'd have such an in-depth conversation after such a short time, nor that he'd see so much of himself reflected in someone he initially hadn't been able to stand. He'd expected to wade out and had ended up diving into deep water.

Maybe seeing yourself in him was why you hated him right away, one of the more self-loathing voices in his head piped up. He ignored it.

Stephen didn't argue with that assessment, either. "She's a better person than I am, so she didn't take the bait. But after a couple of months passed, well... we came to a new arrangement."

Tony gestured. "Working things out in the bedroom. Classic solution." Stephen stared back at him and Tony's hand retracted. "Not where you were going with this, noted."

"The Battle of New York happened," Stephen clarified.

That took him as much by shock as the mention of the Stark Expo. Even now, that day was one of the most trying memories of his life. Tony could still remember the certainty that all of New York was about to be destroyed, and knowing in an instant that he was willing to take that nuke past the Chitauri portal if that's what was needed to save the city. It was as big a confrontation with his own mortality as waking up in a captive's bed, suffering the horror of seeing an electromagnet implanted in his chest.

He'd been protecting the whole city, but he hadn't really thought about the people in that city as anything beyond abstract numbers to save. He hadn't wondered what teachers had done with elementary school kids in their care after the skies opened, what commuters on the stopped subway lines had thought as they heard rumblings above, or what it would have been like in the city's hospitals. All of that realization apparently played across his face, because Stephen stayed quiet until Tony had absorbed his meaning. "So, I know what it was like for me," Tony began. "How'd it play out in the ER?"

"How'd the biggest mass casualty event in my hospital career play out?" Stephen put a hand to the side of his neck and rolled it from side to side. Apparently even the memories were stressful. "Christine and I lasted the longest in the OR, until the chief ordered us to take a sleep break. We'd gone about thirty hours, I think." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "We slept for four and went back in. Rinse and repeat. I don't think either of us left the hospital for ten or eleven days. Other specialities had it worse. After a week and a half, anyone with head and spine trauma was either through the OR or past saving. Ortho, though... they had to re-break some low-priority fractures that hadn't been able to set properly. Their work never ended."

Tony wasn't going to label that hospital work as bigger than what he'd done. It wasn't. He'd taken out the invaders that were trying to kill those dying patients in the ER and he'd risked his life instead of his sleep patterns. Still, it blew his mind a little to realize that he'd moved into victory mode right after the battle, without turning to all of the victims who'd kept ramping up the death toll over the next weeks. The world hadn't ended and so Earth had won, but people kept dying in the operating room while the global news celebrated his new, shiny team.

He'd already gotten the feeling of standing in a funhouse mirror room, looking at a distorted version of himself. This didn't help. "And so," Tony guessed, feeling suddenly ready to end their conversation, "you and Christine came to an understanding, forged in the sleep deprivation of battle. Happily ever after." He recalled the beginning of the talk and awkwardly amended, "Until, you know, you guys split up. I think I'm going to turn the music back on." Stephen was completely unlikable. Tony had figured that out about him after ten seconds of knowing him. How was he able to share all of this so freely when he'd been so reserved during their whole trip here?

Stephen looked amused at his sudden flinch back from their discussion. "Of the two of us, I thought you were the social butterfly. How did you ever network? Fine. I should get back to familiarizing myself with Titan's gravity."

Tony shrugged for an answer, then turned to re-start Quill's Zune. There really was some good music on this thing.

"Day three," he announced at the end of another long stretch of hours. How many days would it be, he wondered? One answer was unfortunately clear: more.

Tony absently tapped the housing implant in his chest, hoping that the remaining nano material would soon replicate itself enough to let him tackle the full scope of his work. It'd been the reason he wanted to find the discarded suit bits, to break them down and help replenish the nano pool with raw materials. For his envisioned plan, he'd need to be working at one hundred percent. There's that patch on the wall, Tony remembered. Maybe that'd help. He'd tackle that soon.

Stephen's earlier words came back to him and Tony hesitated before stripping off his sweatshirt to sleep in the tee underneath. It was true: he was clearly the more socially adept of the two of them, and so it should be up to him to keep the morale wheels turning. Just because an unexpected funhouse mirror had made anxiety leap out of the shadows didn't mean that that it was a smart move to cut off their growing connection so abruptly.

"Hey," he said. Stephen looked up from inspecting the medical tube that could hopefully come out tomorrow. "Thanks for talking. We should do it again. Now and then. Occasionally. Otherwise, we'll probably go nuts before we even make it off Titan."

Stephen inclined his head. Despite sharing his history far more than Tony had, he didn't seem flustered at all. This really was quite a change from the man he'd been in Manhattan. "That's a good idea. A plan so dependent on both of us can't have too much friction develop. And we might be... slightly prone to friction."

Tony smiled faintly. "Just a little. Can't say that I expected to get such a life story out of you, already. I thought I'd have to drag it loose."

"Well," Stephen began and walked over to once again put Tony under for the night. That day, he hadn't needed to ask. "At first it was easier to stay quiet. God knows I didn't want to encourage you to be any chattier than you already are. However, as noted, the more we talk and the more we do, the more I'm able to recall the details of... everything."

That was good. More knowledge could only help. It'd keep them talking, too, and keep those social wheels greased.

Stephen extended his hands, sleep embers glowing, and smiled faintly. "Thanks to that unearthing, it's beginning to strike me that I've known you a lot longer than you've known me."

"What?" Tony asked, blinking, even as the embers touched his temples. He'd already gotten used to accepting the offer of dreamless sleep and he'd instinctively reached for that darkness. Because of it, the memories of Stephen using the Time Stone barely floated up before sleep took him. I've known you a lot longer than you've known me, Tony heard as the world spiraled into calm, restful nothing.

Chapter Text

The next day Tony couldn't help but eye Stephen sidelong. All this time he'd known that the man had seen different futures. The sheer scale of the visions been a lot to accept, but he'd thought that he'd accomplished that feat. What hadn't processed, however, was that seeing futures also meant seeing the people in those futures, with all of the personal interactions to match. What had seemed like a straightforward cheat code was now something deeply, intensely weird.

What had they talked about? What had they done? Were they always destined to end up on this rock alone, or could things have gone a different way? Would they actually make it back to Earth? Had there been timelines where Tony couldn't bring himself to shove that tube into Stephen and so he'd suffocated inside his own chest? Timelines where Tony brought a moon rock crashing down on his head? Ones where they simply couldn't get along and any plans for escape collapsed under the weight of their own conflicting egos?

"You're distracted," Stephen eventually said without opening his eyes or lowering from his position several inches above the floor. "It doesn't seem like an efficient workflow is happening." Above him, Tony's flying sensors hung silently and conducted their scans of whatever arcane energy was being drawn upon.

"Tell me something about myself that I haven't told you," Tony soon replied, "and that you wouldn't know from the news."

Stephen slit open his eyes, studied him, and closed them again. "You have massive lingering issues with your father."

That was a cheap shot and Tony refused to be knocked off-balance by it. Not after wondering whether there were timelines where their egos had kept them stranded on this hellhole. "I think Dr. Phil could make that diagnosis. While drunk." Stephen didn't reply and so Tony sighed and set down the wires he was manipulating. "I'm trusting your plan. Give me a reason to trust that you really know the future."

"Fair enough," Stephen acknowledged. Though he didn't lower from the position in which he'd been doing his work, he did fully open his eyes and turn to look at Tony. "I'm still fuzzy on the details, remember, so I have to go with whatever is available at the moment."

"Fine, whatever."

"Ever since the Scarlet Witch caused you to suffer a paranoid vision, you've been living with the certainty that you would eventually watch all the people around you die." Stephen's normally cool gaze tightened slightly. "I suppose she was prescient, in the end. I'm sorry, but that's one personal detail that came clearly to mind."

Ice gripped his heart. Tony looked away but nodded. "Well. I guess you know your stuff." He certainly hadn't gone on the news with that story. Although the other Avengers could discuss his behavioral changes after that moment, he hadn't been chatty about even an inkling of his motivations to anyone beyond a very narrow circle. And while Stephen had met Bruce, given the circumstances Tony doubted they'd spent time talking about anything besides Thanos.

From his perspective, they'd known each other for a few days. How long had it been from Stephen's perspective? All of those futures had branched off from a time when the two of them were together on Titan, after all. Fourteen million "maybes" had all started in close proximity to Tony. They'd probably gotten instantly smashed by Thanos in a number of them; there had to be a reason that Stephen had insisted on facing the man alone, to allow for a surprise attack from the flanks. How many other futures had there been, though, and how long did they stretch?

"Let me ask you about some of those timelines," Tony ventured, a few minutes after that.

"I'll share what I can remember," Stephen agreed, "and what's safe." He gestured at a small piece of metal, nodded when it rose and fell, and then glanced over his shoulder toward the exit that lead to Titan's surface.

"What's the fastest that we lost?"

A deep sigh heaved out of the man. "Maybe ten seconds after he arrived. We tried some very bad tactics."

Like he'd suspected, then. Tony rubbed the back of his neck. "What's the longest that a bad future lasted? How long could we hold him off before he got all the stones?" Stephen didn't say anything as his gaze went slightly unfocused, likely trying to recall that answer, so Tony tried a different angle. "What's the best-case scenario for winning? Do we just kick his evil Barney ass, take back the six, and stop anything else from going down, or can we—" Tony's vision blurred.

Mr. Stark?

"Can we fix things?" he finished in a wobbly voice.

"Some people who fell to Thanos can be saved," Stephen said after a long pause. Apparently that much was safe to share. "Not everyone, but some people. But the road ahead is not an easy one, and those who fall between now and then..."

"Super vague. Thanks." Tony folded his arms. "So. Do I make it all the way to the finish line?" In response, Stephen gave only an expression that said Tony had clearly stepped over the boundaries of what could be shared. Tony pointed to him instead. "You? Bruce? Selvig? Oh, come on. At least tell me Selvig."

"I'm going outside," Stephen announced and stood. The Cloak fluttered to Stephen's shoulders but didn't lift him. He must be feeling better.

"You can tell me Selvig!" Tony loudly protested as Stephen left. "Knowing what happens to Selvig's not gonna change my behavior, so just tell me!" Feeling suddenly guilty, Tony looked up at the sky in a direction that might be toward Earth. They just had an occasional professional relationship, but he didn't want to be outright rude. "No offense."

He and Stephen might have connected on a personal level the day before but theirs was still a fragile dynamic. Since that morning had started off on shaky terms, Tony decided to leave well enough alone and focus on his own work. The communications protocols were still humming along in the background and so it was time to use a different part of the computer's functionality to address another responsibility that Tony had claimed: figuring out where, exactly, Earth was.

"Flight histories," Tony eventually announced. His toes tapped along with Quill's music, which echoed through the expansive chamber. "Perfect. Coordinates... star maps... got it." He might not know astronomy very well, but he'd taken multiple graduate physics seminars and then proceeded to build an entire fleet of flight suits with suborbital capacities. Though it might take him a while across galactic distances, Tony Stark didn't need a specific astronomy background to calculate proper vectors.

Perhaps this was a day to take the the better food option, Tony decided a few hours later and grabbed two of the lunatics' packets. It would be a bit of a peace offering for the mood he'd caused. "Dinner bell," he loudly called as he walked outside and began the hunt for the only other person on the planet.

In the end, it was the Cloak he saw first. For some reason it was hovering well above the ground. "Ah," Tony realized upon getting closer. It was protecting Stephen from the setting alien sun; the planet's faster rotation had already knocked them out of sleeping alignment with its sunsets. Reminded of that light, he pulled his own hood up and then called, "I brought food."

Stephen glanced over and didn't lower his hand from where it gestured. With the other hand, he pointed a little ahead of where Tony was. "Stand right there and tell me what you see next."

Tony stepped forward to the indicated spot and blinked as he did. The gravity on the planet was perpetually strange; rocks continued to tumble impossibly in the air because of it. Moving forward had apparently put him into some sort of even more broken rift. Here, the gravitational strength ebbed and strengthened like breathing. Whether it was due to geothermal flows below or sunspots above, they'd found a little niche of "even weirder" on a planet that already felt broken.

"Once I can smoothly manipulate the space right in this spot," Stephen explained and began to twist his hand, "then I should absolutely be ready."

Nodding, Tony watched the floating rock chip Stephen was gesturing to. Suddenly it split into two, then three. Blinking, Tony tried to make sense of what he was watching, only for the trio to slice jaggedly across space like they were being spat out by a printer with crumpled paper. Based on the dark look Stephen gave the rocks as they flickered, that probably wasn't supposed to happen. He soon relented, turned his hand in the other direction, and the three rocks collapsed back into one. It flickered like static and then hung silently again.

"How was it supposed to go?" Tony wondered. He'd forgotten to have his sensors track that, but he had no idea what they would have made of it, anyway. The entire thing had looked like a glitch in reality.

"Not anything like that," Stephen grumbled and sent another of those floating rock shards tumbling into the distance. "The good news is that conquering this particularly stubborn rift will be an excellent readiness check. Eventually. This place's logic is so..."

"Illogical? Yeah. Here," Tony said and offered him one of the packets from the lunatics' ship. It wasn't human food per say, but at least it was food that had been deliberately eaten by one human. The dark, full taste wasn't wholly appetizing, but something vaguely mushroom-like was better than the sharp chemicals of what the Maw had stocked. "We can space these out between our protein bars from hell."

"Thanks." After a few thoughtful chews Stephen concluded, "This must be something that all of the species in that group could safely eat." There was a moment of silence for that fallen crew. "It is a little astonishing to think about the scope of what our fight here entailed: multiple races, involving multiple planets from multiple star systems. I've been off Earth before but it didn't feel nearly this distant."

Tony, about to agree, hesitated. He'd gone through the Chitauri portal and so that counted for an off-world experience, but he had no idea when Stephen would have stepped off the planet before this. "Off Earth? That was... when, exactly?" Given the rough timeframe of when he'd left the operating room, the Avengers should have been involved in anything at that scale. It probably happened when Rogers was in charge, Tony concluded and assigned that blame.

"What? Oh. You may have seen some energy disturbances over Hong Kong?"

"Hong Kong?" Tony repeated and thought back. Oh. Dammit. That'd been on his watch. "Right. There was a huge, bizarre energy spike. Just as we were about to scramble a jet, it stopped. Pretty soon, everything the satellites had told us vanished like it had... never... happened." He nodded slowly. "Ah."

Stephen spread his hands and smiled more than a little smugly.

"Wait," Tony wondered a second later. There was so much to ask about that Hong Kong fight, but the significance of what Stephen had said earlier was only now sinking in. "Wait, wait. Multiple star systems, multiple races. After you and I get this signal working... would we be able to contact them?" The possibility was overwhelming. If they could bend the universe in any direction they wanted, they could contact countless people that had suffered under Thanos. Everyone could be united.

"With my own portals?" Stephen instantly countered and shook his head in apology. "Zero chance. To open one, I have to understand both the origin and destination. That's never a problem if it opens and ends on Earth, but it's why I need so long to study Titan before making a portal of this magnitude. And if I were starting from Earth, I'd never be able to understand some unknown target at the other end."

That made initial sense. Once analyzed further, it explained a whole lot more. "God," Tony laughed and shook his head. That's what he'd meant. The son of a bitch had been telling the truth about seeing potential futures, and he didn't need any creepy reminders of Wanda's nightmare to prove it. "If we'd left on that spaceship, you would never have the chance to form such a long portal. Earth has to be the target, not the origin, and something about this portal is going to be useful. I don't know if it's for the universe's biggest cell phone or not, but it's gonna be useful."

Stephen tried twisting another rock into a series of duplicates, saying nothing as he did, but looked satisfied at the conclusions Tony had made.

"And you even told me to keep scanning you while you worked. You want me to get this portal data."

Stephen didn't argue with any of that. "And," he added, "I know that if I simply told you all of that, you would refuse to accept that we couldn't figure it out somehow on Earth. Instead of letting me work, you would insist upon checking upon your fiancée immediately."

"Fine. Fine!" Tony threw up his hands. As little as he liked to admit it, he absolutely would have insisted upon flying out within the hour no matter how fiercely Stephen argued that to do so would be to lose in the end. "I am looking forward to playing around with this portal data in my own lab, after we get rescued. Because this is the way we're going."

After watching him a few seconds to see if he really meant that, Stephen nodded and gestured him toward the direction of the lunatics' ship. "Come on." In the low, dim light of the setting alien sun, they set off walking for the mistake that Tony had nearly made for them both.

Stephen certainly had done a fine job of committing them to the current plan, Tony thought wryly as he eyed the severed spaceship belly laying in the dull, orange dirt. Even if Stephen hadn't been totally sure of the best outcome before starting that portal, he must have known the exact stakes once the sparks began to fly. If they did somehow save the people that Thanos had felled, Tony would have to repair this craft for Quill as an apology.

"You were right to be cautious about the collapse potential, before," Stephen said as they both studied the ship under the rock. The angle of the setting sun had shifted the shadows around the heaviest piece, somehow making it look even more looming than before. "If either of those supports shifts, the ship itself would be crushed flat under that weight."

"Right..."

"This is how the ship could have come safely out," Stephen said, almost sounding like he was telling Tony a secret. Another portal appeared parallel to the ground, but this time it was in the air above the chunk of moon rock rather than below the ship itself. It was also much smaller than before, no bigger than what he'd used during the fight. With a few flicks of Stephen's wrist the portal began to move back and forth, descending as it did. In the rhythm of a human heartbeat, the portal opened and closed like a winking eye.

Off to the side, near the severed belly, thin chunks of stone began to fall into the dust below. Tony turned back and watched the portal shave down the rock like it was a piece of wood being planed. It was slow, precise work; the complete opposite of the spectacular, one-step spaceship retrieval that Tony had envisioned to get himself home to Pepper. In due time, though, half the rock was gone and Stephen had never even broken a sweat.

"When I asked you to just drop the whole thing through one gigantic portal," Tony asked wryly, "did you already know that this was the smarter move?"

"Once I'd committed myself to making a portal, I did remember this successful approach from some timelines, yes."

"But then it ends up not being successful after we take off for Earth and don't get the data we need."

"Right."

"Whatever," Tony concluded and watched the moon chunk shave down to a thickness that wouldn't crush the ship even if it did collapse. "I'm taking a shower."

Leaving Stephen to his remaining work, Tony walked back into the ship that he'd explored before. It was odd to realize that a razor-sharp portal was cutting apart solid rock above his head and making a slow descent in his direction, but not threatening. If he hadn't trusted Stephen entirely, Tony realized, he never would have stuck his body halfway through a portal to ask him a question in the middle of his scavenger hunt. Big egos or not, they were doing pretty well after only half a week of knowing each other.

"Better stay outside," Tony yelled, though he knew Stephen couldn't hear him, and proceeded to strip off his sweatshirt and then everything underneath. His clothes, so dirty from the orange dust of Titan, could practically stand up on their own. Tomorrow might mean another trip back here to test out the compartment's ability to clean fabric, but for now he wanted the most efficient shower possible.

"Oh, this is weird," Tony said as he stepped into the small space and felt sonic waves roam up and down his bare form. On his arms, the hair rose. "So weird. So—" A wave hit the nanopatch in his torso just right and he shivered like when he'd felt that sensation before. "Weird." It did make sense; water was precious and they wouldn't want to dirty this much of it just to clean themselves. A sonic compartment like this was, however, about the furthest thing in the world from a soothing, hot shower.

Just as he began to close his eyes, hoping to pry some sliver of relaxation out of the experience, golden sparks appeared at the edge of his vision. Tony yelped. As he tried frantically to cover himself he thought, Definitely not relaxing.

"It's just for talking, calm down," Stephen's voice said through what stayed as a very small portal. "How much longer do you need? The sun's setting and it's best to avoid tripping over all those rocks on the way back."

"Uh." Tony checked his hands and was pleased to see that even the orange grit under his fingernails was falling away under the shower's steady assault. "Five minutes?"

"Very well." The portal spun away into nothing and Tony exhaled. That had probably been payback for his "two full dates" comment the day before.

He tried to scrub himself somehow to speed things along, but only managed to bash his elbows against the walls of the tight space. Just like with Stephen's plan, Tony supposed he needed to give himself patiently over to whatever would happen next. Accordingly, he resolved to count down four minutes in his head while waiting for the sonic pulses to do their work.

"Tomorrow, you get the same treatment," he promised his dusty but sturdy pants as he shimmied them back on. "I'm glad that I wasn't wearing a suit that morning."

"Didn't you say you'd been done in five minutes?"

Tony sighed as the portal flared open just down the hall. This time, it wasn't just sized for a voice. "You know," he said and started feeling around to find where his shirt rested in the shadows, "I've gotta say that I'm a real fan of people coming and going in a semi-predictable rhythm. A.k.a.: can't you knock?"

"You said five minutes," Stephen reminded him archly. "So, does the shower work?"

Aha, there was his shirt. Tony's hand closed around it. "It takes a while, but yes."

"Good, I'll try it tomorrow. Er. Wait." Stephen, to Tony's significant surprise, actually looked hesitant about whatever he was going to do next. That hesitation sent sudden unease into Tony, too, and he moved to pull on his tank top. Maybe that'd reduce the weirdness some tiny bit, but no, it only made Stephen step forward and repeat himself. "Wait."

"Yeah?" Tony asked and eyed Stephen even more sidelong than he had that morning. Would you let me put my shirt back on? And stop looking at me?

"Sorry. I just... it wasn't my field, but can I look at how that's seated in your chest?" He'd been eying the nano housing, Tony realized and relaxed a little. Of course. He was a doctor and there was something medically unique in front of him.

"Sure, why not?" With a shrug, Tony let his hands fall back to his sides. Though he hadn't been stranded on a dead planet with any of them, Tony had long ago become used to doctors prodding him. Except for the surroundings, this wouldn't be different than any of his old check-ups.

After a second of hesitation, Stephen reached out his hand to cross the space between them. Fingertips traced the shape of the nano housing and he frowned as he studied Tony's chest. "It used to be a circular installation, didn't it? I can see the scarring where that radius previously was."

"No, you can't," Tony instantly said. His nanos healed damage well. Not perfectly, but well, especially on flat, broad patches like an abdomen or chest. "Well... fine, you can, but you have to look really hard." Where the circular arc reactor had once been, that part of his skin was now only faintly thicker and tougher than what was one inch over.

Stephen's fingers lightly touched that skin and compressed it, then let it rebound. Tony, about to say that their boundaries were crossing over into weirdness, felt his words die as he looked down at Stephen's examination. Caught in his earlier awkwardness, Tony hadn't noticed, but Stephen's hand shook slightly as he explored around the nano housing. Running down the full length of each finger was a harsh, ropy scar.

It was difficult not to stare at those trembling fingers. When Tony looked away it felt like ripping off a band-aid. Shit. The guy was a brain surgeon. I guess I know why he left medicine. Tony still thought that nothing could compare to waking up with an electromagnet inside his chest, but he supposed that seeing those incisions had been some pretty serious body horror of its own.

After Stephen's fingers brushed around the edge of the nano housing one last time, the slight vulnerability that had edged into his normally confident figure dissipated. "Thank you. I've been wondering about that thing every time I saw it on the news. You can put your shirt back on, now."

Tony did so quickly and didn't dare look up until he was sure that sympathy wouldn't be in his gaze. Even after he'd taken that shrapnel, he'd still been able to invent. He'd been able to adapt his work and talents toward new venues. In contrast, everything that Stephen had worked for in his entire life would have disappeared with a single surgery. Jesus, that must have been rough. He was checking to see if I'd been able to fix the scarring completely, Tony realized just as he was about to meet Stephen's eyes, and quickly turned to face the shower instead. "So. Yeah. The shower does work. It just takes a while."

"And you already told me that, but it's still good to know. If you put on Quill's clothes when you get up tomorrow, I can try using it on what we're wearing, as well." Stephen's hand was still shaking, Tony saw as he raised it to gesture down the corridor. It probably always had been and he just hadn't noticed. Despite that, Stephen was able to easily manipulate space with one sweeping movement and a perfectly round portal soon revealed their temporary home on its other side.

With a nod, Tony tried to sound like he wasn't dripping sympathy. "Sounds like a plan."

"It was a car accident, by the way. You are not subtle."

Tony grimaced. "Sorry."

"So was I," Stephen said, though Tony couldn't hear any regret still lingering in his voice. "But back then, I saved a person at a time. Now I'm able to help far more with a single stroke. It all worked out in the end."

Tony stepped through the portal, glad that they wouldn't have to cross the rocky ground in the darkness, and turned to Stephen when he followed. "So... you weren't hoping that my nanos could reduce your scarring? Because I'm not going to lie, I got the feeling that's what you were checking for. I doubt they can help that much, but it's worth a try. If, you know. If you care."

"I don't need it," Stephen said and shrugged. He gestured idly toward the back of the ship's space. Although his long, scarred fingers still visibly trembled, the golden mandala that appeared there was an intricate work of art. "But," he admitted as the shining lines vanished, "I wouldn't mind making fewer typos when trying to send a text."

Tony smirked. Sending texts, huh? Something else he hadn't expected at Hogwarts. "When I patch up that hole in you, I can tell the nanos to see if there are any other repairs they can make." They were programmed for wounds, not scar tissue and old damage, and that was some serious scarring. Still, they might be able to sand down some of the worst edges of what harm had been done.

Though he looked to genuinely consider it, Stephen soon shook his head. "No. I'm fine. I wouldn't want to risk my work here if the sensation changed, somehow. It's really just an occasional annoyance."

"Fair enough." If Tony did somehow lose the ability to invent, would he be able to change course so completely? In such a short time? He didn't know if he could. "Speaking of patching up that hole, is that ready to come out?" he asked with a gesture to the tube that, just a few days earlier, had saved Stephen's life.

"It should be. Let me check." With a few deep, deliberate breaths, Stephen closed his eyes. Soon golden runes again appeared at various points along his body. Unlike before, when one had hung over the injured area to relieve the worst of his injuries, the runes all stayed equally bright and moved in steady patterns before vanishing. "All right," he said and took a seated position on the edge of one dead console. "I'm clear of any obvious pathogens, and so am ready to be sealed by your nanogoop."

Tony didn't even bother to correct the wording, this time. As Stephen carefully adjusted the overlapping shirt material from where he'd twisted it to the side, Tony asked, "You probably want to check me for germs, too. Right? I mean, ancient alien civilization and all. For all we know, we'd be bringing the Andromeda Strain back to Earth."

"That... does make sense, yes, but not until we're ready to leave. We certainly don't want to bring anything dangerous back." Stephen hesitated with his adjustments, then continued without looking up, "So long as you realize that it will involve surveying and knowing your body as well as I know my own."

"Oh." Tony had not realized that, no. But he couldn't really back out of things, not after he'd identified the potential to bring some alien virus back home. With a suddenly warm face, Tony cleared his throat. "So! Let me yank that tube out and goop you. God. You've got me saying goop, too."

After a few deep, steadying breaths, Stephen nodded and put his weight onto one rigid arm. The other hand pried open the shirt material to show skin that had lost much of its earlier bruising but still bore the violent intruder of Tony's inserted nanotube. "Give me your hand." When Tony extended one, Stephen used his free hand to move it into position. "This is the angle at which you'll need to make the extraction. Here, hold onto the other side of my ribcage to steady yourself. It's imperative that you only pull the tube out. If your hand slips and you apply any forward pressure, you could easily puncture something."

Tony took a step closer. Though it should have been awkward just like when Stephen traced his nano housing, Tony dutifully clasped the man's side with his left hand like they were ready to start a slow dance. He was the one with steady fingers in this room, and so he was not allowed to fuck up a simple "pull this tube straight out" set of instructions. As directed, he delicately wrapped his right hand around the protruding medical tube and let his wrist be corrected again to the perfect angle. Under him, Stephen's breathing sped just enough to notice. This would probably hurt.

"Ready any time," Stephen soon said. His right hand gripped the console to keep himself steady. His left hand stayed firm on Tony's to direct the extraction.

With infinite caution like he was working with an explosive, Tony pulled steadily and inexorably toward himself. The skin around the tube stretched as he began his work, only to reach its limit and trickle blood a moment later. At the sight of it, Tony's left hand gripped Stephen's torso harder but his work didn't pause.

"There," Tony soon said with satisfaction as he looked at the tube that had saved Stephen Strange's life. On that first day, in the middle of his panic, it had seemed enormous to Tony. Now it was trivial. "Feeling okay?" he asked as he let go of the other man.

"I've been better," Stephen admitted as blood seeped from the open puncture in his chest, "but this is exactly how I hoped to feel. I'm ready to be gooped."

Though his regenerating nano supplies were precious, Tony obediently gooped him. The silvery material formed a small, tidy patch. After a few seconds to collect himself, Stephen was able to move his shirt back into place and take deep, confident breaths. "One problem is officially off the table," he announced and gave Tony one of the rare, genuine smiles that looked odd—if pleasant—on that face that could be so annoying. "Thank you, Tony. Really."

"Yeah, well." Tony folded his arms and shrugged. "I saved you from getting crystal shishkebabbed, you saved me from getting plastered when we landed. Then I saved you from your angry lung, so you'll just have to make up the favor again."

The easy smile faded. The new expression in Stephen's eyes was the one that said he'd looked over every potential future and knew what was coming for both of them. Because of that, a chill ran down Tony's spine when Stephen nodded and confirmed, "That I will."

Chapter Text

Before they went to sleep that night, Tony again remembered the massive patch he'd made on the ship's outer hull. This time nothing distracted him from that prize. His hand beam sliced the mass free, Stephen's magic diced it like a chef's knife, and soon Tony had a literal pile of hardened goop. (A pile of solidified adaptive nano particles, Tony corrected, though he suspected he was fighting a losing vocabulary battle.) Though the nanos themselves couldn't be re-activated, their base elements would greatly speed the regeneration process. "I'll see what my supplies are in the morning," Tony said after breaking down three of the cubes. "It might be time to move on to bigger things."

"Fingers crossed," Stephen said just before putting his hands to Tony's temples.

The next morning, Tony looked critically down at himself. In the heat of battle, he hadn't realized that Quill was so tall.

Stephen said nothing as he extended his hand to collect Tony's things, but as Tony handed over his own dirtied pants and hoodie a smile struggled to break free through his normally controlled demeanor.

"Not one word," Tony insisted as he bent over to roll up the bottoms of Quill's pants. That way at least he wouldn't trip over the stupid things.

"Not one word," Stephen agreed, but turned and murmured something inaudible to the Cloak. It quirked its collar back at him, then flew to Tony's shoulders and settled there.

"Uh," Tony began, eying the sentient fabric that wrapped his form. "So we're friends, now?" When he realized that Stephen still looked amused as he studied Tony's shoes, that confusion fled. Though the Cloak hung slightly above the ground when on Stephen, while on Tony its hem lay flat against the deck plating.

"Just checking," Stephen said lightly. The Cloak flew back to his shoulders. "Back in a while," he promised as a portal to the lunatics' ship opened behind him.

With a smile that he absolutely did not mean, Tony extended his middle finger and waved good-bye with it.

For reasons that were in no way related to his faintly bruised ego, Tony decided that it was indeed time to move on to his visible, more impressive Phase Two. Over the past few days he'd successfully commandeered the Maw's computer system. Even while he slept, the system continued calculating Earth's position and tailoring communications protocols. It was work that hardly anyone else could manage. Tony had needed to understand alien technology, hijack it, and turn it to his own purposes, and he'd accomplished that in a manner of days.

Still, the fact remained that he'd spent his time thus far on Titan fiddling with a computer and gathering spare parts. it was all necessary, but from the outside it looked like busy work. Meanwhile Stephen had been throwing around magical runes like confetti and slicing apart reality with his needlessly showy portals.

So, maybe it was time for Tony to do something a little more visible, too. It wasn't like he had to, or that he was playing catch-up. It was just time for Phase Two. Tony checked his nano stockpiles after the night's regeneration, then nodded. Breaking down the old material had indeed helped and he so had enough to move forward into construction mode. It wasn't his ego. It was just the right time.

"Phase Two it is," Tony confirmed and lugged out his current supply of spare parts.

"Congratulations," he said without looking up some time later, when he saw sparks emerge at the side of his vision. "We officially have thrust capacity."

"I cannot remotely say that those were the words I expected to hear after coming back from a shower," Stephen said after a long pause.

Grinning, Tony turned to him with the thruster he'd been reconstructing. It was one of the control ports on the spaceship's severed belly and had been used to steer its stronger, interstellar engines. "I work fast."

Stephen didn't look confused, exactly; after that trick with the Time Stone, Tony supposed that it'd be impossible for him to be left totally in the dark about anything. He did have the expression, though, that said he was trying to remember the purpose of what was in front of him. "Here," Stephen said idly as he stepped forward to look at the thruster and handed Tony's now-clean clothes back to him. He'd apparently decided to wear a casual grey shirt of Quill's rather than deal with the multi-layered wizard getup. It was an odd combination with the Cloak. It also somehow felt like committing to their remaining time on Titan and settling in.

"So, my very first thought," Tony began as Stephen studied what he'd done, "was to make a communications array right at our front door. I always had this rough idea for an even better approach, though. The problem with sending a signal from the ground is that we're caught inside an atmosphere, surrounded by a warped gravitational field. But since that gravitational field is weak, it'd be totally doable to make a craft that gets us up above it. Once we know that we've aimed right, we'll be able to chat in live time with zero interference for as long as you can keep a portal open."

"You want to jury-rig something that takes us into a hard vacuum," Stephen paraphrased.

"I want to construct something that will cut down on planetary static and improve our chances of rescue," Tony countered. "Tell me if I should stop or not. By now, I'm guessing that you can remember which is the right approach."

"As much as I hate to admit it," Stephen said after a long pause, "you should keep building."

Yay. Tony got to do the fun approach.

"Well," Stephen concluded, still staring at the thruster that Tony wanted to use them to launch them above any breathable air, "we should get back to work."

Three days later, it hardly felt like work. They'd played through any and all music that they'd found in Quill's room, but Tony always carried a solid music library in his own local CPU alongside Friday and his personal calendar. After getting inspired by that Zune, he'd taken the time needed to patch his own music into the ship's processors and speakers.

"I swear you've never listened to a song released after 1988," Stephen said as he splayed his hand against an empty piece of deck plating. The last lines of "Tearin' Down the Walls" faded away in time with the energy ring that he let dissolve into nothing.

For an answer, Tony turned and strummed along with the electric guitar line of the song that had cued up next. "Who needs the '80s?" As he returned to his work, "Smoke on the Water" continued to blare. "Besides, not all of us spend our days listening to Gregorian chants or Mongolian throat singing, or whatever it is you do at Hogwarts."

"I have to listen for resonance in a lot of what I do, so I often find myself working in silence, now." Stephen hesitated, then added, "Wong did bother me until I agreed to pay for his Spotify account, though."

Wong? Spotify? Sure, why not. "So he's responsible for making the dork playlists."

"Actually," Stephen corrected, and adjusted the placement of his hand for whatever he was hoping to accomplish, "he's gotten obnoxiously into Betty Who."

Tony couldn't help it; he started laughing. "Said it before, but you are really not what I expected." Over the past few days, their workflow had moved past professionally companionable and become downright friendly. Initially, it'd helped that they'd often gone their separate ways, either with scavenger hunting or astral exploration. Like jagged rocks in a polishing chamber, they'd had the chance to wear down their roughest edges without annoying the other man too much in any single stretch. Then, after each of them had made first use of that sonic shower, it was like they'd washed off their first terrible impression as part of the process.

Since that medical tube had come out of Stephen, they'd readily worked on their own projects in the same space. Instead of peace lasting for an hour or two, they'd managed it for days. Totally committing to a shared plan had done a lot, but the music had also helped. It always put Tony in a better mood and he'd even glanced over to see Stephen mouthing along with the lyrics.

"Let's see," Stephen drawled as he studied the glowing ring that emerged from his palm, shook his head, and let it retract. "Did you form those expectations when I made a magical portal to demand your presence, when we started arguing over Infinity Stones, or...?"

As he began to cut apart a piece of metal to form component parts, Tony thought back. "Probably when the rug slapped me." Stephen didn't even bother to correct his language, now; he just let the Cloak turn and perform what Tony was pretty sure equated to a glare and harrumph. "So, am I what you expected?"

"Kind of a loaded question," Stephen pointed out. "What I expected from you while traveling to this planet is different than what I expected from you after we got here."

Well, that was true. It did pique Tony's curiosity again, though, about exactly how much Stephen knew about him. Now that they'd had three days of relative, music-filled peace, perhaps it was time to broach the subject again. "So once you got to Titan and did your whole blurry time skip—which looked super weird, by the way—what'd you expect?"

Stephen opened his mouth to say something, then laughed faintly and closed it. "I shouldn't say this."

With a pop of one eyebrow, Tony turned the music down. "Well, now you've got me all intrigued."

"It's comparing to my own first impression, which was... also not the best. And we are trying to keep morale up."

"There's nothing you can tell me that the tabloids don't," Tony said, shrugging. "Come on. Hit me. What's the worst thing you thought about me? Come on. Come on." He paused. "Come on."

"From all the news," Stephen cut in before he could demand it again, "I absolutely knew that you were a cocky jackass who was eternally convinced of his own brilliance."

"Totally fair," Tony allowed, "but look who's talking." He still thought that a healthy ego could accomplish a lot in life, but "conflict" did tend to be one of those things.

Stephen didn't argue and continued in more thoughtful tones, "But now, well... how to say this. I know that you used to be an arms dealer."

"Not the precise language I would use," Tony said, though he could hardly defend that time in his life.

"You used to come up with the solutions for stopping 'the bad guy,' as defined by whoever your best-paying client wanted to kill." That hurt, but to his credit Stephen saw Tony's fading expression and quickly clarified, "That became finding solutions for stopping the genuine 'bad guys' who want to hurt innocents. You think that there is always, always a way to find a solution where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and all that needs to happen is to figure out steps A, B, and C in-between."

"Okay," Tony pointed out and folded his arms, "that sounds way more dismissive than I'm hoping you were shooting for."

"A little," Stephen admitted. "Let me put it a different way: you're a dreamer. You think there's always a way to fix the world. It's its own sort of nobility and it's needed."

This was a bigger perspective view on Anthony Edward Stark than he'd expected to get. He didn't necessarily like the assessment—or at least, how it'd been phrased—but Tony couldn't say that it was inaccurate. "And you don't think there's always a way to fix the world? That's pretty cynical for someone who says he's 'protecting its reality.'"

Stephen paused for a long moment, then stood from where he'd been attempting something with the deck plating. After another few seconds he walked closer to Tony. "Years ago, I took an oath that I still use to guide my life. It's not always something I succeed at," he admitted, "considering that it specifically warns against playing God." Despite himself, Tony smirked. "But that oath specifies that doctors can both save lives and take them, and sometimes the latter is necessary."

"Have you?" Tony wondered. From the gravity in his voice, it didn't seem to be something Stephen sought out. On the other hand, between all the hostile agents, terrorists, and other murderers he'd faced, Tony had long since lost count of the potential deaths he'd stopped by stopping someone else.

"With my own hands?" Regret filled Stephen's eyes. "Once. In self-defense, but hopefully not ever again. However, I'm sure there are a lot of families who'd call me a murderer countless times over if they knew about what decisions get made in the hospital."

Tony had boring, fiddly construction work ahead of him, so he idly started cutting apart more metal and let this conversation keep him occupied. "What kind of decisions?"

"Well, take the Battle of New York. We'll go for the worst-case scenario of a mass casualty event when the worst-case protocols are observed. Countless people were flooding into the ER but we only had so many operating rooms and so many doctors. What happens if three people simultaneously present with obvious critical head traumas and you only have two available neurosurgeons?"

Even imagining the situation sickened him and Tony realized that Stephen was right: he did always want to fix things completely. There should be some sort of invention to keep one of those people alive through the other two surgeries, and then all three could be saved. But clearly, in the blood-and-terror reality of the city's hospitals, that best-case scenario hadn't happened. "You have to pick which of the three people dies," Tony admitted.

"We picked who died," Stephen said and sounded more exhausted than he had since the others had blown away on a faint breeze. "When such a huge event hits, you go into advanced triage mode. If someone is tagged green or yellow, it means that they're injured but don't need immediate attention. If someone is orange or red, they do need rapid medical aid. But if a tag is black..."

"They're beyond saving," Tony finished.

"Not always. That's the worst, when they're not." Stephen closed his eyes, seeming like he was seeing something he truly didn't want to remember. "You'd think it would kill someone instantly, but people have survived taking a piece of rebar through their skull." As Tony grimaced, he continued, "I saw a clear path for removal. I also estimated that it would take at least ten hours. If I spent ten hours on him, that would equal two or three people with more straightforward bleeders that I wouldn't have the chance to see."

"And so he got a black tag," Tony concluded.

"He got a black tag," Stephen confirmed, "and was rolled away to die, and I saved three lives instead of one. I'm not saying that I don't admire your goals, but I think you spend most of your time around people with the perspective of 'here's a problem, we're going do whatever's necessary to stop it.' All of my training, though, says a different thing: 'reduce harm.' Sometimes one person dies in triage to save more. Sometimes someone can't bear to put themselves through another round of chemotherapy after cancer reappears." He looked ready to add even more, but a shadow crossed his expression and he fell silent.

That made sense, but it also horrified Tony on a fundamental level. He wasn't horrified by Stephen's decisions or the man himself, but by the fact that he'd been put in a situation where he knew he had no chance of saving everyone. A whole hospital, full of people who'd dedicated their lives to helping others, had to admit that they would deliberately let some people die. And worst of all, patients kept coming in to that hospital because the Avengers hadn't already shut the fight down. Because the Avengers had let Loki escape to begin with. Because the Avengers hadn't stopped the problem.

"I've caused a lot of problems," Tony admitted after a long, contemplative pause. "Even after I tried to clean up my act, those old problems of mine stamped with 'Stark Industries' were still causing new problems all around the world. You know that nightmare that Wanda gave me? The one you mentioned? Back then, she hated me because my own weapons were used against her family. A shell with my company logo sat in the middle of her dead parents and she just stared at it and waited for it to kill her, too.

"I've made mistakes," Tony continued in an increasingly thick voice. "I spent a lot of years making mistakes and hurting people. I don't get to look back at my old life as something to be proud of, so yeah, I've gotta fix things. If something is wrong then I need to totally fix it, because otherwise, people like the old Tony Stark will blow up a family that was just trying to eat dinner." Shaking his head, he stepped back. "I can't do triage. I'm not blaming you for it at all, and I know it's gotta happen and that hospital must have been hell, but when that word goes through my ears all I hear is some military guy saying 'acceptable losses' before he blows the shit out of a civilian town."

His words echoed, and then the silence did.

Shit. They'd been doing so well, and then Tony had to see himself in that funhouse mirror again and freak out at the reflection it contained. Blinking hard, Tony looked away and tried to regain what control he'd lost. One tear was knuckled away. He'd probably set their friendly workflow back at least a few days.

"Tony," Stephen said after a solemn pause, "my old life wasn't always something to be proud of, either. Remember that story about Christine and the methylmercury?" After Tony's short nod, he continued. "When we were in triage mode, then absolutely, I was ready to save the maximum number of people that I could with zero thought to who they were. But when the city wasn't on fire and the pressure was off, I'd turn down people who I could have helped because I didn't find their problems interesting enough to bother myself with. I wasn't living up to the oath that I now try to take a lot more seriously."

That was true. He had just abandoned that patient to let his symptoms worsen.

Like he'd sensed that Tony could use a little more encouragement, Stephen added, "I developed an innovative way to treat anaplastic astrocytomas. When the fourth person with a similar presentation came to me, knowing that I was the best person to possibly save her life, I referred her to a colleague. It wasn't exciting to become known for one single procedure."

Though it was a little twisted, such a dark admission did make Tony feel better. Even if a doctor would always be more noble than a weapons manufacturer, he did feel faint relief at their pasts not being so clearly delineated into "good" and "evil." Their professions might have been, but not them.

A few days back, this emotional outpouring would have ended with them seeking their own space. They each would have stepped back in search of their own kingdom to rule and the guards would have gone up at those borders. After waiting a few seconds to gauge the emotional barometer, that didn't feel necessary. "So," Tony ventured, and gestured broadly at the room around them. "I guess we get back to work, now?"

"Actually," Stephen said after a long pause, "I could use your help."

It was one thing to offer Tony Stark an empathetic perspective and another entirely to let him be actively useful. This was so perfectly suited to lift his spirits and Tony was so ill-equipped to help with magic that it was hard to take the request seriously. "How?" Tony asked with one raised eyebrow as he walked over to where Stephen indicated.

"Earlier I mentioned needing to listen for resonance at home. Here, having music on or not is irrelevant. I don't even know how things should feel." Stephen splayed his hand against the plating again, frowned at it, and watched another golden ring extend and retract. "Can you use those scanners on the energy signatures being generated?"

Tony obligingly moved them into position. "Do the ring again. Again. Okay, I've got the frequency they're looking for. I think." His scanning suspicions were halfway right; magic did seem to be measurable energy. It was, however, energy that broke all natural laws and so his systems were still trying to figure out how to format the output.

"This," Stephen began, "is like picking a lock for the very first time. Help me identify when the first tumbler has moved."

About to ask how he would know that, Tony realized that Stephen didn't, either. He honestly needed Tony's help to accomplish whatever it was that these rings did. With that realization, Tony looked at his readouts with fresh intensity. "Ready when you are."

Another simple golden ring flowed out from Stephen's hand, though it moved deliberately slower than the attempts he'd made before. Because of that, Tony was able to watch the flow on his readouts more precisely. The form of energy made little sense to him, like it must have been for physicists before they understood that light could behave as both a wave and particle. He could still watch its behavior, though, and sound the alert when a rising flow began to diminish. "Yeah. Right there," he confirmed when Stephen let the ring retract to what Tony's scanners said were the optimal location.

"All right," Stephen said and closed his eyes. With a few deep, steady breaths, he appeared to memorize the feeling of what he'd done. "Time for the next tumbler."

With Tony's help, he repeated the process. While the first ring was only perhaps twelve inches in diameter, this one extended to sixteen before Tony called for a stop. "That's looking a lot steadier, all of a sudden," Tony confirmed as he watched the energy waves smooth and relax.

"Now I can feel it," Stephen slowly said and pressed his fingertips more firmly into the ground. A moment later, intricate, glowing latticework formed between the two circles, roping them together. The inner ring began to spin slowly clockwise; the other, counter. "All right. I'll need practice, but I can build from this. Thanks."

"What was it?" Tony wondered as the rings disappeared.

"Some areas naturally have more magical flow than others. The three Sanctums were put in areas of peak magical power, for example. But you can take some steps to boost and center the power in other places. I wanted to try that approach. I've done it while helping to recollect the dispersed, most ancient energies in the London Sanctum after its attack. I thought it might be useful here."

Tony nodded, then translated it into his own dialect. "So, I was looking at a magical wifi signal booster."

"The start of one, basically." Stephen stood and contemplated the spot he'd just tested. "Once achieved, I'll be able to anchor my spirit into the location and draw on more energy than I could normally handle. The failed ship portal and rift manipulation reminded me of my limits here, otherwise."

"You're going to overclock your spirit?" Tony asked. "Is that safe?"

Stephen hesitated. "Usually."

Tony jabbed a screwdriver toward him in silent accusation.

"It's only dangerous with a lot of them," Stephen added, "that let you push far beyond natural limits. I'm just practicing one. By the time I get up to all six rings with this single anchor, my confidence in manipulating magical energy here will be greatly improved. With just two anchors, I should be able to manipulate all needed energy even in that rift."

The screwdriver wiggled toward Stephen again, condemning him for the mere idea of dangerously overclocking a spirit, or soul, or whatever it was that he used for magical manipulation. I'm the only one supposed to take these stupid risks, Tony thought before he shoved his brain aside and ignored it.

"Are you done?" Stephen drawled.

"Just don't do anything stupid," Tony ordered and lowered the screwdriver of accusation.

"Tell me that again, and I'll almost start to think you care."

"If you didn't care," Tony shot over his shoulder as he turned back to his own work, "you wouldn't have told me your bad doctor stories to cheer me up." Stephen didn't know what to say to that, and so Tony pointed his screwdriver one last time. Now it was a screwdriver of victory.

"Stop waving your tool at me, Stark," Stephen settled on for a reply. It was delivered with a smirk.

"What can I say?" Tony asked. "Some people are taller. Some people are gifted... elsewhere."

"Turn the music back up," Stephen ordered. "We are done talking, and we are just listening to music, now."

Tony moved for his controls, but hesitated before simply continuing from where they'd left off. As he scrolled through the songs on the list, a suitable one appeared and was immediately cued. With repeated lyrics and then a killer guitar solo, Queen's "I Want it All" began. Tony turned and waited expectantly.

"Congratulations," Stephen tried to say with typically haughty composure, but Tony could tell that he'd amused him. "1989."

Both of them had better watch out. Too much more of this, and they might have to admit to actually enjoying the other's company.

Chapter Text

"Liftoff," Tony announced, four mornings later.

Their would-be vessel's two thrusters fired, then powered to full. The rounded compartment that they lifted vibrated, edged above the dirt, and rose with gradual acceleration. As soon as it was thirty feet above Titan's surface, though, the craft tipped. Its acceleration began to aim it over the surface, rather than toward the sky. With how it kept rotating, it would soon send itself straight back into the ground.

"Grab it," Tony sighed, then cut the engines. As the craft began to fall, a golden energy net caught it, just like the magical airbag they'd used for the crash landing onto Titan.

"Well," Stephen said after considering that failed launch, "it did fly. Slightly."

"I need more engines," Tony concluded.

By the end of that day, he'd severed two more thrusters from the lunatics' ship and tossed them through a transport portal. The actual vessel wasn't yet ready; it was currently only an irregular metal sphere with no viewport, seating, or software. Still, it was precisely what Tony would take into space, given that he'd calculated the stress concentration factors on his goop seals and how tightly they could hold the metal sheets that shaped the hull. If four thrusters didn't work as planned, he might need to do some creative re-arranging.

"I can't believe I'm going to ride in that thing," Stephen said as he stared at Tony's ship where it rested, ready for the next day's work.

Tony clapped him on the shoulder. "It's gonna be fun." The Cloak tried to throw off his hand. Tony tightened his grip.

That night he shared stories of the prank culture at MIT and how he'd wormed himself into it as a sixteen year old. At the first mention of a cadaver, he decided that he didn't want to know what Johns Hopkins had been like.

Three days later, Tony frowned at the hollow compartment at the back of the lunatics' cockpit. There were ship release controls on the wall but no actual ship in that small space. "Thor left from here," Tony concluded, recalling the explanation about how his friend had left for some magical forge. "And he took an escape pod with him."

An hour after that, Tony tried to talk through his logic in Stephen's vicinity. He didn't expect the other man to offer suggestions, precisely; he had enough math and science background for a M.D. and Ph.D. in neuroscience, but those programs probably hadn't required physics. Still, he should be able to point out any obvious errors in judgment or confirm Tony's final conclusion, and so Tony talked his challenges out.

"Fact one," Tony said and began roaming around the room. As he did, Stephen worked on practicing his arcane anchors. (He was up to four rings, now, but they didn't come quickly or easily.) "Four thrusters is all that's needed to reach escape velocity. Fact two: going with five has an excellent chance of tearing us apart."

Stephen made a vague noise of acknowledgement, then focused on the rings under his hand. Their rotation speed increased. For a moment, he and Tony appeared to be caught inside an enormous snowglobe made of fragmented, mirrored crystal.

"Weird," Tony summarized as the angular crystals vanished. His scanners beeped patiently away above Stephen's shoulders. "Fact three: with an even number of thrusters, I cannot find a placement pattern that will keep our vessel stable. Fact four: three thrusters won't be enough."

"You're the engineering genius," Stephen said, distracted, and focused on the anchor again. "I'm sure you'll figure something out." In the next second, Tony lurched away from the console nearest him as it sprouted five miniature versions of itself, which then each sprouted five of their own. Abruptly, that sudden fractal shrank back into itself and there was a long, silent pause. "Ignore that."

Tony turned, gave Stephen his best "what in the actual hell?" expression, and continued. "Fact five: with a rotational stabilizer, the torque effect from the four thrusters could be countered. Fact six: the one on Quill's ship is huge and needs way more power than we've got. Fact seven: this ship's ring shape was its own stabilizer, and it was massive, so I obviously can't do anything there."

Stephen let the anchor under his hand vanish. "I assume you're going somewhere with this."

At his suddenly short tone, Tony's eyes narrowed. Never before had Stephen seemed upset about Tony following his plan, and everything he'd done still aligned with what Stephen apparently intended. "Fact eight: the escape pod on Quill's ship would have a stabilizer in a size that I can use, but that pod's gone. Fact nine: right now, I have no way to either repurpose or construct a functional rotational stabilizer, meaning that we have no safe way to launch this vessel. Fact ten: even so, you still told me to build this thing."

With a sudden, heavy weight of memory in his eyes, Stephen looked away. His face had gone as pale as when he'd had that tube shoved into him. "So," he asked, though he sounded like he would rather do anything else, "what is your conclusion?"

"Conclusion: there's a way for me to get the small rotational stabilizer I need, and if I don't know where that stabilizer might be, then you must."

"I know where it is," Stephen agreed after a long pause, and stood. "Let's get this over with."

With another "what in the hell," expression, Tony tagged along after him. "Something about this has you upset," he said, though there was little need. No one walked with that level of purposeful intensity when they were in high spirits. The good mood they'd maintained easily for days had vanished, all due to a specialized piece of flight equipment. There was some bigger story behind this.

Stephen led him in a direction he hadn't yet checked, on a path that didn't arc toward any potentially fruitful buildings. With the bounty that Tony had found on Quill's ship he'd stopped conducting broader explorations. "You seem to know exactly where you're going," Tony noted after Stephen took several turns without hesitating.

"I went down this path many times."

"Oh," Tony said, then frowned. So, they were going somewhere related to the futures that hadn't worked? That was mildly concerning.

After rounding another corner around a chunk of felled moon, Tony's jaw dropped. He turned to Stephen, gestured frantically at him, and then turned back to indicate the sight he'd revealed. "Why," Tony demanded as he pointed at the small, intact spaceship, free of any looming rock formations that might block its takeoff, "did you not take me here earlier?"

The only answer he got was a hateful stare from Stephen, aimed directly at that ship.

"I could have been adapting this," Tony said with wonder as he ran forward to inspect it. Only a few light pieces of debris needed to be slid free. Though battered, it still held its structural integrity. It was designed for one person, but there was cargo space; it could be modified with a second seat. "I use this and we're in the air tomorrow!" Where the hell had it even come from? That blue woman, Tony remembered. She'd arrived late. She must have had a craft of her own.

"You use that," Stephen countered, "and I will not be able to focus enough to do what's necessary. Rip out the stabilizer and let's go."

When Tony turned to give Stephen his third "what in the hell" expression of the day, there was no humor behind it. "Hey," he began, and left his treasure behind as he returned to his companion. "Wanna tell me what's up?"

"Not particularly. Would you please hurry? I know you won't be able to carry this back by hand."

Whatever memories were now hitting Stephen, they were darker than Tony had dared to imagine. In the timelines that had involved this ship, something worse than watching everyone around them disappear had transpired. When those memories struck with full force, they'd apparently destabilized him as much as that failed, two-thruster launch that had sent their ship spinning.

"Sure," Tony slowly said, then opened the small ship's port to begin his retrieval.

"You want the nice food?" Tony asked hours later. Ever since that rotational stabilizer had come into play, it was like a sudden deep freeze had moved through their recently positive atmosphere. They hadn't reverted to their earliest antagonism; Stephen had simply shut down. He'd been terse and distracted, but those reactions weren't directed at Tony. If Tony had to guess, he'd say that Stephen was angry with himself.

"You don't need to cheer me up," Stephen said without looking up from his anchor practice. This time, it hadn't gotten any bigger than two rings. "However, I hope this demonstrates my need to focus."

They needed to talk, but now was clearly not the time. Tony debated between pumping music into a place that now felt like a tomb versus leaving that tomb silent, and compromised by setting the system to a low volume. "Here," he said, offering Stephen one of the nicer food packets. Stephen hesitated before taking it and ignored Tony after that.

"This will not affect me tomorrow," Stephen promised that night, but that was the only explanation he gave.

After a moment of consideration, Tony walked over to the bed next to Stephen's. They were all identically uncomfortable and their first night's preference for privacy now seemed less important. As he sprawled on that one, seeking a facade of ease that he didn't feel, Tony asked, "You wanna talk about it?"

"No, I do not."

All right. Tony considered that, then continued, "Do you need to talk about it?"

Stephen said nothing. He looked away, shook his head, and stood. When Tony saw him approach with two glowing fingertips, he shook his head in return as those embers flared against his temples. The heat seeped into him, but for the first time Tony ignored the beckoning darkness. "Fine. Then I need to talk about it."

Without a word, the heat in Stephen's hands intensified. Tony had only a moment of shock to realize that he was being forced into sleep, rather than guided there, and couldn't stop his closing eyelids. Consciousness dissolved into nothing.

"You," Tony snapped the next morning as he stormed into the main chamber, "will never do that again." After waking, he'd needed only seconds to recall what had happened and fill with fury because of it. When he'd turned to yell at the man next to him, though, the bed was already empty.

"I won't," Stephen agreed. A single ring wobbled around his hand and refused to settle into position. "I'm sorry."

This wasn't right. Stephen Strange being so completely disarmed was the most alarming thing that Tony had seen since he lay dying, suffocating in his own blood. When he encounters things as we live them, Tony recalled, he gets more memories back. And they keep getting clearer.

With great effort, Tony shoved his anger aside, walked over, and sat. His shoe overlapped the ring that Stephen was attempting to form. After a few seconds, Stephen gave up entirely. "I think I'm owed an explanation," Tony said after concluding that the sweet, sympathetic path would not result in a fruitful therapy session.

"In slightly more than a million timelines," Stephen said after a long pause in which he looked freshly sickened, "I traveled on that ship of Nebula's."

"I guess that's why you knew the route," Tony said, and swallowed at the knowledge that the familiar path he'd noted had been that very familiar. Slightly more than a million? "So—"

"You asked me what the longest timelines were. How long we could go before Thanos won. These were the longest."

Frowning, Tony sat up straighter. He'd assumed that Stephen hadn't been able to answer that question because his memories were foggy. If these were the longest timelines... and now he could recall them... "How long do you remember spending in those possibilities?" Tony asked, suddenly nervous about the answer he might get. From the power that Thanos had harnessed, it was clear that any Infinity Stone was at the very edge of human comprehension. This could be an overwhelming answer.

"I don't remember a single failed one clearly, but it's like..." Stephen exhaled. "Like taking an impression rubbing of a surface. One pencil stroke doesn't do much, but..."

"But a million strokes gives you a pretty damn good idea of what it's like." How long did he remember? Did all those strokes reflect an entire month of failure, repeated over and over in slight variations? A year? Jesus, imagine an entire year of ultimate failure, echoed a million times like the individual cels in an animation sequence.

"Those were the possibilities," Stephen said after a long, pained pause, "in which I didn't give him the Time Stone."

Ice settled into Tony's veins. It was suddenly hard to breathe. That action had been the most inexplicable that Tony had ever witnessed. If Stephen hadn't been such a pathetic invalid during their first days alone on Titan, Tony probably would have spent his time blaming Stephen for every death he'd witnessed.

"After Nebula arrived," Stephen said in a haunted voice, "I froze time. Sometimes it was in the middle of pulling off the Gauntlet. Sometimes, in the middle of random chaos. Sometimes, after that blade had gone into your abdomen. Then I took the one way off this rock that could be handled by a pilot who had very little idea what he was doing. By the time the Stone's powers grew too distant to affect him, I couldn't be easily tracked."

Well. Stephen had promised to pick the Stone over Tony, after all. It wasn't a surprise that it had happened. In retrospect, it was only notable that he hadn't spent ten million futures letting Tony die. "So," Tony said in a surprisingly level voice, "I'm assuming the rest of us all kicked the bucket."

"I assume so, as well. I have no idea. I never looked back." Stephen swallowed. "From that point on, my sole responsibility was to keep the Time Stone out of Thanos' grasp. I used every skill in my arsenal to do so: illusions, detours through other dimensions, and of course, the Stone itself. I had no idea where I was going, but so long as he couldn't find me, my destination was irrelevant."

"How long do you remember?" Tony repeated.

"If I had to kill people," Stephen said like Tony hadn't spoken, "then I did. If I had to draw upon dark magic, then I did. Everything else was irrelevant compared to what Thanos might do to the universe, and so I..." A twisted smile bloomed. "I reduced harm."

"How long," Tony insisted, and grabbed his shaking hand, "do you remember?"

"I know a way to extend lifespans," Stephen almost laughed. "A terrible way, but it was nothing compared to what Thanos would do. So I did. I pledged myself to powers that despise me, but feared him, and I kept living for as long as I could keep the Stone hidden."

"Extend life... what..." Now Tony felt panic rise in his chest, too. When Stephen had snapped out of that magical trance, it was the first time he'd seen the man so vulnerable. If he'd needed to extend his natural lifespan in those million futures, how long was he remembering these bad timelines? How much endless failure had been compressed into that seeming minute or so on Titan?

"Sometimes the pledge drove me mad," Stephen continued. "But when I maintained control, I could keep hiding. I moved further and further into the universe, into whatever corners I could find, and I kept the Time Stone out of the Gauntlet. But Thanos still had five stones. He always got five. This entire time, he was playing with everyone. If I infuriate him, things change. If I escape with Time, he doesn't indulge himself on Earth."

Indulge himself? "You know how he got the Mind Stone?" Tony asked. He'd seen the fight that had surely happened? He'd seen the friends that might now be dead?

"With Time, he amused himself," Stephen said with a distant stare. "Since he knew he had that new ace up his sleeve, he let them think they had a chance." His head slowly shook. "If he doesn't get the Time Stone here and doesn't have that safety net, then he unleashes Reality, Soul, and Power upon teleporting to the Mind Stone. Every living being within two miles was destroyed. All powers melted from them, their souls were ripped from their bodies, and those bodies disintegrated in the blast that followed."

Hot tears swam. If the Mind Stone had been the very last stand on Earth, then it was safe to assume that "two miles" included every remaining Avenger. Even the thought of it nauseated Tony; he couldn't possibly handle seeing actual memories.

"With five, he was too powerful for anyone to stop. He would wipe out worlds at a stroke. Entire worlds."

"Because he wouldn't ever stop until he had them all," Tony realized. His face felt tight with panic. "We were always going to lose. Always. As soon as he got one, then two, it was dominoes."

"Eventually, everyone thought that the killing would finally stop if he got what he wanted. No one can hide with an entire universe looking for them." Stephen laughed again. It was a broken sound. "No one. In the end, after he'd already killed trillions trying to complete the set, he got them all. He always got them. Always. And then—" Stephen raised the hand that Tony hadn't grabbed, and snapped his fingers. "He killed half of who was still left."

Tony let his hand go, sat back, and exhaled.

"Half." Stephen looked away. "After seeing the futures, I knew that the most that could possibly be saved from his intentions... was half." His eyes closed. "Half of everyone got a black tag."

Triage.

No, Tony couldn't accept it. He supposed that he was lucky, then, that he hadn't been forced into making that choice or living those countless what-ifs. "I changed my mind," he said in a molasses-thick voice. "I don't want to go to Hogwarts."

"I'm sorry," Stephen said. He sounded as fractured as the mirrored crystal surface he'd made before. "I tried to hide this, because I knew it'd keep us from working together. But when I had to see that ship again..." He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and sounded only moderately more composed when he spoke again. "I'd forgotten that this conversation was coming. That's unfortunate. I should have prepared better."

"Hey." Tony scooted forward. "This isn't going to stop anything." Stephen had said that some people could be saved, even after what had happened. That was Tony's role, then. Tony had a reason for being kept alive, apparently, and by God he would fix the problem.

"I knowingly and deliberately let half of the universe get destroyed," Stephen countered, "and now you are fully aware of that."

"I am aware," Tony insisted, "that you saved the absolute most people that you could. And now I am going to take that data you are giving me, and I am going to get us home, and we are going to save the other people that you said could be saved. Then, hey look at that: we'll have saved way more than half."

Stephen looked down.

"You reduced harm," Tony insisted. "And now I'm gonna figure out steps A, B, and C to totally solve that problem." With a smile that he almost meant, he lightly shoved Stephen's shoulder. "Because we're getting back to all those people I hang around with who fix things, right?"

When Stephen said nothing, Tony slowly continued, "While you were doing it, you seemed pretty sure that turning over the Stone was the best move. What's changed?"

"Nothing. It was the only possible move. But back then, I'd only needed to explain that to myself."

And while Stephen knew that his decision was right from those uncountable years spent inside the Stone's futures, many other people would think differently. Most other people. Practically everyone. "I know," Tony repeated, "that you did the right thing and saved as many people as you could."

Though Stephen tried to keep it off his face, it was obvious that the extension of faith genuinely touched the man. "I appreciate that."

"Like you said, you probably should have practiced this conversation more," Tony said with a small but real smile. "Should have known it was coming. It got pretty dramatic. You're not great at drama. I've got way more panache."

"What can I say," Stephen said with superior tones that sounded more like him. "I'd hoped to get away with avoiding it until it no longer mattered."

"I've tried that approach with a few things. It tends not to work." Unlike their last emotional outburst, Tony didn't even consider leaving. This time, he re-folded his legs into a more comfortable position, settled in, and said, "You still don't get to make me go to sleep again without asking."

"Of course. I do apologize."

"Okay. Now that's that established, just keep in mind that we are going home. We're going to have a lot more help and we are going to fix what can be fixed. The ending to what happened is not going to see half of the universe still dead." Tony clasped Stephen's hand again and squeezed it. "Because you can do a lot more with a team," he said meaningfully, "than you can do on your own."

"A team," Stephen repeated dryly. "I'm not branding myself with your team's oversized 'A.'"

"I wasn't talking about that team." Tony smiled, clapped his other hand around Stephen's, and then released. "And as far as anyone on Earth will hear from me, Thanos took the Stone by force."

"Thank you," Stephen said after a long pause. "Even with all of those futures, I couldn't see clear how to make anyone else understand what the inevitable consequences were. I'd hoped to avoid it entirely, but I suppose some things do need to happen." A minuscule smile appeared. After his emotional outpouring, even that much was good to see. "Really, anything that I have to do in this timeline is nothing compared to being driven mad for decades."

"Well, that's... good," Tony hesitantly agreed. "Please tell me you don't actually, genuinely remember those bad Nebula-ship futures, though." Stephen said nothing in response. "Okay! I'm taking that as a yes."

"I should get back to work," Stephen further deflected, then returned his hand to the ground. A single ring spread far more smoothly than it had when Tony was storming in that morning, and soon locked into place. After the second ring joined it, the latticework between them flowed in like water.

It was spectacular to watch. Like when his own nanos locked into place, the shining energy arranged itself with precision and purpose. "I guess this all helped," Tony noted.

"We have to work together seamlessly for this plan," Stephen replied while forming the third ring of the anchor. It locked, vibrated, and then began to spin. "So yes. It did."

Standing, Tony considered the man who'd let half of the universe get destroyed. Who refused to share the specific plan that might fix things. Who, a million times over, had left Tony Stark to die, gutted like a fish on an alien world.

Who, in the timeline that actually happened, he'd gotten to know.

As the fourth anchor ring formed, faster than Tony had seen it before, he clapped Stephen on the shoulder again and began his own daily duties. "Then it's a good thing that we trust each other."

Chapter Text

"That was a nice neighborhood," Tony said as he lounged on his uncomfortable bed as best he could. It was the evening of the painful revelations of Nebula's ship, and thankfully, they'd left that drama behind by late morning. Following that had been a steady, productive stretch of hours where all the earlier drama appeared to have muted itself. "Muted," however, didn't mean truly gone. Before they went to sleep, Tony wanted to dig out any remaining weeds before they regrew.

As night loomed, it had struck Tony that one probably had to be an authentic, card-carrying wizard to get free room and board at Hogwarts. It was apparently important for the two of them to have a connection, and so he'd asked Stephen about where he'd lived while working at the hospital. It had been a sleek loft in Midtown, apparently; quite a change from the Sanctum.

"Yes, it was very nice. I sold it as part of the last-ditch efforts to recover my hands." Those hands were interlaced under Stephen's head, pillowing it as he stared at the dim ceiling. Wanting to further distract Stephen from the revelations about the failed futures, Tony had tried being even chattier than usual as they turned in for the night. Somewhat amazingly, it worked and so Stephen talked about inconsequential things instead of isolating himself again. "You were in... Bel Air?"

"Malibu. Bel Air's for boring people. I lived just down from Geffen."

"Right, right, hanging over the water. I remember that news footage." Stephen looked over to him. "You do seem very California."

"I choose to take that as a compliment," Tony decided. "It's a hotbed of technology research and Malibu is full of extremely good-looking people." He turned, too. "You did mean that as a compliment, right?"

"Of course."

"Liar."

With a smile, Stephen returned his gaze to the ceiling.

"Tell me the weirdest thing in the Sanctum," Tony decided for their next conversational prompt. With having close beds now, it was easy to talk and so he kept going.

"Let's see. Oh, I know. It was recently recovered and so we're not sure of the proper name, yet. It's a carved wooden staff. Anyone who grasps it can affect reality in the certain way that they describe."

Disbelieving, Tony lifted his head. "Wait. You guys are hiding a podcast version of the Reality Stone? Seriously?"

"Anyone who touches the staff," Stephen amended, "will be compelled to speak about nothing other than their own gruesome maiming, which will occur with each new sentence they utter."

Squinting, Tony waited for the punchline only to realize that there wasn't one. "Your work is weird. Your home is weird. Magic is weird." It was good that the staff was staying out of other hands, he supposed, but that entire story remained deeply weird. If collecting that freaky staff equaled 'protecting reality,' then Tony was happy to leave those grisly tasks for others.

"Weird. You've used that word before," Stephen commented and lifted one hand to gesture at the ceiling. A fragmented, mirrored snowglobe once again surrounded them, like they were ants looking through a Baccarat crystal chandelier. Stephen had used a single sheet of the material during the fight against Thanos, but being completely surrounded by it was like entering some spectacular other world, far distant from the hell in which they'd recently lived.

Because of that beauty, Tony studied it for a while before replying. The dim light hit the facets at different angles, reflected as gleams, mirrors, and colorful prisms. It could be a work of art, though it moved like a living thing. "What is it?"

"A small entry into the Mirror Dimension. It allows magical manipulation without worrying about affecting the physical world."

"That seems useful. Wait." Tony propped himself up on one elbow. "Yesterday, that full sphere snowglobe only showed up when you were using an anchor. You're really getting better with the energy flows here, aren't you?" At Stephen's satisfied look, Tony gave him a thumbs-up as the crystal disappeared around them.

"I showed you mine," Stephen said. "Show me something interesting of yours."

"Stop, you'll make me blush," Tony drawled as he considered the options his holographic displays presented to him above one wrist. His most spectacular creations weren't locked inside his body, and so he needed to find something that could be showcased outside of his labs and fabrication facilities back home. Oh, he thought as one project's card rotated by, and flicked back to it. Of course.

As the flat holographic display enlarged into a full-sized, three-dimensional projection, Stephen sat up straight. The look he gave Tony was one of unbridled surprise. "I hope you plan to have this on the market immediately after all of this is resolved."

It was a satisfying feeling indeed to genuinely impress Stephen Strange. "We don't have a dedicated medical technology division," Tony said with a shrug. In front of them, a three-dimensional model of his own ribcage slowly rotated, based on the scan his right hand was making of his chest. "Try grabbing the heart."

Stephen shot him a dubious look, but leaned forward to do as ordered. As his fingers closed around the indicated holographic organ, his surprise grew as he was able to retrieve it, then rotate it in his own hands for study. That study lasted for more than thirty mute seconds. "Tony, this is amazing. You really do have to get this to market. The number of lives you'd save..."

"Yeah, well." It often didn't work as intended. If his holographic chest had flickered twice, it would have meant that the finicky memory processing problem had surfaced again and that the individual organs couldn't be removed for inspection and diagnosis. He was glad for this best-case result.

"My lung," Stephen remembered a second later. "Scan it."

Thankfully, the scan again worked as intended. Stephen was able to retrieve his own holographic lung and twist it around to show Tony a certain area near its base. "See that slight irregularity in the surface? That's where it was compressed from the fluid. By now it's nearly recovered." His eyes gleamed. "Scan my head."

Though Tony obliged him, this time the scan did lock up. "Sorry," Tony said as Stephen moved to pull apart the hemispheres of the holographic brain. "Memory overload."

"It is the most complex organ by far," he allowed. "But this is still astonishing. If you can get this working, the speed and accuracy of all sorts of diagnosis would be massively improved." Stephen let the hologram vanish from his hand, then turned back to Tony to insist, "You have to get this to market. If you don't have a medical research division, add one."

"I mean, the tech just developed out of the status scans I need for my suits," Tony demurred. "It's not like I've got a whole medical team doing R&D work. Or medical consultants. They wouldn't have to be full employees, they could just be some trusted expert that I consult with now and then..."

Stephen smiled knowingly, but didn't give Tony the answer he wanted. "I can give you some names to get in touch with. People who actually see the inside of an operating room on a regular basis."

Ah. Deflection. He'd have to wheedle Stephen into submission after they got home, then. "We'll talk on Earth."

"You can bother me on Earth," Stephen agreed. "And I will still not say yes."

Of course he would. Eventually. Tony was excellent with getting his way.

"Would you like me to put you to sleep?" Stephen asked at the eventual end of their rambling, gentle conversation. (Tony's art collection intrigued Stephen, it turned out; Tony would have to get those investments out of storage.) He did sound apologetic for his actions the night before and so he didn't even stand before hearing Tony's reply.

"I'm having the best rest of my life after the apocalypse hit, so you bet." Good sleep did wonders for a person's mood and comfort levels. Though the room was austere and the exterior setting could not be less welcoming, by then it did have the feeling of a temporary home. As he saw the fingertip embers approach, Tony wondered, "So, you can do what Mantis does, huh?"

"Oh, I'm sure she's immeasurably stronger at that one function. I'm a generalist, so to speak. I can't read or alter emotions, and I could never force this on Thanos like she did." Stephen waited until Tony was falling into the offer of sleep before adding with a smirk, "But it's quite an easy task to manipulate the consciousness of a simple human mind."

"Hey," Tony protested upon waking. "Simple?" It was a far better memory to wake to than knowing he'd been put to sleep against his will, but still, he wasn't going to let that one slide.

"Comparatively," Stephen clarified. "And I can give you those medical consultant names at any time, by the way. Or just look up my co-authors."

Did they try to act like jerks, Tony wondered, or did it just come naturally? With folded arms, he followed his companion into the main chamber of the ship. "You know, 'generalist' is a pretty low-key description for all the weird shit you do."

"You should have met my mentor," Stephen said as he studied an anchor ring as it slowly slid larger and smaller, seeking the perfect position. "To introduce herself, she punched my spirit out of my body and then proceeded to scare me halfway to death. Three-quarters of the way, actually." From the way he said that, it rather sounded like he thought he'd deserved it. At least, he wasn't mad about it.

"And 'scared' happened after your spirit got punched out of your body?" Tony asked, bemused, and prepared for his day's work. Where did wizards even learn this stuff? Were there reviews on TripAdvisor?

"Getting knocked into an astral form is one thing." Stephen smiled in satisfaction as the anchor ring locked. "It's another to be helplessly staring down a black hole as your spirit is adrift in space. Or at least, to perceive that it's happening to you." He looked up as latticework formed between the rings. "Like I said, it's a simple matter to manipulate consciousness enough to just put someone to sleep."

With a faint sigh, Tony thought back to the Arthur C. Clarke quote: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The more he talked with Stephen, the less confident he was in the mantra he'd clung to since childhood. Technology was never this intensely, aggressively weird. "Can you portal me? I'm going to grab some seats from Quill's."

They wouldn't be here much longer, Tony realized as he walked through the corridors of that ship. His small craft already had engines, stabilizers, and would soon have its needed interior elements. Stephen had gotten up to five out of six rings. Once he could call the full anchors, it sounded like he'd have greater confidence in both his power levels and his ability to manipulate what energy he summoned. And all this time, the Maw's computers had been calculating the precise location of Earth. Once they were in the air, Tony was positive that their first try would be a successful one.

Because of that, he decided to dig a little deeper into what the ship had to offer. "Spacesuits for emergency," Tony read off a display on the wall, "or for fun." With a shrug, he retrieved a few of the discs on the wall and tucked them in his pocket. A video data unit was a less light-hearted find, for it likely contained the final footage of Quill's crew. Still, it might be useful to hear some of the conversations they'd had on the way to fight Thanos and so Tony retrieved the data chips and saved them, as well.

By this point, Quill's ship looked thoroughly ransacked. At the very bottom of the cockpit was the orange dirt of Titan, thanks to Stephen's failed portal, and Tony had pulled apart many of the panels in the remaining areas to get power supplies, cables, and other necessities. They'd raided the bits of daily life, too: food, entertainment, and clothing. For a long time, Tony had felt guilt over what they'd done to the belongings of their very temporary allies. With victory within their grasp, though, that regret faded.

"We're going to do it," Tony said quietly to himself. Confidence filled him. "We're going to get home and fix this." With a broader smile, he slapped his hand against the nearest wall. "When I see you again, Quill," he promised the empty air, "I will give you the biggest, baddest ship that the Stark labs can design. And Drax will be able to fit into its shower."

The solution wouldn't be instant; Tony estimated that he had four or five days of construction ahead of him, minimum. Flying into a hard vacuum left no room for error. And while Stephen might get up to six anchor rings in a day or two more, he needed to be able to call them on demand. Still, they were on the downslope. Everything from this point out was easy, expected, and just a series of items to check off a list.

Three days later, Tony realized that he shouldn't have tempted fate. Oh, the day had started off wonderfully, but it'd been too simple to assume that no other surprises would emerge.

"Are you trying to distract me?" Stephen asked with good humor. Five rings rotated steadily under his hand, but the sixth ring he'd achieved the day before now refused to settle into place.

"I sure am. You need to operate under realistic conditions." With that explanation, Tony cranked the volume back up and continued singing along with all the musical talent he didn't possess. "Knock knock knockin' on heaven's door," he blared and watched the sixth golden ring continue to wobble. Stephen visibly attempted to ignore him, and so Tony hit "next" on the playlist. Along with Twisted Sister, he declared "I wanna rock." Click. "Shot through the heart," he sang louder than ever, "and you're to blame."

Stephen slammed his hand flat against the floor and glowered in satisfaction as the sixth ring formed. The anchor continued to spin in place as he lifted his hand, pointed at Tony, and said, "You cannot sing."

"I play my part," Tony sang into his screwdriver, "and you play your game."

"For the love of God, stop."

"You're welcome for the distractions to practice with," Tony said as he relented and turned down the volume.

"You're a giver," Stephen agreed dryly, then spun ninety degrees where he knelt and put his hand back to the empty floor. A second anchor began to bloom. Within a minute, it was fully-formed and rotating. "Good. Making multiples isn't too difficult." As he looked over his shoulder, Tony was reminded of the gravity rift and how he'd said that would be a good testing ground for his readiness.

"Let's go," Tony prompted and gestured outside. As Stephen stood, the anchors at his feet vanished and he followed.

By now, Titan's rotation was completely out of alignment with their sleeping patterns. They emerged not into an orange wasteland, but into a deep night that hid the planet's hostile appearance. The sere, rocky landscape was now gently rounded forms in plum and cobalt. "We don't get that in New York," Stephen murmured. Glancing over, Tony realized that he was looking at the night sky overhead and did the same.

Like a band of diamonds set in amethyst, the Milky Way stretched overhead in uninterrupted brilliance. There were no familiar constellations to latch on to and so Tony found his gaze freely wandering across the sky, from horizon to horizon. Smaller specks of color told of nebulas, nearby stars, and perhaps even other alien worlds just around the celestial corner from where they stood. "Wow." They hadn't gotten this in Los Angeles, either.

Though neither of them said so, they instinctively understood that such a majestic sight needed more time to be appreciated. From there it felt like they could see the entire universe. This was what they were going to save. Put together, it was what they'd figured out how to cross. If Tony had been alone on Titan like he'd initially feared, the unspeakable scale of the night sky would have crushed him. Although his instinctive choice of adjective left something to be desired, with a friend there it instead felt a little... magical.

Tony's gaze dropped and he smiled faintly. Friends? When had that happened? He couldn't argue with the word, though. It'd been a trial through the worst fire imaginable, but after a couple of weeks they'd forged a connection that felt like it spanned years. Tony Stark made acquaintances like breathing, but could count his true friends on one hand. He seldom expected to find another one.

"Hey, Doc." He waited until the man had dropped his attention from the sky. "Thanks."

Bemused, Stephen asked, "For what?" The amethyst night had softened his normally sharp gaze, as well. Everything seemed quieter and peaceful, including the two of them.

"For making all of this a whole lot better than it could have been."

Stephen mulled that over for a long while, and smiled when he replied, "And to you." Then he went quiet. In the dim moonlight, it took Tony a while to recognize that his mood had sobered. "Tony, I have to tell you something."

That was a more serious voice than he wanted to hear. Wary, Tony gestured for him to proceed.

"This isn't anything that the one victorious path demands... but neither is it something that it forbids. And by now, I feel like I owe this to you." Laughing faintly, he folded his arms and looked down toward his feet. "It was hard for us to get along, at first."

"That much," Tony replied, "I already knew."

"Even though I knew it was coming—even though I had the understanding that the two of us could eventually work quite well—I also knew that we did not get off on the best foot."

"Understatement."

Stephen's gaze returned to the starry sky. "And I also knew that you want to help. Above all else, you want to keep people safe."

Tony's brow furrowed. "Yeah, and?"

In the darkness and from a profile view, it was hard to make out what expression was on Stephen's face. "In those futures, I learned that the only way for us to get along... was if you helped me. It snapped you out of your daze and forestalled any arguments."

Tony blinked in confusion, then again in surprise. "Wait..." He suspected what explanation was coming. He'd already admitted the same motivation to himself. "You didn't get that chest bleeder from Thanos, did you?" Without developing a personal connection to understand Stephen's rationale, giving up the Time Stone would have been inexplicable. If Stephen hadn't distracted Tony from the horror of what had happened by nearly suffocating in his own blood, then yes, a screaming match between them was inevitable.

After a lengthy pause, Stephen shook his head.

"That's..." Letting out a rush of air in a whoosh, Tony looked back up to the sky. "So. After seeing all those futures, you knew that you had to rip open your own chest for us to make it to this point?"

"I did. Well. Other wounds were tried, too. They weren't sufficiently serious and distracting, or I went too far with it and just died." Stephen sounded admirably composed for someone describing God only knew how many accidental suicides in those other timelines. Of course, he remembered being driven into dark insanity by his efforts to protect the Time Stone. In comparison, accidentally bleeding out two minutes after the apocalypse had to be pleasant. "The hemothorax was sufficiently dangerous to motivate you, but not so deadly as to doom me."

"So you didn't really need me," Tony halfway laughed. He couldn't be mad about it now, not after learning to totally trust the futures and Stephen. Still. He'd felt pretty heroic, then. And it was for nothing.

"I did need you. I told you the truth when I said that being short on oxygen made it hard to concentrate. When I made that tiny hole in my thoracic vein, I knew that I was creating a problem that you would need to fix. The longer it went on, the less ability I had to help myself." His head tilted, barely visible in the darkness. "Thanks for not screwing it up."

"Welcome," Tony said dryly. "I guess this one 'good' timeline still has its speed bumps, huh?"

Stephen shrugged. "If you knew beyond a shadow of any doubt that your death could help save the universe, you'd spend that currency, wouldn't you?"

Tony shrugged, too. "Of course. I did it to save one city. Didn't even have to think about it."

"Right. Anyone decent would. Well, causing a resolvable medical issue seems like nothing in comparison, doesn't it?"

"I guess so," Tony admitted. He elbowed Stephen, ignoring the flicker that earned from the Cloak. "So, you got any other timeline secrets you're still hiding from me? Because I get it, I totally get it, but I have to say that I am really not a fan of being kept in the dark."

After another long, contemplative study of the brilliant night sky overhead, Stephen said, "There's just one left."

One, huh? Well, that was better that hearing that dozens of secrets still lurked in Tony's future, but he would have greatly preferred to hear zero. "As fun as this stargazing has been, we should probably do that rift test of yours. It's a race to the finish line to see which of us is ready first."

"A race to the finish line," Stephen agreed, then looked down. "Let's see if I'm there."

Entering the gravity rift again made Tony's head spin. The crevice in the landscape was darker than standing in the open, as they walked further into its tapering form and saw the stars overhead narrow to a strip of speckled light. Before, Stephen had failed at his manipulation while standing at the rift's edge. Now he apparently felt confident enough to walk into its heart and try again.

Learning how to do these anchors, Tony reminded himself as he watched a series of rings form on the rocky ground, had served two purposes. To successfully form them, Stephen had forced himself into a deep, comprehensive study of Titan's existence and energies. Gaining that knowledge would already improve his strength here. Once an anchor was formed, it would allow him to channel more energy than he normally could. Put together, those two efforts should make him far stronger than he'd been when they'd landed.

The first anchor formed in under ten seconds. As Stephen worked on a second, Tony frowned at what he saw. The anchors reminded him of the mandala shields that Stephen had wielded in New York, including their insistent but not overwhelming glow. Until they stepped into this narrow space in almost total darkness, the anchors' mild illumination hadn't been enough to notice the thin golden strand that connected them to Stephen. "Hey," Tony wondered, and gestured to the filmy strand of light. "Should that be there?"

"Anchors have chains," Stephen pointed out, nodding in satisfaction as the second anchor formed. Like before, a thin thread of light connected it and its maker. "All right. Know that you are completely safe during what's about to happen, but you should not move."

It was difficult not to take a step back. The inconsistent gravity in the rift made Tony's head swim and worsened his unease. "You literally could not have phrased that to freak me out more."

After a few deep, centering breaths, Stephen lifted his hands, brought them together, and began murmuring to himself. At his feet, the glow from the anchors intensified. Over them, well above Titan's surface, the sky fragmented into crystal.

Suspecting that things were about to get very weird indeed, Tony reached out for the nearest surface and held on.

Like before, rocks floated in the air before them. Unlike before, when Stephen gestured at one stone it moved smoothly apart. Two split into four, and then four into eight. The eight identical rocks hung in a perfect circle like they'd been reflected by the different crystal facets overhead.

Just as Tony relaxed, approving of the impressive but sedate manipulation of reality he'd witnessed, the entire planet began to rotate around him.

Looking up toward the stars and crystal shards, Tony saw them interrupted by shadows that hadn't been there before. With shock, he realized that Stephen had seemingly willed an entire looming building to appear over them. Long, angular arms blocked the stars. Another building soon appeared, as if that massive thing had split apart as easily as the rocks. Existence folded like origami. Below Tony's feet, gravity pulsed. He soon had no idea where the sky was as reality turned inward on itself, and again, and again. His heartbeat pounded in his forehead.

Abruptly, all of those changes folded back like a closing fan. The reflected facets of reality moved back to their origins, the first manipulated stone returned to its singular form, and the crystal overhead dissolved in shimmering light.

"What the fuck," Tony panted. "What the fuck. Who ordered the kaleidoscope full of LSD?"

Stephen weaved, then dropped to one knee. It didn't seem like the crisis of when he'd tried to portal the ship's entire cockpit, but he'd clearly pushed himself. Although he'd chosen it specifically because it would be a challenge, being inside this disorienting gravity rift in the aftermath of his success couldn't help.

"Come on," Tony said and forced away his dizziness enough to walk over. "Probably a good idea to get back onto steady ground."

As soon as he reached out to lift Stephen to his feet and walk him back into normal territory, the Cloak lunged for Tony. Sudden, hot claustrophobic darkness surrounded him. Tremendous force yanked Tony backward until his body impacted painfully with the rocky surface he'd clung to. Though his hands scrambled frantically at the cloth wrapping his head, it was to no avail.

"Stop," he heard, muffled through fabric. "Stop!"

The Cloak unwrapped itself from Tony. As it flew back to Stephen, Tony gasped for breath, then shot a baleful look at the relic. "Was that necessary?"

"Sorry," Stephen said and gave the Cloak a chastising look as it settled on his shoulders. "Thank you for trying to help, but that wasn't needed," he murmured to it. "I was conscious, I could have just brushed him away. Don't attack Tony."

"Yes, don't attack Tony," Tony repeated. "Ow." He rubbed the back of his head.

With a gesture, the two anchors disappeared. "It was worried that you'd pull me away while I was still attached to them," Stephen explained. "Which isn't the best idea."

"That is one overprotective rug," Tony said and twisted his torso back and forth. It still throbbed, but that faded by the second. "And you couldn't have mentioned that small print before it happened?"

Stephen hesitated. "Yeah, I need to get better about that." He rose and walked over to Tony, seemingly recovered from his dizziness. "Are you all right?"

He flexed his torso once more. "I'll probably have some bruises headed my way, but I'll be fine. Are you okay, though? You kinda... fell over."

"I did not 'fall over,'" Stephen replied, sounding very faintly offended. "Very slight disorientation struck. That's all. I can tell that I'm mostly to where I need to be, and that I'll be ready for all I need to accomplish by the time your ship is ready." He hesitated, then lifted his hand near Tony's face. "May I check your head?"

He nodded. Though Tony didn't feel like he'd struck the rocky wall that hard, it wouldn't hurt to make sure that no more serious damage had been done. His own scanners could do the job, but for such an important potential injury he might as well let the neurosurgeon take a look.

Stephen's hand made gentle contact. Unlike when he made his nightly offers of sleep, all five fingers and his palm cupped Tony's skin. After he applied pressure to flatten his hand against Tony's cheek, the trembling from his old injuries mostly—but not entirely—stopped. Feeling that hint of lingering motion, Tony tried to go very still.

Their eyes met. Once that happened, it was impossible to look elsewhere. Even in the darkness, it soon felt as if no one else had peered so deeply into Tony Stark. The heat spreading from Stephen's hand felt like Tony was blushing under a bright summer sun. Breathing sped, just a bit. He'd expected some clinical equivalent to an x-ray, not... this. It felt like his existence had been opened.

"You're fine," Stephen abruptly announced and stepped back.

Tony coughed. The cool night air wiped away the sensations that magic had brought. Nervous hands brushed away non-existent dirt. "Good. I don't need to be mad at the rug, then."

"I'm sure the Cloak would like you better if you referred to it by its proper name," Stephen retorted as he gestured back toward the normal surface of Titan, outside of the gravity rift. After a few silent steps toward that surface, he continued, "As we discussed, I'll need to do a pathogen check soon. It'd be a good idea before any return to Earth."

"Oh." Tony nodded, though it was unlikely to be noticed in the darkness. "Right."

"So... a scan of your whole body." That slight hesitation made Tony wonder if Stephen had felt awkward, too. It could explain the sudden end to his search.

Tony cleared his throat. "Right. Sure. Don't want to bring a Titan-virus back home."

"We do not." They spent the rest of their trek in silence. When they returned to the Maw's ship, Stephen gestured at a far corner. "I'm going to go do what practice I still need."

"Solid plan," Tony agreed and turned back to his own work with great determination. The silence was so welcomed that it took Tony nearly twenty minutes to remember to restart the music.

As Tony worked on the delicate wiring of their craft's onboard computer and tried not to think about the novel sensation of someone gently grasping his face and spirit, his attention nevertheless meandered. What, he wondered, was the one thing that Stephen had yet to tell him?

Chapter Text

The ship was ready.

Though Tony had carefully put every component in place by hand and then double-checked his work, he still found the completion difficult to believe. They'd been on Titan for twenty days and the last had been spent obsessing over the final one percent of their workload. Scanners hovered inside the small craft where it sat on the ground, ready for another test run. In his hands, he had the controls to launch.

"Liftoff," he announced and powered the thrusters. It was time for the final attempt without them.

The four thrusters fired and both men watched cautiously as it lifted a hundred feet above Titan's surface. Inside, the rotational stabilizer hummed away and Tony's seals that joined the craft's walls held steady. Even so, Stephen stood ready to catch it with another mystical net should it fall. There was no need. For as long as Tony directed it upward, the ship steadily rose. It followed the turn signals he gave, and after making one grand arc in the sky that took it more than a mile above ground it began to return smoothly toward them.

"Tony—"

"Got it." The very last additions had been micro-jets meant for precisely maneuvering Nebula's ship into small docking ports. Tony had returned to Nebula's craft himself, not wanting to make Stephen face those memories again, and severed them for his own use. They were arranged around the viewport he'd stolen from one of Quill's smaller windows. As they fired against the direction of travel, the ship's momentum slowed. Soon its flight looked less like a missile headed for them, and Stephen's net easily caught the craft and returned it gently to the dirt below.

"And the final check," Tony continued, bringing up a different readout from his sensors. After discovering storage tanks as he raided the last of the Maw's ship, he'd filled the cockpit with nitrogen. Before it'd flown, he'd taken the readings inside: 98.2% nitrogen, at 83% of Earth's sea level atmospheric pressure. Titan's atmosphere was similar to Earth's in composition, at only three-quarters of Earth's pressure. If the cockpit had lost nitrogen or pressure, it wouldn't yet be safe for them to use. With a deep breath, Tony looked at the results.

98.2% nitrogen. 83% of Earth's atmospheric pressure.

A smile spread. "Take a step back, because I am opening our completely air-tight spacecraft." With a faint rush of expelled air, the viewport swung open and the cockpit's atmosphere equalized with the world around them.

"So," Stephen said with a long, thoughtful survey of the craft in front of them. "It's actually ready."

"My job is mostly done," Tony said. "All I have left to do is pilot it up there and manage the transmitter signals. Are you actually ready, though?" Unlike Tony's construction tasks, Stephen's actual work hadn't yet happened. Tony had been making steady progress all this time, but Stephen had simply been practicing for his own main event. Even for someone who'd improved his power confidence in this neck of the galaxy, he still had a mighty tall task ahead of him.

With a long, thoughtful survey of the ship and then the sky above, Stephen nodded. "I'm ready to go."

That night they had the last of the food packets from Quill's ship. Although they were better than those chemical protein blocks from the Maw's stockpile, they weren't anywhere close to good. "Pizza," Tony declared. "The first thing I eat is going to be plain old New York pizza. Huge slices. Dripping with grease. With like... eight different toppings. And God, I could go for a Coke." At Stephen's amused reaction, he prompted an answer in return. They were officially to the point where discussions of life back on Earth were exciting rather than frustrating.

"I'm not looking that far ahead. I'm just focused on getting that portal made."

"Ugh." Exaggerated frustration painted Tony. "Live a little. Hey, once we get back and have totally fixed—" He gestured expansively around. "—All of this, let me take you to a Giants game or something. The company's got a luxury box. I mean, assuming that you're familiar with the strange, arcane game of 'football' back in Camelot."

Stephen squinted. "Camelot?"

"I wanted to try something different. You know, Camelot, Merlin..." Tony shrugged. "Never mind, I'll stick with Hogwarts."

"Your mind works in fascinating ways, Tony Stark." Stephen leaned against the dark metal wall behind him. "Besides, hearing 'football' just makes me think 'chronic traumatic encephalopathy.'"

"Stop nerding out, Strange. Then we're going to the Yankees and that's final." Tony leaned back, too. "Let me be friends with you, you big jerk."

Despite his visible efforts otherwise, Stephen laughed. "That would be fun," he admitted, "but let's table this discussion until we're on the far side of the challenges ahead. There's still a lot left to do."

Bruce could get overly serious in times like this, too. Tony, on the other hand, knew that one couldn't hope to make it through the war if morale got too sapped during a single battle. Well, by this time tomorrow they'd have contacted Earth. Perhaps Bruce, Selvig, and company would have a way to reach Titan with a working spacecraft. If not, there would be some other fix they could patch together. Soon the Avengers would be aware that they were alive, would have their precise coordinates, and a rescue would be imminent.

"I'm gonna get you and Bruce in my lab together," Tony decided and firmly ignored Stephen's preference to focus on the here and now. "We'll hammer out that medical scan hologram. I'm pretty sure I have an idea what might be causing that memory processing bug, so once we get that fixed it's smooth sailing."

"There are—"

"Other things to do first, I know." Tony pointed at him. "I'm gonna get a promise out of you, just watch." A few taps brought his calendar to life above one wrist. "Look at all those empty days just waiting to be scheduled."

Rolling his eyes, Stephen shook his head. "You mentioned medical scanning. We should do that."

If anything could distract Tony from his single-minded drive to get Stephen to think beyond the fight against Thanos, it was that. A flash of remembered heat covered Tony's cheeks again, and he coughed and nodded. It hadn't felt bad; far from it. That quick scan of his skull had been like nothing he'd ever felt before, and so he could only imagine what sort of microscope he'd be under when his entire body was inspected. "I guess it makes sense that you learned medical stuff there," Tony said as he stood and moved closer, then took a seat on the flat ground in front of Stephen.

Stephen nodded. "This is actually what I went to Kamar-Taj to do: affect the body. I met a man who channeled magical energy to overcome paralysis and so I was certain that there would be a way to recover the full usage of my hands. I could have gone that route and returned to the OR, but there were far more important considerations that emerged."

"So it works together? Spirit, body, all of it?" Tony wondered. Wanda had tremendous power, but it all tied to that power's origin from the Mind Stone. Telekinesis and peculiar telepathy, essentially, flowed from her in primal crimson. Stephen, on the other hand, could form energy shields, warp reality, attack foes, or rip holes through space as he liked. Compared to her powers, his were a real grab-bag.

Another nod. "If you're going to use your body as a conduit to other dimensions, you have to be aware of that body. It's why novices are directed into hours of daily physical training." Stephen closed his eyes. Almost immediately, the golden scanning runes from before appeared over him, as did the shining lines that bound them together. "I was better prepared than most to understand the body's structure, but that certainty actually made me less able to reframe my thinking."

"Other dimensions, huh?" Tony asked as he watched the runes once again scan Stephen for any alien pathogens that had set up shop since his last mystical checkup. (He chose not to comment on Stephen admitting that he'd been hard-headed and run into failure because of it.) If the true source of a wizard's power came from accessing different dimensions, then perhaps that explained how Stephen could do so many things. A generalist, indeed.

"Mmm hmm. You've seen the inside of the Mirror Dimension. I mentioned astral projection. There are countless others. There are some that are harmless to draw upon. Others carry great risk, but great potential reward. Some energy will inevitably corrupt anyone who wields it, whether in body or spirit."

"This is never going to end," Tony realized with a tired smile. "Even if we pull off this comeback against Thanos, there's always going to be someone getting tempted by some other big move, won't there?" Loki had brought the Chitauri to New York and the Mind Stone he'd carried ended up with Sokovia lifting into the sky. Next came Thanos, but he wouldn't be the last. God, please let the next bad guy not be as dangerous, but that next bad guy would someday come.

"That's why it's important to get you back to that team of yours," Stephen agreed, opened his eyes, and let the runes vanish. "Yes. There will always be new battles."

He was looking forward to reuniting with the Avengers. Despite himself, Tony even wanted to see the former members who'd fought against the Accords. It meant that they still existed. He couldn't let that comment slide, though. "I'm on multiple teams, remember," Tony said and extended his foot to kick the bottom of Stephen's.

"You can be rather like an overenthusiastic puppy, can't you?"

When he was nervous? Yes, Tony could get very squirmy indeed. "I am adorable, yes," he deflected. "I hear it constantly. Megyn Kelly told me that when she tried to get an exclusive. Turned her down. She had to go with Putin, instead."

Stephen's eyebrows raised. "So are we doing this, or are you just going to keep twitching? It's harmless. Really."

Tony knew this would be harmless. He also suspected that it would feel like as much of an intrusion as when he'd woken up to an implanted electromagnet... only good. God, Tony thought and scooted a few inches closer, if you're up there, please don't let me say anything embarrassing. They'd just become official friends. He didn't want to ruin that by sounding like he was on a table during a deep-tissue massage.

"Here," Stephen decided and guided Tony around to put a wall against his back. "Don't tense up, all right? Let that support you."

Don't tense up. Sure. Right. "Ready," Tony announced and exhaled.

"I, ah." Stephen coughed. "Do need skin-to-skin contact. Could you pull the bottom of your shirt up a little? The abdomen is an excellent center of power for this sort of thing."

After a short pause, and with mechanical motions, Tony lifted the bottom of his shirt. "Ready," he repeated, then tensed up like hell.

Like he'd done for the first scan, Stephen made hesitant contact. Touching Tony's cheek had been a big enough breach in their walls, but now he flattened his hand just under the base of Tony's ribcage. This is just like before, Tony told himself as he waited to learn what a full-body magical CAT scan would feel like. When he checked out the nano housing.

It was not like before. When the first magical rune bloomed over Tony's heart, it felt like he'd slipped into a warm bath. Deep, pleasant heat covered him and the tension he'd clung to began to melt under its approach. When that rune split into a dozen, their gentle roaming brought shivers of sensation. Though he opened his mouth for some quip to tweak the moment, only a silent exhalation emerged.

"Good," Stephen murmured. "Just relax."

There was nothing to worry about. Everything was safe. This was like being wrapped in a blanket in front of a winter fireplace, drifting off for an afternoon nap. Dreamy lassitude swept Tony, and with a further state of surrender he fell totally slack against the wall. His slow, steady pulse seemed to be centered under Stephen's hand. The runes locked into position, and as bands of light traced between them a frisson of heightened sensation ran down Tony's spine. With another soft sigh, his eyes closed.

Breathe in. Breathe out. He could feel his own awareness extend into the discs hovering over him. The energy they gave in return wasn't like electricity, but like the deep rest from a good night's sleep. Had the world ever let him feel this satiated and content before? When the palm against his torso increased its pressure, a soft, curious noise was his only reply. He would let this dream state last for as long as it possibly could.

"Tony."

Another soft sigh of acknowledgment.

"I want to check deeper. Is that all right?"

He nodded once. His head felt loose, like a ball bearing.

Something about this seemed different, and after a few seconds more of ignorant bliss Tony's eyes slit open. Stephen had leaned closer. Under Tony's shirt, Stephen's hand slid higher to rest atop Tony's heart. What was happening? Did it matter? Tony's dark eyes locked onto Stephen's pale ones, and after a silent moment of mutual study a fresh spike of heat bloomed in Tony's chest. Gasping, he discovered tension that somehow still remained and cast it aside as he further submitted to whatever was happening. It was bliss.

"Good," he heard murmured. Had his eyes closed again? Stephen sounded so close. As more energy swirled through Tony's body, his skin began to tingle. "Good."

"So good," Tony breathed. Now electricity began to creep up and down his limbs. "God. Hunh. Ahh." Deeper, panting breaths demanded to break free. He'd never felt so aware of every square inch of skin, nor wanted to give up so much control. The heat in his chest blazed ever hotter, but it was like he was a phoenix seeking a bonfire. This was how existence should be.

When Stephen pulled his hand down and out of Tony's shirt, he did so against skin that had become slicked with sweat.

Tony tried to say something, but could only pant. There were no words in his vocabulary for what he'd just felt. Only then did a slow, sputtering part of his foggy mind realize that he was slightly aroused. Of course he was. Whatever had just happened, it was at the far boundaries of human sensation.

He was given some respectful time to collect himself. It was, Tony realized with increasing lucidity, quite like coming down from an orgasm. The shock of that realization helped calm the arousal that had developed as his body overloaded. When heat returned to his face, it was only from a blush. "I don't think that's what you did to yourself," Tony eventually managed to laugh. It was a breathy noise. Oh God, he was never, ever going to live this down.

For a silent reply, Stephen lifted the hand he'd placed over Tony's heart. Minuscule dark points swirled above it like a galaxy seen in photo negative.

Tony blinked a few times, trying to make sense of what he saw. "Did I have a virus?" he wondered. That's what the scan had been for, after all, though it had been easy to forget. Or were those microscopic pieces of shrapnel, too small to bother removing and too small to cause likely harm? The thought of that further sobered him and he sat up.

"You had medical problems with the arc reactor, didn't you?" Stephen mused as he stared at the inverted galaxy swirling over his hand.

Tony sat up straighter yet. The languor of Stephen's scan now felt like it'd happened a year prior. "Palladium poisoning, why? I fixed it. Moved to a new reactor design."

"It's good that you did, but that explains it." With a sharp, focused glare, the dark galaxy in Stephen's palm flared and then burned away into nothing. "Once you let me in deeper, I found cells out of alignment with your body's natural state." He exhaled. "Premalignant."

Now all heat was gone. It was like Tony had been dropped into an icy lake, and it was hard to ask the terrifying question. "Cancer?"

"No. Not at all. But any of them could have become cancerous at some point in the future. They were clearly disordered. Once you let me in..." Stephen looked away slightly and cleared his throat. "In so deeply, I was able to gain a comprehensive understanding of what shouldn't be there. The cells are all gone, now."

Once that struck Tony with full understanding and force, his jaw slackened. "You're telling me," Tony clarified, "that you took away every chance of cancer from that old thing in my chest." Though his finger tapped the nano housing, not an early-model arc reactor, he remembered the feeling of walking around with his death on a time-bomb delay. In retrospect, it made sense. For two years, the thing had been poisoning him via neutron bombardment and heavy metal degradation. Of course it could have also damaged him in ways that weren't immediately obvious.

"They were like... lurking shadows inside of you." Stephen still avoided his eyes. "I really am surprised that you let me in that completely."

Wonder filled Tony's suddenly glossy eyes. The memory of Stephen's trembling hand returned, but with a far different meaning. "There's not a doctor alive who could do that with a scalpel."

Stephen looked up to meet Tony's gaze again. Now his eyes glistened, too.

"Hey," Tony said and reached out. To his numbed surprise, Stephen didn't resist being pulled into a hug. "Thank you. So much." If some new bad guy didn't manage to kill him, then one day Tony Stark still would have heard that all those years of pushing himself to the edge had taken their toll. Now he'd just had his whole future handed back to him, freshly polished.

"Glad I had the chance."

"And now we're going home," Tony added and squeezed.

"Tomorrow, Titan is over," Stephen agreed.

With a fresh smile, Tony released him and sat back. "I guess you just told me that we're getting home tomorrow. Spoiler alert."

Stephen laughed faintly. "I'll have to be more careful about that. So, I'll need to be well-rested..."

Taking the hint, Tony stood. If Stephen was going to sleep, Tony needed to follow suit so that he could be eased into oblivion while on his uncomfortable alien bed. As soon as he took one step to follow, though, a stab of gut-wrenching anxiety struck.

Come tomorrow, he'd know exactly who had lived and died.

For a long while, he hadn't let himself think about any of that. So long as they were here on Titan, then nearly everyone on Earth was a Schrödinger's cat. He didn't know that they'd made it, but nor did he know who'd been struck down. Because of that, it'd been easy to push contemplation aside until real knowledge was available. As of tomorrow, that knowledge would be. While it would be good to actually see some living faces, would they make up for knowing who'd fallen? Tony didn't know.

He said we can fix things, Tony told himself as he set back into motion. While he'd fretted over making sure that his ship was airtight—that current sort of death couldn't be reversed—Stephen had promised that some of what Thanos had done could be countered. So even if I find out about people, then it won't really be like they were...

No. He couldn't lie to himself. If he found out that Pepper was gone, or Rhodey or Happy or even, hell, that boy scout Rogers, a vague promise about someday, somehow undoing those wrongs wouldn't comfort him. There was the very real chance that he would learn about a whole bunch of important names with no graves to mourn.

But he wouldn't. They wouldn't. According to Stephen, half of everyone had been wiped out. A whole lot more than half of the people on Titan had blown away. That probably meant that, just going by the odds—

Mr. Stark?

Shit. Settling onto his bed, Tony closed his eyes and exhaled. This was going to be really hard to take, and it was only the start of a bigger fight against Thanos. Still, soon he'd know. He'd know that Pepper had made it. She'd know that he was okay.

For the last time on Titan, fingertip embers pressed lightly against Tony's temples. Heat flooded his body again as he accepted the offer of quiet darkness, and the stress of worrying about potential names on a memorial wall fell away with it. Pepper, Tony thought as he spiraled away into nothing. I'm coming home. In the last moments of awareness, though, he felt the magical heat still filling his body and wrapping his spirit. A strange, uncertain guilt accompanied Tony into oblivion.

Chapter Text

The next morning was awkward.

On one hand, enormous thanks should be offered to the man who'd removed the near-certainty of death in the not terribly distant future. On the other, undergoing that treatment was the best thing that Tony Stark had ever felt in his life, yet picturing how he'd looked during it had to be one of his most embarrassing moments. In no way did he want to use the word, but he'd never felt so completely and utterly... submissive.

Actually, the next morning was far beyond awkward.

As he saw it, Tony had two options. One: have an honest heart-to-heart about how close they'd become, and how Stephen had also been surprised by the depth of connection. The two of them had clearly clicked, even after thinking that they'd been designed to repel each other. Their war-born meeting could lead to a friendship like Tony seldom made. It was what had gotten them through a situation that would break most. A deep, fruitful, and intimate conversation could develop.

Clearly, they weren't going to do that.

Two: act like it had never happened. As it came time to make their escape from Titan, Tony went with that option. "Please place your carry-on bags in the overhead bin," he recited as the ship's entry hatch opened.

The craft was a small thing to take them into space. While it wasn't clunky to match his original Iron Man suit, it still showed its jury-rigged origins on a dead planet. The main body was comprised of sheets of dark alien metal he'd taken from the Maw's ship and other local sources, while everything else had been lifted from Quill's and Nebula's vessels. Remembering that, Tony turned to see if Stephen would be all right climbing into the small ship. He had a million horrific memories of leaving this planet in a similar way.

He certainly didn't look happy, but a grim acceptance had settled over him. While climbing aboard wasn't something he wanted to do, this wasn't the flashback panic he'd suffered before. With a deep breath and one lingering look around their home of three weeks, Stephen climbed inside and took the right seat.

Tony didn't bother taking one last, nostalgic panoramic view of Titan. He'd seen more than enough of the damn place; orange dust would probably coat his dreams for months. This wouldn't be anywhere he'd miss. With far more enthusiasm, Tony followed Stephen inside and took the captain's chair on the left.

He actually did have belongings to slide in behind them, as Tony had grabbed a duffel from Quill's. They had left behind the clothes they'd borrowed and were back in what they'd worn on Earth. Knowing they had that room to spare, Tony had gone a little wild plucking gadgets off the ship's walls, stocking oxygen tanks, and lifting the most interesting items from the Maw's ship.

As the viewport swung back down and locked, that additional bulk made the already tight space claustrophobic. Considering that, Tony looked back over to Stephen to see how he was doing now that the ship actually surrounded him. Shadows darkened his eyes and tension tightened his face. After a silent moment, Tony gently touched his shoulder. The Cloak let him. "Hey. You doing okay?"

With none of the bravado they would have shown each other in their first meeting, Stephen shakily exhaled, then took a smoother breath. "I am. I'm ready to be done."

"We're almost home," Tony promised and began the initial flight checks.

"I've known this for weeks," Stephen murmured to himself, like he was psyching himself up, "and I'm ready." Noting Tony's sidelong look of concern, he added, "It's going to hurt."

The concerned look was full-on, now.

"I can handle it," Stephen promised, then looked up at the sunlit sky overhead. After closing his eyes he took another deep, centering breath and said, "Let's go."

"You're sure—"

"This is the one way. I can handle some pain."

Unhappily, Tony continued his flight checks. Stephen was right: he'd shown that he could shrug off pain in short order. Tony hadn't considered pain as part of this particular equation, though. His own work with building the ship hadn't involved any and this was all his idea. It seemed unfair to be heading off into the sky just so that all discomfort could be handed off to the guy who'd hadn't dreamed up this plan in the first place.

But like Stephen had said, it was the one way. Given the severity of the situation they faced, there was no wiggle room with their duties. If he'd given himself a chest bleeder for the sake of the universe, he could take a little energy overload, too. Right? Yeah?

This is probably why he's only involved with research when we get home, Tony realized as he triple-checked the viewport's seals. Energy overload. Wait. Oh Jesus. What if he burns himself out?

Now that outcome, he couldn't be a part of. Already, Stephen had needed to find a whole new course for his life after losing everything he'd worked for. What if the portal Tony had asked from him ended up taking away everything he now had?

Fuck it, he had to ask. Twisting around in his seat as much as he could, Tony demanded, "Seriously, can you handle the amount of energy this is going to take? You just took cancer out of my chest, cell by cell. No one else can do that. No one. If this portal will fry your circuit breakers or something, then—"

"Tony!" Stephen had to say it several times until he stopped. "I will be able to handle all of the needed energy. That's why I've been practicing the anchors, remember? It's just... going to hurt. Which is absolutely fine. And it wasn't actually malignant. Yet."

Damnit. It was like the guy had gotten inside of Tony in more ways than one, for the thought of him in pain hurt Tony, too. Soon he'd just be sitting next to Stephen, feeling totally fine as the man at his side tried to fight back all signs of distress. That wasn't fair. But as he'd been reminded, this was the one way. This was the only way in the universe to stop that madman, and the only way to bring back who'd been lost.

With a deep twinge of guilt, Tony continued his lift-off procedures. "Strapped in?" he eventually asked. A silent nod was his answer. With a fresh surge of apology for directing them toward that pain, Tony fired the engines. A deep rumbling began under their feet. As the sensors and displays attached to nearly every surface fired into fresh attention, they lifted off the planet on which they'd spent weeks imprisoned.

"Bye, you ugly orange rock," Tony whispered as the Maw's ship began to shrink in their viewport, then vanished below its bottom edge. Stephen said nothing and watched the ground disappear with a conflicted expression. Damn, he never looked like this. This probably really was going to hurt. At first Tony wished that he'd been warned about the approaching pain before lift-off day, but then, what good would it have done? There was only one sequence of events that could happen, it didn't do him any good to feel guilty over them, and Stephen was placing his trust in Tony to perform his half of the equation.

With fresh resolve, Tony powered the engines to full.

Though he seldom had reason to go so high in his flight suit, Tony loved seeing the actual curve of a planet below him. The sky above turned into deeper, darker night and stars emerged across what had just been day. Soon the atmosphere's interference was gone. Like when they'd stood side-by-side and studied a universal spectacle, only the purity of space was in front of them.

"So," Stephen said. "You did it."

"Of course I did." Tony's eyes flicked down. "Stop white-knuckling."

Stephen's hands let go of his armrests.

"Everything is holding steady," Tony confirmed as he studied the readouts. Stephen ignored them, focusing only on the view beyond the front of their vessel. The Cloak seemed even more nervous than he did and rippled at its edges like a current in a river. It probably thought it would need to attempt a flight to safety after Tony's ship failed, he realized, and smirked. Sorry, rug. You're going to have to live with me not disappointing you.

"Let me find a good spot," Tony said next and began maneuvering with quick bursts of the engines and counter-thrusters. "Above Titan is a little weird, too." Keeping in mind the admonition to not move out too far, since Stephen still needed to be familiar with the space around them, Tony played a steady game of Hot and Cold with the external radiation readings. "Getting colder," he murmured as he saw interference drop away. "Getting colder... ice cold."

"I think you have the game backwards."

"Shh. Just let me find your spot... there. I'm good." With that done, Tony turned as best he could to look at his companion.

His eyes were closed, but with apparent concentration rather than nerves. After a few deep, purposeful breaths those eyes opened with renewed focus. "Turn on all your sensors," Stephen instructed. "They need to be recording everything."

Right, right. The whole reason that they needed to take this route, rather than using Quill's ship, was for the data being generated. Tony obligingly activated them and they soon hung in an array around the two men. After verifying that data was being written into his personal records, Tony announced, "Ready."

"Feed it into the ship's computer, too. We can't take any chances."

He leaned forward to tap in those instructions. "All right, sounds like a plan."

Stephen's hands gripped his armrests again and his gaze sharpened as he stared out at the stars, countless light years away. "There's one last thing. You have to set them so that they can only be deactivated if both of us give that instruction. Neither of us should be allowed to disable the sensors individually." At Tony's perplexed look, he added, "You're just going to have to trust me on this one. By now, I remember how this plays out in crystal clarity."

"Fair enough," Tony allowed and typed in more commands. "Authorization: Tony Stark," he announced to the flying sensors and waited for Stephen to follow suit. After their identities had been recorded in the system, he cleared his throat and announced, "Deactivate sensors." Without Stephen's echoed command the sensors' activity lights continued beeping in lazy rhythm. He nodded. "Done."

"Good." Stephen swallowed. His hands flexed where he gripped the chair. "Good. We're ready, then. It's absolutely vital that the ship remains completely motionless from this point out." He coughed and looked away. "In the gravity rift, I... may have understated the danger of moving me away from an active anchor."

Tony twisted against his safety harness so hard that it hurt, the better to glare at Stephen. "What." Flashing back to how the Cloak had absolutely walloped him for even starting such a motion, he gritted his teeth and studied the flight readings until he was positive that they were effectively lodged in place. Right. Of course it'd been fucking dangerous; Stephen had 'chains' attached to his spirit and Tony had intended to yank him beyond their limits. "We're gonna talk about that one at home."

"Fair enough. You can yell at me later. Now we need to talk about how we're locating the far end of the portal."

"We?" Tony repeated.

Returning his gaze to the viewport and stars beyond, Stephen nodded. "You've located Earth with your calculations, but I don't know what they mean from my perspective. We're going to need to work together for this. It's why I was so concerned about the revelations about the Time Stone interrupting our dynamic. If I end up trying to open a portal in an unworkable spot, it'll just exhaust me and I'll need that two-day recharge turnaround."

Unspoken was a plea to delay any discussion of the pain Stephen had agreed to, or the danger posed by the anchors. As they did need to get this done, Tony compartmentalized his annoyance with great resolve and brought up the star maps he'd taken from the Maw's systems. "All right. I have the coordinates here. What do we need to do?"

"Point me in the direction you've settled upon and describe what I should be seeing."

"Point?" Tony repeated. "Like, with my finger?" This was a lot less precise than he'd been led to believe was necessary.

"For step one, yes." After Tony obligingly pointed, specifying that it was just to the right of three clustered red giants and below a colorful nebula, Stephen studied the direction he'd chosen, took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. "Tell me what adjustments I need to make. If we're able to do this together, then we can try to get it perfect on the first shot."

Even as Tony opened his mouth to say that he didn't understand, his voice died in his throat. Like when Wong had created an illusory universe in the Sanctum to inform Tony about the Infinity Stones, Stephen had brought some unknown star system to life in front of their viewport. Unlike Wong's perfect illustration, though, this one flickered. The objects in it bent wildly around like they were reflections in rippled water.

"I don't understand this location at all," Stephen explained with his eyes still closed, anticipating Tony's question. "I tried to follow your maps on the monitor but they make no sense to me. You need to figure out where it is and help me get closer to Earth."

How in the hell was he supposed to do that? Tony Stark didn't have an astronomy background and this illusion was liking watching a bootleg camcorder DVD in the middle of an earthquake. Wait, he told himself, and thought through things. Apparently, them working together closely would help. With that in mind, Tony reached over and grasped Stephen's wrist. "It's a gas giant," he explained when he saw that Stephen's eyes remained closed. "A double-star system." As he continued describing the scene he saw, Stephen's flickering illusion calmed. It was still fuzzy and uncertain, but now Tony could use the few specifics he saw to locate that spot on the Maw's star maps.

After describing the adjustment Stephen needed to make, another illusion emerged. This one wasn't as unsteady, even though Stephen had never opened his eyes. It was simple for Tony to describe enough specifics to calm the illusion. After locating that new spot on the maps, he suggested the needed directional fixes and they began again.

Stephen had to understand both destination and origin, and that was never more clear than now. Just because he could choose a spot certainly didn't mean that he understood it, and even after hearing about a new location in crystal-clear detail he had scant hope of actually opening a portal there. Based on how the illusions got clearer and clearer as they approached Earth, Tony suspected that if he hadn't provided a good starting point, the first location would have been too warped and unclear to make any use of. They must have started in Earth's vague celestial neighborhood.

Thinking about that, Tony paused for a moment to study the space around them. With the extended effort needed to understand it, Titan must be very far away from Earth, indeed.

One adjustment later, Tony's hand tightened around Stephen's wrist. There was no need to alert him that they'd succeeded, for Stephen's eyes flew open the second his new illusion formed.

In front of the viewport, in glorious white and green and blue, hung Earth. There were no flickers, this time. This was the view that everyone on the planet knew from countless photographs. In the illusion they were over the Atlantic, equal with Morocco and Florida. Further along the globe's curve was the familiar shape of Long Island. Just sight of it tightened Tony's throat. "God. It's beautiful."

With just as much awe, Stephen nodded. "All right. Be ready to use the communication system... and remember: don't move us." He closed his eyes again, and as the illusion of Earth vanished an anchor rippled into existence ten feet away from the ship's hull. Soon a second anchor followed with a small gap between them. Their six rings rotated lazily, as did the connective latticework. Soft golden glows were echoed by the threads that pierced the walls of the ship and ended somewhere inside Stephen's chest.

A few seconds later, a third anchor appeared. Then, a fourth.

Tony looked at Stephen with concern. The anchors were all clustered, making their threads look like the start of a rope twisting together. "Four?"

"Four," he confirmed. "I can do this. Don't worry."

Though Tony worried, he obligingly readied the comm system.

"Here it goes," Stephen sighed, closed his eyes, and went slack against his chair. Outside, the anchors' glows intensified. Soon they were like suns at midday and Tony found himself squinting and looking away from the viewport until his eyes adjusted. With more energy, the threads going into Stephen's chest had thickened. Now it really was like a thin rope of light had him bound to those things outside.

But as he'd promised, it worked. In front of them, well beyond the anchors, a small splash of magical sparks began to burn in cold, black space. Though they fizzled uselessly at first, after Stephen sucked in a tense breath they soon followed the racetrack pattern with which Tony had grown so familiar. It was a tiny portal, impossible to make out inside the flashy sparks surrounding it, but his readings told him that it was an active one.

Showtime. "Attention, Avengers," Tony recited into the frequency of the headquarters' communications array. Hopefully he'd threaded this needle with his signal on the first try. "This is Tony Stark. Please respond. Attention, Avengers. This is Tony Stark. Please respond. Attention, Avengers. This is Tony Stark. Please respond. Attention, Aven—"

"Tony?!"

A huge grin spread. "Hey, Bruce. So, how're things in your neck of the woods?" A tight, strained noise beside him focused Tony and in a more sober voice he continued, "I'm with Stephen Strange. We're at these coordinates. Got 'em?"

"You're with... how are you over there? Wait. Is that a portal? Look at these readings, is that signal coming through a portal? Wong's portals haven't been like that, look at that thing."

"A portal over that distance would need an incredible amount of energy," cued a new voice. Thanks to having his memories jogged, Tony knew who it must be. "But it's so precise. I've never seen something like this in any astrophysics literature."

"Hey, Selvig. Yes. An unbelievable amount of energy is needed, so we don't have much time." Tony let himself pause for just long enough to look over to Stephen, to confirm the strain it was putting upon him. Though he could handle the level of pain, it was clearly a challenge. "We don't have a way to get out of this system, but we know there's gotta be a way on your end." Stephen's breathing hitched and sweat beaded on his forehead. Absently, Tony squeezed his wrist again, then stroked it with his thumb for whatever comfort he could offer.

"I can think of two ways," Erik immediately said. "Colonel Fury called someone, and her spaceship—"

Tony squinted. "Fury called... wait, her spaceship?" What the hell had he missed on Earth in these few weeks?

"Or Stormbreaker," Bruce cut in, "could—"

"No." Frowning, Tony looked over to Stephen. He'd barely gotten out the word but somehow managed to continue. "No. Wait. You can't do either of those. You have to—" Frustrated, he let the word die in his throat, shook his head, and closed his eyes again. To Tony's deep shock, another two anchors bloomed into position outside the craft. With that surge of energy, Stephen was able to take a deeper breath and finish, "You have to give us three minutes before you do anything. All right, Banner? This is extremely important."

"Tony?"

"Do it," Tony said to Bruce, though confusion furrowed his brow. "Give us three minutes, and then use the ship's location to stage a rescue."

"Cut the comms," Stephen added.

With even greater confusion, Tony did so.

"Tony," Stephen said, then tried to find a steady breathing pattern, "Thank you. What you said yesterday... about the scalpel..." His eyes glistened again. When he took another deep breath, it came out shaky and vulnerable. "Thank you."

An odd smile quirked the corner of Tony's lips. "You're welcome? I'm the one who needs to say thank you. You gave me a whole life back when I hadn't even known it'd go missing. I am going to drag you into doing things. Friend things. I don't care if you complain."

"That'd be nice," Stephen said as he met Tony's gaze. Six fine ropes of light pulsed going into his chest and their glow was still insistent. That should have been a hard sight to witness, but for some reason the odd expression behind Stephen's eyes instead held Tony's attention. "It... would be nice."

Uncertainty began to spread in Tony, slowly, like a drop of dye expanding into water. "Stephen, why'd we need three minutes?"

Full tears beaded now, and Stephen's face was filled with nothing but apology. "I'm so sorry, Tony." At his sides, the edges of the Cloak began to twitch again.

"For what?" Tony demanded. Panic, unexplained and all the more terrifying for it, gripped his chest as he watched more anchors surround the ship. One by one they appeared until there was a full shell of them surrounding their craft in every direction. Stephen was pierced with light from all of them, just like when Tony had seen him completely surrounded by the Maw's torture crystals. "What the fuck are you doing? Stop! They're coming, God, stop!"

"I can't—" Stephen's voice failed him and he paused for a resigned smile. For a few seconds he offered nothing more than pained but steady breaths. When he spoke again, it was to utter words that Tony had never wanted to hear repeated. "This was always the plan."

No air could make it through Tony's throat and his vision compressed to nothing but pure black and golden brilliance. He tried to lunge for Stephen, sending light chains through his own chest as he twisted through them, but bands of intricate energy immediately shackled both of his wrists back to his chair. "Stop!" Tony pleaded with hot, wet eyes. When he tried to kick to distract Stephen from whatever he was about to do, magic bound his ankles to the chair, too.

The only people that Stephen had known for sure had made it were Bruce, Selvig, and Wong.

He refused to make plans past the portal.

His only contribution against Thanos would be research.

And Tony had to get this data.

The data, Tony realized. The data. If he turned off the sensors, then there would be no data and Stephen would have no reason to do whatever it was that he was going to do. "Sensors, disengage!" His panicked voice rebounded off the small ship's walls. The Cloak struggled, too, but its wearer was strapped securely in. "Stop! Authorization Tony Stark, you have to stop! Please!"

The sensors continued placidly flying. Stephen, after all, hadn't given his secondary authorization.

There was nothing he could do. Nothing. Panic distilled down to nothing but quiet, certain agony. It throbbed. "Please," Tony repeated. This time it was a whisper. "Don't. You can't. Please."

"I'm so sorry," Stephen said again and reached over to lay his hand on Tony's bound one. "There's no other way. Please believe me, and fix this. It's up to you, now."

"Don't leave," Tony tried to say. He could only mouth the words.

Outside the anchors' glow intensified, like they were inside a sun going nova. After a second of that the screams started. It was a raw, distorted noise no human should make. Tony would have screamed, too, but his dry throat felt like it was collapsing in on itself. His eyes, though, streamed with tears. The light strands attached to Stephen's spirit tightened like all the slack had been taken from them, turning from connective ropes into rigid bars. Yes: he'd been pierced by the Maw's crystals again, but this was a thousand times worse. At his sides, the Cloak wildly thrashed.

Somehow, through the anchors' light, Tony saw sparks as the portal expanded. It grew far past what Stephen said he'd be capable of at such a great distance. Thanks to so many anchors, he was able to push far past natural limits. The sound of that effort was hellish.

"Don't," Tony begged one final time. His bound hands opened and closed uselessly into fists. "Don't."

There was no acknowledgment. Stephen's shaking, scarred fingers lifted. Even as the overwhelming agony drew more screams from him, with one sure motion the fingers swept forward. A second later, a blast of energy hit the ship from behind.

It wasn't meant to damage the craft, only to propel it. Their ship rocketed forward, piercing the anchors and shattering their still-rigid chains. Arcane brilliance exploded into glinting shards like a crystal goblet had been dropped on a stone floor. As the craft sailed through the portal, now just large enough to fit its entire mass, the screaming abruptly stopped.

There were no anchors, now, to interrupt their vision. Earth hung in front of them, huge and blue. There were no energy bonds, now, to tie Tony to his chair. They'd disappeared when the screaming did.

Tony fumbled for his safety harness, but undoing it was useless. He was able to turn more completely to face Stephen, but all that gave him was a better view. It was a sight that seared itself instantly into the darkest, deepest shadows of his soul. The man he'd made it through hell with was lying there with closed eyes and an expression of lingering pain, and his body was absolutely still.

Chapter Text

Everything felt very slow and still. Dark, hot emotions filled Tony so completely that he couldn't even identify them. They throbbed as they pressed against his skull. Actual thought was impossible. His pulse pounded between his eyes, at the back of his throat, and deep in his gut. He might soon pass out or vomit, but either way words failed him.

To his left was the viewport, with the enormous curve of Earth beyond. They'd emerged just where the illusion had promised them: halfway over the Atlantic, with the Americas visible off to one side. Europe and Africa were beginning to fall under the approaching sunset, but seemed strangely dim. West of the Atlantic, it was still sunlit summer. Lazy white curls roamed over the continent. It looked like a beautiful day.

Much closer was the sight inside the ship: Stephen, absolutely motionless.

It'd gone so fast. It didn't seem possible. The tears that had streamed while it was happening had stopped once it was over, when Tony had been overwhelmed by the actual reality of the choice Stephen had made. Now Tony's hands were the ones to shake as he reached over, like they'd somehow find an answer that his eyes couldn't. Once they made contact, all he learned was that no more nerves were misfiring. Stephen's fingers were as still as the rest of him.

A second later the Cloak's corner slapped him.

Too stunned to be angry, Tony stared at it.

The Cloak lifted that corner, slapped him again, and then pointed insistently at the communications system. Through his emotional overload, it took Tony a few seconds more to catch up, but then he lunged for the speaker. "Bruce!" Tony screamed. "Help! Get me to HQ, now! Strange is—"

His eyes squeezed closed at the word he didn't want to say.

"—Hurt."

"How in the hell did you guys just show up here," Bruce mumbled, then collected himself. "Got it! Help's coming to your location." His voice sounded distant, like he'd turned away from his microphone. "Get a medical team ready. No, I don't know what for!"

"What in the world did I just see?" Erik asked, awed. "That was..."

Suicide, Tony thought and closed his eyes harder, then rubbed them like it could erase the memories of the last few minutes. The pressure made smears of light appear behind his eyelids, and with a ragged cry Tony opened them again. It'd been like seeing the start of a portal. That meant that he could see Stephen's body in front of him, though, and with a pained gasp Tony instead turned to look out the viewport. "God, Bruce, hurry."

"Isn't he there yet?"

Wasn't who there yet, Tony wondered. Nothing made sense and everything hurt.

A moment later Tony jolted as brilliance exploded outside their viewport, then turned to shield his eyes from the glare. Unlike when the sparks behind his lids had fooled him, there was no mistaking this for something from Kamar-Taj. Soon Tony felt an insistent tapping on his knee. After he looked down to where the Cloak was getting his attention, it gestured to a corner of the viewport.

"Okay," Tony said blankly after he tried and failed to make sense of what he saw there. "Thor's in space with an axe." As shock was still making him dumb and slow, Tony spent a few precious seconds wondering why Thor had cut his hair.

With a quick nod, Thor acknowledged him through the viewport and then looked over at the other seat. His eyes widened with both recognition and concern, and with renewed focus he gripped the rim of one of the cold engines, curled his fingers into its mechanics to solidify that hold, and held his axe in front of him. It pulled them forward like Mjolnir had, and Tony lunged against his own chair and fastened his harness just in time.

Earth approached at a terrifying rate. Soon another glow appeared outside the viewport: atmospheric-reentry. Concerned, Tony realized that he hadn't accounted for Earth's denser atmosphere, and certainly not at this speed. Why would he ever have expected to arrive in this craft, anyway? It was only supposed to be a homing signal.

With fear growing, he groped blindly behind him to find the duffel taken from Quill's. Two of the flat discs he'd found were within reaching distance, thankfully, and he slapped what were apparently protective atmospheric suits onto both of their chests. Though Tony's hands hovered, waiting to activate the discs, his ship held together even as the heat increased. Right now they had to be a shooting star to everyone below.

There's no net to soften this landing, Tony thought as the planet totally filled the viewport. He looked to his side, hoping that Stephen would have somehow stirred with all the noise and jostling of the journey Thor was putting them through. There was nothing. His body remained still.

As they approached solid ground at a terrifying rate, Tony's hands clutched the armrests and every muscle tensed. Thor knew how sturdy humans weren't, didn't he? He couldn't possibly expect them to survive this landing he was setting up, could he? Just as death somewhere in Maryland seemed imminent, Thor changed their angle, tilting them upward and north toward New York. They rocketed over the Eastern Seaboard at a plane's cruising altitude and were eventually able to angle down again at a steady, safer clip.

There was no proper landing pad for their gooped-together piece of metal. Just as Tony realized that they were close to headquarters, a final descent began toward farmers' open fields. The reduction in momentum threw Tony against his harness so hard that it hurt, but he ignored that to attempt to hold Stephen steady during the rough landing. It did little good.

As soon as they'd come to a stop, leaving a dark scar of dirt across the countryside, Thor slammed his axe through the viewport's metal framing, wrenched it free of the ship's body, and sent it flying to the ground below. "Stark," he said for a quick hello.

Still overcome by the commotion of the last ten minutes, Tony nodded silently back. At their feet, green sprouts lay overturned and soil sprayed in a fantail. Overhead, the sky was a perfect, cloudless blue. Birds twittered in the distance.

That was all the greeting Thor was giving him, apparently. Bruce must have told him about the medical emergency, because all further attention was directed toward Stephen. With a few quick motions Thor released the flight harness, reached further in, and lifted Stephen's limp form before the Cloak could handle an extraction. "I'll get him there," Thor promised and raised his axe again.

Though the Cloak struggled again, trying to manage the rescue on its own, Thor disappeared into the distance at incredible speed. As it'd been fighting against that direction, the Cloak was ripped free and left behind. It turned wildly this way and that, trying to pinpoint the exact spot to which Thor had vanished.

"Come on," Tony said dizzily, climbed out of the craft, and slapped his chest. Even with all that construction work on Titan, his nano stockpiles had been given weeks to regenerate. The familiar sensation of his Iron Man armor wrapping him was a relief. Inside this suit, after all, he saved lives. "Follow me."

"Good to have you back, boss," said Friday's familiar voice as he lifted into the air.

"Cease assistant playback," Tony instantly said. He couldn't take any more news. Not yet. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the Cloak streaming behind him. It couldn't keep up, but the glow of his foot jets made for quite a signal flare and they were over idyllic countryside that offered little visual competition. He didn't slow down.

As he approached headquarters, Tony saw a crowd gathered near one entrance and changed his flight arc toward a back door. Greetings could come at any time; lives only had so long in an ER situation. He landed heavily on the metal grating, instantly dismissed his flight suit, and ripped off the spacesuit disc he realized was still affixed to his chest. "Tony Stark," he snapped to the security panel beside that door. It began to creak open and he slammed it all the way and headed inside at a run.

Now the Cloak could catch up to him. "This way," Tony told it as he barreled through the halls. Surprised noises followed his arrival, but he didn't stay to see who'd made any of them. Damn, he'd been so intent on avoiding the crowds that he hadn't taken the entrance closest to the medical wing. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw Natasha, though the hair was confusing. Tony didn't pause to verify and shoved someone aside as he took the next corner.

When he found Stephen, the sight told him nothing. He was in one of the medical bays and doctors and nurses clustered. One was attaching sensors at various points along Stephen's still form, but the medical readouts they generated were a foreign language. Now it was like Tony was the one staring at an astronomy map, wondering what the hell it was telling him. He didn't know what that series of six lines meant, nor a dozen seemingly identical brain images, nor a long list of numerical outputs.

One new reading, though, he did recognize. With a gasp, Tony reached up and squeezed the Cloak's shoulder. It didn't throw him away.

It was a shallow and slow rhythm, but there was motion on the heartbeat monitor.

"He's alive," Tony whispered. Relief made his skin tingle and he didn't even try to hold back the shaky laugh that burst from his chest. "He's alive. Rug, he's alive." As the Cloak leaned forward, studying the sight through the glass, a sudden impact startled Tony from behind.

"You're alive," said a familiar voice. Rhodey wrapped his arms around Tony and squeezed, then laughed, "Man, didn't I already tell you to never do this to me again?"

Now that he was able to focus on anything besides an ambulance ride through space, breathless glee swept Tony. He was really home. He was standing not on a dead alien world, but in a familiar hallway at the Avenger base he'd helped construct. His oldest friend was here. Colonel James Rhodes had officially made it through the apocalypse. Tony wrapped his arms around Rhodey in return, squeezed, and held on long past when he'd normally thump the man on the back and break their embrace.

Rhodey didn't try to break free, either. "You're okay," he whispered against Tony's ear. "God. All these weeks and we didn't know. Just the news footage about that ship..."

"I didn't know about you, either!" Tony exclaimed. He glanced over his shoulder, confirming that the heart monitor was still reliably beeping and the doctors looked in control of the situation, and returned his attention to the hug Rhodey still offered. A second later, though, Rhodey's arms slackened. Tony pulled back to see what was wrong but no answer was apparent.

Rhodey didn't look worried, exactly, but he did look the most befuddled that Tony had seen from him in memory. "Turn around."

Tony turned, looked past the Cloak into the medical room, and frowned. None of the sensors screamed warnings, nor was anyone shouting sudden panicked instructions. "Did the doctors do something?"

With a pointed clearing of his throat, Rhodey looked pointedly at the Cloak, back to Tony, and back to the Cloak.

Oh. Right. "Rhodey, this is the Cloak of Levitation. Cloak, this is Rhodey." Though the Cloak at least glanced over, it immediately turned back to the window. Tony shrugged. He'd tried, at least.

"Right," Rhodey drawled. One eyebrow remained raised in disbelief. "So who's the guy?"

Turning back to the window, Tony raised his fingers to the glass. They pressed lightly against it, like he could somehow reach through it to fix everything. "Stephen Strange. He and I were trapped together." At Rhodey's prompting gesture toward the Cloak, clearly hoping for more of an explanation for a sight that was far outside the normal realm of Iron Man and War Machine, he added, "He oversees a Sanctum that generates a magical shield around the planet."

"Seriously?" Rhodey chuckled, then turned to watch the doctors work. "All right, then."

Tony frowned at him but said nothing. A moment later another, larger figure took Tony's other side. "We are all glad to have you back, Stark," Thor said and clapped him on the shoulder. Though his other hand raised to repeat the motion with the Cloak, he seemed to think better of it and let that hand fall. "How did you return to Midgard?"

The steady thrum of the heart monitor was a balm to Tony's spirit. Adrenaline left him lightheaded as it departed. Stephen would be fine. He was with the doctors, some of the world's best medical equipment surrounded him, and his pulse was regular. Thanks to that, Tony felt no guilt in pointing at his recent companion and saying, "Totally his fault. We were going to have someone grab us, but Dumbledore over there decided that he needed to show off." God, it was a relief to be able to joke around. Stephen needed to wake up already to return the favor.

"Yes, he does that," Thor said very quietly, probably not intending to be heard.

Whatever Rhodey was going to say next, his somber mood chilled the hallway by ten degrees. "Tony."

Even as Tony turned from the window, he anticipated what was coming. Oh God. This was the confirmation he'd never wanted but had somehow known to expect. Ice gripped his spine and bile tasted sour. "She's gone." At the gentle sympathy he got in return, Tony blinked until the tears in his eyes spilled over, shook his head hard, and wiped away the moisture on his cheeks.

Pepper was gone. She'd lost the coin flip. Every fear he'd fought off on Titan was true. She was dead. Dead. Dead.

A tiny part of him had accepted this, but he'd still held out so much hope. One wracking sob surprised him with its violence, then another. Soon they were an irregular, gasping rhythm that made it hard to breathe. Thor's heavy hand rested on his shoulder as Tony sank to his knees, and squeezed him. It didn't help. Until the first wave of agony expelled itself like vomit, Tony could only ride it out. Three weeks of foolish optimism curdled like rotten milk inside him and demanded to be discharged.

Control eventually returned, though his throat and chest hurt by then, and Rhodey and Thor stayed silent until it did. He'd have to thank them for that later. As Tony smeared away lingering tears, a ruddy stain on the hoodie's soaked sleeve startled him. The sonic shower hadn't been able to take away all the blood that Tony had wiped clean after Stephen failed to portal Quill's ship. Through red, watery eyes, Tony studied that reminder of what had happened on Titan.

With a deep breath and gritted teeth, Tony forced his pain down into a tight, hot knot of purpose in his gut. They hadn't used Quill's ship because there was a plan. In that plan, they could save the people that Thanos had stolen. They could turn this back. Tony Stark just needed to figure out steps A, B, and C to fix this, and then he'd kiss Pepper again and let her know that he was all right.

They could fix this. He could fix this.

He would fix this.

"Call a meeting," Tony said a second later and stood. His voice was thick and rough. This wasn't a time for mourning. This was a time for fixing, he told himself, then looked through the windows to where the doctors worked. Everyone was getting fixed. Everyone.

(If he again acknowledged the fact that he needed to mourn Pepper Potts, he'd never stop crying. So he wouldn't start ever again, because all of this was temporary. Soon her heart would also beat, just like that monitor in the medical bay. He'd focus on that, instead.)

"You should probably get checked out, too," Rhodey said, gesturing to the doctors. "Tony, we've got this in hand for a day or two—"

"I've been checked out," Tony said impatiently. He'd been scanned more deeply than anything the Avengers could do. "Can you please call a meeting so that we can talk about bringing back half of the universe?" Rhodey and Thor looked at each other, too startled to speak, and Tony gestured pointedly down the hall. "Now's good, by the way." If he began working right away, then there'd be no time to mourn. Only to fix.

"I'll call a meeting," Rhodey said helplessly, shrugged at Thor, and walked toward the nearest communications panel.

"It's good to have you back, Stark," Thor said as they waited. "The entire world was sure you'd perished."

"Real close, but no cigar. Why'd you cut your hair?" Tony squinted. "And... get a colored contact?"

"My hair was cut against my will when I was enslaved and forced into gladiatorial matches for the pleasure of the Grandmaster. Upon returning to Asgard to face down my elder sister, she destroyed my eye. Ultimately, Asgard itself fell in order to stop her." Thor's good eye—and what was apparently a false one—looked down in sudden grief. "Hopefully, the fraction of my people that now remain have found somewhere to cling to safety. For now, my fight is here."

Tony hesitated. "We'll catch up later."

"Right." Thor clapped him on the shoulder once more, glanced through the medical window, and then gestured down the hall to where Rhodey was calling for that team meeting. "Any hope you can bring will be greatly appreciated."

As Thor turned, Tony called after him, "How's Earth doing?"

After considering his answer, Thor said gravely, "Even worse than you'd expect."

Exhaling, Tony turned back to the window. The Cloak had barely moved from its sentinel position—he doubted it'd fly in any direction other than "closer"—and Stephen was still as motionless as he'd been in that spacecraft. It was no wonder that the sight of him had terrified Tony, because he certainly looked dead. He wasn't, though; that heart monitor said otherwise. Pepper wasn't truly dead, either, even if it seemed like it for a very short while. "I'll be back," Tony promised Stephen. "Gotta go tell the Avengers about your big idea." With a grin that he almost meant, he thumped the glass and hurried for the conference room number now listed on his wrist display.

Noise surrounded him as soon as he turned a corner. He greeted people absently, barely noticing who he was seeing. The idea of Pepper actually dying in the ways he'd seen on Titan was too much to take and so Tony's brain skittered away from the image as soon as it emerged. Pepper was simply lost at the moment and Tony was going to find her. There was a fixable problem in front of him and Tony loved fixing problems. And after this meeting, he'd go back down to the medical bay to hear about how the doctors had fixed Stephen. He had a plan. He had a plan.

"Well, holy shit," announced a familiar voice as Tony stepped into the conference room. "Rhodey wasn't lying."

Smiling, Tony let Clint pull him into a hug. The memories of fighting against him in a Berlin airport seemed meaningless, now. The scale of the problem they now faced was like the intergalactic distance between Titan and Earth, while that battle had been human-sized. In comparison, it was utterly insignificant. "Didn't I hear something about house arrest?"

Clint's good mood shriveled. "I couldn't just wait around any more. Not when maybe... I could have..." Helped, he didn't say, and Tony wondered how many people on that farm still existed.

He'd known Bruce was fine, of course, but Tony pulled him in for a hug, anyway. Besides, Bruce couldn't complain about someone vanishing without warning. As he turned from his long-lost friend, another person pulled him into an embrace. "You do have blonde hair," Tony noted as he pulled back from Natasha. Her betrayal in Berlin didn't matter, either. Not in the face of her still being there to greet him. "I'm gonna need some time with this."

She laughed, but quickly sobered. "Steve's not—" At the startled look he gave her, Natasha softened her expression and continued, "At HQ. LA's the worst place in the country right now and they're trying to regain control. Are you two going to be able to handle...?"

"I'll be fine," Tony decided, and turned to let his gaze roam across the room. All of the original Avengers were there—with Steve in absentia—along with Rhodey and two faces that Tony didn't recognize. "So, who are you?" he asked a sharp-eyed blonde who was studying him.

"Janet Van Dyne." Now, that was a surprise. Hank Pym's long-lost wife had somehow returned? And she was part of core meetings? Tony opened his mouth to ask her the obvious, but she anticipated what was coming. "Hank's gone." Janet looked down. "And my daughter's gone."

"I'm sorry," Tony told her sincerely, though that sincerity was tempered by the knowledge that they could fix this. Janet's family could come back, and Clint's... and Pepper. It was all going to be fine and they just needed to fix things. That's what the Avengers did. It was time for the comeback. "And, uh, you are...?"

The dark-haired man next to Janet stared blankly back at Tony. "This is literally the third time you've met me."

Tony shrugged.

"Scott Lang."

Tony shrugged again, then turned to take a seat at the head of the table. "I have some universe-shaking news for everyone, so you all will want to sit down, too." As everyone else shot each other uncertain glances, Tony waited patiently for them to do as requested before he continued. "I've just come back from spending three weeks on Thanos' homeworld. Not a fun place. I wouldn't recommend it. And we got taken there," Tony added when he saw them getting too interested in all the wrong things, "because he wanted the Time Stone."

"Which he got," Natasha pointed out and sighed.

"Before that, though, we used it." Tony saw Bruce and Thor sitting up straighter, and smiled at them and everyone else. "Yeah. You interested?"

"I saw what he did with it," Bruce said blankly. "Turned back time. Are you telling me that you did that? Set up some sort of time loop that we could go back to?"

"No. This wasn't going backwards, this was going forward. This was looking at millions and millions of futures to see how we win against Thanos." From the reaction Tony got, he had their full attention, now. "Because there is a way, and if we make that victory path happen... we can save people."

"So what is it?" Clint asked. He sounded as stunned as everyone else looked.

"I... don't know," Tony admitted. Though that instantly deflated them, he loudly continued, "I'm not the one who used it, and the guy who did has been pretty tight-lipped about what needs to happen next. But the important things is that we are heading the right way." Gesturing in the direction of the medical wing, Tony continued, "He's been keeping me on track for weeks and kept confirming that things were proceeding like they need to." Boy, when Stephen woke up, Tony'd have to make a real effort to describe the expressions this story was earning. They were hilarious.

Rhodey's eyebrows crept upward. "You're telling me that we're pinning our hopes for an actual fix on some guy you met... yesterday, basically?"

Natasha studied a monitor embedded in the table in front of her, and Clint and Scott leaned over to inspect whatever camera she'd called up. It was in the medical bay, Tony saw when he half-rose from his chair. Although Stephen hadn't yet woken, the doctors were still working steadily rather than in a panic. "So, this is the guy who thinks he knows the way to win?" Nat's head tilted. "What is he wearing?"

Yes, it'd only been three weeks going by the calendar, but it felt like they'd spent years together on Titan. Why couldn't anyone understand that? Sighing, Tony looked to Bruce and Thor. Though he had no idea of the context, Thor had clearly met him before, and Bruce had seen a taste of what Stephen could do.

"If Strange says he knows something," Thor said after a moment of consideration, "we should take that under advisement."

Even with that, the team clearly needed more convincing. Though it took a while, Tony detailed their trip away from Earth on the Maw's ship, encountering other foes of Thanos, and the failed battle to protect the Time Stone. (As promised, Tony lied that it had been taken by force.) That led into a summary of the past three weeks on that alien world and as much of the trip to Earth as he could bring himself to describe. "Someone needs to go retrieve the ship we arrived in," Tony remembered at the end of it all. "There's important data in the computer."

"Important how?" Bruce wondered.

Tony shrugged. "When he wakes up, I'll make him tell me. Finally." God, he was going to have to yell at Stephen for making him worry like that. This day brought the inevitable news that Pepper was (dead) (gone) missing. Did Tony really have to go through that mystical horror show in their tiny lifeboat, too, just to twist the knife?

Though she now frowned down at old news reports of Tony's disappearance, Natasha slowly nodded. "Tony... did you hear about..."

His jaw set. "I know," Tony said in measured tones, "that Pepper is missing. That's why we need to get this done: to save people. Who's getting the ship from the field?"

"I'll grab it," Rhodey said with a weighty stare toward Natasha. As the others slipped sidelong looks between each other, too, Rhodey's voice gentled. "Hey, Tony. Why don't you take a couple of days to recover from everything you've just gone through, huh?" As Tony began to protest that he needed to start work on all that was wrong, Rhodey held up his hands and amended, "Then how about you go check on your guy in the infirmary? It sounds like he's got important intel and he could probably use some help in recovery."

God, they were all acting like he was delusional. Pepper was going to be fine. "I'll want to be there when Stephen wakes up," Tony agreed and stood. After two steps toward the door, he frowned and turned back. "Uh. Happy?"

Rhodey began to make that face again, and Tony held up his hands and stormed through the door as everyone else leaned in close to talk amongst themselves.

Pepper and Happy were going to be fine. Tony hadn't made it off a godforsaken rock halfway across the galaxy, and Stephen hadn't tortured himself in ways that still rung in Tony's ears, for everything not to be fine. This was fine. This was step A, and now Tony just needed to figure out steps B, C, and maybe Z until the universe reached that state of 'fine' once again.

And everything would be fine.

Shortly, Tony got an alert: Stephen had been moved to a private room. He smiled, looked pointedly back over his shoulder toward the conference room, and sped his pace. If anything was terribly wrong, then Stephen would be in surgery or the ICU, not in a recovery room. Everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine.

When he reached that room and opened its door, Tony saw the first thing at Avengers headquarters for which his overloaded mind had no possible explanation. "Excuse me," he said, absolutely blank. "Is this standard policy?"

With a jolt and then a deep blush, the doctor in the room stood up. "Sorry." When Tony had arrived, she'd been bent over to place a kiss on Stephen's forehead. "Sorry. I thought we were alone, and I... I know him. Are you really Tony Stark?"

If she was surprised to see the hero from countless news stories, it was nothing compared to what Tony felt at that moment. He, after all, was supposed to be at that facility. After a silent survey of her form, age, and demeanor, Tony asked in disbelief, "Christine?"

Startled, she put a hand to her chest, then glanced down as if to check for a name badge. Seeing none, she looked back up. "Yes, Christine Palmer. Do you... have we met?"

"Why are you here?" He knew he was being rude, but there was absolutely no reason for her to be at the facility, nor should she be kissing the man who'd said they hadn't been together for years. And why weren't Stephen's eyes open? This was a recovery room. The heartbeat monitor in this room was just as steady as before and his breathing was regular. "And no, we haven't met. He just talked about you."

That made her turn a soft, sad smile toward the man who still slept on a high-tech medical bed that Tony didn't recognize, and so he cleared his throat and added, "How is he?"

"Stable." Christine gestured toward readouts that seemed to give her some comfort. "Mostly. Pulse ox is ninety-one, so that's borderline. I considered putting him on oxygen but these beds seem to handle a lot of stabilization on their own. They're from Wakanda," she added when Tony looked confused. "They've shared a few with us. I'm still learning the ins and outs of the tech, but it's the reason he's doing so well... so to speak."

Wakanda? Tony had heard that they had secrets to share, but there was no way they had anything better than the best medical tech that the Avengers had to offer. Why in the hell had Christine gone with one of theirs instead of headquarters' normal technology? With an annoyed sigh, he raised his eyebrows pointedly and hoped that more explanations would be forthcoming.

"As for why I'm here," Christine continued, taking the hint, "after that day, your team put out a call for trained people who were familiar with... inexplicable things. It was hard to leave the city in crisis, but I realized that I might be able to help beyond Manhattan." Her gaze went distant. "When it happened, I had someone on the operating table. I felt my scalpel sink in like I'd pushed too hard. It was the worst thing I could possibly feel... until what happened next."

Yes, yes, he was sure it had been very traumatic to have her patient dissolve. Why wasn't she giving him the answers that mattered? Unwilling to wait any longer, Tony stepped forward and rested his hand on Stephen's cheek, like the man had done to him when he'd checked for any damage to his skull. It had to be the lingering memory of all that pain keeping him under, Tony decided. Those screams had been like nothing he'd ever heard. His subconscious was probably coming out of that agony slowly, like the fading throb from a burn. "So he needs time to recover," Tony guessed. He noticed that the Cloak had folded itself on a chair in the corner, and with a faint smile he nodded to it.

Christine said nothing for a long time, then also stepped forward. She stroked Stephen's shoulder lightly, where someone had changed him into the standard patient gown for the facility. Tony hated seeing that. It made him look as vulnerable as he had after the tube had gone into him. "Why I volunteered," she eventually continued, "was not because of that operation. I've had two patients that did not behave like they were supposed to. Like anyone is supposed to. They were hooked up to take readings, and I saw those readings as..."

Her hand tightened on Stephen's shoulder. With a jolt of dismay, Tony realized that tears were in her eyes. Her cheeks had gone red and splotchy. "I know just what it looks like when he's not in his body."

Not in his body.

Sudden, sick suspicion filled Tony and he took a shaky step backward. The mantra he'd clung to during the conference began to wobble like a spinning top that was ready to fall over. Fix things fix things fix... things... fix... fix... fine... fine... fine...

"So I did what I could for his body in the meantime," Christine continued. "I thought he'd show up again, but he hasn't. And I don't know what to do. I just... it sounds like you came in with him, so do you have any idea where he is?"

I may have understated the danger of moving me away from an active anchor.

"Oh, God," Tony wheezed through a constricted throat. Panic made his heart stumble in his chest and it felt like he'd trip over his own feet if he tried to move further. "Oh, God." If he was right, this was a problem for which Tony Stark had no plan of attack. No answer. Nothing. Nothing.

Stephen's body was fine where it rested on Earth. It wasn't injured, was apparently stable, and didn't have the doctors immediately worried. A person wasn't their body, though; that was just a shell for who they really were. When Stephen had been injured in their early days on Titan, he'd left that body behind. As his astral form chatted with Tony, it'd been easy to see that his spirit was what mattered, not the injured body he'd left idle on a bed.

I may have understated the danger of moving me away from an active anchor.

"Mr. Stark?" Christine tried again when he said nothing, feeling dizziness burrow into his brain like termites. "Do you have any idea where Stephen could be?"

I may have understated the danger of moving me away from an active anchor.

When Tony's knees gave out, it took him a second to realize that he hadn't hit the ground. The Cloak deposited him on the nearest chair, then flew back to where it had been resting and curled up like a loyal dog waiting for its owner.

You're going to be waiting for a long time, Tony thought and slowly turned to look at the ceiling. Above them were several floors of facility spaces. Above that, a planetary atmosphere. Beyond that, a solar system. Beyond that, one spiral arm of the Milky Way. And beyond that, in some hostile corner of the galaxy, was Titan. A dead, cold planet in a dead, cold system, with absolutely no one left alive. They'd been light years away from any friendly race, and then the only two slivers of life had left that terrible place behind.

No wonder Stephen's body hadn't woken up.

His spirit was that far away.

Chapter Text

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

As Tony sat and stared blankly at the infirmary wall, his childhood belief in Clarke's adage withered. He'd designed some of the most advanced technology that humanity had ever seen, yet had been forced to confront the fact that his systems couldn't process half of the recordings taken on Titan. He'd thought himself confident in all areas of science only to discover that magic played by its own rules.

It'd been confusing enough to simply measure when the anchors—the fucking anchors—had become more or less powerful as their rings moved. If he could barely do that, then how was he supposed to retrieve one lost spirit from across the galaxy?

"Mr. Stark?" Christine hesitantly repeated.

Tony's eyes closed. While speaking his name, her voice became someone else's: someone who'd blown away three weeks ago. "Tony. Call me Tony." If they couldn't fix this, then could they really fix everything else? Everyone else? His sure foundation suddenly seemed more like a Jenga tower.

"Tony. Do you know where he is?"

Of course he did, but Tony didn't reply.

Christine paused. The red splotches on her cheeks fell away and she took a step closer. "The news talked about how you went into space on that big ring thing. A fight happened right around NYU. That was on the news, too, and Washington Square aliens were all over social media. So I called him to see if..." She seemed to be the type who tried to cover pain with a bright disposition, Tony noted as her fake smile slid on and off. "He didn't pick up. Ever. So you disappeared on that ship at the same time that he vanished, and it was flying right over Stephen's house, and now you're back with him and I think you know exactly where he is."

Shit. Why are you here? Tony wondered again as he began calling up data. He wasn't accountable to this woman, yet it felt like she was blaming him for a crisis that Tony'd had no part in making. Silently he fed coordinates into a wall computer, then gestured at the monitor as it showed the star maps he'd provided to Bruce and Selvig.

They hadn't gone entirely across the galaxy, apparently. Just a third of it.

"What?" Christine whispered after studying that. "But..." No other words came until she turned and stared at the bed again. Then, she only managed a weak, "How?"

Tony didn't have that answer.

Neither of them spoke for a while, and Christine was the one to break the silence again. "You know," she slowly began, "it's funny. You think you have this totally normal life. You get the job you wanted, you decide to give someone at work a chance, and for a while, things are fun. They work. Then, maybe they work better if you're not actually dating, but your life is still good."

As she continued, her voice grew increasingly strained. "And then, everything explodes and he disappears. Suddenly, he's in what you still kinda think might be a cult but he can do things that no one should be able to do. It used to be a big deal when you scored same-day Per Se reservations, but that turned into magical fights and portals opening up in your hospital. And now, my ex has shown up with his spirit missing halfway across the galaxy." Christine's dazed eyes turned to him. "And with Iron Man."

Yeah, well, I had to watch it happen, Tony's mind protested. He hated being seen as an outsider to all of this. The intensity of that reaction surprised him.

"I just." She let out a short, sharp breath. "Sorry. Could you...?"

She wanted him to leave. No, Tony thought in a panicked surge. No. Stephen was in danger, and so he had to help, because there was no one... else...

Oh. Right.

They were on Earth. There were lots of people who could help, one of those helpers had known Stephen for years compared to Tony's weeks, and Tony didn't have any idea what to do now, anyway. The certainty that he would be able to fix anything at all crumbled further. For the first time in weeks, Tony felt completely without direction. "Sorry," he said blankly, stood, and walked to the door. Before he left, Tony turned to watch Christine return to her spot at Stephen's side and gently touch his cheek, right where Tony had.

Just like when their ship had appeared over Earth, Tony didn't have words for whatever dark things he was feeling. Gonna take a day off, after all, he messaged Rhodey as he walked blindly down the hall. With this hollow mood, it wasn't like he'd much good to anyone.

Though he often preferred to stay at his other properties around the world, Tony had quarters at HQ, just like everyone on the team. That room was spotlessly clean. The king-sized bed's linens were so crisp that they looked freshly ironed, the curtains were pulled to showcase the brilliant sun outside, and music began to softly play as soon as he stepped through the door. With leaden feet, Tony walked further in. Pictures of him and Pepper were framed on the wall, as was a copy of their engagement announcement in the Times.

Turning from that sight, Tony sighed, closed his eyes, and shook his head. He needed to read up on the situation. That could be step one, at least.

Wanda was dead. Tony still felt vaguely guilty over her, even after all these years, and a more pragmatic part of him added that they'd lost one of their biggest guns. Considering that, Tony brought up a name whose fate seemed obvious and nodded sadly at the confirmation that Vision had perished. The picture on the second page, with his skull caved in where the Mind Stone had been plucked free, turned Tony's stomach.

Sam Wilson. Damn. Even if he'd been another Accords betrayal, Sam was easier to like than almost anyone on the team and Rhodey had long forgiven him for the assistive walker he now used. King T'Challa, Tony read next, and frowned at recalling how that medical bed had come from Wakanda. Something tickled his memory and Tony flicked back to the page with Vision's photo that he'd so quickly moved past. Wakanda was referenced again; Vision's body was there in Africa, rather than at HQ. Why?

Nick Fury and Maria Hill. Shit. James Barn—

Tony's head spun. He blinked hard, then tried reading that name again.

James Barnes. James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. Dead.

With a long exhalation of stress he'd been carrying for years, Tony sat back in his chair. Was he supposed to be pleased about that? No, he knew in a second. Every last name that Tony saw was the exact opposite of satisfying, because this was never how things should have happened. There wasn't a single name on Thanos' kill list that he wanted to see, including that one. That list should be empty.

After another second of hesitation, Tony brought up the mission overview for Los Angeles.

Not only was Steve Rogers captaining this mission, Tony soon learned, but he'd been serving as co-leader of the Avengers with Rhodey. That made sense, he reluctantly admitted. Two halves of a broken team, reunited to offer hope to the world. Rhodey was a stable rock who could work inside whatever formal systems remained, while a returned Captain America would be the biggest symbol on which the world could draw.

Going by the reported state of Los Angeles, the world needed all the help it could get. Each line about his old hometown further darkened Tony's mood. They'd lost half their population at a stroke, of course. While it would be bad for any city to lose half of their support personnel, it'd been especially bad timing for LA, just as the weather headed into summer. Thermostats had kept air conditioners running in empty buildings. When circuits overloaded (as they always did), there weren't enough line workers left to fix the sprawling city's infrastructure. Sparks erupted onto hillsides that were always summer tinderboxes and half of the remaining firefighters weren't enough to make a dent in the spreading flames.

Then, just to make things worse, the power struggles began. The city was far less centralized than New York, and so every faction with their eye on a prize was able to stake out amorphous, shifting boundaries with plenty of room to hide. If the remaining police came their way, they moved; if the blowing embers seized a block or two, they claimed more room elsewhere.

For anyone, reading this would be hellish. For Tony, it was worse.

According to Stephen, most of the people who'd previously fallen to Thanos could be saved. People who died after he used the Stones, though, were gone for good. Even if half of Los Angeles could be brought back, the million plus who'd died since then were truly dead.

"You knew it could kill you for good," Tony whispered without meaning to, and was surprised by the anger in his quiet voice, "and you still did it. And you made me watch."

He needed to stop reading about people dying.

Along with Rogers, Sharon Carter and someone named Nakia were heading up the LA mission. It was good that some parts of S.H.I.E.L.D. still functioned, Tony thought, and idly looked up who was left in charge by this point: Mackenzie. Whatever.

As he roamed through databases that reported who was doing what, Tony's head tilted at a section listing "Research Teams." They didn't seem distinct, nor well-labeled. One team had Thor with "Danvers" and "Rocket" (again, whatever). A second enormous list had him with Bruce, Selvig, Wong, Van Dyne, Lang, "Foster," and "Shuri," while a third had him only with Wong, Bruce, and Van Dyne. A fourth team was Bruce, Shuri again, and...

Tony turned away from his computer when he saw Christine's name. God, why was he reacting like this?

After verifying that he remembered who Jane Foster might be, and that Shuri was that tech genius of T'Challa's that he'd heard a bit about, Tony decided that he needed to find something else to do. His brain was not firing well enough to figure out what those different teams might be researching, nor how he could contribute to any of them. "Food," he announced and stepped further away from the screen. "I should eat."

Friday had apparently been cued back into awareness when he entered his quarters. This time, he let her soothing voice play. "Would you like me to request something from the café, boss? It's still mostly functional."

"Mostly?" he echoed, then shook his head. "No. I need to get out of this room." As Friday murmured agreement, Tony walked with great determination through the door, neither looking at pictures of Pepper nor thinking about Christine. After a few steps, he fished for an excuse not to meet people's eyes. Aha, he thought as his hand closed on something he'd jammed in there an hour earlier. The spacesuit disc would serve as a perfect interruption.

"Where'd you get that?" he heard after a minute of walking, when he was in a hub area between the personnel quarters and research bays.

Blinking and coming to a stop, Tony peered around for whoever had spoken.

"Down here, jackass."

Tony looked down and took a very long moment to process what he saw there. "A raccoon's in a flight suit. Sure."

It snorted and folded its front legs. (Arms?) "You people are obsessed with your damn 'raccoons.'" Why did the raccoon sound like a Teamster? "The name's Rocket, I ain't no raccoon, and I wanna know exactly where you got that spacesuit you're toting around."

Rocket recognized this device, Tony realized with a sinking sensation. From their short discussion about the journey he'd undertaken, Thor hadn't left from Quill's ship alone. Though there was no reason for this specific memory to have lingered, it bubbled up like swamp gas as he handed over the metallic disc. "Spacesuits for emergency," Tony sadly recited, "or for fun."

The repetition of what he'd seen written on the wall of Quill's ship nearly made Rocket drop what he was holding. Fear entered his eyes as he asked, "Are... they...?" After Tony silently shook his head, Rocket's fear was replaced by sudden tears. "Yeah. Well." One paw swiped at his face. "I was working on my own here, anyway. Got a whole system going. Wouldn't want to ruin it."

"I'm sorry." As Rocket turned to leave, still clutching the disc, Tony remembered something and called after him, "I got the video logs from Quill's ship. If... if you want to see them."

"Sure." Rocket plodded away without looking up. His attention was entirely on the disc he clutched in his paws. "Whatever."

Oh God, he really couldn't take any more of this. Tony raked his hands through his hair, exhaled, and continued to the facility cafeteria. As soon as he looked at the menu, which normally had a daily variety of dishes programmed for preparation, any lingering thoughts of pizza for his welcome-back meal fled.

"What in the hell," Tony wondered as he studied the options: cornbread and chili, corn chowder, black bean vegetable soup (heavy on the corn), and flavored popcorn. No one seemed to think anything of it as they chose their meals, and so he also stepped forward. With a blank expression through the entire process, he accepted a bowl of chowder, a side order of sweet chili popcorn, and found an open table in a quiet corner. There were a lot of quiet corners, he thought, and almost lost his appetite when he realized why that was.

"So," Natasha guessed as she took a seat across from him without asking, "you're probably wondering about the corn."

"Little bit, yeah."

"Government subsidies," Clint explained as he took the seat next to her, "mean that some farmers might get paid to destroy their crops to avoid flooding the market. A whole lot of dried corn was still in silos from last year. Washington decided that it would be a bad idea to destroy harvests after half the farmers vanished, and so that food's being released while things steady out."

"Good explanation, Farm Boy," Natasha said, and stole some of Tony's popcorn as he mechanically retrieved spoonfuls of chowder. "Last week, it was mostly oats coming in. I can deal with corn."

Los Angeles on perpetual fire, a lack of farmers to grow food... these weren't the issues Tony had worried about while he was trapped across the galaxy. As twisted as it was to realize, things had been comparatively simple on Titan. "So, I'm guessing it's going to be more corn on the menu tonight?"

"And tomorrow, and probably a week from now," Natasha confirmed, stole more of his popcorn, and licked the flavoring off her fingers. "Clint and I are about to head north. There's an 'interesting' base in Canada that lost its security guards and it sounds like some hostiles have figured that out. They've requested aid. You wanna go stomp some bad guys?"

"It always helps her," Clint noted, then added, "and me."

When Tony said nothing, Natasha laid her hand gently on his. "The Avengers can't stop everything going on. Hell, we can barely put out a few fires here and there. But when people see us trying, it keeps up morale. The world knowing that you're still alive would be awfully good for that."

"Soon," Tony decided after a moment of consideration. "I wouldn't be good for anything right now." That was more than he'd meant to admit, and so he shoveled in another spoonful of chowder to shut himself up.

Thankfully, Natasha gave up on the pep talk. "Okay. Probably a smart idea. You should get some sleep, Tony. You look like hell."

"Thanks," he called dryly after them as they walked in the direction of the flight pads.

Yes, he should get some sleep. He felt more exhausted than he had any right to be after only a few hours awake. While lost in this brain fog, he couldn't handle thinking about a broken world, that framed announcement on his wall, or the screams that still echoed in his memories. This was not how his return to Earth was supposed to go. "Shit," Tony realized as he slid his tray into the slot on the wall. "Shit."

If he did take that nap, he'd lost his reliable method to avoid bad dreams. Worse, the man who'd done that for him would now be his most likely source of nightmares.

He really didn't want to see her again, but Tony needed a doctor who was familiar with brains and wouldn't ask questions about why he wanted this. Sighing, he typed a message to Christine and began walking toward the infirmary. "Thanks," he muttered as he accepted the sleeping drugs she'd pulled for him. "I just need two-hour bursts, with no dreams."

Her head shook. "I can't promise a lack of dreams," Christine corrected. "The neurological functions there are complex. Any effort to specifically suppress dreaming is going to risk being either inefficient or oppressive, and I refuse to be the doctor who accidentally put Tony Stark into a two-day coma."

He managed to block my dreams just fine, Tony thought sulkily.

"What I can do," she continued, "if this sounds worthwhile, is to reliably induce a light sleep state and then apply an amnesiac effect after awakening. So yes, you may have nightmares in the meantime, but they're unlikely to wake you."

"And I won't remember them once I'm up," Tony finished. "Sure, thanks. Uh. How is...?"

"No change." Christine looked away. She hadn't met his eyes once since he came in, Tony realized. On some level, she probably blamed him for what had happened. Or at least, she associated him with Stephen's suffering. "You should probably take a dose now, if you're hoping to get back onto a normal sleeping schedule."

Tony could take a hint and had absolutely no remaining ability to put up a fight. After raising his prescription bottle like a champagne flute to toast her, he began the journey back to his room. HQ seemed so quiet as he traveled its halls. As he approached his door, Tony looked further down the silent hallway. Around two more corners was Wanda's room. His own room had been kept tidy even though his fate was uncertain. Did the cleaning robots bother to dust hers?

"Bottoms up," he soon murmured as he poured a liquid dose and threw it back like a shot. There was a kick as it went down; Nyquil had nothing on this. Suddenly wary of how much time he had before that burning sensation in his stomach numbed his brain, Tony quickly stripped down to his boxers, told the curtains to close, and slipped into bed.

The mattress was comfortable like he hadn't felt in weeks. Everything in this room had been designed for human physiology, not alien. Friends were accessible at the push of an intercom. Later, he'd be able to walk outside without worrying about radiation. He was back where he should be, in his old life, ready to help save the world.

As cotton began to wrap his brain, though, all Tony felt was lonely. He hated being alone as he drifted off. It felt wrong to not have someone in the next bed... on the other half of the bed... one bed over... same bed...

That was weird, his brain blearily processed as it began a slow short-circuit. It was like two ideas were happening at once. Like they were fighting. As the drugs took him, the last confused fragments of thought slipped through numb fingers and were forgotten.

"Shit," Tony said a few minutes later, in his unfortunately lucid dream. Around him was Titan wrapped in deep, silent darkness. It was the night, he remembered, when they'd stopped outside to study the stars. Everything had been so peaceful, then.

The peacefulness of that night didn't last. Anger erupted nearly as soon as he recognized where he stood. "You wanna be like those people in LA, huh?" Tony demanded at the open sky, where diamond bands of brilliance still sparkled. "Wanna be dead forever? Fuck you." The snarl felt good as it left him. "You asked me if I'd trade my life for the universe, and you knew exactly what you were planning to do. Every single minute we talked, you were lying about what your plan was. Well, fuck you," Tony shouted. His voice echoed off distant rocks. Each new word was colored by more fury. "Fuck you, you piece of absolute, conceited, holier-than-thou horseshit and that act you played on me."

He was in his Iron Man armor, Tony realized. He was ready for a fight.

"Fuck you!" he screamed into his helmet and sent a volley of missiles at the landscape he'd so grown to hate. Explosions were bright gold and white against the purple night. "Fuck you!" It was beyond satisfying to watch another series of explosions rip open the remnants of the Maw's ship. "Fuck!" Missiles went anywhere, now. "You!"

With a heavy head and sinking shoulders, Tony lowered his palm blaster. Its energy died. A second later, his helmet vanished. "Fuck you for making me care," Tony whispered, then sank to the rocky ground.

He sat like that for a while. Even with Titan's speedy rotation, nothing changed in the sky overhead. His nightmare of choice was probably to be trapped in this one moment, alone. Maybe he'd get some variety after a few nights of this, he thought as he leaned back against the dirt and studied the stars. Other terrible things had a few weeks of acceptance, or at least he'd known to suspect the worst. The portal to Earth was a fresh, gaping wound in comparison.

Tony eventually sighed and let the rest of his armor vanish. How long until the drugs wore off? He already wanted to wake up.

A second later, he barely rolled away in time. The spot he'd vacated exploded from some unexpected attack. "The hell?" Tony wondered as he again summoned his armor, feeling it appear more quickly than it could in real life. Lucid dreams were usually better about making sense, and he should be alone if this dream was on Titan.

No. Wait. Not alone.

Shit.

On a rocky outcropping stood Stephen, and though he was difficult to make out in the darkness, the glow around his hands was clear. That illumination was just enough to see the expression on his face: no warmth whatsoever, and no concern for the man in front of him. One hand darted forward, sending out a jet of golden energy, and Tony dodged again as it pulverized a pile of rocks into dust.

"Okay, you're not pulling any punches," Tony noted as he took to the air.

As he didn't want to strike in return, he could only dodge. For some stupid reason his subconscious had apparently decided that Stephen was furious with him, because the man attacked with an intensity that he hadn't even used against Thanos. In that fight, it'd been a carefully chosen array of spells meant not only to damage, but also to confuse, bind, and defend. These, on the other hand, were like blasts from Tony's armor: nothing but destruction.

"I thought you didn't want to kill people," Tony pointed out, like it could correct his dream's mistake. His internal logic didn't pay attention.

This dream version of Stephen didn't have the Cloak on, and so after one spell too many nearly caught Tony, he relented and flew higher into Titan's atmosphere. Once he seemed to be outside of any attack range, Tony stopped and sighed. This was really what his subconscious was doing to him, huh? After being tricked by Stephen, bound against his will, and forced to watch some sort of spiritual suicide, he felt guilty enough to imagine Stephen attacking him?

"Because I didn't save you," Tony realized a second later, "and now I don't know how to." No wonder that nightmare thing with Stephen's face on it looked so remorseless as it attacked. "I'm sorry. God, I'm sorry, okay? I'm—"

Deep in his apology, he didn't notice an energy tendril slithering through a portal over his head. Though warning klaxons sounded inside his helmet, it was too late to dodge. As soon as they emerged on Titan's surface, the tendril slammed Tony into one pile of rocks, then another. As he was whipped around, thud after painful thud, Tony was just able to make out Stephen directing the attack with a few deliberate flicks of his hands. There were openings to stop him. Tony didn't take those shots.

It took two minutes more of being slammed around the landscape until Tony woke up. When he did, a screaming headache pounded. "Ow," Tony whimpered as he rolled onto his side. As promised, he couldn't remember exactly what had happened while he'd slept, but he doubted he'd downed the three bottles of tequila that would explain this hangover.

"Well, that didn't help," he groaned after trying and failing to sit up.

In his pain, it somehow seemed logical that Christine had made a bad choice about which drug to pull for him. Tony called forth his sensors, tiredly scanned his head, and sent that data down to medical. Hopefully, she'd be able to see whatever was going on inside his brain and make a better decision about which prescription to use.

By then, he was able to rise. Tony stumbled into the shower, barely able to appreciate the hot water he'd missed on Titan. It helped to clear his head, at least, even if he decided against tidying three weeks' worth of dense stubble just yet. "What is that smell?" he soon wondered as he studied his drawn face in the foggy mirror.

"Yuzu and ylang ylang essential oils," Friday explained. "Your cortisol levels are elevated and showers are an excellent time for aromatherapy."

Had he really been on an alien world just twenty-four hours ago? The full Earth experience was dizzying after Titan's simplicity. If he was going regain any sense of balance at all, there was only one thing left for Tony to try. After grabbing fresh clothes and tousling his damp hair, Tony headed out of his room and straight for his workshop. "Lock doors," he instructed as he settled in front of a familiar workbench. "Level one override required."

For hours of blissful silence, all he had to deal with were messages answered at his leisure. Rhodey wanted to know how he was doing: fine. Christine wanted him to come in for deeper scans: tomorrow. Bruce wanted to catch him up on the research teams: in a few days. It had become blatantly obvious that Tony Stark was not yet ready to come back to work, and he needed to do his own personal kind of therapy until that happened.

"Dunno why," Tony muttered as he stared at the readouts for his latest suit model, "but I want to increase the efficiency of my warning signals."

It was nearly midnight by the time he pushed back from his bench. A plate of cornbread still lingered and Tony grabbed those last few bites as he studied the work he'd performed. It was a small improvement, but he could now allow for automatic protective movement if proximity alerts sounded without prior at-range activation. In other words, if something surprised him, his suit could jerk away on its own.

It wasn't a bad idea, Tony thought as he studied the lines of code readout. He wouldn't want his suit to move automatically for him in most situations, when he'd seen what was coming and could plan his own response. In nearly any fight, he would get the needed warning that a missile was approaching or three hostiles were about to round a corner. If someone figured out how to teleport in right next to him, though, his suit would move him out of harm's way. The functionality definitely had its uses.

He just wasn't sure why he'd thought of it.

"I don't trust you," he told the bottle of sleeping medication as he returned to his room. "My headache's gone by now and I don't want another one."

A cleaning bot had made his bed again in his absence. The linens smelled of fresh cotton. He was actually able to feel soft sheets on top of him instead of clothes stolen from a dead man. His curtains rolled slowly open when cued, meaning that he could see a quiet, cloudless night instead of the unchanging ceiling of an alien dormitory.

Focusing on all of those sensations didn't help. Like earlier, Tony still felt a crushing loneliness overtake him. It mattered far more than anything his senses told him.

This time, though, he had something else to fight for his attention: the computer code he'd spent hours refining. As his eyes studied the stars beyond his window, his mind sorted through lines of commands, seeking places for further refinement. Work was his one reliable comfort and this was apparently the only work he could handle. Line by sleepy line, he sought weak spots where he could develop his next release version of the suit's operating system.

It held his attention enough to distract him from his misery. As Tony's eyes fluttered closed, the last thing they saw were the stars beyond his window.

"I was here earlier," Tony slowly realized minutes later as he studied the stars on Titan. "That was my dream. I'm dreaming again. And—"

Just in time, he summoned his suit and bolted into the sky. "Why?" he demanded of the silent man on the planet's surface after dodging a few more golden bursts of energy. "Seriously, why? What's your game plan, here? Beat me into submission until I apologize for what you did?"

As he spoke, his suit jerked to the right. Startled, Tony looked to his left and saw an energy tendril emerging from a portal.

It was good that he'd been inspired in the workshop, because Stephen promptly sent out a dozen more portals in rapid succession. Tony's armor pinballed him through the sky to avoid them. Although it saved him from another session of being slammed into the ground by a tendril, it was disorienting as hell. "Fine," he allowed in the suit's harsh mechanical voice, then cut his flight jets. "Let's do this up close."

A red band of energy wrapped his ankle as soon as he landed. "Pressure warning," his system soon said and tossed up a display of his left leg's plating. It was already warped. In a few seconds, it'd probably compress enough to start crushing the body inside.

Better move fast, then. Electricity poured from Tony's left hand, coursed through the lava-like bond that held him, and shot through Stephen. He cried out, though he still didn't form any words, and let that red energy lash vanish a second later. With a wary stare that never left Tony, Stephen took a few steps back. It still seemed like he was staring at a stranger.

Silence reigned between them. Even when they'd first bickered, they'd never actually fought, and so Tony couldn't understand what was happening now. There were no memories to prompt this. If this was his subconscious feeling guilty, hearing those screams again would be a far more effective punishment than throwing him into a fight. What lesson should he be taking from this: the two of them, alone in absolute darkness, caught in an endless and pointless battle?

Wait. Tony shook his head as the display sent up an alert, fizzled, then resolved without displaying anything. What was it trying to show him? It couldn't process whatever it was reading. "Dismiss helmet," Tony decided, hoping he wouldn't take an immediate bolt of magic to the face for his trouble.

The two of them, Tony repeated to himself as soon as his eyes adjusted, were alone in Titan's deep night. Since Stephen's hands had gone dark, only the stars and Tony's chest unit were putting off any light. Because of that, he could see glimmers of tiny golden filaments floating on a non-existent breeze, glimmering like cobwebs in sunlight.

He still hadn't heard a single word from Stephen, nor seen a flicker of recognition, but a lump filled Tony's throat. This suddenly didn't feel like the imagery chosen for a nightmare. The last thing Tony remembered before the portal were those chains shattering. "Stephen?"

Stephen raised his hands when Tony moved a step closer. Golden energy surrounded them once more, and filaments vanished in the sudden glow.

It was him. Tony had no idea how, nor why Stephen seemed like he was seeing a stranger, but it was him. It had to be.

"I don't know what's happening," Tony said in soothing, steady tones as he took another step, "but we're going to fix this, okay?" Being in his armor wasn't the right move, he decided, and dismissed the rest of it with a thought. "Do you know who I am?" he tried and slowly extended a hand.

One more step was apparently too close. Sudden panic filled Stephen's eyes and a stream of light leapt from him. As the attack impacted his exposed body, Tony's awareness evaporated into unbroken gold, then nothing.

"Ow," Tony said again as he woke, then clutched his head. He'd apparently been asleep for longer than it had seemed inside the dream, as all but a few bright star specks had vanished as day approached. Birds were barely audible through the room's thick glass. "Ow. What was..."

With confusion, he broke off to wipe at the strange, warm feeling running down his face. It was difficult to make out in the dim room, but it looked like his hand was darker. Cautiously, he ran the tip of his tongue across his lips and spat after tasting copper. Yes: his nose was bleeding, and rather profusely at that.

Right after...

"Right after I took a spell to the head," Tony murmured. His pulse sped, and although he was still dizzy, he teetered out of bed and into his bathroom. The sight of the crimson trails running over his mouth and chin made his heart pound even harder. Though he didn't know what had just happened, it had actually happened. That was no simple dream.

"I'll take that brain scan as soon as you're up," Tony typed in a fresh reply to Christine, then reached for a washcloth and wiped away the blood. She wouldn't see that message for a while, yet, Tony realized, and opened the drawer with his razors. It was difficult to keep his hand steady, but he dutifully worked on once again looking like Tony Stark, Iron Man, Avenger.

Finally, he had some direction.

Chapter Text

"Your chart says that this comes off?" Christine asked the next morning and gestured to the nano housing on Tony's chest. As promised, he'd returned to the medical bay and was ready for the scans she'd requested. With a night's sleep behind them, both of them seemed in better sorts than they had the day before.

"It sure does." Tony applied pressure in the right spot, grimacing faintly as it also pressed on his sternum, and then exhaled as the compartment loosened for removal. Through the lab window, he saw the hulking white form of a MRI machine. He'd soon be inside it.

She accepted the nano compartment when offered. "And you're positive that the seating in your chest is non-magnetic?"

"It used to have some steel. But I've replaced it with a carbon allotrope that's sturdier and completely non-reactive. I'm good to go."

Soon, Christine helped Tony adjust his position on the flat loading bed onto which he'd arranged himself. Staring at the infirmary ceiling like that, he could just make out the looming maw into which he'd disappear.

For years, he'd needed to avoid MRIs even when they would have been the best diagnostic tool available. The magnetic fields used in the scan would have wreaked havoc on the old reactor mount in his chest and—more dangerously—on the shrapnel. Afterward, he'd gotten used to his own scans in place of regular physicals and so had avoided doctors for anything but emergency patch-ups.

Steering clear of doctors like that was probably why he'd had no idea about the pre-malignant cells clustered around his old reactor site. It made sense to let Christine work with the tools she preferred.

Oh, he didn't like this, Tony soon decided as he was slowly inserted into the MRI tube. Iron Man and claustrophobia didn't exactly go hand-in-hand, but the suit was precisely molded to fit his body and its display told him what he wanted to know. Inside this white compartment, he felt like he was in some alien cocoon and the oppressively blank surroundings were interrupted only by intense spots of light.

"It's going to activate, soon," he heard Christine say. Her voice was muffled. "It'll sound kind of like a washing machine mixed with a lot of beeping."

It sure did. As ordered, Tony focused on keeping himself absolutely still as the machine imaged him. Not only was the process loud, but it seemed to be taking forever. He found himself returning to visualizing lines of code simply to pass the time. There had to be more efficient methods to do a deep scan of someone's head. Maybe Stark really did need to add a medical technology division.

"That is not speedy," Tony noted after he'd been retracted from the machine.

Thankfully, their dynamic still seemed to be improved from their first encounter. Though Christine avoided his eyes again, it was for a different reason than subconsciously blaming him for Stephen's comatose state. "Well, it does take a while to conduct a full-body scan."

That explained the duration, but it wasn't what he'd agreed to. Tony's eyebrow raised. "You said you wanted to look at my brain."

"You've been on an alien planet for three weeks," Christine retorted, "and I'm the first person at this facility to decide whether you have a clean bill of health. I'm looking at everything." Despite the bright mood he suspected was her typical state, she didn't easily back down. She was a bit like Pepper in that way, Tony supposed, and immediately thought about anything else.

"Fair enough," Tony allowed as he adjusted the t-shirt that had ridden up during his scan, "but I thought you were a neurosurgeon."

"Dual board certified," Christine corrected as she brought up the first of his results. It did seem to be an excellent scanner; they had far greater detail than the MRI output Tony was used to seeing in movies. "Neurology and emergency medicine. I actually work in the ER. It means that the hot shots who never look at anything but brains think they know better than me, but I'm... well..."

Something seemed to be wrong and it didn't appear to have anything to do with his scans. "What's up?" Tony wondered. With some hope restored to him about Stephen's fate, he didn't feel any urge to rush out of her office. (Besides, Stephen had come to him, not her. Not that it mattered, so long as everything was fixed, but it did make Tony feel better.)

"I was just going to point out," Christine continued, sounding a little embarrassed, "that I was hired because of your friend Bruce Banner. And you. It's weird to be having this conversation."

"Bruce?" Tony repeated, befuddled. "Me?"

"When my job listing went up, there were already neuro specialists at Metro. Everyone was a research god in their very specific area. But with mass casualty events starting to occur in Harlem... Queens... well..." Christine trailed off, then continued in apologetic tones, "They decided they needed someone who was trained to help if concrete fell off the side of a building and landed on civilian heads fifteen stories below."

That didn't sound like a random example, Tony thought, and flashed uncomfortably back to how the Hulk had gleefully bounded between skyscrapers during the Battle of New York. To how he'd led alien invaders on twisting, dangerous paths that wove through Manhattan's towers. To thirty-hour stretches in the operating room. Wanting to return their conversation to the person who'd prompted it in the first place, Tony said, "I'm pretty sure I've been able to reach out to Stephen's spirit."

With huge eyes, Christine spun away from Tony's readouts as they finished populating the screen. "Seriously?"

"Pretty sure, yeah. I talked to him last night and I realized that I'd done the same thing in that nap you let me take earlier. He was not happy to see me, for some reason," Tony allowed, "but I'm going to figure that part out next."

Christine's joy faltered and she turned her full attention back to the results of the MRI. Her mood darkened with each new screen that she studied. "Tell me what happened during those dreams."

Her Doctor Voice had come back into play, and so Tony surmised that she was interested only in injuries. "He wanted to fight, for some reason. I took a spell to the face and got thrown around a little. Why?"

"When you sent me those initial scans yesterday," Christine murmured as she ran her fingertips over the monitor, "I was concerned about shadowing on the temporal lobe. With this full workup, I'm able to confirm some minor damage specifically to the parahippocampal gyrus." Her fingers gestured at a tiny area of Tony's brain that looked like one more blob nestled among a cloudy patchwork of white and dark grey, but it apparently meant something to her.

"Meaning?"

"When activated, it's primarily used for memory encoding and retrieval of environmental stimulus. That's where you'd recognize a landscape that you'd been in before, for example." Her fingertips moved out to circle a broader area of his scans. "The temporal lobe in general is key for all memories, but also processes emotions. It's a little odd to see that extremely specific damage."

So, the most relevant part of his brain was one that activated emotional memories about a specific landscape? "You might be surprised at how not-odd that is," Tony said. "What should I do next? I'll try to help Stephen the next time I see him, but he'll probably try to hit me again. How bad could this get if he sneaks a few more spells through?"

Christine said nothing for a long time. Her earlier excitement had settled into something very tired. "Something happened to cause you mild brain damage. If it develops further, that damage can result in recurring delusions. I have to figure out how to avoid that. We may have to try one of those stronger options to potentially suppress dreaming. Tony," she said when he began to protest, "you are my patient and so I am responsible for your health."

"If you prescribe something, I won't take it." The words burst loose before he knew they were coming. She looked appropriately startled, and Tony added in a deliberate staccato, "I thought I watched Stephen kill himself. And now he's not dead." That further deflated her. "I thought you'd be happy to hear that he's within reach. That I can save him. And you're really gonna stop me from trying to help?" His face probably said what his words hadn't: this was one vindictive ex-girlfriend move that Christine Palmer was pulling.

From the icy expression he got in return, any improvement in their dynamic was long gone. "Stephen is my patient, too," Christine said in increasingly tense tones. "I spent hours yesterday doing his initial labs and was up past two a.m. researching my options. And this was in my champagne flute on New Year's Eve." Her hand reached in, extracted a diamond solitaire pendant from beneath her scrubs, and let it fall. "Do not act like I am abandoning someone I care about just because I won't let you end up in a permanent delusional state."

Her logic made sense. All of that was fair. He just couldn't back down.

Unfortunately for Tony, Christine seemed no less stubborn than he was. As she tucked the necklace back under her scrubs, she finished, "If you bring me real proof, we can work from that. Otherwise, everything you've told me is consistent with damage to the parahippocampal gyrus and I have no idea when that damage happened. I am obligated as a physician to not let it worsen."

She thought he was imagining all of it. "He needs help," Tony insisted.

"So do you."

"I never should have wasted time on this," Tony announced and exited through the door, Christine's protests behind him going ignored. His nano housing was sitting on the desk in the next room and he fastened it into place as he walked. "Bruce," he called and waited for the comm system to connect them. "What's the name of Thor's new axe?"

"Huh? Stormbreaker, why?"

He'd thought Bruce would know about it. "That's the thing you were gonna use to come grab us from Titan, right?" When Thor had appeared outside the ship in Earth orbit, he'd clearly used some form of teleportation to do so. Only now had Tony realized the significance of that event, and he nodded as Bruce gave confirmation to his suspicions. "Meet me in Lab Three."

"I'm kinda in the middle—"

"It's important. Lab Three."

As soon as he entered his favorite workspace, Tony cleared a bench with a few deliberate motions. That necklace is probably years and years old. What the hell was wrong with his stupid brain, he immediately wondered, and then got even angrier at himself for asking. Nothing was wrong with his brain and so Christine's concerns were irrelevant.

"Hey, Tony," Bruce said with false cheer as he entered the room several minutes later. "How're you doing?"

Tony didn't look up. "Lock doors." With a sweeping gesture, he sent several graphics into holographic form above the workbench. "Let me talk through my logic."

"Well, you do seem to be back like usual," Bruce relented and took a spot at Tony's side.

First among the holograms was a representation of the mandala shapes that Stephen and Wong had used. As Bruce had seen them before, Tony didn't bother to explain. "In case you haven't heard, Strange is comatose because his spirit got ripped out of his body. It's stranded near Titan."

That quick bit of context clearly took Bruce by surprise. "Spirit? Titan? Ripped out? Whoa, whoa, whoa, that can just happen?" With a frown, Bruce reached forward to the holographic star map that Tony had also summoned, but jerked his hands back when Tony slapped his fingers away.

"Just let me stick to the order," Tony said, his mind racing. If Christine wouldn't help, then he'd find another way to fix this. "Stephen used a series of spiritual anchors that let him collect more energy than... basically, he overclocked his spirit."

Bruce frowned and brushed his fingertips over the mandala hologram. "That sounds dangerous."

Tony looked at him.

"Which... is why he's in a coma," Bruce added sheepishly.

"The anchors looked a lot like this," Tony added with a gesture toward the mandala, "except they also had spiritual chains that locked Stephen to them. So when our ship and bodies went through that portal—"

"His spirit got ripped out and stayed where it was," Bruce concluded and again studied the holographic star map. Tony had intended to move on to that topic, now, and so he said nothing as Bruce considered the distance between Titan and Earth for nearly a minute. With the distant, contemplative expression he got when his brain had turned itself on to a problem, Bruce brought up what appeared to be medical records from when Thor had come barreling back to HQ. "That had to be a hugely traumatic event. It's amazing he's not dead. Yeah, God, look at that. Bradycardia with diastolic pressure down to thirty-two. That was a close call."

Hugely traumatic event. Hugely traumatic, Tony repeated to himself, and thought back to how Stephen had displayed no recognition toward him nor any inclination—or even ability—to speak.

This was a question he hadn't yet considered: from Stephen's perspective, what would it be like after the portal? Even before the chains shattered, it was clearly agonizing. The idea of actually ripping a spirit viciously free of its body was outside of Tony's comprehension, but it had to be torture beyond the screams he'd heard. After that, Stephen's wounded consciousness would have been completely alone, probably so blinded by suffering that he couldn't recognize anything else. When Tony had appeared, he'd been like a trapped animal seeing what might be an approaching hunter.

He was good with pain. This had to be so very much of it.

"I'm an idiot," Tony realized as Bruce continued talking. Apparently that didn't make sense with whatever Bruce had been saying, from the confused look he got. "How many people have we killed? You, me, and the Hulk?"

Startled, Bruce instinctively opened his mouth to answer, then sighed and looked away. "It's not something I really like to think about."

Despite himself, Tony thought about Christine again and the story of how she'd gotten hired. In trying to beat back the Chitauri alone, he and the Hulk had probably gotten dozens or more caught in the crossfire needed to save millions. "You and me, we have no idea how many people we've killed. We do what's necessary to stop who has to be stopped, but that doesn't come smoothly. Stephen, though," Tony continued, and gestured back to the mandala hologram, "knows exactly how many people he's ever killed: one."

"That'd be nice," Bruce murmured.

"And that was in self-defense," Tony finished. "If he's hurting me, that's also in self-defense. He's attacking me because everything must seem like a threat. His spirit is hurt and alone and scared, and he needs to be rescued. Now."

"Wait, wait, attacking you?" Bruce moved to clarify that, only to blink at something his wrist unit told him and change his question to, "Is he giving you brain damage?"

Christine. Damn. "That's gotta be a HIPAA violation," Tony seethed. "I could have her license."

"It's not what you think, trust me."

Whatever. "He needs to be rescued right now," Tony continued in increasingly strained tones, then rotated the third hologram into position. "And then that won't be a problem any more, will it? We just use Thor's magic axe." That holographic axe exploded into a burst of light, and another burst appeared inside the galaxy hologram. "Thor takes some readings with scanners that you and I put together for him, and we find Stephen and bring him home. Super easy."

Bruce didn't respond immediately, and tension filled Tony as he felt the moment begin to slip through his fingers. Christine had better not have screwed things up with that message of hers. (From the sound of things, his brain was barely damaged, yet.)

"We don't know if this will work," Bruce slowly began. "I don't know how to make scanners that look for... for spirits. Thor'll have no clue how to search, either. And we are keeping him busy already. All those research teams I want to tell you about? He's involved with a lot of stuff."

Worry choked Tony. Didn't they understand that if Stephen left now, that he was gone? There was a comeback waiting for the people who'd blown away, but Stephen was lost, hurt, and worst of all, scared. The man who'd so knowingly and confidently prodded Tony's psyche should never seem scared. And unless they saved him, he really would die scared and die for good.

"But," Bruce continued, "I've talked to Thor about what happened before the Hulk landed back on Earth. There was someone who had exactly one chance to send any warning signal at all about Thanos, and he decided the most important move he could make was..." He pointed at the mandala hologram. "And you said that Strange has seen a way to win. This'll be worth it."

Tony exhaled in relief, but replied, "That's a pretty cutthroat situational assessment, Dr. Banner." He'd take any 'yes' he could get, but Bruce made it sound like Stephen was only worth saving because of what he could do for the Avengers' anti-Thanos efforts.

Bruce smiled in apology. "Tony... that's where all of us have had to end up." He reached over, flicked on a switch that Tony didn't recognize, and continued, "We're not as far along on research as we want to be. I can tell you more later, but you need to know that everyone's in survival mode right now. If Rhodey asks you about this, the answer I just gave you is what you'll need to tell him."

"Rhodey's not going to—"

"Tony." Bruce grasped his shoulder. "Cities are starving and burning up. What's left of the armed forces has given up on anywhere under militia control. There's no international trade happening, no flights, nothing. Governments stopped maintaining television and phone service, and put everything into barely keeping up radio and the internet. Estimates have the world population down to about three billion after things really shook out."

Three billion? God. As horrible as it was to consider, he supposed losing another half-billion made sense with all the infrastructure failures and power struggles that would have followed. Three weeks was plenty of time for people to starve, die in riots, or fall to countless other causes of death. Water supplies could have been tainted or interrupted. Dams could have burst if technicians weren't there to adjust flows as the last of the snow melt arrived.

"Rhodey's had to deal with all that," Bruce finished in gentler tones. "Everyone needs our help and hardly anyone gets it, because we just don't have much of anything or anyone to spare. He picks the missions that teach us something important or are a morale boost to the people most in need. You are going to have to justify this."

"Okay," Tony said after a long pause. Bruce's speech had sobered him, for the Avengers were trying to hold back an awful lot of other permanent deaths. "Okay. What was the switch you just flipped?"

Bruce shot a wary glance at the ceiling, though it seemed to be aimed somewhere far beyond that. "We think that it blocks the Mind Stone, just in case Thanos decides to see what we're up to. Yeah. I told you, we've been busy," he added when Tony's eyebrows rose in surprise. How had they figured out a tactic for that in only three weeks? "Now, let's talk about how to scan for spirits."

Fortunately, all of Tony's records from Titan were still intact. The scans he'd taken over the long weeks were available to be fed into the central Avengers computer, including those done on Stephen's astral projections. "This is wild," Bruce said as he studied the data. "It's totally outside the boundaries of normal physics, and he made it sound like a normal thing?"

After all that time on Titan, it'd become easy to forget how peculiar magic had seemed when first encountered. "It sounds like there's this whole magical shadow society," Tony said as he tapped away at his computer. "They've got prime real estate around the world, rare libraries, the whole deal. Hell, they'd been holding onto an Infinity Stone for centuries and no one had any idea." Who knew what else the Sanctum still contained? At the very least, Wong still probably had that creepy stick that made you describe your own death if you held it.

"And after hiding their existence for all that time, he let you get away with scanning him?"

"Stephen said I had to scan him, actually," Tony corrected. "I guess this was important enough to break the wizard rules. That's a good point, though. Let's only look at what we need when we need it, to be polite."

"Polite," Bruce repeated with a lopsided smile. "That's not something you hear people worrying about very much, now."

It took them hours of analysis and testing, but Bruce didn't once complain about getting back to whatever task Tony had pulled him from. The data about Stephen's astral form was too intriguing. Often, Tony looked over to see him selecting some snippet to move it into its own file, for what looked like some other project under development. Stephen said all this data was necessary, Tony realized after seeing that happen for the third time. Now, he was becoming increasingly interested in what those different research teams were up to.

"I think this might do it," Bruce said hours later, over the dinner they'd brought back to the workshop. (Corn fritters, with random bits of other food on the side.) All day, he'd kept funneling more data fragments into his other projects. Tony hadn't said a word, as he wanted to get this project handled without issue, but he certainly knew what he'd be asking about tomorrow.

"We can get him back?" Tony said, his eyes gleaming, as he studied the holographic blueprints in front of them. The device was ready to be fabricated.

Bruce laughed tiredly. "I have no idea. Maybe. But all this is going to do is tell us if he's really there or not." He rubbed the back of his neck, then added, "Hopefully." All day, Bruce had made no secret of how perplexing he found the spiritual energy on Tony's scanners. Worse than that, since those scanners weren't calibrated for magical fields and Titan had offered no real workshops to adjust them, there were distinct holes in the data. This was a well-planned test run, but it was still a test run.

"If he's really there or not," Tony echoed in a murmur. "Bruce. Do you think I'm making this up?" Christine had given Bruce that data, and she'd said Tony was risking delusions if things continued.

"I don't," Bruce said after some careful consideration. After turning away from Tony to break all eye contact, he quietly added, "It sounds like the damage isn't that bad, yet."

Well, that wasn't exactly comforting. "He's not trying to hurt me," Tony insisted. "He's scared and confused, I can tell. As soon as we help—"

"Tony, Tony, Tony." Bruce held up his hands. "Tony. I believe you. I don't know if Strange caused that damage or not, and if he did, I believe that he wasn't really trying to hurt you. All I'm saying is that... is that I hope this scanner actually works, so we have step one behind us. That's all. Let's go get Thor."

Twenty minutes later, Thor had joined them under the fading sunset. There were already stars visible, Tony realized as he looked up at the sky. Normally, even this far away from the city, it took a while before all but the brightest stars cut through the blob of light pollution that hung over the greater metropolitan region. New York might not be totally dark, but it'd clearly gone darker.

Rhodey was there, too. "Tony," he said in a voice that was still gentle, but now displayed the strain of the burden he'd been bearing for weeks, "I don't like this. Thor is one of the most important players we've got. We could give up almost anyone before him, and we're just going to send him randomly across the galaxy... to...?"

"To see if we can save the guy who saw the exact way to beat Thanos," Bruce cut in.

Rhodey's eyebrows raised and the tension of his approaching argument vanished. "Fair enough."

"Thanks," Tony mouthed at Bruce, who smiled and nodded back.

"What do you need me to do?" Thor wondered as he studied the device into which he'd been strapped. It looked rather like an exoskeleton covering his chest, with a scattering of circular scanners being held in place by a series of nanotubes. A power supply and hard drive was strapped to his belt. If he got anywhere remotely near to an echo of the spiritual energies they'd seen on those scans, they'd have precise coordinates recorded for a rescue attempt to follow.

"Go here, first," Tony explained, and showed both the coordinates and holographic display of the spot where the portal had opened. "And, uh... fly around a little. Do you need a spacesuit or something, by the way? I still have an extra one."

"I appreciate your concern, Stark, but—"

"So, no," Tony interrupted and kept going. Stephen needed help and so they needed not to waste time. "If you look down at the screen and it hasn't found anything, then head for the planet. Titan. It's big, ugly, and orange. You can't miss it."

"I'm certain I won't, but where on Titan should I be looking?"

"Thanos threw a moon on top of us." Seeing everyone's surprise, Tony added, "Yes, it hurt. Anyway, you should be able to see the impact site from above. Head down there and scan that area, and then come home so I can see what you've found."

"Right." Thor lifted Stormbreaker above his head, nodded to them once, and looked to the sky. "I will return soon."

Rainbow light burst from the ground like some prismatic geyser, and the energy carried Thor with it into the sky and out of sight. "Seriously?" Tony laughed softly as he watched the man disappear. "We needed three weeks and all that drama to make it home, and he just lifts an axe?"

"That's why I wanted to use it in the first place," Bruce pointed out as they studied the fading light overhead, like they could somehow squint and see all the way to where Thor had traveled. "But you said that Strange's data was important."

"It is important," Tony agreed, then looked to Rhodey and added, "Universe-level important. The team definitely wants to be doing this."

Rhodey smiled faintly and folded his arms. "I already said yes, Tony. Stop trying to convince me."

"I'm just saying, the guy—"

Light exploded again. From inside that pillar, falling like a felled tree, Thor collapsed at their feet. His skin was a sickly grey, his body shook like he was in the throes of hypothermia, and the hardware strapped to his belt had gone dark. Thin, wheezing sounds echoed through his throat, like oxygen could barely fit through it.

"Oh my God," Rhodey whispered. He was the first of them who'd been able to move, and for a few seconds those words were all he could manage. "Oh my... medical! Get to my position, now!"

"Thor, buddy, come on," Bruce pleaded as he knelt at the man's side. He tried snapping his fingers in front of Thor's eyes, hoping to get any response, but had to settle for resting his hand on Thor's broad back to measure the rhythm of his shallow breaths. "It's okay, you're back. You're okay."

"What happened?" Tony finally managed to ask, then swallowed. There was a story he didn't want to hear, and so he had to find any different explanation for what had nearly killed Thor—Thor—in under a minute. "Titan is Thanos' homeworld. Did he come back? Was he there?"

Bruce murmured something to Rhodey, who bowed his head, shook it slowly, and turned. "We need to let your guy go, Tony."

Anguish stabbed deep as he realized that Bruce had shared the news about the damage his mind had taken, and tied it to the damage Thor had just suffered. Tony's skin prickled hot. "No."

"He's been hurting you, and—" When Tony tried to argue, Rhodey spoke over him. "I know he's not trying to do it, but he's hurting you. So far as we can tell, he nearly just killed Thor in about forty seconds. Possible intel isn't worth that trade." He saw Tony open his mouth again, and pointed in the direction of the facility door. Doctors streamed from it. "Possible intel isn't worth Thor's life, and you know it."

Thor's life. Thor.

No. No, of course it wasn't. And although Thor would clearly pull through, those first few confused, terrified moments had been as bad as anything on Titan. Just as hope fled from Tony and left him slack with exhaustion, he noticed a familiar figure helping to load Thor onto a stretcher. "He's not trying to hurt anyone," Tony pleaded to Christine. "He doesn't even know what's happening."

"I know," she murmured. Her voice was very soft.

"And we don't even know that he had anything to do with this."

"I hope not." Each movement was rigid, like she was moving on auto-pilot to override the deep sadness in her eyes.

"We need to let your guy go, Tony," Rhodey repeated gently as the doctors began to transport Thor back toward the infirmary door. Bruce was by his side, asking short, simple questions to keep him alert as they traveled. Though Thor already looked far better than he had on his return, he still seemed dizzy. "I'm sorry. I can't tell you to stop trying, but as for the team, well... I've been keeping us on track no matter what it takes."

Rhodey saw Tony's protest coming and beat him to any reply. "I know he needs help," he added in those same sympathetic tones. "So do billions of other people. I'm sorry. I have to worry about them... and need to go check on Thor."

Frustrated tears filled Tony's eyes, and he spun to look at the forest beyond the grassy field in which they stood. This wasn't right, it wasn't fair... and Tony's rush to fix things had just nearly killed an old, dear friend. If Thor hadn't been able to get back right when he did, he might never have returned. This couldn't be Stephen's fault, Tony decided. To be that strong and that vicious? It seemed impossible.

The only way to prove that theory right, though, would be to risk Thor's life again. Rhodey was right: Tony couldn't do that and wouldn't do that.

No, Tony realized, and kept staring at the distant trees until he was sure that his expression was safely controlled. There was another way to prove that Stephen wasn't beyond rescue. All he needed to do was return to the dreams he'd left.

As soon as he made sure that Thor was all right, Tony decided, he'd do that. With a sense of guilt so deep that it almost outweighed his determination, he walked with Rhodey to follow the doctors inside.

Chapter Text

It would be a great day when Tony no longer needed to make a visit to the Avengers' medical wing.

Thor had recovered enough to leave any sort of crisis stage. From what Tony could hear, he knew that signs of exhaustion still remained: rapid heartbeat, surges of dizziness, and confusion about the past several hours. Though the doctors who were familiar with Thor's physiology still showed concern over those symptoms, he already looked healthier than he had earlier. There was no question that he would recover. It was just as clear, though, that he'd barely skirted death with whatever had happened near Titan.

"The battery is completely drained," Bruce said in confusion as he studied the equipment they'd recovered from Thor's aborted trip. "It was fully charged when he left."

"Thor is really gonna be fine, right?" Tony wondered as he stared at his injured friend. He was the one who'd pushed for this breakneck pace to go after Stephen, and so every new minute that Thor wasn't up and walking around brought new guilt with it. He didn't want to believe that Stephen would cause anyone such damage—and he doubted that it was even possible at such tremendous speed—but there was no arguing that Tony Stark had once again leapt before looking.

"Thor's gonna be fine," Bruce confirmed, but added, "and you know this can't happen again, right?"

"Yeah." Tony found a wan smile to offer Bruce. "I'm gonna turn in, to try to think this through. Can you let me know how he's doing later?"

"Sure." As Tony turned to leave, Bruce caught his wrist. "I'm sorry, Tony. Really."

Tony nodded and walked away, but despite his very real plans to return to his private quarters, he instead found himself entering a door just around the corner: the hallway for recovery rooms. Though Stephen's door was secured, Tony's handprint could get him into basically any room in the facility and no one had thought to specifically block him from this one.

"You didn't do this, right?" he asked as soon as he'd closed the door behind him.

Stephen didn't answer, of course. He didn't do anything. Even his heartbeat monitor seemed slow and plodding. Other displays showed a brain cross-section and were almost uniformly flat. Only a few even flickered. After a surge of foolish hope at seeing any movement at all, Tony realized that one neural rhythm matched his heartbeat and another matched his breathing. The few other active displays probably also tracked other basic nervous system functions. Except for those basic motions of survival, his body looked just as empty as it had before.

"I know you didn't hurt him," Tony said as he stepped forward, "but it sounds like I'll need to prove that. So if you could..."

As he approached Stephen's bed and really looked at the man, Tony trailed off. He hadn't noticed at first glance into the room, but just as he'd cleaned up three weeks of his own stubble after Titan, Stephen's facial hair had also been tidied. Don't you have other work to do? Tony thought in what might be Christine's direction.

"Anyway," Tony continued after that pause, "if you could not attack me again tonight, I'd really appreciate it." When Stephen remained absolutely silent, Tony took a chair next to him and added, "I'm going to take that as a yes." He sat like that for a while, unwilling to leave but uncertain of what to say to an comatose body.

Movement made Tony jerk forward, but that excitement died when he realized he'd only seen an isolated finger twitch as damaged nerves misfired. Nothing had changed on the neural monitors. Stephen hadn't wanted that movement when he was awake; it was just the side effect of an argument between his automatic brain impulses and scarred-over damage. He might not be there, but those scars still were.

"You know," Tony said as he sat back, "after the portal, your hands went totally still. Bruce read your charts and it sounds like your body came really close to shutting down." From what Tony had picked up on since his return, the shock of doing the portal had slowed Stephen's heart so much that it had nearly stopped beating. Now, things looked more normal to Tony's untrained eye. "That twitch is probably a good sign that everything'll be fine when you get back."

What reaction was he expecting from this pep talk, exactly? 'None' was the only reasonable one to expect, and of course it was what he received. This was awkward, but right now it felt like Tony was the only person on the planet on Stephen's side. Now that he'd taken up this sentry position, the pain of leaving would be worse than feeling a little self-conscious.

After making that decision not to leave, Tony began speaking about anything just to pass the time. "Let me tell you more about what's been happening around here. Thor's new weapon can teleport, but he..." Tony chose his next words carefully. "Something happened near Titan to really hurt him. The next time I see you, I hope I can figure out what that is."

Memories surfaced of bothering the Cloak until Stephen's astral form stepped back into his body. Tony looked over to the other chair and saw the Cloak still folded there. It had gone entirely limp, like it was sleeping. With a sigh, Tony turned back to the bed and brushed a stray bit of hair into place. It was the one that had caught his attention back in the Sanctum, he suddenly remembered, when wind rushed through the hole the Hulk's arrival had made. That felt like it was a decade earlier.

"And," Tony continued, leaning back into his chair, "they've been involving Thor in a lot of research. I don't know what kind of research, yet, but those teams have me curious. Apparently, they've already found a way to mask people from the Mind Stone's powers while they work. That's impressive, but I guess it makes sense. If there's a Stone we understand the most, it's definitely that one. Bruce and I worked so much with..."

Pain closed his throat. Tony needed a deep breath to get the words out. The files he'd read made for terrible memories, especially the one with a detailed photographic record of a friend's corpse.

"We worked so much with Vision," Tony finished morosely. "His body is still in Africa, for some reason. Why didn't Bruce bring him back? And why are you on that thing instead of Avenger tech?" he added as he remembered that Stephen was sleeping on a medical bed from Wakanda, rather than one of the facility's own designs.

If Vision was in Africa, then the person there most qualified to deal with his android body had to be Shuri. Tony really wished he'd met her, now; it was uncomfortable to think of a friend's body being examined, and a stranger doing it made it all the worse. "Do you mind if I stick around in here to read up on Shuri?" Tony asked Stephen after picking up a tablet.

Stephen didn't seem to mind.

She was young—shockingly young, considering what he'd heard about her—but seemed to be quite accomplished. Unlimited access to vibranium had allowed the nation to accomplish incredible things, Tony soon learned, and Shuri didn't hesitate to push Wakanda even further into the future. After reading about the attempted removal of the Mind Stone in the last hours before Thanos arrived, Tony turned back to Stephen's bed and considered its technology once more. Huh. Maybe that thing was better than what the Avengers used, after all.

One day, he'd need to meet this Shuri. In the room's silence, broken only by the soft, steady thrum of the heart monitor, Tony began reading about all the tech Wakanda had to offer.

Two hours later, Tony jerked awake as someone touched his wrist. He'd just drifted off and dreams hadn't yet come. The tablet he'd been reading began to slide off his lap as he moved, and he barely caught it in time.

A nurse smiled at him. "Mr. Stark, you fell asleep. Would you like to return to your room?"

No, a stubborn part of him thought. For the first time since the portal, he hadn't felt alone as he drifted off. Still, he couldn't exactly curl up in an uncomfortable hospital chair all night, and he did need to make an attempt at reaching out to Stephen during this fresh round of dreams. "Please work with me on this," Tony murmured to Stephen's still form before leaving.

"Okay," he said an hour later, after his stubborn brain had relented into sleep. "I'm on Titan. Good. Right." Tony spun where he stood and made his assessments quickly. By now, he had a feeling for how this confrontation would go. "The armor freaks him out, so maybe I could just keep on some hand pieces for generating shields? Or—" With a yelp, Tony danced backward as the ground exploded at his feet. He restrained himself from summoning his armor, but it was a close thing. "And there you are."

Stephen stood on a rocky outcropping again with energy surrounding his raised hands. He lifted one like he'd soon throw another spell, but looked confused when Tony neither ran from him nor summoned any method to strike in return.

"You're not attacking me," Tony said with relief after a few peaceful seconds passed. "I thought so."

Stephen didn't seem to recognize him, but neither did he continue his attacks. The truce felt temporary, but at least it existed. That meant that progress could be made from night to night.

Though Tony wanted to move toward him, he remembered how poorly an approach had gone the last time he'd tried it. He forced his feet to remain still. "I promise that I won't hurt you. So, why don't you turn those off, huh?" Some stupid impulse made him slam his wrists together in an echo of what he'd seen Stephen do a few times, like he was activating magical hand-shields of his own.

A second later, he realized his mistake. "Oops," Tony said just before more attacks were launched in his direction.

"I wasn't attacking!" he yelled, but of course that did him no good. After a blast caught him across one arm, sending pain ricocheting through his whole body and seizing him up for a few precious seconds, Tony decided not to bother speaking. All he could hope to do was make it through this barrage without being blasted back into consciousness.

"Damn," he eventually murmured, when a few more blasts had singed him and he felt bruised from all the dodges he'd made into whatever rocks were in his way. "I'm not getting through to him tonight." By this point it was time for his armor. He'd never use it to attack Stephen, but at least it could take more of a beating than his unprotected body.

Sure enough, when Tony woke up the next morning, he was able to look at sunlight without cringing and the throb at the base of his skull only needed thirty minutes to ebb. "That's better than before, at least," he told himself, but it was a weak pep talk. A single slip-up had put Stephen on his guard for the entire rest of the night and the shots he'd fired seemed aimed to kill.

Before he could help it, Tony thought miserably, Maybe he did attack Thor. The two of them had clearly met before, but from how Stephen went after Tony, familiarity didn't seem to matter.

No, he decided just as quickly. Thor hadn't been beaten up, he'd been drained. Stephen acting like some sort of predatory arcane vampire was far removed from the bolts he'd been flinging at Tony. Even when Stephen had used those energy lashes to fling Tony around the landscape, he'd been trying to knock Tony out, not drain his energy and leave him as a withered husk. Everything Tony had suffered said 'leave me alone' and Thor's injuries simply weren't the same.

He needed to go through a checklist, Tony thought as he stepped into the shower and let it wash away the last of the night's pain. His faith in Stephen had taken a momentary wobble, but now remained unshaken. He couldn't say the same for any other person at headquarters, though. Bruce had stuck up for Stephen to Rhodey, but sold him out with the same speed. While Tony couldn't blame Rhodey for his globally-minded priorities, those priorities did Tony and Stephen no good. Christine wouldn't risk one patient's health to possibly help another's. Thor, well... there was no use asking him for anything else.

Stephen Strange had exactly one ally inside the Avengers right now and Tony Stark had hit a mental wall. Fortunately, there was another place he could look.

As he'd suspected, the files on the various research teams contained every member's contact information. With a furtive look toward his own door like he might be caught at something, Tony brought up one of those numbers and dialed.

After six attempts, the call finally picked up. "Banner?" Tony heard on the line. Their own satellites were handling the data, he saw at a glance, and then remembered Bruce telling him how most phone systems were down. Since he'd called through the main system, the Caller ID must simply identify 'Avengers Headquarters.'

"No. This is Tony Stark, I came back with Stephen, and I really, really need to talk to you right now." Wong's surprise over the line was nearly palpable. Tony beat him to answering the question he was sure was coming. "Stephen's hurt, but we've got him under medical watch. Seriously, I need to talk to you. Can you portal me to the Sanctum?"

"Check labs one through four. Are any unused?"

Tony switched to the facility status screen. "One and four."

"Head to lab four. I'll open a portal in three minutes."

Wong must have visited headquarters, Tony realized during his speedy walk, and wanted to open a portal from a location that he'd used before. That was weird, though. During their work the day before, Bruce had acted like astral projection and other wizard basics were totally unknown to him, yet Wong was active on multiple projects. What sort of data was he generating for these research teams?

Tony made it to lab four with twenty seconds to spare. He made sure to close the door securely behind him, then waited. When sparks first erupted into open air, Tony's heart lodged in his throat and sweat beaded on his upper lip. A portal. The first portal he'd seen... since...

The portal started small, but it kept growing. Suddenly he was back in that spaceship, panicking as screams filled his ears. He tried to move, but he'd been bound to his chair. He couldn't help at all. And—

"Stark," Wong said insistently. What looked like library shelves at the Sanctum filled the portal behind him. "Are you coming?"

"Right," Tony said, shook his head, and crossed into Manhattan with a single step.

Apparently, he wasn't being given any time to orient himself. "Good to see you alive," Wong said and clasped his upper arm. "I'm afraid that I know what happened to the Stone, but tell me about Stephen."

Tony looked around the Sanctum. With such a short time spent there before, he'd almost forgotten what it looked like. It was the polar opposite of every building he'd designed for himself: dark and calm while he flooded rooms with sunlight, full of leather and wood while he favored concrete and metal. A few inexplicable artifacts were scattered across the shelves, and not a single computer or scanner was there to study them. "It'll take a while."

Taking the hint, Wong nodded and gestured to a small cluster of armchairs. His own cup of tea was still hot and he poured another for Tony without being asked. "Are you coming?" he repeated when he noticed that Tony hadn't moved.

"Right. Sorry." Tony focused back on the present and took a seat where indicated. He hadn't meant to stare, but Wong was limping. The hand that Wong hadn't used to pour the tea was covered in bandages.

With plenty of sips of sweet, rose-scented tea, Tony told Wong very nearly everything that had happened since their battle on the streets of Manhattan. More detail was offered than what he'd given to the Avengers, as Wong had more context to make sense of magical elements, but he still held a few things back. No one needed to know about personal conversations, the shocking intimacy of when Stephen had healed his body, or, of course, the true explanation of Thanos getting the Time Stone.

Once Tony reached the explanation of Stephen practicing with multiple arcane anchors, Wong's brow furrowed. "Did he tell you much about those?" Wong wondered. After Tony shook his head, Wong nodded and began, "In summary, a Root of Baghor—"

"Root of Baghor?" Tony couldn't help but interrupt. "You guys have gotta have your weird names, don't you?"

Wong stared silently back at him.

Tony wilted under that cool stare, took another sip of tea, and mumbled, "I'm sorry, please tell me all about the anchors."

"The anchors," Wong continued, "are an effective but dangerous method for recharging power in a certain area. Few know of them, as the practice has been thankfully lost over the millennia. When the London Sanctum fell to Dormammu's acolytes—"

Seriously, wizards used weird names.

"—its protective energies were scattered. For a while it was no stronger than anywhere else on Earth, which would leave us vulnerable until that power returned to the rebuilt Sanctum." Wong placed his hand on the end table that held their teacups. The first three rings of an anchor appeared under his palm, then vanished as quickly as they'd appeared. "I found it useful to teach Stephen how to perform the ritual."

Yeah, thanks for that. "So he knew it was dangerous when you taught it to him?"

"We were only able to use one at a time," Wong continued after nodding. "And more people came to help, of course, though only four of us knew how to form the lines. It took nearly a week of trading off our efforts before enough energy had returned to make any real difference. Otherwise, though, it might have taken a year to regain that power."

Tony's brow furrowed. "Then why not just use more anchors? Stephen used..." He sighed into his tea. "More than two."

Wong frowned, but filed away his obvious curiosity. "A single one fades as soon as it's released and can contain its energy within the walls of a building. If we'd used two, their power would have amplified each other and they would have lasted for a minute after release. We could have accidentally pulled on any energy from the next buildings over, including life forces. It wouldn't have been much, but..."

Life forces.

The teacup in Tony's hand nearly shattered as he set it down. "Two anchors would start draining any nearby energy? Including lives?" When they'd been in the ship together, Stephen had probably shielded them and their power supply from that fate. But, after the crisis with the portal...

"Yes." Wong frowned at the cup Tony had nearly broken. "That's three centuries old."

Tony didn't care. "So if you have more anchors, they start pulling in more and more energy. And they last longer and longer after they've been released. Right?"

"Right."

"Screw you guys!" Tony crowed, leaping to his feet and pointing in what might be a northern direction. "I knew he didn't do it!"

Okay, from the bewildered look on Wong's face, that needed an explanation. As soon as he'd been brought up to speed on Thor's condition, with a side note of the completely drained battery that had befuddled Bruce, Wong nodded sagely. "Yes. Use too many Roots of Baghor, and they will reinforce each other in their mindless drive to gather any local energies. Even an Asgardian could certainly be hollowed out by enough of them."

"I'm gonna to gloat to Bruce and Rhodey over this one." So much relief filled Tony that it actually exhausted him. Thor hadn't been attacked by Stephen; he'd just stumbled into the equivalent of energy quicksand and barely been able to escape back home before it'd pulled him under. Stephen wasn't a threat and it wasn't his fault. "So, how long will these last if we want to make another rescue attempt?"

"It depends." Wong took another drink, and only then did Tony realize neither of them had ever needed to refill the small cups. "A single anchor would fade immediately. Two, a minute. Three, an hour or so. Four, a day and a half."

"Not a linear progression, then," Tony thought and frowned. He knew the size specifications of the ship he'd built, and had an estimate of how far beyond its hull the anchors had started appearing. Given their individual radii, the gaps between them, and the rough surface area of the sphere they'd formed... "What about eighty-five anchors?"

Wong broke his teacup.

Well, that wasn't a good reaction. "I thought you said that was three centuries old," Tony pointed out as tea dripped off the end table.

"You miscounted."

"It is an estimate," Tony allowed. "Let's say he could have called as few as eighty, as many as ninety."

"As few as eighty?" Wong repeated in disbelief. "As few? Do you know how much power could be called upon with eighty Roots of Baghor?" Of course Tony did; he'd seen it. He'd heard it. "To have a hope of manipulating that much power, someone would have to be so adept at the mystic arts... that..." Wong's shoulders sagged. After a long moment of consideration, he looked back up. "How many futures did you say he went through?"

"Fourteen million, give or take."

After another long pause, Wong nodded. It didn't seem like he wanted to admit this. "It's possible. With that much practice, it's conceivably possible. But Stephen wouldn't. After they were broken like you described, eighty anchors would be even hungrier than normal. Their lifespan would be..." He shrugged. "A millennium."

"A millennium?" Tony repeated in disbelief.

"And Stephen would not do something that would eventually kill an entire solar system like some spreading disease! Let alone keep that system deadened for a thousand years. So, Stark, think back and clarify—"

"It was already a totally dead system," Tony interrupted.

"Oh." Wong stared into the distance for a long moment, sighed, then shrugged. "Then... okay. Eighty anchors."

That was an easier argument than he'd expected. Now Tony knew what the situation was and that Stephen hadn't attacked Thor. Though there was much to be happy about, Tony hadn't yet gotten the most important answer: how to get Stephen's spirit back.

When he presented that simple, core question, Wong's usual confidence about arcane knowledge faltered. "You don't." Wong shook his head and sighed. "Those broken anchors would be pulling in all energy they encountered, including that of his spirit. Even if he was somehow immune to them, no one else could approach that area."

"He's immune," Tony insisted. "I've been seeing him in my dreams and I'm positive that it's real."

Wong was very skilled at giving dubious looks. Right then, it wasn't a talent that Tony particularly appreciated.

"I'm willing to put myself at risk to get him back," Tony offered when Wong continued to look at him like he was an idiot who'd wasted precious time. "But if I try to get near him in my suit, he thinks I'm attacking. If I try to get near him without my suit, I'm a sitting duck. Is there any way you can shield me from his energy?"

It still seemed like Wong disbelieved him.

"I will risk myself to get him back," Tony repeated.

Wong's eyes narrowed. "Why?"

After a short pause, Tony said with what felt like complete honesty, "I don't know."

After that, he waited. Wong had to agree, he had to, but the man had the best poker face he'd ever encountered. If there was one man willing to accept that an injured spirit was being heard from across the galaxy after it'd created an arcane nuclear wasteland, it should be the Hogwarts librarian. After the frustrating roadblocks he'd dealt with from his own team, if Tony didn't hear that 'yes' from Wong, he might actually lose it.

"No skin off my nose," Wong said a second later and raised his hands. "Lean over."

Thank God. Tony leaned obediently forward, waited for Wong's hands to clasp his temples, and closed his eyes as he felt energy flow between them. It wasn't the comforting warmth of what Stephen had done for him. This first felt searingly hot but then cooled into a thick, slow feeling, like his spirit had been dipped in wax and allowed to harden.

"It should guard against most types of spiritual energies," Wong confirmed when Tony sat back, blinking. "But since I didn't know what precisely to help with, I had to take the most basic approach. Be warned, it'll dissipate as the hours go on."

"I'll go try right now. I've got sleeping meds." Ugh. It felt like he was speaking through novocaine injections at the dentist.

Wong nodded. "Let me know how it goes. Either way, I'll come see him later." He stood, shot a regretful glance at the teacup he'd broken, and raised his hand.

It was good to imagine Wong next to Stephen, and Tony was sure that the Cloak would be relieved to know that proper wizard help had arrived. Wong's abilities could probably scan for things that even Wakandan tech couldn't. "Thanks," he said through his thick, uncooperative mouth and focused on moving toward the portal that had opened. It felt like he was wearing one of those inflatable sumo costumes around his mind.

"Thanks for getting him back," Wong replied. Just before Tony stepped through the portal, he noticed a few small spots of blood dotting the bandages on Wong's hand.

That was a question for tomorrow, he decided when he emerged back into lab four and began the trek back to his room. That must have something to do with the research teams, and research teams were a question for tomorrow. Right now, Tony needed to drug himself into oblivion, use this spiritual suit of armor, and see if this fight could go any other way than "south."

"Bottoms up," he told himself and slammed the full prescription dose against the back of his throat.

As Tony began to drift off, the memory of MRI scans floated up. He already had brain damage. It might have come from exposure to those shattered anchors, or even earlier from fighting Thanos... but it also could have come from the attacks Stephen had launched. Now, Tony was preparing himself to walk right up next to the man, absorb whatever spells were thrown at him, and hope that Wong's armor lasted long enough to make a difference.

It was a real risk, but resolve didn't falter as unconsciousness claimed him.

Within his dream, the spiritual armor was far easier to bear than it was while awake. It felt barely more cumbersome than his own suits and looked like nothing but glimmering planes of light. Stephen probably wouldn't even notice it.

"And there's the sneak attack," Tony announced a moment later, after diving away from the blast he saw coming in his peripheral vision. "But see?" He lifted his empty hands, keeping them well away from each other, and showed his palms to Stephen. "I'm not attacking you."

Like before, Stephen took a confused step backward. He lifted one hand in readiness against whatever trap Tony was laying.

This time, Tony didn't try to rush things in the least. This was a beautiful setting and perhaps Stephen could recognize that. That night with the galaxy overhead was the only time that Titan had ever been deserving of any praise. If there was one Titan-bound setting he didn't mind returning to, it was this one, and he could wait for as long as Stephen needed to trust him.

After more than two minutes of wary silence, Stephen lowered his hands and let their energy fade.

The filaments, Tony saw after his eyes adjusted. Strands of golden light still drifted around Stephen, though only a few could be seen at any one time. They were what had connected his spirit to the anchors. Then those anchors fractured, and the light they'd made scattered in every direction. Prompted by that memory, Tony felt what was probably a suicidally stupid idea arise.

"Hey there," he crooned and took one step forward. "I'm not trying to hurt you. Everything's fine. The sun's getting real low and... what the hell am I saying." With a deep breath, Tony cleared his mind and began again. "I'm not trying to hurt you, but I do need to get closer. All right?"

From the wary look he got, 'all right' was not the answer Stephen would have given.

"You're probably scared," Tony continued as he stepped lightly around a rock. "And I don't blame you. It sounds like you pulled off something nearly impossible, but I know it hurt. I want to make it stop hurting. Sound good?"

Tony was getting close. The sound of his voice initially seemed to help, but after one more step, Stephen's hands flared gold again. Before he could tell himself that this was a terrible idea, Tony let his suit's boots ripple into existence and launched in Stephen's direction. His movement caught Stephen by surprise and so Tony was able to get through his defenses and grab the man.

As soon as Tony touched him, Stephen was a feral animal: nothing but survival instincts. One hand slammed against Tony's head, the other against his chest, and both hammered Tony with as much energy as he could draw upon. It wasn't the sharp pain that had woken Tony before, but even inside Wong's armor it felt he'd taken a few more punches from Thanos.

It was like Tony was trapped inside a timpani drum. Pain echoed through his head and chest, then swirled down into his extremities. He didn't want to think about what his next MRI would look like.

This was really starting to hurt, but Tony's hands wouldn't close around the stupid filaments when he grasped them. Skin to skin contact, he remembered. To heal him, Stephen had needed to touch him. In a short pause between attacks, Tony wrestled Stephen's hands away from his head and heart, interlocked their fingers, and held on.

That earned exactly the reaction he'd expected: panicked fury. Now, Stephen's confused spirit wasn't just fighting someone who'd attacked him, but someone who was holding him in place. His bursts of energy came faster and harder as he tried to get away. Soon they were like molten steel wrapping Tony's hands and trickling down his arms. After he felt the armor on his right hand crumble, it took real effort to make the damaged limb respond.

When he did let Stephen go, the man tried to run. Tony reached out just in time and caught one of the tiny, shining filaments that was connected directly into Stephen's very being. As soon as Stephen reached the end of that filament's slack, he cried out with deep, startled pain and stopped where he stood.

"Feel this?" Tony wondered as he gently held the anchor's shattered chain between his thumb and index finger. "This was supposed to be attached to something. Remember?"

There was still no recognition in Stephen's eyes, but after how much pulling on that chain had hurt him, he seemed unwilling to run again.

"And then you ripped yourself loose," Tony continued, warily reaching out to grasp another filament, "and so it's like your spirit's been adrift in the cold." He was making things up as he went along, but this all did seem to make some sense. Hopefully the sound of his voice wasn't still a threat, but in any case, he was able to grasp a third golden cobweb as he spoke.

A second later, Tony blinked at his hand. Though three threads had gone into it, now only one remained. Unlike the ones he'd grasped, its glimmer was terribly faint but steady. Stephen still acted like he was seeing a stranger, but neither was he on the edge of fleeing from a threat.

"So you were like a mirror that got dropped," Tony continued with growing excitement, and kept reaching out for more of those shattered chains. "Each little bit of you got yanked in its own direction. All of the reflections you saw in that mirror were broken, distorted... terrifying." By now, he was holding an actual thread. "But you were still there. You just need to come back together."

Tony Stark was supposed to be a man of science. He did not deal with spirits, and he certainly had no idea what he was doing or whether the explanation he was giving was anywhere close to correct. It filled the silence as he worked, though, and with each word he spoke and each chain he grasped, Stephen seemed less and less likely to run.

At some point, the armor had also fallen off his left hand. With it, Tony carefully plucked more threads from the air and brought them to the growing spiritual light cradled in his right palm. "So I'll put you back into one piece."

In a shaky voice that barely sounded like him, Stephen asked, "Tony?"

Joy filled Tony so completely that he almost dropped the chain he held. "Yeah. It's me," he confirmed through teary eyes. "Hey."

This wasn't the time to stop working. They were so close. As Tony kept bringing together more damaged, isolated fragments of Stephen's spirit, the man looked around with confusion. For the first time he seemed to actually process what he saw, but that sight made no sense to him. "Why..."

"Just hold on," Tony said soothingly. The vast majority of Stephen's spirit was loose on the breeze. The world still had to seem confusing and raw, and that meant he still needed help. "I've got you."

Though he let Tony keep working, Stephen didn't relax as his spirit was methodically mended. Even as the light that Tony's right held grew ever brighter, Stephen only looked more upset. "Tony," he asked in a thick voice, "why aren't I dead?"

"What?" Tony's right hand instinctively closed on the light it cradled. Gentle warmth pulsed through him, easing the pain that lingered from Stephen's earlier attacks. It didn't ease the distress that question had earned, though.

"Why aren't I dead?" Stephen repeated with what Tony now recognized as growing panic. "I'm not dead. This isn't what it feels like. Oh God. I didn't do it right. We're still on Titan, I only had one chance to—"

"You did it," Tony yelled over his distraught words. "You did it. I'm on Earth and we're inside my dream. You sent me through the portal and I recorded everything. You did it." His left hand abandoned its work with the filaments to catch Stephen's wrist. "You did it. And you're still here, and I'm here with you."

"But..." Swallowing, Stephen looked around the nighttime landscape of Titan with glistening eyes. Though it was no longer the raw bewilderment of a shattered spirit, his confusion was still absolute. "If I did what I had to do, then how am I still alive? It's not possible."

Tony needed both limbs free. He absently tucked the chain he'd reconstructed through a crack in his spiritual armor, pressed until he was sure it'd bonded with the skin there, and grabbed Stephen's other hand. "I don't know, but you are alive. And I'm going to bring you home." Lightheaded and relieved, Tony pulled Stephen into a tight embrace.

"I should be dead," Stephen insisted one last time against the side of Tony's head.

"Too bad." Tony pulled back far enough to meet Stephen's eyes. "Before, we did whatever you wanted. Now we're playing my game. I'm in charge, and so I'm telling you that you're not dying and that I really am going to bring you home. No acceptable losses. No triage."

Though the confusion in Stephen's eyes didn't leave entirely, it did fade as he looked once more around the landscape of Titan. By the time he looked back to Tony, something new had joined it: hope.

He was about to wake up, Tony realized, and gripped Stephen's hands harder. "I'll be back. I promise." In his last seconds on Titan he pressed hard on the reconstructed chain he'd burrowed into himself, like that could keep it from slipping loose. "Don't forget me this time!"

It hurt when he woke up, but the unnatural pain forced him to fight through the sleeping drug's amnesiac effects. It hurt a lot, actually; Stephen had made countless attacks against Wong's armor when Tony first grabbed him. His nose wasn't gushing blood, though, and the few trickles coming out of it were easy to wipe away. With a smile, Tony studied the red smear on the back of his hand and knew that it was the very last time he'd see that damage. Stephen was back. Even if Stephen hadn't yet returned to his body, he was back to being himself and was no longer any threat.

So, all that had to happen now was for Tony Stark to fix the problem. Then, just like before, that last other person on Titan really wasn't going to die.

Chapter Text

Perhaps it was fine if Tony made one more visit that day to the medical wing, after all.

"Don't be mad," Tony said as he walked into the lab to which he'd tracked Christine, "but I need another MRI."

She dropped her head, sighed, and turned to look at him. "What did you do?" His only response was a grin, and so Christine narrowed her eyes and repeated, "What did you do?"

"Let's just run the MRI," Tony decided. There was the chance that this would be bad news. It was always preferable to have bad news out of the way first, for he had the best good news imaginable. It would certainly wipe away any concerns over whatever fresh damage he'd taken.

With another sigh, Christine saved what she'd been working on: annotations on a group chat with Bruce and a face that Tony thought was Shuri's. "What locations have you been to recently?" Christine asked as she led him back to the lab they'd used before, and once again extended her hand for his nano housing.

He obligingly removed it. "My quarters, the medical wing, cafeteria, workshops, the Sanctum... why?"

Very seriously, Christine asked, "When you visited any of those places, did they look unfamiliar to you?"

"No," Tony snorted. Of course the places he visited on a daily basis didn't look unfamiliar. "Well, nowhere except the Sanctum, and I hardly spent any time there before Thanos." Plus, it wasn't like he'd forgotten that he'd once visited there. He'd simply lost the specifics of its appearance.

"How long is 'hardly any time?'" After his explanation that he'd spent perhaps twenty minutes hearing about Bruce's absence and return and learning about the Infinity Stones, Christine tapped her fingers rapidly against the desk. "You should have remembered its visuals more. Although there has been a great deal of stress since then, and it was during a time of a lot of other information coming in..."

"Should I just get in the machine and see for sure?" Tony guessed.

"Probably, yeah."

As he straightened himself on the MRI bed, Tony couldn't help but say, "So you sent my results to Bruce, huh? I thought that went against your doctor code. By which I mean: the law. Will your old job let you back with behavior like that?"

She didn't take that bait, nor did Christine even look over from the buttons she was tapping. "Everyone who works in this facility has signed a release form allowing for the distribution of medical records as appropriate. During an emergency status, this distribution may happen without the patient's notification and may be shared with any relevant individual worldwide." As she rattled off regulations, Tony began to roll into the MRI tube. "Bruce and Shuri are highly relevant and we've been in a permanent emergency state. I broke zero laws. Lie still, the scan's starting."

Okay, she didn't seem to like him too much, either. Maybe implied blackmail had been a bad move.

This scan finished much faster than before, as this time she'd focused only on his head. Tony was left to haul himself off the bed after it emerged from the machine. Christine had already hurried over to bring up his results. "So, Doc," he began after snagging his nano housing unit, replacing it, and joining her at the screens, "what's my damage?"

Her study of his results went on for a long, silent minute. As Christine considered those results, her fingers rolled around the edges of the diamond solitaire pendant that Tony had noticed before. The movement looked increasingly like a nervous habit. "Tony, where is... was your wedding reception scheduled?"

At the mention of Pepper, his cheeks flushed hot and his skin felt tight. His heart grew leaden and too large for his chest. "Is scheduled," he snapped. Pepper was just missing and Tony would soon save her, and Christine needed to focus on his results instead of that stupid necklace. "And we haven't settled on a place, yet."

"You must have talked about some locations. Tell me about them."

"Fine." Tony sighed and cast back in his memory. They'd talked about places all over the world, but for efficiency's sake he stuck to ones near the city. "Uh, Pepper keeps mentioning the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. She likes the idea of plants. Lots and lots and... lots of plants. But they don't allow even three hundred guests, so that's out of the question." He was one of the most well-known people on the planet and every mover and shaker would expect an invitation. Three hundred seats would either leave out an extended Potts family member or some important billionaire, and neither was acceptable.

Christine ignored those details that he could easily pluck from memory. Without looking away from his scans, she amended, "But can you remember what the facility actually looks like? She must have shown you pictures if she was so excited about it."

"Of course I..." The sinking feeling in Tony's gut swallowed his words.

No. He couldn't. He knew they'd visited some building that might hold their reception but had absolutely no recollection of that building's appearance. With concern growing, he began to think through some of the other ceremony locations they'd brainstormed. Could he remember his own yacht, which would patrol a slow path around southern Manhattan as the evening lights emerged? Of course he could; he'd been on it dozens of times. Ellis Island? Well... obviously the Statue of Liberty would be a memorable figure in the background, and so it was understandable that he couldn't recall the actual event facility.

The ballroom at the Plaza, though? He'd been there before for charity functions. He should be able to remember it.

Christine further sobered at whatever expression he was making. "Can you remember what the Sanctum looks like?"

Tony snorted. "I was there a couple of hours ago."

"Answer the question."

Well, it had armchairs. There had definitely been armchairs. He knew there had been mystical objects on display and no technological wonders to study them, but... but for the life of him, Tony couldn't remember any actual visuals about the room he'd visited two hours earlier. Except for those armchairs. "How bad is it?" he asked with growing concern.

He hadn't actually answered Christine's question, but she seemed to take the lack of an answer as the only confirmation she needed. "There's been additional visible degradation since yesterday. Since yesterday," she repeated emphatically. "Tony, whatever you're doing, you have to stop."

"Can it be repaired?"

"I am not going to promise you anything if that encourages you to keep taking these risks! You have to stop whatever you're doing to hurt yourself."

That meant 'yes.' If the damage was irreversible, she would have scared him with that.

With a considering pause and narrowed eyes, Tony asked, "What's your plan for helping Stephen if I stop reaching out to him?" Christine didn't know that Stephen's spirit was no longer helplessly adrift in a hostile universe. Even so, she'd wanted to cut Tony off. She wouldn't stop touching that damn necklace, but she still wanted to cut off Stephen's one hope of rescue even though Tony's damage was reversible.

"I take the research we've done with the Mind Stone," Christine began very reasonably, "and look for resonance with his neural signatures—"

"You need to rescue his spirit, not his mind," Tony interrupted. God, it was a good thing he hadn't left her in charge. Everyone else was five steps behind him. "Which... I have already done. You're welcome. Now that I've saved Stephen, will you fix up the damage I took during that rescue?" If nothing else, she should at least be worthwhile for doing that.

Christine blinked, then turned to bring up the readings from the recovery room holding Stephen's body. "What?" She needed a quick overview on that bombshell, but her stupid, stubborn self wouldn't accept the wondrous thing he'd accomplished.

"I had fragments of his spirit in my hand," Tony insisted after finishing, and held up that right palm to her. "He didn't remember me before I did that, but he did afterward. I'm healing him. I'm saving him. Seriously."

The sudden hope in Christine's eyes turned sour. "I really wish that I could believe that. God, I wish..." Her head bowed and shook once.

"He's back!" Tony said with mounting frustration. "What's your problem?" The most charitable assessment of the situation was resentment over Tony saving the day instead of her. There were far less forgiving views he could take of things, too: bitter ex-girlfriend views.

Her cheeks were pink when she looked back up. Despite that show of emotion, Christine's gaze was now level. Her flash of raw, desperate hope had faded behind the steady professionalism she surely needed during the worst days spent in a metropolitan ER. "When did you do this 'spiritual reconstruction?' When did you have this encounter?"

"Just now."

"In the middle of the day?"

"Yes," Tony said with what he thought was admirable patience.

"So, you probably used the sleeping drugs I gave you?"

She could not be more aggravating if she was actively trying to annoy him. "Yes," Tony said sweetly. "I used the amazing drugs you so graciously prescribed to me, so there's your contribution. My contribution was to face down Stephen on an alien world while wearing a spiritual suit of armor, and then to painstakingly reconstruct his shattered spirit. So, you know... I did a tiny bit more. But full credit for handing me a bottle off the pharmacy shelf."

Christine's eyebrow lifted and her arms folded across her chest. "So you used the drugs that have an amnesiac effect on dreams?"

"Yes, that's exactly what I've been sayin... wait." Frowning, Tony looked away. She was right about those drugs. They'd blocked memories of dreams before. How, then, was he remembering this? "This really happened," he insisted when he saw her turn back to his scans, look over Stephen's readings, and tiredly rub her temples as she flipped between the two.

"Tony Stark is deliberately giving himself brain damage on my watch," she muttered in a voice that was definitely not meant for any other ears but her own, followed it up with a few creative swears, and only turned back to Tony when she'd plastered a new smile on her face. "What if we try some different types of scans to see what exactly might be going on?"

"Sure, fine." This would be so much easier if she were actually a dedicated brain specialist, instead of an emergency doc with an overlap in Stephen's area of study. "Why don't we go down to his room," Tony suggested, "and take readings when I'm next to him?" In his dream, he'd needed to get up close and personal to have any effect.

"That's not a bad idea," Christine murmured, but frowned a moment later as she checked again on the recovery room. "It may need to wait a little bit, though. Wong came to see him. I should have mentioned this all to Wong, actually."

Right, right, Wong had wanted to come by. It would be rude to interrupt them. A second later, though, Tony snapped his fingers and said, "No, this is exactly when we need to go down there. Come on." Assuming Christine would follow him, Tony hurried out of the lab and toward the private recovery rooms.

"Hello again," he said when he pushed open Stephen's door without knocking. The room was as impersonal as before, and smelled just as much like disinfectant, but at least the Cloak had risen to float beside Wong.

Frowning, Wong straightened from where he'd bent over to study Stephen's motionless form. His splayed hands lifted from Stephen's cheek and chest. A nurse in the corner watched him silently; next to her, a screen showed that Bruce had given Wong his authorization for this visit. "Stark?"

Before Tony could respond, Christine entered the room and sighed over the sight in front of her. That deep sigh was not, despite Tony's assumptions, related to Stephen.

"I'm fine," Wong said brusquely when she approached him, dismissing the nurse as she did.

"You are not fine! You're bleeding though. Let me change the wrappings, at least." So long as she was at Avengers headquarters, Christine Palmer appeared to exist in a permanently stressed state. She disappeared for a moment, during which both men returned their attention to the body between them, then reappeared with a medical kit in hand. "Sit."

As Christine's sure hands unwrapped the bloodied bandages that Tony had noticed earlier, Tony grimaced and took a step back. Four deep, parallel lines were carved into Wong's forearm like he'd blocked a deadly blow from a great cat. Stitches stood above those lines like spidery black legs. Though the stitches were narrow and precise, dark scabs still spotted the skin between them. A few of them had torn open, and it was those spots that had marked the bandages.

"What's been attacking Earth?" Tony wondered as he looked at those bloody lines sidelong. "Is there something else we need to look out for in the meantime?" It'd be just the Avengers' luck to face some alien invasion when the apocalypse was still fresh.

"It's not that," Christine corrected as she wrapped fresh sterile gauze around Wong's injuries. Though it certainly stung, Wong didn't show a hint of discomfort. "Wong refuses to let anyone else help him with what he's doing."

"Including both of you," Wong said shortly. On the panel in the corner, Bruce's authorization screen was still active; he appeared to be listening in. "Now we need to talk about Stephen."

Despite his Christine-disliking instincts, Tony found himself exchanging a dubious glance with the woman. "Uh, Wong, buddy..."

"I am not your 'buddy,' Stark, and I knowingly became librarian at Kamar-Taj after my predecessor was decapitated. I can accept my responsibilities. We will not discuss my injuries further. They're my concern alone."

At the brusque words, Tony found himself recalling Stephen priding himself on how much pain he could tolerate. He wouldn't mind losing that particular memory. "Fine," he said tiredly. "I assume you've checked on him?"

Wong slowly nodded. "It's as I expected after our discussion. His spirit is entirely absent. He's..."

"A shell," Christine finished miserably. The Cloak's shoulders drooped. "Without even the signs you'd get from someone under anesthesia."

"But," Tony countered, "I have an idea. Wong, Stephen was able to put me to sleep without any dreams. I'm sure you could do the same. Christine, if you scan me during this and you see anything—anything—happening, you're not going to be able to say I'm just making things up. Because if Wong knocks me out like Stephen did, then it can't be a dream."

Though Christine looked tempted, she still hesitated. The tension of that professional conflict inside her practically left the woman vibrating where she stood. "You already have brain damage."

Why was she obsessing over that? It wasn't like the damage would get any worse now. "Stephen's not going to attack me." As Christine still hesitated, likely caught in some Hippocratic paradox where she couldn't identify the best route to maximally reduce harm, Tony rolled two visitor chairs out from a corner of the room. "I'm gonna do this right now in the infirmary with you watching me, or I'll do this tonight in my bed. If that happens, then it'll be on your head if I bleed out from a brain aneurysm in my bedroom."

Dark, frustrated anger filled the look he got in return, but Christine called up a fresh round of medical displays.

"Is he always like this?" Wong wondered quietly to Christine.

"As near as I can tell," Christine muttered. Beside her, the Cloak made a motion with its collar that might equal a nod.

They could complain all they liked, for Tony was getting his way. With satisfaction he spun one chair around, sat in the other, and used the first chair as his footrest. "Knock me out, Wong."

"No," Christine ordered, vanished through the doorway, and soon returned with a gurney. "Even if you follow my directions for absolutely nothing else, you will be flat on a bed."

Fine, fine. With an exaggerated eyeroll, Tony rose from his seat and sprawled on the gurney next to Stephen. It wasn't comfortable, but that discomfort actually made him smile. The awkward surface reminded him of those alien beds back on Titan. He exhaled and shifted his weight. "Okay, Wong. Zap me."

"Yeah, zap him," Christine tiredly confirmed after speckling Tony's forehead with scanner pads. As more panels flared up along the wall, likely controlled from Bruce's lab, Tony saw Wong's hands extend toward his temples. Those fingertip embers had never felt so welcomed.

Titan, Tony saw a moment later with absolute satisfaction. He was on Titan again and this could not possibly be a dream. Now its alien landscape was welcomed and the infinite galaxy spectacle overhead was more beautiful than ever. Even the stale, dead air felt good as it filled his lungs. "Hey," he soon said and took a step back with his hands obligingly raised. Bare rock and dirt crunched under his feet. "Remember me?"

Though Stephen had arrived with his hands wrapped in energy, he soon let that golden radiance vanish. "Tony," he said slowly. After a few moments to orient himself, his remaining confusion melted away. "You were just here. Why are you back already?"

"I'm next to you in the infirmary," Tony said after concluding that it was safe to walk closer. Still, though, habit made him check for exit routes among the jagged rocks. "Climbing on that bed felt just like being back here on Titan. There's probably no way you'd believe this, but sometimes it was a lot easier to be stranded here on this rock." At the expected look of confusion that earned, he explained, "Earth can just be very... loud." Titan had been a gin strong enough to make his eyes water, but Earth was a complicated cocktail with a half-dozen too many ingredients.

"The man who never met a classic rock song he didn't like is worried about things being too loud?" Stephen wondered. It was a small joke, but it was personality, and so a huge grin spread on Tony's face. "Why are you in the infirmary? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Tony lied and quickly moved on. "We just wanted to see what it looked like when I made contact with you again. Wong put me under. I'm covered with all sorts of scanners and Bruce is watching."

Stephen hesitated for a moment, then deliberately lowered himself to a seated position. "That makes sense, but this isn't what you should be spending your time on right now. Nor should they."

"You don't know that," Tony replied as he walked over to join him, "because I seem to remember you saying that your own future was just some blurry—" Energy leapt toward him and he barely dodged in time. The bolt hadn't quite made contact, but his cheek still felt warm like he'd been lounging under a summer sun.

As soon as Stephen launched that single attack, awareness returned to his eyes. Dismay then filled them. "Tony!" He hurried over to check on what he'd done, but hung back a few steps after Tony warily fended him off. "God, I'm sorry. You just... you didn't look like you, all of a sudden."

With a measured nod, Tony slowly lowered the arm he'd brought up in front of his face. Filaments still floated from Stephen's body like shimmering cobwebs on the breeze. As soon as he recalled how the anchors had shattered like a dropped mirror, Tony again found himself clutching a narrow golden rope. "It's okay. Your spirit is still broken. For a second you probably saw me through the wrong reflection."

"Is it?" Stephen wondered and looked down at himself. "I can't see anything, though from your hand's position I assume that you're holding something."

Recalling how Stephen's still-raw instincts had fired when Tony approached him, Tony said thoughtfully, "Why don't I stay here on the ground, and you come sit next to me?" That worked, and he nodded as Stephen settled into position opposite him. "Good. Let me try this again. Tell me when you feel better."

A half-dozen strands were easily plucked from the air. As Tony worked, he estimated that at least sixty were adrift. That concerned him. While doing his work inside Wong's armor, he thought he'd collected at least half of the chains that had been attached to those anchors, but after such a short time awake the rope had already frayed. If he'd waited until tonight to return to Titan, Stephen might well have completely lost himself again.

"Why are you frowning?" Stephen eventually asked. "And again, what are you holding?"

"The broken chains from those anchors," Tony mused as he studied the growing strand of light in his hand.

That seemed to genuinely startle the man. "What? You can't possibly be..." Stephen sighed. "Although given my current state, you clearly are seeing them. I just don't understand how."

"You don't understand how you're alive, either," Tony pointed out and plucked another strand from the air. "So let's just go with the flow. Any thoughts on how I can keep these strands from unraveling until we've got your spirit safely back in your body?"

"It would help if I could see them, too," Stephen mused and opened Tony's right hand. He traced his fingertips across Tony's palm, but even though they seemed to pass through the beam of light Stephen didn't react.

"It's there, I can still see it," Tony promised when Stephen leaned back, frustrated. A slight smile grew. "I felt you touch me, too. It's like we're both really sitting here."

Another minute of contemplation was apparently needed. Tony didn't mind the silence. It was like the companionable quiet they'd managed in the Maw's ship, though now their tasks had wildly diverged from their first attempt to escape this hellhole. Instead of calculating stress factors and flight vectors, Tony now waited under silver starlight and watched for spirit fragments to gleam gold.

"Let's try this," Stephen decided and again reached for Tony's hand. Gentle pressure directed Tony's palm toward Stephen's head, and when it looked like Tony would need to lean awkwardly forward he instead adjusted his position on the ground. Their folded knees now lightly impacted each other's as Tony's hand rested flat against Stephen's forehead.

"Should I be doing something?" Tony wondered, and tilted his head back and forth to try to restore visual contact. He'd gotten so used to Stephen's sure gaze and he never wanted to lose it again. Not after the portal. Not after he was sure those eyes had shut forever.

"I can't feel it," Stephen mused, flattened his hand against the back of Tony's to assure total contact between them, and then sighed and shook his head before pulling downward. "Let's try here, now."

Now that his hand had been directed to the base of Stephen's throat Tony was able to renew their gaze, but he didn't particularly appreciate feeling ready to throttle the man. "Uh, what am I doing, exactly?"

"I'm trying to align what you've recovered with one of my spiritual centers," Stephen grumbled, "but it's not working. All I feel is your hand."

Oh, 'spiritual centers' made sense. It sounded a little like a discount knock-off yoga store in a strip mall, but it did make sense. "Anything?" Tony asked hopefully after his hand was pulled further downward to match with Stephen's heart.

"Barely a flicker, but I might have been imagining things." With another sigh, Stephen pulled Tony's palm to the base of his rib cage, but immediately shook his head. "And nothing at all there. So, ah..." He coughed and released Tony's hand. "So I suppose we can stop this approach."

Tony frowned in confusion, which faded when he realized that things were about to get abruptly personal between them if he moved much further down. "What, no turnabout and fair playing?" he chuckled as he sat back.

"I beg your pardon?" Stephen asked with arch tones that matched the stranger from Hogwarts, rather than the man who Tony had so gleefully annoyed after weeks spent together in the Maw's ship.

"I'm just saying," Tony pointed out, poked Stephen at the base of his rib cage again, and grabbed another filament. "You sure didn't hesitate to paw me."

"Excuse me," Stephen half-laughed, half-sputtered, "there was no 'pawing.' I healed you!"

Despite his good humor, the remembered heat of that connection flushed Tony's cheeks. "I'm pretty sure there was pawing." For tiny flashes it had felt like his entire being was merged with someone else's, and that definitely counted as some sort of pawing.

"For the love of... if you had a problem, you could have stopped that at any time! At any time! But you just..." Stephen gestured toward Tony when words failed him. "Kept bringing me further inside you!"

"Please phrase that in a different way," Tony groaned even as inspiration struck. Stephen had needed an additional factor to heal him then, and Tony had needed the same thing to grab hold of these filaments: direct contact. Without bothering to ask permission, Tony slid Stephen's shirt to one side like he had when he was preparing to resolve the hemothorax, and laid his hand flat over Stephen's heart. "Can you feel the chains now?"

Though he closed his eyes and focused, Stephen eventually sighed and shook his head. "More than a flicker this time, but just barely. It's gone already."

Frowning, Tony adjusted his hand where it spread over Stephen's heart. This was so odd. Not only could he feel the heartbeat below his palm—stronger and more certain than what he'd seen on infirmary monitors—but he could feel the enveloping, comforting warmth of the spiritual fragments he still held. "Seriously? It's right there."

"Will you stop pushing?" Stephen grumbled as he looked down at where Tony was now trying to physically force the chain into his chest. "It's not helping. I just can't make that connection. Perhaps later I can figure something out, but..." But if they waited until 'later,' they'd run the risk of things unraveling again after Tony woke.

If Tony could feel and see the spiritual chain, then why couldn't Stephen? Why had that glimmer of hope near the heart chakra proven useless? (Chakra. That was the name for those things, right?) With a sigh, Tony retracted his hand and studied the glimmering golden cord he still held. It was beautiful now that he really looked at it, like molten gold seen through a halo of sparkling crystal. What were they supposed to do with the damn thing, though?

MIT had not prepared him to take responsibility for a disembodied human spirit, yet that was apparently the challenge with which he was faced. I was able to tuck this away for a little bit, earlier, Tony remembered. Right after I got him back. Well, if the heart location had been their best bet, and if Tony was the only one of them who could see and feel this...

"Wait!" Stephen said when he saw what Tony was doing, but it was too late. Tony's hand snaked up under his own shirt and pressed hard just to the left of his nano housing. "No, that's—"

His voice died just as energy filled Tony as completely as it had during his medical scan. Existence chimed like a struck bell. Warmth surged across the landscape like he'd stepped from January to July, and his skin tingled in rolling waves. As soon as things settled and Tony stopped feeling like he was in two places at once, certainty filled him. Feeling this good couldn't possibly be the wrong move.

"Tony," Stephen murmured and rested a hand lightly against his own chest, "what did you do?"

With a shaky smile, Tony retracted his hand from under his shirt. The golden cord still pierced his chest even as his arms moved free. "I... made something happen?"

"I can see it, now." After trailing his fingertips along the cord that now bound them together, Stephen shook his head. "You idiot."

"You're welcome," Tony laughed as contentment trickled out from his torso into all of his extremities. Yes: this was the same bliss that had overcome him during Stephen's scan, but at manageable levels. The new warmth in his chest felt like it had always belonged there.

"You..." Stephen trailed off, shook his head, and needed a moment to collect himself. For the first time, his normally pale eyes looked darker in Titan's night. Tony couldn't help but wonder if this felt good on his end, too. "I think you somehow just tied my spirit to yours."

"And I think it's what I was going for. Maybe." Tony couldn't help but laugh as he added, "I never said any words like this before Hogwarts, by the way." Not only had he stumbled his way into repairing a spirit, he'd apparently stumbled into becoming Stephen's replacement anchor. Surely that would keep things from unraveling in the meantime.

"You absolutely spectacular blithering idiot," Stephen sighed, but fondness surrounded the words. "There's still an excellent chance that I'm going to die. Eventually my body will just give out. And what do you think will happen to you then, now that you've pulled this move?"

Abruptly sobered, Tony snapped, "It's not going to happen."

Stephen said nothing, but studied the chain with deep consideration. The expression he made was one that Tony recognized. In retrospect it was the faintly haunted expression he'd made every time he alluded to his approaching death, that Tony hadn't known then to take as a warning.

"And don't you dare try to figure out how to untie that thing," Tony ordered and leaned forward to poke him. "No more sacrifice plays."

"Do you think I want you dying trying to save me?" Stephen demanded. "When I was already quite comfortable with the idea of what I was doing? When you're needed for the efforts ahead and I no longer am?"

Despite himself, the image of MRI scans filled Tony's head. Visible degradation since yesterday. He shoved those memories aside with the same speed with which they'd arrived. "Trust me, I don't plan on dying for your sake."

"Good. So long as you'll rip yourself loose if I start to—"

Oh, there'd be no talk of that. "Because you're not going to die, either." Tony smirked when Stephen rolled his eyes at the easy reassurance. "Remember how you tried to outsmart me on Titan by causing that chest bleeder? You knew that I wouldn't be able to turn away if you needed help." Tony gestured expansively around them, at the echo of a dead planet onto which Stephen's helpless spirit had been marooned. "And. Well. Help."

"That's..." As he clearly prepared to say that the two situations were nothing alike, Stephen trailed off. That disgruntled expression belonged to a man who'd been outmaneuvered.

Tony cocked a finger gun at him and winked.

"You're impossible. But seriously, when my body gives out, you need to—"

"You are resting on what's apparently the world's best technology for coma patients," Tony interrupted. "Your body is doing just fine. Wong's working with us, so he'll be able to scan you in other ways to see if anything's changing on the... chakra yoga strip mall side of things."

Stephen squinted. "The what?"

Probably should have phrased that differently. "And we've apparently got the world's current medical expert on spiritual displacement and you being out of your body like this," Tony quickly added to change the subject. "So your body is definitely not going to die and so I am not letting go of you. What? What's wrong?"

At those words, Stephen's forehead had lined with deep concentration. His eyes darted back and forth like he was reading some unseen book, and when he looked back up, a smile brighter than Tony had ever seen on him appeared. "Are you talking about Christine Palmer?"

"Uh." Tony cleared his throat. "Yes." Perhaps it was overstating things to call her the world's expert. She had only seen it happen twice.

"Thank God," Stephen said, closed his eyes, and laid a trembling hand against his chest. It was moving more than Tony would expect from just his nerve damage. "Thank God. She's at the facility right now? And safe?"

Tony shifted his weight where he sat. "Yeah." His gaze wandered upward, like he was looking up from his physical body rather than this imagined locale on Titan. "She's the one who put those scanners all over our heads." It really had been a little presumptuous for Christine to represent herself to the Avengers as any sort of spiritual expert. Two patients was not an acceptable sample size for scientific research, and she should know that.

"So she's probably standing right next to me." Stephen laughed faintly and sat back. "That's very good to hear."

Tony sat back, too, and lightly touched the golden light streaming into his chest. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it would be."

A familiar sensation began to sweep him him like he'd yawned too hard, and Tony looked back up to the sky and glared. "What, did you hear us say your name? Did you listen in with the Mind Stone?" At Stephen's confusion, he explained, "I'm waking up."

"The Mind Stone? What?"

Oh, right. He didn't know that they'd duplicated an aspect of its powers. Tony snapped his fingers frantically, trying to retrieve the most relevant facts before Christine and Wong could yank him out of the sleep he now clung to. "They had deep scans of the Stone from Wakanda, we had Vision's system files, and they've been figuring out how it all works."

"This is really it, then," Stephen murmured. "Just like I thought." With a sudden iron grip, he reached over and locked his hands around one of Tony's. "If Mind behaves anything like Time in terms of energy flow, tell them to look at the circular sulcus of the insula."

It was like the very last part of that had been mumbled through a numb mouth. Tony knew they had to be words, but they were such unfamiliar sound sequences that they wouldn't stick in place inside his brain. "The what?"

"The circular sulcus of the insula," Stephen repeated with exaggerated precision. "Say it back to me, quickly."

It took Tony a few tries to even come close. By the end it felt like he was barely clinging to sleep. "I'll tell them!" he promised as the night sky seemed to erupt into the harsh overhead light of a medical lab. As his eyes opened, one last plea to tell Christine hello was barely heard.

As soon as he realized what he'd caught for Stephen's last words, Tony's eyes closed again and he sighed. "I'm fine," he said as he felt Christine's fingers prodding him. As she murmured that he'd been hard to wake, Tony grumbled, "I'm fine, and you interrupted us."

The silence that earned made him open his eyes again. Wong's fingertips rested lightly on Stephen's forehead. His own furrowed. Christine gnawed at her lip; Tony's next words might decide whether tears joined that showcase of nerves. The Cloak tilted expectantly.

"Convince me that you were really talking to him," Christine said after after a moment. One hand's fingertips rose to rest lightly against her collarbone. After a second, Tony realized the necklace would lie there underneath the scrubs' material.

The words. He needed to say the words. Clearing his mind, Tony let his gaze go unfocused toward the ceiling overhead. "For the Mind Stone research, look at the circular sulsa... sulcis..."

"The circular sulcus of the insula?" Christine whispered.

"Yeah. That sounds right."

"Oh my God." Her hands covered her mouth and nose. Above them, tears began to trickle. "You have no idea what that is, do you?" At Tony's quick head shake, a thick, wet laugh erupted behind her hands. "But he does. We saw something happening on the monitors and you really were talking to him."

"This is wild," crackled Bruce's voice over the comms. "How were you talking to someone across a whole galaxy? Tony, you need to come look at this data with me. Actually, it's way past time I bring you into the whole research loop."

The research teams. The fight against Thanos. Yes, Bruce was absolutely right, for now it was time for Tony to work on saving everyone whose lives were temporarily on the shelf. Fervor swelled in him at the realization. It didn't matter that he couldn't remember what those Brooklyn gardens looked like, because he and Pepper could soon visit them again, and again, and again. Maybe they could get the guest list down to three hundred, after all.

Wong said nothing. His fingertips still rested on Stephen's forehead, precisely placed between the scanner pads that dotted the skin. Finally he stepped away and studied Tony with a uniquely curious stare.

As Tony sat up, he rubbed absently at a spot just to the left of his nano housing. As he'd hoped, he still felt something there: a spot of relative heat like a sunbeam moving across bare skin. It had to mean that things were still secure, that he was still a replacement anchor, and that the spiritual chain would no longer fray in-between dreams.

A moment later, a distinctly unpleasant warmth filled the rest of him. This wasn't hope, but a swampy, muggy sensation that he couldn't identity even as it wobbled in his stomach. Christine had bent down to clutch Stephen's still body. Her teary face was buried in the junction between his neck and shoulder, and one arm snaked under him in an embrace that lifted him barely off the bed.

"You said the bed was keeping him stable," Tony snapped. "Put him back down."

With a disbelieving expression, Christine turned to look at him, then did gently ease Stephen's body back onto the bed. "I'm not risking my patients, Tony. And since that includes you, I'm very happy to say that I didn't see anything dangerous happening."

"Of course not. Because nothing bad happened." Tony stood, folded his arms, and walked over to stand on the opposite side of the bed. It hummed patiently between them. "So, will you finally answer me? Is there anything you can do to heal this brain damage?"

She swiped at her cheeks with the back of one hand, which then rested back on Stephen's shoulder. The Cloak brushed against the other arm's wrist like it was comforting her; it did seem to like Christine more than Tony. Unfair. "Right. Yes, we can put you on oxygen therapy and that should work as a first step toward repair of the damaged area. Meanwhile, I can try reaching out to him with what we've learned about the Stone, and—"

"No, I reach out," Tony insisted. "I've saved him. You had nothing to do with this."

As Wong blinked at him in fresh confusion, Christine pulled back with narrowed, reddened eyes. The hand she rested on Stephen tightened around his shoulder. "Excuse me?" With the other hand, she retrieved that stupid diamond necklace again and began absently rolling its solitaire between her thumb and index finger.

"Every move you've pulled has made things harder on him, pretty much." Tony shrugged hugely. "Holding me back, wanting to block dreams when I made a connection... I just don't know why you have any input into this, by this point. Wong actually helped out with that armor, at least."

"I don't know what your intentions are, Stark," Wong said and eyed him sidelong, "but I am not part of this conversation." As the Cloak tilted the angle of its shoulders and collar, it seemed to echo his expression.

Christine's fingers tightened around that damned necklace (that had been coiled in a champagne flute, like some cheap movie scene). "Epinephrine therapy used to pull a patient back from circulatory collapse. Which you didn't see, but should still probably care about."

"You helped his body one time, fine," Tony said impatiently. "But I thought you said that fancy Wakandan bed now handled everything? I'm the one who's actually been putting in all the work since then."

Christine didn't seem to know how to respond to that. Her face was absolutely blank, and so it was easy for Tony to focus on how he'd been the one who'd been making those visits back across the galaxy, risking life and brain stem to rescued Stephen's shattered spirit. This woman needed to stop moving in on his turf.

"I mean, you are out of your element, here," Tony said with an exaggerated shrug, then looked over to Wong for agreement he didn't receive. With a slight frown for the blank expression the other man aimed at him, Tony looked back to Christine and continued, "I'm the one he wanted to reach out to. And that Mind Stone research team you're on, well. Bruce is one of the world's greatest geniuses and it sounds like Shuri's up there, too." Something hot and tight filled Tony's chest. It oozed around his emotions like tar. As he leaned forward to study the data they'd generated on the wall monitors, he murmured to himself, "Meanwhile, Dr. Barbie saw a couple of astral ghosts."

"I beg your pardon?" Christine asked in an absolutely glacial voice.

Shit. Not only had he not actually intended to say that, but he certainly hadn't meant to do so for anyone else's ears.

"Hey, hey, Tony," crackled Bruce's voice, "why don't you come on up here now, huh? It's gotta be—"

Christine slapped her hand against the wall and Bruce's voice cut abruptly off. "What is your problem with me?"

Yeah, those worms weren't going back into the can any time soon. Well, when things were getting a little tense, there was only one thing to do: throw a few jabs at the other party and expect them to poke back. If this woman wanted to prance around Avengers headquarters, she could learn how Tony Stark operated under stress. Tony snorted and parried with, "My 'problem' with you? Uh, little presumptuous of yourself to assume so, don't you think? You're just the MRI lady."

"Stark," Wong said, frowning. The Cloak pulled back and tightened the curve of its collar.

"Just the MRI lady," Christine repeated with a strained smile. The hand not holding her necklace returned to Stephen's shoulder. "Well then, Mr. Car Mechanic, this is a medical facility, not a garage, so only one of us should be here. Leave."

"I'm a little more than 'a car mechanic,'" Tony replied with narrowed eyes when he realized that she was serious. That wasn't a jab back like he'd wanted; it was a knockout punch. "And I paid for this facility."

"Yes you did, and it's lovely. That being said, I report to Colonel James Rhodes and Captain Steve Rogers, not you. I am on an assigned team with Bruce Banner and Shuri, not you. I am obligated by my oath as a physician to treat your injuries and I will continue to do so, but there is not one damn line in that oath that says I need to take this disrespect." She straightened her back. Although she wasn't in heels, her presence suddenly made it feel as if they were eye-to-eye. "Leave."

"No."

"He is my patient and I swear to God I will block you from entering this room ever again if you do not leave here within ten seconds."

She really was serious about all of this. "You're probably bruising your patient," Tony snapped at where Christine's hand so firmly gripped Stephen's shoulder, then stormed out.

As he stalked down the hall, though, regret soon filled Tony. His pace slowed, then stopped, and he ran a hand roughly down his face. He hadn't really meant to be rude, but he also hadn't known that she'd react like that. He tossed off jibes every day. People poked back accordingly. They didn't take things so seriously and he didn't feel like he'd said anything worse than usual.

He'd just felt so odd and hollow after Christine ripped him away from Titan. "Sorry," Tony murmured as he rubbed the warm spot next to his nano housing. "I sort of yelled at your ex." Did he feel a throb then, or was it just an echo of his own pulse? "Hey, uh... she's wearing a necklace. How long ago did you give..." Tony's eyes closed and he forced his feet back into motion. That didn't matter. If he was going to apologize to Christine, it'd help if he stopped obsessing over the stupid necklace.

"Boss," Friday soon crooned to him, "you've been scheduled for oxygen therapy and neural repair every other day at nine a.m. Do you accept the recommendation? The rationale does seem convincing."

Fantastic. "Yeah, fine, list rationale," Tony replied. He wanted to know what Christine had entered into his official record.

"Issues with memory encoding and recall related to physical locations." Fair enough. "Mood swings. And impulsivity." Okay, less fair. Vaguely fair. Kind of fair. ...Completely fair.

"Bruce," Tony announced and firmly ignored anything else that Friday had to add, "I'm on my way up."

"Great. Um. Fair warning... Nat's back from Canada, and she was here filling me in on all the supplies they found in that lab."

Tony groaned, rubbed the spot above his heart again for a measure of comfort, and replied, "Please tell me she wasn't listening to..." If she had been there to overhear the full conversation, avoiding his problems would become a much more delicate operation.

"You acting like a baby five hours overdue for his nap?" chirped Natasha. "Well, yes, I could tell you that, but. Y'know."

Super. "Whatever, I'm coming up," Tony said flatly and cut the comms. "Time to save Pepper," he told himself as he walked into the elevator. One last life was no longer immediately on the line, and so a whole lot of other lives could now be brought back. "Pepper, and Happy, and Pete, and..."

The thought of all those recovered lives filled him with enough warmth to equal the invisible chain near his heart. Both sensations were pure and optimistic, rather than the swampy mess he'd felt while facing down Christine, and so for a while it was easy to believe that everything was all right. Everything was working out, things were happening as they needed to, and all relevant boxes had been ticked.

"Maybe I don't need to bother apologizing," Tony murmured as he hurried toward Bruce's lab. He'd never been very good at it, and it wasn't like the two of them would spend any time together once they were past this crisis.

Guilt stabbed deeply before he could take his next step. It eased a second later, and to Tony's surprise that fading sensation was replaced by the warmth of the spiritual chain. "Did you just guilt trip me?" Tony wondered as he poked again at his chest. "How in the... fine. I will apologize."

At least until his first oxygen therapy session, though, it would probably be a good idea to finally steer clear of the medical wing.

Chapter Text

Flippancy faded further as Tony traversed the halls. With each step that he took, Tony felt more regretful about how he'd behaved in that medical room. Everything he'd done had made sense in the moment, but although he still couldn't say that he liked Christine Palmer, she certainly hadn't deserved the words he'd flung at her. It was like he'd been drunk on emotions but had somehow still managed to go on a raging bender.

"Well," Tony muttered as he turned into the hallway that held Bruce's conference room, "she did say I have brain damage." Impulsive behavior and mood swings, right? He had an explanation for why he'd acted with all the maturity of a teenager in the height of puberty. "This is your fault, by the way," he added and felt the warm spot above his heart. "You've been hitting the part of my brain that handles all that."

Just as his hand raised to tap the room's entrance panel, Tony paused, sighed, and shook his head. He didn't need a surge of guilt pouring out of that invisible anchor to recognize what he was doing: finding an excuse for his behavior and for why he didn't need to make it right. It had been unnaturally easy to lose his temper—or whatever the hell had happened back there—but 'easy' didn't mean that he'd been justified. "I will apologize to her soon. Really. No jokes."

Nothing came through the anchor, but at least his chest didn't surge full of another guilt trip. For now, he'd take it.

"Knock knock," Tony announced as he raised his hand again and let himself inside. It was a small group that Bruce had gathered for this impromptu meeting. Only Bruce, Janet and her sidekick, and that weird raccoon thing were there to meet him from the actual research teams. Natasha had also stuck around, unfortunately, and mostly seemed there to watch the show that his appearance promised.

"Are you doing okay?" Bruce murmured as he moved to greet Tony. "You... kind of lost it down there."

"I'm better," Tony decided on. Though it wasn't the full assurance that Bruce wanted, it was enough to make him step back to the monitors.

"Can we move this along?" asked Rocket. "I've got demolition waiting."

"Yeah, sure," Bruce promised. Demolition? What was the raccoon blowing up? "This won't take too long. So Tony, we'd been trying to find a way to bring some people back even before you talked about Strange actually seeing a path."

Tony took a seat and studied the faces in front of him. "Makes sense. I guess you'd want to see if there were any potential band-aids out there." With such a horrible outcome, of course they'd search for some way to heal a broken universe even before Tony arrived with a guarantee in hand.

"No, you don't understand." Bruce grinned. "It's already happened once." At Tony's startled look, Bruce's grin grew and he gestured further down the table. The other people between him and his target turned. Soon Tony saw that he must be talking about Janet Van Dyne, the infamously vanished wife of Hank Pym who'd so surprised Tony with her appearance.

"Thanos got me," she admitted.

Her place at this table was super-duper-extra-surprising, then. If she'd returned from crumbling into nothing, then they should already have their recovery approach figured out. Yet, plenty of work apparently still lay ahead. With confusion filling him, Tony looked around for any explanation.

Janet herself spoke up, at least for the introduction of this tale. "I've spent the last... very long time inside a place called the Quantum Realm. It twists our normal comprehension of the space-time continuum. While inside it, my body was changed in ways that none of us yet fully understand. After I was rescued, though, those changes didn't save me from what Thanos did with the Infinity Stones."

"Right..." Tony replied and looked around for whoever would continue the story. If Janet had been selected by Thanos' culling, he doubted she remembered whatever played out next.

"I got trapped inside that place when it happened," said the ant guy. Sean? No. Scott? Scott. "It probably protected me, but I ended up stranded. If not for Foster coming to see if any of us could figure things out, I might still be there."

"Jane Foster?" Tony asked, frowning. They knew each other? Man, he really needed to keep up with people on the periphery of the Avengers. Had Jane cheated on Thor with this little dude? It'd explain the breakup.

Scott blinked. "Jane? What? No, Bill."

Tony turned to Bruce. "There's a Bill and a Jane?" He'd looked up Jane Foster when he thought he recognized her surname, and learned that she'd set up a research program in Wakanda. Her astrophysics knowledge was being paired with Shuri's technical expertise, and she and Selvig were a natural communications bridge between Wakanda and New York.

Bruce blinked owlishly back at him. "They're both on the list."

"I saw a Foster."

"Two Fosters."

"One," Tony insisted and brought up the rosters. After a long moment, he set his tablet back down. "There was a page break in the middle."

With a sidelong look, Scott continued. "When the Avengers put out a call for help, Bill reached out to Bruce. The two of them used Hank's tunnel technology to burrow into the Quantum Realm and get me home."

Before Scott could add more to his explanation, Bruce spoke over him with obvious excitement. "When we first tried to use Pym's tech, it didn't work. It was like the Realm had hardened over, like some scared animal moving a shell into place. We had to tweak setting after setting after setting to make anything respond to us. After we finally got Scott back with all those changed settings, we realized that there was another signature wanting to come out."

Tony looked over to Janet expectantly, and she nodded. Memories shadowed her eyes. "I am technically not the Janet Van Dyne who was killed by Thanos," she added. "There was some lingering echo of me still inside the Realm. Somehow, they found the resonance frequency to let them pull that potential existence into the current reality." Janet looked back down and quietly added, "I—this version of me—never got out before. I don't remember actually seeing my family again. Everyone just told me they were gone when I got here."

Huh. With a deep, considering frown that was mirrored by Natasha as she studied the room, Tony sat back. He wasn't as skilled with quantum physics as he'd like; while he could come up with empirical applications like no one else, Bruce was better with raw theory. Still, he was familiar with what was clearly the central tenet upon which this rested: uncertainty.

While in that other quantum dimension, Janet Van Dyne's existence had existed as a mess of infinite possibilities. It collapsed into a single 'real' state after she'd gotten rescued. Then, the one possibility that was chosen above all others to be reunited with her long-lost family promptly got dusted by Thanos.

Making one choice from among possibilities? This all sounded very familiar. When Stephen decided not to leave on his own with the Time Stone, those potential timelines and their labyrinthine decades lost their chance to appear. But until he'd actually handed the Stone over, those terrible, lonely futures fleeing on Nebula's ship still remained as faint possibilities, however unlikely.

Normally, once a single decision emerged all others were forever lost. He and Pepper had yet to decide on a color scheme for their eventual wedding, and so every color remained a possibility. As soon as they signed a contract with the florist and held the wedding, all of that potential would collapse into the single floral choice they'd made. Something about the oddity of the Quantum Realm, though, could apparently function as a back-up drive. Janet's chosen path should have run into a dead-end. Instead, a different possible Janet sat in front of them.

"Using the Quantum Realm somehow, you think you know how to give the universe a do-over," Tony eventually said without bothering to cover any of his logic in-between. After all, he was only catching up to what everyone else in this room had already figured out. No one else in the universe had Janet's unique energy signature, but the accident of her recovery could be an inspiration in other ways. "Like we've got a bootleg Time Stone."

Memories surged. While he and Rhodey had watched satellite feeds from headquarters, bewildered about whatever was happening, central Hong Kong had been wiped off the map. All of those buildings were gone, all of those people were dead.

Then suddenly, they weren't. The two of them were left foggy about what they'd actually watched as the satellite data changed. Time rolled back and forked in a different direction.

What was wrong got fixed.

"Fingers crossed," Bruce laughed, bringing Tony back to the present. "But... sort of, yeah. Our first step was defensive, to keep Thanos from learning what we were up to." He gestured at the wall, and only then did Tony notice that a light he'd seen before was glowing again. Their discussions were being blocked if Thanos tried to use the Mind Stone to listen in. "We never could have done any of this if he was at full power, but Thor saw him after he did... well... you know."

Just in case someone hadn't figured out Bruce's reference, Natasha snapped her fingers.

Scott leaned over. "Unnecessary, but thanks."

"Thor said the Gauntlet got damaged," Rocket cut in. "And trust me, he ain't getting a new one made for him any time soon. That means we've got a chance where we didn't before."

"And so we've all been trying to... God, you've missed a lot. I'm not blaming you, but these have been some busy, busy weeks. The easiest thing to do," Bruce decided, "is to show you what everyone's been up to."

Their system efficiently picked out the most relevant footage from each team's progress and so it was soon like Tony was watching a film montage. Not everyone had been kept up-to-date on what every team had done, and so others in the room also watched with interest.

The Avengers' databanks held Vision's entire origin and Shuri's scanners had been able to understand the Mind Stone itself more deeply than Tony or Bruce. Between the Avengers' thorough knowledge of Vision and Shuri's blueprint of an Infinity Stone's internal structure, they began to theorize on how exactly the Mind Stone could be used to reach out and integrate with—or override—minds.

Shuri was an unbelievable engineering genius, and Bruce was a whole variety pack of 'genius,' but neither of them knew the most efficient ways in which to start testing Mind hypotheses. For that, they didn't need another engineer: they needed someone who could theorize about which parts of of a brain would be most affected by the energy of a Stone. They needed someone who had already been intrigued as to how consciousness could exist outside of a physical mind.

"So," Tony said without looking away from the screen. "It looks like you, Shuri, and Christine beat everyone else to the punch." Christine really had done good work with this. She'd kept up with both of them, and not many people could. (Had he seriously called her 'Dr. Barbie?' Jesus.)

"We did," Bruce said delicately. Tony could just make out the weighty glance he exchanged with Natasha. "I like both of them a lot. It was a good team to be on."

Thankfully, Bruce was well-practiced at reading Tony's expressions. Though Tony wouldn't have wanted to actually say this in front of Rocket, Janet, and Scott, Bruce understood the look that Tony gave him in return: She was right. I fucked up. I'll make this right between us. With clear relief over the fading tension, Bruce continued his explanation in brighter tones.

"The Quantum Realm is incredibly complex." Now, the massive research team that Tony had noted before filled the screen. While the Mind Stone team had been a nice, tidy trio, this team's membership was a sprawling mess. "The Realm blends all sorts of facets of existence together. We're still trying to figure out that puzzle. It's like..." Bruce trailed off, then started typing something into the system.

"Sudoku?" Tony soon asked. Sure enough, the screen held a fresh sudoku game. A scattering of starting numbers gave some indication of what to do first, but the board was otherwise untouched.

"Try to solve it," Bruce prompted. No one complained, nor acted like he was wasting time. Apparently they'd used this comparison before. Only Natasha, who also existed like Tony on the periphery of this research, looked even the slightest bit surprised to see the game onscreen.

He did try, and Bruce's suggestion to play the game soon made more sense. After just a few filled cells, Tony saw how their path to saving the universe was indeed like the most important game of sudoku in existence.

Any sudoku game was straightforward enough: each row and each column of the nine-by-nine grid had to hold a 'one' through a 'nine,' as did each three-by-three square that divvied up the playing field like a checkerboard. But, since numbers couldn't be duplicated within a row, column, or square, elimination logic was needed for all but the simplest boards. If a number went in one cell, that meant that it was being locked out of all the other cells vertical and horizontal from it.

In one cell, Tony clearly needed a three. Confirming a single answer for that cell meant that another empty cell in the same column had to be a five. He worked like that for a minute. Possibilities still swirled in many of the cells, but one by one, he got them to collapse into a single real choice. From that, other real choices emerged.

After a bit, though, Tony sat back with a frown. He'd barely touched the board and yet he was stumped. The second row from the bottom was his best bet, as it only needed three more numbers to complete. But, no matter how he analyzed the board, he couldn't find any hints toward which cell needed the missing five, four, or nine. And if he couldn't figure out those, then he couldn't figure out the columns that intersected them, and so couldn't tease apart the other rows.

"You found a good board-maker," Tony admitted. He was one of the world's most brilliant minds, and yet a single game of sudoku had stumped him after little more than a minute. "For any other moves I tried to make, I'd just be guessing."

"Not quite," Bruce said and typed something in. A number four appeared in the row that had so stumped Tony. "Before I showed it to you, I took that number out."

With a slight glance of annoyance at Bruce, Tony leaned back in to finish the game. Now he could see clear to fill in a few more spots, which let him fill in a few more, and soon he had the entire board completed. Possibilities, Tony mused as he sat back again. Just like with Janet's quantum existence, all of these sudoku cells had existed in a state of uncertainty until he'd committed them to holding a single number. Becoming certain about one cell had let him become certain about others. Choice by choice, his uncertainty had fallen away.

"You get it, right?" Scott asked as Tony studied the completed board. "The Quantum Realm lets us study Time and Space energies, plus a little bit of altered Reality. That's a whole lot of moving parts to juggle, just like you had too many empty sudoku cells. Without enough clear data, we've had to make a lot of guesses and see how they play out. It's been slow going."

"It's a good metaphor," Bruce said and smiled at Scott. "Thanks, Scott. It really helped to tighten up our thinking about untangling this whole mess."

"I have played so much sudoku over the past two years," Scott explained with a sigh.

"Right, right," Tony said absently as his mental gears hummed along. "How have you been trying to pull out clean data that would match up to only the Time Stone?"

"That's been the hardest one to isolate," Janet admitted. "We don't have a comparison. For the manipulation of Space, we've been doing things like trying to analyze Stormbreaker's Bifrost energy, and Jane knows more about Einstein-Rosen bridges than anyone in the world. It's messy data, but we're slowly getting there. There's also another possibility, but Bruce hasn't yet wanted to use it."

Bruce stepped in with that explanation. "Thor and I know about this planet named Sakaar," he delicately said, "where Time and Reality can both get pretty... twisted." He saw the obvious question in Tony's eyes and added, "If we absolutely, one hundred percent have to, we can go back there. But it'd be a bad idea. A bad, bad idea. A 'we might not come back any time soon' bad idea."

That last bit mollified Tony. "Is there another way to get all these pieces out, so that you can get Time?"

"It's might be just as important to really understand the others, though," Janet pointed out. "Who knows whether it'd be possible to just use Time to save everyone? We might need more types of energy. I apparently needed a lot of types to exist again."

Hmm. That was true. Thanos hadn't used a single Stone to bring about the apocalypse. They probably would need more to fix the harm he'd caused with the full set: Mind to seek out all potential targets, Reality to make them fall apart, Power to fuel it, and so on. Tony sat back and mused on that, aware of some looming hole in their collective logic but not yet able to pinpoint the error.

"Yeah, it's been a mess," Rocket cut in, and stood in his chair as he leaned in to the conversation. "They don't know what energy is what for Time, Space, or Reality inside the Realm. It's just a whole big ugly mess of them all jumbled up together. Thor's axe can teleport, sure, but it's like trying to listen to a song that's blowing out its speakers." The look Rocket gave the others was significant. "Meant they had to find some other hint to start with."

"Right," Tony nodded. Thor's axe had been an explosive way to move across the universe, and so it was no wonder that they had to do a lot of filtering on the noisy data it generated. "So that's... wait, then what are you doing?" Bruce made sense for any topic, and Janet and Scott were their Quantum Realm experts, but Tony didn't understand what the raccoon could contribute to anything. "You're not even on this team."

Rocket smiled. It was slow, but seemed to keep spreading indefinitely.

After studying that expression, Tony turned to Bruce and Natasha. "The rodent's freaking me out a little."

"This not-a-rodent," Rocket said pointedly, "has been blowing up a bunch of pretty, shiny power cores in all the most entertaining ways I can imagine."

Power cores? Well, Thanos did hit hard with the Power Stone, and they needed to figure out ways to block those hits. That was another Stone's energy, then. Still... "Please tell me you have not been handing over my spare arc reactor cores to this animal." There were crates upon crates of the things, relocated out of the old tower and ready to serve as fuel options for independently operating drones. That didn't mean, though, that Tony wanted to hear about any of them being deliberately blown up by some Disney sidekick animal.

"Rocket is disturbingly good at explosives," Natasha said with a shrug. "And Carol probably hits hard enough on her own to mimic a Stone."

Carol? Oh, she must be Danvers: another name he hadn't recognized. God, there was still so much to catch up on. "We might want to use some of my drones in these fights," Tony told Rocket. "And they'll need power. I'm making a chunk of the arc reactors off-limits to you."

Rocket studied his claws. "You can tell me that, sure."

Tony's frown deepened. "You don't get to blow up all of my stuff."

"Right, right." Rocket folded his arms across his chest and nodded sagely. "Sure thing."

Tony turned. "Bruce!"

"I'll work with Rocket," Bruce promised. "But in the end, it's not Space that we've teased out the most already. We found a way to get clean Reality data, instead."

As Bruce started bringing up more video, Janet and Scott winced and shifted their weight. Rocket sat back down, looking none too excited to see whatever was coming. After noting their reactions, Natasha met Tony's gaze, raised one eyebrow, and turned back to the screen. He followed suit, wondering what data could possibly make them so wary.

"We're recording," came Bruce's voice from the video. In the meeting room, the actual Bruce frowned and sat back to watch the taped scene play out. "Are you positive you want to do this?"

Of all the voices Tony had expected to hear, Wong's was not one of them. He'd been certain that Wong's contribution was book research, not something so dangerous that Bruce had tried to talk him out of it. And yet there Wong was as the camera panned to him, slowly opening the clasps on a long, carved box that gleamed like ivory. Smaller monitors flickered to life. On them, the energy readings that had been taken during this appeared.

"I would give my life to protect the Time Stone," Wong levelly replied, "and now, to help fight the foe who has captured it. But I do not plan to do so needlessly. You've heard the plan."

Natasha glanced back to Tony and the two of them exchanged another wary moment. As they returned their attention to the video, Tony recalled the bloody bandages on Wong's arm and how he'd been limping in the Sanctum. What the hell was about to happen?

With a deep breath, Wong reached into the box he'd opened. Both hands gripped something and lifted it free with uniform precision. Though Wong's eyes darted back and forth in unease, the rest of his body continued moving on its own smooth accord. His hands rotated the long object until it was parallel to his body, his feet stepped back from the table, and his mouth opened. "As I have been judged, let a blade strike my leg."

A flash of metal rippled into existence. It cut deeply into Wong's thigh at an angle where there were no lurking arteries underneath. When blood spilled, it wasn't anywhere close to a mortal wound. His eyes glistened with pain but his mouth remained closed. Tony didn't know whether he was that good at controlling reactions or whether he wasn't able to do anything but describe further injuries, so long as his skin touched that staff.

"The creepy stick," Tony whispered, remembering the story that Stephen had told him about the weirdest object in the Sanctum. After hearing about how a person would be injured in the way they described, Tony had even labeled it as their own version of a Reality Stone. "You made him hold the damn mutilation stick?"

"He insisted on it!" Bruce protested as Wong described further injuries and immediately suffered them. Scanner energy spiked with each one. "And look, I stopped him." Sure enough, after one more splash of blood, the Bruce on the video shouted something and drones darted in to grab the stick away from Wong.

"Jesus," Natasha muttered and wrapped her arms around herself. "These magic guys seem pretty hardcore."

"They are," Bruce said before Tony could answer. "Working with Wong over these past few weeks, it's like he's a soldier in some magical war I didn't even know existed. He's got this total laser focus on keeping the world safe like no one I've ever met before. And Tony's guy..." Trailing off, he nodded to Tony, then gestured with his head toward the medical wing.

Yeah. Stephen had been ready to lay down his life to contribute to this fight. More than ready.

Needlessly ready.

As full understanding of this research situation dawned within him, Tony idly tapped the spot above his heart and tried to send irritation through it. If only that magical prick had been able to speak with the people in this room first, he might not have pulled his suicidal portal move.

"We've told Wong not to push too far," Janet cut in. "It's not much Reality data, but it's a clean starting point. Between Thor's axe and that stick of his, we'll eventually be able to tease Space and Reality out from the messy particle data for the Quantum Realm."

"You will be able to," Tony agreed as he summarized everything he'd heard. "Thanks to Wong's creepy mutilation staff, you can remove the Reality uncertainty. When you look at Thor's axe and overlap it with Foster's wormhole expertise, you'll eventually be able to figure out what Space looks like. And if you can pry those away from the rest of the data, it sounds like you can get Time. You'll do it all. That sudoku board can get filled up."

They really were on the path to doing everything. They needed a while, but they were indeed headed for success. This wasn't like the practice sudoku game that Bruce had shown to Tony, where a lack of data made it completely unsolvable. This was a wildly challenging board, but a fair one. They didn't need any more data to win.

Of course, if they did get offered a hint, it'd be stupid to ignore it.

With a sigh, Tony brought up the recording he'd made on their fateful trip across the galaxy. "You don't need to 'tease out' anything. And you're not waiting on an 'eventually.' Use this."

"'Use this?'" Scott repeated, but any follow-up question withered before he could ask it. "Holy shit," he whispered as the energy readings from their journey replaced the data onscreen.

Whatever that mutilation stick's true purpose was, it was powerful enough to call weapons into existence out of nothing. It was dangerous and should probably be destroyed, instead of archived in the Sanctum. And yet, next to the amount of energy that Stephen's portal had used, that reality-altering stick was like a flickering match next to a fusion reactor.

"You told us that he brought you back to Earth," Janet said with wide eyes. "You didn't tell us this much."

"He just... ripped open the universe." Even Rocket seemed awed.

"It's like we've got data from inside the actual Space Stone," Bruce agreed with muted laughter. "We tried looking at Wong's portals but they weren't anywhere strong enough to register. Strange literally channeled as much power as an Infinity Stone! Did you know he could do that, Tony?"

Tony forced a faint smile. The warm spot in his chest was now like a leaden weight. Everyone in the room was applauding what Stephen had done, while Tony was sitting there with the frustrated, growing certainty that it hadn't been necessary in the first place. Yes: Stephen had given them data that was functionally identical to the Space Stone. He'd sped things up. He'd made things easier.

But they'd already been on their way to solving everything. He hadn't needed to pull this big, painful move, for they would have done it without him. He'd tried to exchange his life for a portal's data for absolutely nothing. And although Tony had stabilized Stephen's personality, they had no idea in hell as how to actually rescue his stranded spirit from halfway across the galaxy.

"He can channel that much energy," Tony agreed after his weighty pause. "Once."

As he sat back, he let his irritation further surge. If it trickled through the anchor, then Stephen deserved to feel it. He'd acted like some grandmaster at chess, making the moves that—supposedly—no one else could make. He'd looked at fourteen million futures, directed Tony like an actor in some play, shattered his spirit into pieces... and it hadn't even been necessary.

The people here were already making the moves that Stephen assumed they couldn't. They needed a little more time, but they would have it all figured out without Stephen's attempted suicide-by-portal.

"We are going to be able to clearly identify all data coming from the Quantum Realm related to the manipulation of physical distance," Janet said with mounting excitement. "All of it!"

"And once we narrow down what Wong did, that only leaves us with Time," Scott said with a grin. "Let's get this over to Wakanda."

"We have to have Jane on a video call when she sees this," Janet added with a giggle.

As most people in the room chattered at each other with excitement, Tony rubbed a hand over his face. Stephen must have seen that they needed this Space data, and had guessed he had to be the one to give it to them. He hadn't known for sure how things would actually play out on Earth, though. After his portal, all he'd expected was an uncertain 'smudge.'

He'd tried to kill himself based on an assumption.

And he was wrong.

If those mood swings of Tony's re-appeared the next time his dreams took him to Titan, Stephen deserved every bit of yelling that Tony could dish out to him. As everyone else continued their enthusiastic discussion, screams seemed to echo around Tony like they'd echoed inside a small spacecraft. With a dull and heavy heart, Tony spun his chair toward the window and stared blankly out it at the green world beyond.

His head shook. That moron. Being able to prove Stephen Strange wrong wasn't remotely satisfying, not if this was how it happened. As Tony's resentment grew, a few quick stabs poked like needles in the anchor. Whatever was happening hurt, and so Tony tried to think of anything besides how annoyed he was with Stephen. His fingers brushed idly at the warm spot until the pain stopped.

The figure that stepped in front of the window was a fine distraction. "Tony, now that they're done, can we take a walk?"

Frowning, Tony looked up at Natasha. "A walk?"

"A walk. A nice, pleasant walk around the facility perimeter. Just you and me, out in the fresh air, catching up after the end of the world." She smiled. It was such a bright, innocent expression that he was left instantly on edge. That was not a face that Natasha Romanoff usually made.

"Sure," Tony said warily and stood.

As they turned to leave, a woman's face flashed onto the wall monitor. She was delicately pretty, but the simple ponytail for her brown hair and dark circles under her eyes spoke of someone who'd worked herself ragged. "Jane," Natasha explained as the woman smiled in response to whatever Scott and Janet were telling her.

A few seconds later, the delicacy of Jane's beauty was replaced with a bellowed, "Jesus holy fuck!"

"I think they showed her the portal data," Natasha said with a smirk and pulled Tony through the door.

Chapter Text

Natasha had heard everything Tony had said to Christine in that medical room. Whether to relax him in the fresh air or to avoid onlookers, he was sure that she'd brought him outside to talk about that argument. They kept walking without speaking, though. After a few attempts to open his mouth and get this conversation over with, Tony relented and let her take the lead.

It really was a beautiful day; the sky was sapphire overhead, the grass emerald below. Warmth wrapped them but they weren't yet into the unpleasant heat of high summer. Landscaping drones must have done their automatic work that morning, as the scent of cut grass still lingered.

As they walked in silence, it was increasingly difficult to appreciate that natural beauty. Every step brought more tension. Natasha Romanoff did not suddenly buddy up to people, and so there had to be some very specific reason for bringing him out here. They were past the fields around headquarters and onto a walking trail through the forest before she gave even a hint of her intentions.

"The targets got away from that Canadian lab even before we got there," she began as they rounded a bend in the trail. Bushes began to block their view of the facility buildings. "Clint and I had to follow them to Toronto to block the hand-off." Clearly, she was starting off with something simple to lure Tony into a deeper conversation.

"It did take you a while to get back from the mission," Tony agreed. "What'd they grab?"

"Some biological experiments. You'd think that the end of the freaking world would make bad guys take a breather, but all they saw was an opportunity." Nat shook her head in disgust, then looked over to him. "There are a whole lot of other people who still just see the apocalypse as an opportunity. So, when are you gonna do that announcement that you're back?"

Tony shrugged and looked around the forest. He didn't know to how many species Thanos' culling had extended, but if it had included plant life, then at least this bright green canopy was still thick and lush. "No working TVs out there, right? It'd be kind of hard to pull off the typical PR dog and pony show." Their press conference room was now twice as big as needed to be.

"The internet can do press releases," she countered. "And all those emergency radios could hear that Iron Man is alive, after all. You'd cheer up a lot of good people and scare some of those jerks who just see opportunity in the end of the world."

"True enough. Tomorrow, I guess? It's just felt like I was in crisis mode ever since I got back to Earth. Now that it's finally passed, I'll be able to think about anything else but Stephen." His hand found the warm spot again, then dropped back to his side.

After following Natasha down one fork in the route, Tony frowned, stopped, and turned to look to his left. "Wait, isn't that the perimeter trail?" The one they were turning onto wound deeper into the woods. It wasn't the broad, mulch-covered surface that many facility employees used for a jogging trail, and that he'd anticipated taking for this walk.

"We could use some privacy for this conversation. Come on."

"No," Tony said and took a step backward. This was more of what he'd expected from Natasha Romanoff, but he wasn't pleased at the confirmation. "I don't think I'm up for a conversation that needs 'some privacy.' Why don't we stick to the open trail and talk about what to say in my press release?"

Natasha walked over to him, placed both of her hands on Tony's shoulders, and leaned in. "Trust me, Tony: this is for your benefit... and the benefit of that guy in the infirmary." When he tried to take another step back at that, her hands tightened. "Trust me. I can't make you do this, but I can promise that you'll regret it if you don't."

Shit. Now he felt even worse about that clumsy attempt at blackmail toward Christine earlier, because this felt like some sort of karmic payback. Tony might not have meant his vague threat, but Natasha wouldn't hesitate. She'd also be far better at it than he ever could. "And we're walking into the woods," Tony said and set back into motion, "before the secret agent blackmails me."

Natasha smirked. "Who said I was blackmailing you? I just said you'd regret it if you didn't talk to me."

"Oh, right." He rolled his eyes. "And when a mob boss says 'nice store, a shame if something were to happen to it,' they're just giving the neighborhood shopkeep an innocent compliment."

She bent down, grabbed an acorn, and started bouncing it between her palms as they walked. "Boy, you're paranoid. I'm actually not blackmailing you right now. I just want to avoid more arguments like the one you got into with Dr. Palmer earlier." The acorn bounced a few more times. "She's super nice, by the way. Not that you'd know."

"Can we not..." Tony trailed off, sighed, and didn't finish that statement. There was no defending how he'd behaved. "I'm not going to get into any more arguments."

"That's good to hear." Natasha rebounded the acorn off a tree and caught it. "Since Steve gets back soon."

Ah. This was why she'd pulled him aside.

Natasha had listened in while Tony childishly lost his temper toward someone who'd done nothing but help him, Stephen, and the world, and a far more provocative target would soon arrive. Rogers' best buddy in the room had wanted to make sure that he wouldn't get torn into too deeply when he had to come face-to-face with Tony. "I'll be fine."

"You'll be fine," Natasha repeated. "Knowing that chasing after Bucky set off a chain of events that nearly got Rhodey killed, and you'll be fine."

Was she deliberately trying to piss him off? It felt like it. "I've moved past this," Tony lied, then added, "and besides, Barnes is dead. I'm not going to say I'm happy about how he went, but neither am I gonna shed any tears." Though he expected her to reply, she just kept bouncing that stupid acorn around. Step after step after step, she focused only on the object in her hands. It made him want to keep talking to fill the silence. "I thought Rogers and I were friends, but he decided that he cared more about the guy who murdered my parents. It's fine. I've moved past it."

Natasha made a soft noise of acknowledgement and bounced the acorn off another tree. It hit the bark at an odd angle; she barely caught it on the rebound.

"Because hey, whatever, we've gotta work together. The world loves Captain America, after all. Even when he goes on the run and is officially a bad guy, he still has merchandise at Target." Tony scooped up an acorn of his own, threw it at a tree, and didn't try to catch it. "They stopped selling the shield for a while, you know. But some people complained if they couldn't get their Captain America shirts. They kept walking around wearing a picture of the shield he used to beat the shit out of me."

"To protect Bucky," Natasha agreed.

"To protect Bucky," Tony spat.

"And," Natasha said, closed her fist around the acorn, and drew to a sudden stop, "he picked Bucky over you."

Tony also stopped, but said nothing in response. His clenched jaw worked back and forth. Yeah, she was definitely trying to piss him off.

"What I was never able to figure out, though," Natasha continued, "was why you thought he was your friend."

Tony had nothing to offer in response, for it was such an absurd thing to argue. Of course they'd been friends before Steve stabbed him in the back. They were Iron Man and Captain America, the first-ever hero and the first hero of the modern age. They were equals, which was something that Tony could say about very few people in the world, and then Steve decided that none of that mattered in the face of the unrepentant assassin who'd gunned down Howard and Maria Stark.

"Were you friends when he was living alone in D.C.?" she wondered. "Never talking to each other?" At his instant look of offense, Natasha laughed and continued, "Tony, I'm not saying that you didn't get along... but that doesn't make you friends. You can feel betrayed by Steve, sure. I'll even say he deserves it. But part of what I've seen you hold against Steve comes from him not living up to a role that you decided he was filling."

"So," Tony drawled, "you dragged me out here to lecture about being nice to Rogers? Yeah. We're done."

"We're not done," Natasha instantly said, "and now, I am blackmailing you. So don't you dare think about leaving." Her pale eyes met his fearlessly. "No matter how pissed off you are."

His eyes were metal-hard chips as he stared back. "Yeah, I'm not loving this," Tony confirmed with a thin smile.

"And yes: I will take Steve's side over yours, because Steve Rogers is my best friend in the entire world. When I was for the Accords," she continued, anticipating his argument and speaking over it, "it wasn't about either of you and your big boy egos. It was about survival and what I thought gave us the best odds. Who made me go against that cold situational assessment and leave the faction that you happened to lead? Him. Not his faction. Him."

Tony was not a fan of being dragged out for a session of re-opening old, deep wounds, even if it was in private. He wondered what blackmail material Natasha had on him. It couldn't be worth this.

"I would expect Rhodey to do exactly the same for you. Rhodey's your guy, Tony, and we all know it. Bruce is your guy. Steve was never your guy. He's my guy." She swallowed hard. "And he was Sam's guy."

"Does this have a point?" Tony wondered. Unlike in that infirmary with Christine, he felt completely in control of himself. That didn't mean he wasn't about to tear into Romanoff and that smug, secret-keeping face of hers; he just wouldn't regret this shouting match after the fact. "Because I'm about five seconds away from calling my suit and blasting off. Or maybe I'll just start saying some things that you don't want to hear." She'd been better about hiding her soft underbelly than the rest of the team. That didn't mean they'd never seen it.

"So you feel betrayed about Steve knowing that Bucky killed your parents," Natasha continued like Tony hadn't spoken, "and hiding it from you. I don't blame you for being pissed off. He did hide it from you. He hid it for years, ever since he was standing in a secret sub-basement under a S.H.I.E.L.D. base in New Jersey that hid the computerized brain of Arnim Zola. Well, that conversation was just hearing that Hydra ordered the hit," she allowed. "Learning that Bucky was their weapon of choice came a little later."

Unsettled, Tony wondered, "When did he tell you all that?" These were the sort of conversations that Steve and Natasha had held while on the run together? What else had they gossiped about?

"He didn't tell me anything," Natasha levelly replied. "I was standing right next to him in that sub-basement. And I'm the one who got Steve the full files on the Winter Soldier's hit parade after everything shook out."

His knees weakened. "You knew, too?" Tony asked as nausea swept him. She'd also hid this for years, and she'd been right next to him on that Berlin tarmac. He'd trusted a traitor to watch his back. It was no wonder that she'd let Rogers and Barnes escape. "And you didn't tell... he killed my parents!"

Natasha shrugged. "He came really close to killing me, too." Her hand brushed her shoulder, then her torso. "Twice, actually. I've still got the scars. But I was able to accept that Bucky didn't have a choice and there were other people to be furious at."

"He didn't have a choice," Tony repeated, then laughed bitterly at the tree canopy overhead. "Wow. That sure is convenient for him, isn't it? It just brings those people right back."

"It doesn't bring them back," Natasha admitted. "We're just getting used to the idea of any deaths being turned back, huh? All of those deaths. God. How many do you think there were? Trillions? Quadrillions?" She shrugged hugely, but when Tony moved to summon his suit and fly away, she caught his hand like a cobra striking. "Nuh uh. Not yet."

"What the hell do you want?" Tony spat. She tried to hold his hand in place, but he was stronger. After her next sentence, he was ready to shrug Natasha off and escape the conversation she thought they were having. Whatever she was trying to accomplish by playing with his emotions was finished. Now.

She smiled as innocently as she had in the facility. "I just wanted to know if you had any plans to tell the team that Strange deliberately gave the Time Stone to Thanos."

Tony froze. The warm, sunlit forest around them felt suddenly like deep December.

"God, you have no poker face at all," Natasha laughed.

He croaked, "How...?"

"Tony, I'm a spy, and I'm a really, really good one. My whole job is to take note of tiny little things and put them together into a bigger picture." After seeing that he had no response, Natasha held up a hand and began ticking off observations with her fingers. "One: from what he did with that portal and from what we heard about Wong just now, neither of those wizard guys would even blink if they needed to die in defense of an Infinity Stone. Two: yet, Strange didn't die defending it. Thanos made it to Earth and even used the damn thing.

"Three," she continued after giving Tony another chance to speak, which he didn't take. His heart was pounding too hard, like it drove the air from his lungs. "It sounds like Strange acted like his move with the portal was the big play, not defending the Stone. Four: you said that Strange looked into the future to see exactly what would happen from all possible outcomes. So he should know what's up. Five: when you were first telling us about what happened on Titan, for some reason you made sure to specify that Thanos took the Stone by force. That's what really caught my attention, by the way. Lies contain unnecessary detail."

Tony said nothing. Sweat slicked his upper lip.

"Conclusion: Strange saw that it was no use trying to fight Thanos head-on. We have to take another route. The one we're on right now."

She really had figured out everything. That meant that she could tell everyone else. "If Thanos doesn't get the Time Stone on Titan," Tony said in a panic, "then he uses the Gauntlet when he comes to Wakanda. He really, really uses it and doesn't play around at all. Reality made Wanda's and Thor's and... and everyone's powers dissolve, Power flattened armies, Soul killed you all after that—"

"So that's a confirmation, then."

Shit. Shit. "What do you want, Romanoff?" Tony demanded. All the self-composure he'd maintained during their earlier argument fled. Stephen was still comatose on a bed. He couldn't defend himself if she decided to spread this around. "What's your game?"

Her head tilted. "What do you think my 'game' is, Tony?"

There was only one answer. "If I don't act nice to Rogers, then you tell this to everyone. Fine. Whatever. I'll kiss the guy on the mouth to welcome him back, I don't care, you just cannot tell anyone." Tony swallowed. His throat was so dry that it hurt. "Please." No one would understand, and Stephen was completely helpless. "Please."

"Hmm. Well. I don't know. I'm just saying, the guy kinda helped half the universe get killed," Natasha said with an exaggerated shrug.

"He didn't have a—" Tony felt the word die unspoken.

"He didn't have a choice?" Natasha finished for him, then smiled.

"Fuck you." Tony closed his eyes. "Seriously. Tell me what you want and I'll do it."

"Look at me, Tony. Look at me." That blonde hair of hers had matured Natasha. Instead of the impish looks that she'd often pulled out before, Tony found himself staring at a glacier in January. This woman was much harder than she'd been before Thanos and the Accords, and she hadn't started off weak. "You've been assuming that I thought Strange did the wrong thing."

He pulled back a step and blinked. With that statement, her demeanor finally warmed. "What?"

"You said that he looked at fourteen million futures and this was the best one. Apparently the best path kills trillions of people... but that doesn't mean that it's not still the best path." With a tilted head and smile, Natasha asked, "Did you really think that out of everyone, I would be the one to say that it's wrong to do whatever you have to?"

While that was true, he still hadn't heard what he needed to hear to reassure him. "Tell me what you want," Tony repeated, "and I'll do it."

Looking down, Natasha typed something into her phone and then held it for Tony's inspection. MRI scans filled the screen, and he was pretty sure that he knew whose head that was. "I want you to stay alive, for one."

"Bruce may be authorized to get those," Tony said after a short pause, "but I know you've got no reason to have them."

"I'm good at..." Natasha paused. "Obtaining things."

"I bet." Tony sighed, reached out, and pushed her hand back down. She didn't resist. "Don't worry. I'm past the danger stage. No more brain damage."

"Good." Natasha pulled back a step and studied him. "Do you want to know why I dragged you out here and went for every sore spot I could think of? Everyone's been treating you with kid gloves since you dropped out of the sky and turned out to still be alive. That's clearly been the wrong move. Over the past few days you've gotten way up your own ass—"

"Hey," he protested.

With a gesture of apology, Natasha rephrased, "You've gotten all twisted up inside your own head. I know what that can be like, and that it can be tricky to find your way out. If all you can see is one objective, you can lose sight of the mission. From the sound of it, you've been ready to give up 'you' to save 'him.' That's not the mission, Tony. The mission's the universe, and the universe needs you."

She wasn't wrong. Tony really had been on his own since getting back to Earth, after spending weeks never feeling alone. Pepper was... was missing. So was Happy. Rhodey had to prioritize the team, not him. Bruce was a terribly soft touch, and so when Tony retreated into himself, Bruce let him. It really had been too easy to let his focus narrow and never think about tomorrow.

Natasha, on the other hand, was good at noticing things. And once she saw where something was headed, she was also good at getting any job done with any weapons on hand.

"So, the second part of what I want from you," Natasha continued after his silence, "is for you to stop worrying me in ways past that brain scan."

"Did I?" Tony wondered. Natasha seemed generally pleased with the outcome of their conversation, and Tony wasn't even sure what all he'd revealed to her. Hell, he wasn't even sure what he felt right now. Even the revelation of Natasha always knowing about Bucky had been promptly burnt away with terror over her Time Stone blackmail. He felt hollow, like she'd filled Tony with all the worst emotions possible only to burst those bubbles as they swelled.

That sudden void left him feeling unmoored inside his own head. He'd held onto some feelings for so long that they seemed a core part of him, and now it was like he could only study their absence with clinical distance.

"This satisfied some of my curiosity," Natasha said and nodded. "But you really have been weird ever since you got back. You've obsessed in a way that screams 'danger ahead.' Even you have to admit that when you get into one of those moods, things can easily spiral way, way down."

Tony folded his arms and shrugged. She was right about that, but he just didn't want to agree out loud. Nor did he want to applaud what he now recognized as some very expert interrogation techniques.

Natasha sobered. "When I came back from my mission, I heard how you were behaving toward someone who's been nothing but nice to you. Throwing you and Steve back together was only going to make it worse. The world cannot afford for the Avengers to have any 'worse,' right now." At his hesitation, she summarized, "I saw some nasty boils. I took you out here to lance them."

"Disgusting imagery, thanks."

Natasha didn't argue. "Steve Rogers needs to be the world's symbol of people being good and steadfast, but oh my God, he has gotten so tired that he's nearly broken under the weight of it all. If he's going to run these missions where he tries to lift broken people's spirits, then I can do the dirty work behind the scenes to make those missions happen. I never had any illusions of the world being good."

"And God forbid I do anything to hinder Cap," Tony scoffed. Okay, there were some dark emotions still left inside his hollowed-out heart.

She continued like he hadn't spoken. "Tony Stark needs to be the dedicated genius who doesn't let anything stop him from saving who needs to be saved. But you were already distracted by Strange, and I knew it was gonna get a hundred times worse when Steve came back. If those weeds didn't get dug out, they were going to take you over. The world absolutely cannot afford that... and I don't mind getting my hands dirty."

With a sigh from deep in his gut, Tony sank onto the soft forest floor. Old, dead leaves crunched. He could resent Natasha's methods—and he did—but it probably was a really good idea to dig out those weeds. It'd been a while since someone forced him to confront uncomfortable truths, and the person who'd last done so was now the source of Tony's strange behavior. "I don't know why I acted like that earlier. With Christine, I mean. It should have been a confirmation that things were working out, and instead I..."

"Acted like a total douchebag?"

Tony glared up at her. "Don't suggest words."

She shrugged, then sat next to him. "Dr. Palmer really is nice. She can get a little flustered, but under it that woman's got a backbone of solid steel. You deserved to get thrown out."

Tony sighed again. He already knew this. "And don't recap my—"

"Douchebag moment?"

With a level stare, his hand hovered ready to summon his suit.

Laughing, Natasha pulled it back down to his side. "Sorry. I'll stop. What set you off down there, anyway?"

"I don't know," he said instinctively, but forced himself to think back. He'd been fine while reciting the name of that brain part. Getting a confirmation of Stephen's spiritual existence had thrilled Christine, and then she'd...

"I guess it was when I thought she was putting him in danger." Rubbing the spot above his heart, Tony groaned and shook his head. "Which was stupid. Of course she wouldn't hurt him; she's his doctor." Off Natasha's curious look, he explained, "She was happy that I was actually talking to his spirit, and so she hugged his body. Which lifted him off the bed, and the bed is what's keeping him stable. So."

"Ah," Natasha said. In one single syllable, she managed to sound wildly unconvinced.

"Her arm was under his back," Tony protested. "He really did get lifted off the bed."

"I believe you."

"Then why are you acting like you don't?"

"Why do you keep touching that spot on your chest?"

"Don't answer a question with a question," Tony fired back, only to realize that he was indeed touching the warm spot again. His hand jerked down. "It's where I anchored his spirit fragments so he wouldn't attack me again. I guess this is... how a spirit feels inside me. Apparently."

It was probably a bad idea to tell all of this to Natasha, especially since she'd firmly declared that she was always and forever on Team Steve. The Tony who'd let himself get wrapped up inside his own head, though, was the one who'd been an inexplicable asshole to a very nice woman. Letting Natasha pick through his secrets would probably turn up a lot of answers he'd overlooked. He'd sit here and take this medicine.

"Spirit fragments?" Natasha repeated, blinking. She sounded as comfortable with such mystical considerations as Tony had been before Titan: not at all.

Yeah, a lot had happened between Tony and Stephen besides those power recordings on the monitors. In broad strokes, Tony covered the important bits for her: the energy-enhancing anchors, how Stephen had made it impossible at the end for Tony to stop him from his suicidal move, the way his spirit had shattered and been ripped free of his body, and how Tony had been encountering him in sleep since then.

When Tony finished, he appeared to have genuinely stunned the Black Widow. With an unsettled expression, Natasha asked, "And you never stopped to think that all of this is really fucking weird?"

A short laugh, then, "I had 'weird' burnt out of me at some point on Titan. I'm just going with the flow, now."

"You seriously tied some guy's spirit into your chest?" Natasha asked and leaned forward to touch the spot that Tony had so obsessively checked.

A second later, Tony blinked and looked down at where he'd grabbed her hand. He'd moved on instinct and had struck harder than he would normally intend toward a friend. Because of that, he'd actually been able to make contact, despite Natasha's fast reflexes. Her fingers looked painfully compacted as he squeezed them together.

"Ow," Natasha confirmed, and shook her hand when he freed it.

"Sorry," Tony said blankly and stared at his own.

"You lashed out again," Natasha noted after studying him for a few silent seconds. "Did you think I was putting him in danger?"

"Probably not," Tony said. "But I just..."

He hadn't wanted anyone else to touch that spot.

"Oh God," Tony concluded with a groan, pressed his hands to his eyes, and leaned all the way back. He hadn't been justified at all. What was wrong with him? "I really am losing it."

He didn't want to appreciate Natasha blackmailing him out here, infuriating him, and then burning away all of the anger she'd caused with sudden panic... but he did need to confront this obsession. That was clear, now. He hadn't done anything but focus on Stephen since he'd gotten back. Hell, he'd nearly killed Thor as part of the deal. Why?

Natasha also laid down, though she propped herself up on one elbow to study Tony. It felt rather like he was a lab animal under inspection, but he didn't complain. Any insight would be welcomed. "I'm not so sure about that. I mean... yes, you're unhinged, but I'm still seeing some internal logic to all of this."

He squinted up at her. Even if her best skill was human observation, Tony didn't know how she could make better sense of Tony's head than he himself could. "What do you mean?"

"You said that Strange kept lashing out at you because his perceptions were all warped. He saw you as a threat." Natasha reached out her hand again. After hesitating to let Tony see where it was headed and prepare for the impact, she lightly touched the spot above his heart. "How does this feel?"

It felt like a twisted version of when Stephen had healed him. In that moment, Tony's whole being had opened and filled with light. In contrast, this was like Natasha had found an unlocked door to his spirit and was forcing it open. As she did, icy air poured inside. "Stop," Tony soon gasped, and felt an echo of discomfort ripple through the anchor from its other side. "God. It was like you were... were sticking your finger into a bullet hole."

Natasha did pull back, and her eyes narrowed to slits as she studied him again.

"Stephen was acting like an exposed nerve when he attacked me," Tony realized as he studied the leaves overhead. How had Natasha made him feel like that with a touch? "And I've got more control, but... but I have had a one-track mind since I got back." Like Stephen, his reactions had also been distilled to a single purpose.

"I hurt you by touching your heart. Did you know that would happen? Was that why you grabbed me?" Natasha was nodding slowly, in that satisfied way she got when all the pieces fell together. People were her sudoku board to fill in, rather than fragments of Infinity research data. "Did you see me as a threat?"

His mind hadn't known to expect that pain, but his body must have. Or his spirit. "Apparently." The heels of his hands pressed against his eyes again. "Sorry. This is just taking me some time to work through. You give me ship schematics to figure out, I'm good. Tell me we're trying to bootleg the different Infinity Stones, I'm with you. Give me inter-dimensional portal data and I'll be right on board. Even though he didn't need to do the stupid portal," Tony added in a snide voice before finishing, "But this stuff about spirits... it's just left me off-balance."

"He didn't need to do it?" Natasha repeated. "What do you mean?"

Tony opened his eyes again. Oh. Right. Not only had he just gone through one of the most unpleasant conversations of his life, but Natasha hadn't yet heard how Stephen's sacrifice hadn't even been necessary. "Stephen kept talking about how I needed the data. The data, the data, the damn data. So when he did that suicide portal, he made sure everything was being recorded."

"Right." Her eyebrows dipped. "You just gave it to everyone. They seemed really excited."

Tony shrugged, then swatted a bug. It'd taken a while before something had bitten him. If Thanos had also culled biting insects, he couldn't complain. "Yeah. It made their work easier, but you heard them: they already had a plan. Stephen acted like he was doing something irreplaceable, but all he did was shave off a few days of work."

Memories of the voyage home surged and pain followed a second later. "He was completely ready to do that portal—ready to die—for nothing." Tension coiled in his neck. "He made me watch. For nothing." And although Tony had recovered Stephen's awareness by collecting the anchor filaments, there was no guarantee that they'd figure out a way to actually cross the spiritual distance between Earth and Titan. What if Stephen still died, slipping from Tony's fingers just as he thought the grip was enough?

Natasha's gaze was unreadable, but she clearly wasn't happy at the suggestion. "So, you think he's wrong about being able to stop Thanos?"

"What?" Her meaning became clear a second later, and so Tony frowned. If Stephen had been wrong about this, then he could be wrong about other things on the path. If so, there was no reason to think that he'd actually seen a way to win against Thanos. That wasn't an assumption anyone wanted to make. "Oh. No, he was positive that this portal data was necessary. Or that doing the portal was necessary to get me home faster, or... I don't know." Off her uncertainty, he clarified, "Now I'm positive that he did something that he needed to do. But we both saw that they didn't need the Space data from the portal."

With an annoyed grunt, Tony slammed his fist above his heart. "You hear that? They were already on their way to figuring out Space! All the different teams are already figuring out everything." Maybe they'd use their bootleg Stones one-by-one to bring people back, or maybe they'd figure out how to work them in unison, but in no way had Stephen's stupid sacrifice play been necessary to understand an Infinity Stone. "They already had a solid research plan for Space, Time, and Reality," Tony concluded with a sigh. "Rocket's blowing up all my stuff to figure out how to block any Power attack that Thanos can dish out, and we've already got Mind down."

So if the way to fix the universe required using all the Stones, somehow... then they...

Tony sat up. Realization dawned in his eyes and was mirrored in Natasha's. This was the hole in their research plan that he hadn't been able to identify earlier.

"Tony," Natasha said, "what's another word for 'spirit?'"

Very slowly, Tony reached up to place his fingertips above his heart. They were trying to turn back the clock and give people a second chance. Energies like Time and Space might let them handle the core mechanics, but to make those recoveries, they might need to call out to their... "Soul."

"Are you really telling me," Natasha demanded, "that you're holding onto someone's actual soul?"

Tony swallowed. "Yeah."

"You're saying that someone was absolutely supposed to die by having his soul ripped out of his body, but that just got stopped in its tracks?"

His breath sped as memories returned of watching death after death. "Yeah."

The sixth Stone. They didn't know for sure how to fix this, but if Thanos had used all six, then they probably needed to draw on all of those energies, too. No research team had been tackling Soul. No one else had a way to get this data.

"You were right," Tony laughed and palmed the warm spot. That was seriously a soul under his hand right now? That sounded so much more meaningful than 'spirit.' "You asshole. You were right, after all. God, for weeks I'd been taking recordings of his astral form and learning how to calibrate my scanners for spiritual energy. This was never about the portal, it was about ripping out a soul and getting it back!"

If Stephen's data had been just about the Space Stone-equivalent portal journey, then it didn't matter if he died after that portal opened. The key thing had happened, and so his life or death as he laid there in a coma would be superfluous. But, if he'd been getting them data for the Soul Stone, then it meant that they had to bring him back.

It wasn't about the portal. It had never been about the portal, not as more than anything but a tool to pry his soul loose. This had always been about Stephen himself, and that meant that he was coming home. If he'd needed to do this and then be recovered, then he wasn't a potential casualty. He would not be one of the in-between deaths that couldn't be reversed.

"Tony Stark has a wizard's soul tied into his chest," Natasha repeated with soft amazement.

A relieved, genuine grin spread across Tony's face. As that joy bubbled up, he found himself correcting, "Master of the mystic arts."

That earned another bemused look, but then Natasha sobered. "I hate to ruin the moment, but knowing what's happening doesn't mean that it's all been fixed. Steve's still coming back soon. Seriously, are you going to be okay? Any more weeds to dig up?"

They really hadn't been friends, Tony realized with wistful dismay, at least not to the level that he'd assumed. Looking back on those Avenger years, he had no idea how Steve and Natasha had wound up so close. At a glance, they didn't make sense. Not like how he'd always assumed that Iron Man and Captain America made sense.

Sometimes, people surprised you. The holier-than-thou boyscout shouldn't have clicked with the cynical spy. For whatever reason, though, Steve and Natasha worked... just like two men who initially hadn't been able to stand each other, only a handful of weeks earlier.

If Tony could make up after Berlin with Natasha, he could make up with Steve. In the end, he hadn't actually been closer to one than the other, and his heart had never ached over Natasha Romanoff. It was a melancholy moment, but also oddly freeing. The weight of years lifted.

"No more weeds to dig up," Tony said after that consideration. "I'm fine with Rogers coming back." Scabs were ugly, but they were better than open wounds. Already, he could feel this tender wound hardening.

With a laugh, Natasha added, "You mean... now that you know Steve's coming back, you're fine with Steve coming back."

After a second of confusion, Tony made a face and demanded, "Oh, don't call him that. That's just weird. Steve's yours, Stephen's mine."

Natasha got that odd, speculative look again, like she was once again trying to fill in a sudoku board, but nodded. "Right. He's yours. And by the way... I'm really not going to tell anyone about the Time Stone. Now that I'm done blackmailing you into useful compliance, wanna go grab a bite to eat? I hear they've got corn."

Though his empty stomach said yes, Tony paused, then shook his head. "Can't at the moment, sorry." He jerked his thumb toward the facility. After all of this, he actually felt prepared to do something. "I need to track someone down for an apology."

Chapter Text

After Tony and Natasha entered the facility, she departed with a smile and meaningful look. She'd let them walk back in silence, thankfully, even if Tony had felt like he was still under the microscope during the trek. He was done with being Natasha Romanoff's sudoku board. His feelings shouldn't be anyone's data.

Even as sunset approached it was disconcertingly bright after the end of the world, and so the open hallway felt exposed around him. Well, it was time to move from one confrontation into another, and he'd best not stand there and lose his nerve. "Friday, what's Christine Palmer's current location?"

"Dr. Palmer is in the cafeteria. Would you like me to order something in advance?"

Tony exhaled. He might be getting a bite to eat, after all. "Sure."

"What would you like?"

"Something with corn in it," Tony said, already walking. She insisted on describing the actual options to him, which was a good distraction as he wound toward an unpleasant conversation. After entering the airy room that seemed to currently hold most of the people remaining at headquarters, Tony banked to the left, retrieved the tray he'd requested, and turned to scan the space.

Though it was peak dinner time, the room had plenty of empty seats. The reality of why that was hit him in a fresh wave, gripping his chest and squeezing. Tony shook his head and forced that reaction back down. Though he'd faced a lot of truths recently, he couldn't yet accept why people weren't totally filling the room like they should.

They had to just be missing. If they weren't just missing, then Pepper wasn't just missing. And so seats were available because, for a little while, some people were missing.

Fortunately for his plan, one of those empty seats was across from Christine at a two-person table. With a deep, determined breath, Tony walked toward whatever reaction he very much deserved.

So deeply was her attention centered on a medical report that Christine needed Tony's shadow to fall across her work before she noticed him. She looked up, blinked once, and lost all emotion in her gaze as surely as if she'd slipped on a pair of mirrored sunglasses. "Mr. Stark."

"Dr. Palmer." He gestured with his tray to emphasize the meal it held. "Can I join you?"

She needed a good five seconds to respond. When she did, her voice was as flat as her expression. "You can do anything you want. You paid for this facility."

Tony took that blow without complaint. He wasn't positive of everything he'd said while unloading his emotions on Christine, but he probably deserved that. "Thanks." As soon as he sat, her attention locked back onto the report she still held. The tablet was barely raised off the table and yet it felt like a wall between them.

"I thought about getting the soup," he tried a minute later and gestured to her tray with his fork. It then pointed at his own plate, where seasoned, buttered corn was piled next to roasted chicken. "But apparently there was a farmer nearby who didn't have enough hands to tend things, so..." His fork poked the crispy skin. Fresh chicken wasn't making it into any supermarkets right now. Few were even open. "Seemed wrong to waste the opportunity."

For a second it seemed like she might actually respond to his terrible conversational attempt. Next, it seemed like she would just rather ignore him. In the end, Christine closed her eyes, sighed, and asked, "Why are you here?"

"I'm sorry. Okay? I'm here to say I'm sorry." Her gaze was still unreadable as she studied him, and so Tony amended, "Those mood swings you noted in my file... well, they really did a number on me earlier. By the time I was down that hallway, I felt sick over what I'd said to you. So, I'm sorry."

"You're sorry about how the brain damage made you act," Christine said in an absolutely neutral voice.

This was a trap. It wasn't that she was trying to lay one for him; Christine Palmer would clearly rather see the back of Tony Stark's head rather than keep him around to play mind games. No: this was a trap that Tony was laying for himself, to give himself a tidy conversational detour around the worst of everything. Most people in his life let him do so. He'd gotten quite skillful at that mental dance.

"That damage," Tony countered, "made it easier for me to be impulsive. But no matter what, I had no excuse for saying those things. I—"

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a platinum bob haircut moving past.

"I acted like a douchebag," Tony concluded.

He couldn't be sure without turning to look at her, but it seemed like Natasha's stride grew longer and more satisfied.

"The damage made it easier for me to go into douchebag mode," he continued in the silence, "but the fact that I actually went there is all on me."

Her gaze remained level for a few seconds more, and then Christine sighed again and turned away. When she looked back she seemed to be truly acknowledging him, but there was no easy forgiveness there. "I've been an emotional punching bag for one man who thought the entire universe revolved around him. I'm never doing it again."

"Look, I really am sorry."

"Tell me something," Christine replied after a long, thoughtful pause. "I have only ever done one thing that you might reasonably complain about, and that was taking your full-body scan. You're fine, by the way. Except for your recent brain damage and some scarring on your abdomen and chest, you are in shockingly good shape for a man of your age and lifestyle."

He blinked. Was that a stealth insult? "Thanks?"

"So I want you to tell me," Christine continued, and held his gaze unblinking, "why you hate me."

"I don't hate you," he immediately protested.

"Oh, you pretty clearly do."

He tried again. "I don't—"

"When you study medicine," Christine interrupted, "you have to do all sorts of rotations in different areas in order to find out where you fit the best. That's where I found out that I find brains absolutely fascinating, but I didn't want to spend my life inside the sterile, detached environment of a neuro ward. I wanted to get my hands dirty. So: emergency medicine."

Tony had no idea where this was going, but knew better than to speak up.

"The thing about an ER," Christine continued after that beat, "is that people are really taken by surprise when they're there. No one wants to be in a hospital; they want to be in the stage afterward, when everything's better. But it's the worst in the ER. We see all the sudden injuries. The shocking ones. The embarrassing ones," she added with what sounded like some very interesting memories. "And because people don't expect to be there, they haven't had time to think of a good lie for why something happened to them."

Ah. This is where she was headed.

"You would not believe some of the tales I've heard for how... various things were lost up past people's anal sphincters," Christine continued in dry tones, and Tony barely fought down any visible amusement. "But they were more believable than you are right now." After waiting for his reply, which he struggled to offer, Christine leaned in with shadowed eyes. "Did Stephen say something to make you think I'm... I don't know." She blinked hard. "Not a good person?"

He shook his head. "He talked about you more than a few times. It was to say how great you are."

A thin, reedy noise escaped Christine. A long drink of water helped her swallow that reaction.

Tony trailed the tines of his fork through corn kernels. There was only one shot at this apology and it had to happen. Not only did she deserve his remorse, but they were both engaged in research that might turn back the apocalypse. Those efforts couldn't afford distractions. If he could fearlessly face down the titanic evil eggplant trying to destroy the universe, he could face down this. "I don't hate you," he insisted. "But after talking with my..." He paused, considering which word to use. "Therapist, I think I'm threatened by you. Apparently."

Clearly, she had no idea how to respond to that. Natasha had mentioned that Christine could get flustered. As the woman looked around the glossy expanse of headquarters, and then back across the table to her dining companion Tony Stark, she further lost whatever certainty she'd had at the start of their discussion. "Okay," Christine said a second later. "I really have to know how I, Christine Palmer, could be threatening to Iron Man the Avenger."

He made himself eat a mouthful of corn to pass a few precious seconds. Unfortunately, no clever answer came by the time his chewing stopped. All that was left was the truth, as clearly as he could tell it. "Imagine being on a yacht sailing across the Pacific," Tony began. He had a vague idea of how to approach this, but only if he greased its tracks for delivery. Hopefully, everything relevant would come out as he tried.

"A yacht sailing across the Pacific," Christine repeated. "Is that something you do a lot?"

"I... no. I like the Mediterranean better. Just work with me, okay?" She nodded, willing to give him the leeway of his set-up story, and so Tony continued. "It's a whole group of people out a thousand miles from the nearest inhabited island. Then a storm hits. You get knocked off-course. The ship is gone and you lose nearly everyone on it, and even though you wash up on some desert island, no help is coming. Everyone thinks you're dead. Even if they tried to look, they have no idea where you ended up."

"You showed me that map across the galaxy," Christine said after a considering pause.

"Right. I was just trying to make this a little easier by keeping things on a planetary scale. You know... Tom Hanks, the volleyball. It was a good movie." Tony dropped his gaze to the table. As he let the earliest memories of Titan come flooding back, his eyes lost their focus. "So on that place where you've been marooned, there is exactly one other person left alive. One. You keep him breathing when he's about to die, but that's just a band-aid. If the two of you don't figure out a way to get yourselves rescued, you'll both die anyway. Because there is absolutely no one else. It's you and it's him in a completely empty, dead world."

Christine said nothing. Her spoon was left idle in her soup bowl.

"And you do find a way. You spend weeks together, you make it work, you..." Tony's shoulders sagged. "You realize that you became friends." With his next words, even his weak composure began to falter. Emotion thickened his voice. "Then he tries to commit suicide right in front of you."

She flinched.

Screams echoed again in memory, then cut abruptly off. "It nearly works. He doesn't die, though, because help finally comes. And that's good. It really is. But it means that..."

"What?" Christine prompted as he trailed off.

Tony's head shook. This sounded so stupid. "You'd been holding each other's life in your hands for weeks, and then you suddenly don't need to do that any more. Other people take over for you. And everything is just..." His fork trailed again across his plate. "Loud."

If Christine weren't a nice person, as Natasha had promised, she could have taken this admission a lot worse than she did. Instead, the conflicted look in her eyes fell away in favor of gentle curiosity and she asked, "You're upset that I helped him?"

"No. Yes." His fork stabbed into the chicken and shredded a piece loose. "I really don't know. He has to stay alive—he has to—but I hate that it wasn't me doing that. This is so goddamn stupid. What am I saying?" Each word sounded worse than the one before, but he didn't know what other explanation to give. He was actually upset that a doctor trained in emergency medicine had been there to save Stephen's life, and when asked to provide a justification for that, he of course couldn't.

Christine opened her mouth, considered, and closed it. She didn't look annoyed any more, but rather like she was prompting him to keep talking this out.

"I have to help people," Tony said emphatically, and began to realize a truth he'd kept buried while he was so frantically worried over the man he'd nearly lost. "I have to. He knew that, but he still kept me from moving even a single inch while he was killing himself in front of me. Then we got here and I was locked in the hallway while I waited to see if he was still breathing." His hand idly brushed the warm spot over his heart after a few painful jolts stabbed at it. They ebbed as his surging emotions steadied.

Thanks to the obsession that had overtaken him after that, he'd willingly suffered brain damage just to try to make up for the failure he'd felt inside the ship. It didn't matter that he'd been deliberately barred from helping; he still hadn't helped, and so he needed to take the second chance to make that save no matter what it demanded of him. "I realized that I needed to pull back after I nearly killed Thor by accident. But for anything short of that..." Trailing off, Tony shook his head, rolled his head to fight off the tension that had been building ever since that morning, and finished, "I just let myself be a douchebag." He was too drained to avoid Natasha's word of choice.

After a long pause, Christine replied, "This is a whole lot deeper of a heart-to-heart than I ever expected to get from you."

"Yeah, well. I didn't even realize some things until I started saying them just now. They just kind of poured out." Tony wiped tiredly at his face. Dumping all of this on her was probably as much of an imposition as the hostility he'd dealt. "Can I blame that on the brain damage? Sorry. And I assume Wong left after I made an ass of myself."

She nodded. "He stuck around for a little bit to try to get a feeling for any energy fields, but he doesn't like to leave the Sanctum empty for long." A half-dozen large spoonfuls of soup were methodically raised and eaten as Christine considered his explanation. As she did, Tony took the chance to eat some of his suddenly unappetizing chicken. It was dry in his sour mouth, but one simply didn't waste food after the apocalypse. The distant hum of other diners took over their conversation.

"I don't know if you've ever had pets, Tony," Christine eventually said in the aching silence. He'd wondered if his pathetically unconvincing explanation would end with her ordering him away from the table. Though she didn't yet sound happy to be sitting together, the earlier hostility was gone.

After blinking at the apparent non-sequitur, Tony replied, "My dad put in this huge custom saltwater aquarium." Which he then never paid attention to and had the help maintain, but it made for an impressive backdrop while hosting parties. "And my mom had cats and this little fluffy dog thing. "

"That sounds like mostly a 'no.' Well, I had this German shepherd named Waldo."

"Waldo?"

"We got him when I was seven and I liked the books, don't interrupt." Christine poked her spoon idly into her soup. "By the time I was in high school, it was my job to walk him each day. I didn't mind. He was getting old and I'd be going off to college soon, and I knew he probably wouldn't be around when I was done. I'm assuming you never walked your mom's 'little fluffy dog thing?'"

"No," Tony admitted. He hadn't had much time for the pets his mother kept. Robots were far more interesting and allowing pets in his room would just be asking for cat hair to infiltrate important circuitry.

"I didn't think so. That means you wouldn't have seen something that a boy dog does every single day." As Christine met Tony's eyes, he was startled to see her actually smirking at him. "They piss everywhere to mark their territory."

After a second, he couldn't stop the snort that escaped through his nose. "Thanks. Thanks for that image."

"Oh, you are very welcome." She bit through a baby carrot and gestured with its other half. "That is exactly what you've been doing: pissing all over my infirmary. I'm going to need you to stop. It's supposed to be a sterile environment."

Marking his territory, huh? Put like that, he couldn't deny it. Natasha's threat hypothesis even held up when viewed through that lens. It wasn't that Christine was a threat because she might hurt Stephen somehow, but because her connection spanned years instead of weeks. As Tony already felt isolated from the person he hadn't been able to save, Christine had been menacing on multiple fronts. He'd just been too bullheaded to acknowledge any of them.

Now, Natasha had made him confront all of that. And now, Tony realized as he brushed his fingers against the warm spot, he was finally aiding in his own way. He still hated the helplessness that had come along with leaving Titan, but maybe he was making progress.

"I will stop," Tony promised. Natasha had also been accurate with her comparison of digging up weeds. He might not yet have found all of the explanations for why he'd instinctively disliked Christine, but the path they needed to tread was now far less overgrown.

"Good. I don't deserve it and it's not helping anyone. Including him."

"I know." He shook his head. "You don't, and it's not." The silence that settled back between them was still awkward, but it no longer felt like Christine wanted him gone. With a gesture of his fork toward his food, Tony indicated his intentions to finish the meal he'd barely touched. They ate with mutual purpose.

"Thank you for what you said," Christine said at the end of her soup. With a nod toward the tablet she'd resumed reading during her meal, she added, "I'm hypothesizing on how the circular sulcus' function might relate to the structure of the Mind Stone. It's about as cutting-edge as cutting-edge gets, so there's a lot of guesswork going on. I should probably get back to work."

Guesswork, right: the empty sudoku cells waiting to be filled with Infinity Stone data, and the assumptions that had to be made without solid knowledge to confirm them. Though they had enough of a handle on Mind to use some of its functionality, there was still more work to be done in all of those areas... including the sixth stone. "Wait," Tony said, and began to once again wonder how in the hell he was supposed to explain something. "Before you go..."

"Yes?"

"You, ah. You said something about 'thinking the universe revolved around him?'"

With a quick exhalation, Christine adjusted a stray piece of hair and clarified, "I didn't mean you. Well. I did, but you were just a comparison. That's kind of a terrible thing for me to say right now about Stephen, though." Her nervous words slowed by the end as she took in Tony's pained expression. In exchange, an eyebrow rose. "You don't get to hide other things from me, Stark. Whatever you're about to say, spill it."

"We're trying to save the universe by studying the Infinity Stones, correct?"

Her eyebrow dipped back down. "Right."

"All of them."

"Uh huh."

With the impressive sources of data they'd needed for the other five, this would need quite an explanation. Warmth pulsed again above his heart. Not for the first time, Tony wondered how he was supposed to do anything beyond simply anchoring Stephen's soul in place. "For just a little while, then," he admitted, "the universe might actually revolve around him."

Christine blinked. "What?"

"What are the Infinity Stones? List them."

"Uh. Mind, Time, Space, Reality, Power." She paused for a second, having clearly gone through the different teams' areas of focus only to realize what was missing from the list. "And Soul, but..."

Tony smiled awkwardly as she trailed off. Plates and silverware clinked around them. Other diners' conversations were a low, steady buzz.

Christine stared back, then shook her head. "A disembodied spirit does not have enough energy to compare to an Infinity Stone. I've seen it happen before. It shocked me then, but compared to what I've seen now, it was nothing. I've... he's..." Trailing off, she stared at some meaningless corner of the room for a silent stretch. "He's across the galaxy and still told us to look at the circular sulcus."

"This is another reason I knew I had to apologize to you ASAP. I realized what was really happening." Though he was grateful to Natasha for helping him see the truth of his spiritual connection, she had no research input. Christine did.

"Astral projection is so common, though! I know Wong doesn't like doing it, but he can. Wouldn't have someone noticed those energy signatures before now?"

Tony's scanners had also tracked astral projection, and no, that process was nowhere near impressive enough to compare to an Infinity Stone. The universe's souls hadn't stepped out of their bodies, after all; they'd been ripped away. That needed far more power. Eighty-plus Roots of Baghor were apparently enough to drain an entire star system and not all of their energy had gone toward the portal. "We should probably go to some private room," Tony demurred. "Unfortunately, I have to show you a recording that neither of us are going to enjoy watching."

Instinctively, Christine moved toward the medical wing. Tony followed without protest, as she was the one about to be taken by surprise by what was onscreen. It would be preferable to keep her comfortable in her own territory. Now that he knew that this one path toward victory would bring Stephen back—somehow—it was far easier to be around everyone, including her.

They weren't friends, though. He'd have no comfort to offer her. And this was going to hurt.

"So what's the recording?" Christine asked after she closed them into a consultation room meant for physical exams. The monitor on the wall, which normally displayed lab results and x-rays, instead showed an list of Tony's personal files as he began to scroll through them.

As he found the right date and called that video, Tony's expression tightened. Paused onscreen were him and Stephen, and Tony was doing his pre-launch checklist for the small spacecraft that he had only ever expected to serve as a homing beacon. Off Christine's worried look, Tony tiredly confirmed, "Him trying his very best to commit suicide."

"I don't want—" After that instinctive reaction, Christine closed her eyes and asked, "Do I really need to see this?"

A soul had been forcibly ripped free. No physician on Earth had been on the clinical side of that challenge. She also had two patients on either end of a connection that somehow mimicked an Infinity Stone. Those patients' doctor needed to be informed as to the full situation she faced. "Yeah. Sorry. You have to know what's going on."

Christine hadn't been in the rooms for some conversations, and so she needed context for what had truly happened on this voyage. Tony began, "Before Thanos got the Time Stone, Stephen used it to examine potential future paths and their outcomes. Apparently, there's only one that works."

Her gaze flicked to the recording on the monitor, then back to Tony. "He actually remembered those different possibilities? That seems like it should overload a mind. How many were there? You said there was only one good one, so...?"

From her tone at the end, it sounded like Christine expected only a handful of futures. One good outcome out of twenty would still seem like bad odds, and twenty overlapping futures would indeed be confusing. If only it were that easy. "He didn't distinctly remember most of them. Mostly, he remembered the patterns that repeated over multiple paths. There were a lot of patterns." With sympathy for the shock she was about to surely feel, Tony finished, "They had plenty of chances to emerge over fourteen million repetitions."

"Fourteen million?" Christine repeated with the blank expression he'd expected. "Did he..." She trailed off, shook her head, and tried again. "Was he... coherent, afterward?"

Did it break him? Tony heard unasked beneath those words. "He seemed okay. By now, though, I see that it did kind of break him deep inside. With only one path that had a chance to work..." Tony's shoulders sagged. "He'd do absolutely anything to make it happen."

The paused video began to play.

Though the research team had viewed the moment of the portal's expansion, this was the first time Tony had watched the full recording. His memories had centered upon that terrible portal itself, not the lead-up that had set things into motion. Just like how he'd avoided considering the missing people in his life, Tony hadn't wanted to dig into this.

As Stephen held onto his chair with an iron grip and gave instructions for how things needed to work after their launch, Tony wondered how he'd ever been so blind as to miss all of those warning signs. Well, that answer was simple, actually. He'd trusted Stephen. It'd been turned against him.

The warm spot above his heart ached with each new word that had been used to lead Tony astray. He put one hand on it and pressed hard, trying to ignore the mounting pain. God, all these lies he'd heard. He'd been so naive, set up for a situation that he still didn't fully understand. Seriously, even if he had a faint awareness of what was going on with the soul anchor below his palm, how was it supposed to get fixed? What pulled a soul back?

When the screams started, Christine flinched like she'd been struck. Tears spilled even as she struggled to maintain composure and crimson splotches spread on her pale cheeks.

Though Tony had heard these sounds before, pain hit him like the first time. This wasn't just a horror show of suffering; it was a reminder of the deception he'd been forced to experience. As he listened to those horrific cries and his own recorded pleas to stop, it was like he experienced each moment anew. He'd thought he was just catching Christine up on the true scope of what they were dealing with: a mimicry of the Soul Stone. Instead, he relived utter betrayal.

He hadn't been able to do anything. He hadn't been able to do one damn thing after Stephen deliberately blocked every avenue he might try. Feelings of betrayal trembled, throbbed, and then exploded into anger. It twisted in him like knives as his hands flexed in and out of the fists he'd made while bound helpless to a chair. Anger roared into rage, digging harder and deeper into Tony until it felt like the screams could slice his heart loose from his chest and string it up on a butcher's hook—

"Tony!" he heard as if from a great distance, and Tony realized he'd sunk to his knees and was gasping for breath. This wasn't just a panic attack. They didn't hurt this much. This might be a heart attack, if they felt like searing pokers being forced through his ribs, but there was a paranormal wrongness that made it feel even beyond that. He was balanced on the edge of oblivion, like when Wanda's powers had sent him into an unspeakable hallucination. Tony had no idea what would happen if he toppled over the side.

"Get up on this bed," Christine ordered, "so I can..." As he lurched, trying to comply, her voice trailed off. "Oh my God. What's happening? This is... I need to..."

Oh good. The ER doctor didn't know how to handle a heart attack. Good. Perfect.

A second later, Tony found himself roughly pushed down into the small wheelchair she'd unfolded. Christine slammed her fist against the wall, opening the door, and put her full weight behind Tony to set him into motion. As she did, his vacantly roaming eyes noticed the monitor alert that she'd been staring at: patient distress.

Stephen was crashing. He didn't know that for a fact, and yet he knew. Tony's terror should have intensified his pain. Instead, the blazing knives cutting out his heart melted into nothing more than simple panic. It still choked him.

Their destination was the room that Christine had thrown Tony out of just that morning. Monitors screamed warnings as they entered and the Cloak leapt to hover frantically around them. On his bed, Stephen looked deathly pale. His heartbeat was a faint waver. The neurological monitors of his vital functions had compressed to mere flickers.

"No, no, no," Christine begged as she reached for a syringe.

As she did, Tony stumbled to his feet and barely made it to the side of the bed before his knees gave out. The nurse who ran into the room tried to pull him back, pleading for him to come with her. He shoved her away. "You can't do this," he whispered. "I'm not going to watch this again." His shaking, sweaty hand slipped up under his own t-shirt to feel the spot above his heart, and jerked with shock when he realized that it was barely warmer than the skin around it.

"You have to come back," Tony begged. Sincerity poured into that barely-warm spot like he was trying to fill an ocean with a bucket. "Please."

Christine flicked her fingernail against the syringe she'd filled and spurted out a few drops, then instinctively moved for an IV tube that wasn't there. Disorientation swept her for a few visible seconds. With sudden clarity, she instead sank the needle into a depression on the Wakandan bed, injected the full dose, and watched as lights trailed along the arteries on Stephen's wrists and neck.

The monitors barely flickered.

I'm losing him again, Tony realized vacantly. If he'd thought he felt hollow after Natasha's manipulations, it was nothing compared to this. He was supposed to be the one forcing Stephen to cling to life. Instead, that spiritual cord was going to slip right through his fingers. The last ripple of emotion Stephen felt through their unexpected connection would be Tony's all-consuming fury and betrayal.

"Get another needle out," Tony said as everything slammed into place. "Put me under."

Christine stared at him, blank and uncomprehending.

"Our souls are tied together and I was so furious that for a second I let him go, so put me the hell under so I can grab everything again." She still wasn't moving, and so Tony threw himself back down into the wheelchair and shouted, "Now! Do it!"

After one deep exhalation, Christine nodded with purpose and reached for a fresh syringe. The nurse obligingly handed her the bottle she requested. "Sodium thiopental will have you out in thirty seconds," she said as she extracted his dose. "But it should wear off in about ten minutes."

"Not long enough," Tony said and balled his fist to make a vein easier to find. "Give me something else while I'm under. At least an hour," he said, anticipating her question.

An alcohol-soaked cotton ball was cold as it swiped his arm. Christine moved to pierce his skin, but paused just before the needle sank in. Their eyes met. For the first time, it felt like an alliance. "Get him back," Christine pleaded as a sharp prick in Tony's arm was followed by rapid, enveloping darkness.

"No you fucking don't," Tony snarled as he woke on Titan and saw a still, silent form slumped on a rocky outcropping. He covered the short distance at a run, knelt at Stephen's side, and hurriedly began collecting the stray filaments that had torn loose from their connection. These weren't glowing gold anymore, nor did they float. They were a flat, sandy color that was nearly impossible to pick out under a dark sky as they lay against the dirt.

He was Stephen's replacement anchor, and that meant that he was the only thing keeping Stephen's soul from drifting loose for good. Though he might not yet know how to bring a soul back, it was now painfully obvious that feeling rage and betrayal was exactly the wrong move. Before this, emotions had felt like a side effect of the spiritual connection. They were clearly far more important for whatever was happening.

"Come on," he insisted as he retrieved soul fragments only for them to remain flat and lifeless in his hand. Remembering a sight from only a few hours earlier, Tony looked down at his own chest. The visible cord between them was still there, but thin. It was dull like tarnished bronze instead of sparkling, crystalline gold.

"I know you felt me getting mad," Tony pleaded as he clutched the recovered strands in his hand and tried to smooth them into the spiritual chain. "It didn't mean I wanted you to go. It meant the exact opposite. I have been losing my mind over you and apparently everyone can see it. If you felt me hurting, it was because I cared. Because I do care! So wake up!"

A few glimmers ran down the cord's length, like embers rising from an otherwise dead fire.

"Yeah, there you are. Come on back. Come on back to me. You can do it." They'd been tied together like this for a few goddamn hours; how could he have let go of the chain so soon? "We figured out how to save the universe," Tony continued as he decided to try another tactic. While his desperate emotions poured uselessly out through the chain, maybe these logical words would lure Stephen's soul back. "And we need you for it."

Though it still only flickered with life, he'd smoothed the chain as thick as it would go with the loosened filaments. As he poured out desperate hope and whatever other positive emotions he had to share, Tony grabbed Stephen's shoulders and hauled him off the rock below. "We need you for this," Tony repeated. "If you die, things can't get fixed. You have to stay alive or that one good path fails."

Affectionate memories of their long conversations filled Tony's heart. He tried to not let them distract him, since logic seemed to be working. Instead of flickering like a dying fire, the chain now rippled with light like sunbeams striking a quiet pond. "So if you want us to actually get to that good future you saw, you don't get to die. You have to stay alive." His searching eyes scanned Stephen's face for any hint of movement.

"You need to wake up right now," Tony continued after that pause, "so we can start asking you about Infinity Stones. Because there is a plan. Don't you want to help with the plan? You need to come back for that."

You can't leave me, a deep, impulsive part of his brain thought. The desperation slid down into his heart, like melted wax for the anchor chain's wick.

Tension strained in the limp body he held. It wasn't yet consciousness, but was aimed in that direction. As relief swept Tony, he pulled Stephen's unresisting body into a fierce embrace. His cheek pressed against a feathered grey temple and one hand clutched the shirt that had once seemed so odd to his eyes. "Yeah," he said with relief as his remaining panic began to ease. It felt like he was a ship leaving the far side of a hurricane, battered but still afloat. "Come on back home."

A breath sighed against his neck.

"I knew the Stone talk would get you back," Tony murmured. "But Jesus. Never do that to me again. I couldn't handle it the first time." If Natasha's interrogation strategy had hollowed out bad feelings, these past minutes had burnt away his rage over the betrayal with the anchors.

"Knew I was..." Stephen needed another try. He seemed to be moving in slow motion. "Supposed to die. After all." Exhaustion had him absolutely slack and unresisting. "Misplaced. Optimism," he haltingly added, with a reference to the survival hope Tony had so recently offered.

God, imagine what it had been like from his perspective: stranded alone in a spiritual wasteland, only for blazing rage to surround him. After that, his soul once again painfully fragmented as the chain began to unravel. Death swept in and was both expected and welcomed. Even through agony, he knew he was being proved right in the end. His ultimate plan was unfolding.

When guilt swept Tony over that imagined suffering, he tried to push it away. Only good feelings were needed, now. He had to be an anchor in more ways than one. "Weren't you listening?" Tony murmured against Stephen's head. "You are absolutely not supposed to die."

Faint laughter barely moved Stephen. "Not what Time showed. And most important lesson: it's not about me."

He was so gangly sitting like this. Pepper was lanky for a woman, but Tony wasn't used to trying to hold someone up when they had real height on him. "Why? Because your portal will tell us how the Space Stone operates? Then they can pull out clean data on Reality and Time? Since you pulled off that move, you've done your job and can move offstage?"

The next laugh rumbled in Stephen's chest a little more. He was getting stronger, at least, even if he was still desperately weak. "You figured it all out."

"Idiot," Tony said with affection and again pressed their cheeks together.

"You never would have agreed to the trade. Me for a Stone. It's fine." He paused for breath, or whatever a spiritual equivalent needed. "Knew what I was doing."

"No. I never would have made that trade." Don't get angry again, Tony shouted at himself, and only continued a moment later when his mood had steadied. "And we didn't need your data on Space."

It took Stephen so long to respond that Tony nearly separated them, wanting to see if Stephen had passed out again. "What?"

"They already had Space data."

Another long pause. "No. That's not right. I..."

"Assumed wrong." It should have been awkward to sit wrapped together like this, but Tony had been cut off from Stephen after his first true brush with death. Now he could be as close as he wanted. After that terrible day with the ship, this was a second chance to make a save. "They already had the Space data, Stephen."

There was another long pause. Unlike the cafeteria's low background hum, utter silence reigned between their words. "Oh," Stephen said, barely audible. The small noise, little more than a sigh, contained a host of pain inside it. If that were true, then he'd gone uselessly through hell. He'd misinterpreted the data, and he might even be wrong about every future he'd seen. "A trade for... nothing, then."

"You're wrong about so many things," Tony laughed. "They have Mind. They'll have Space, Time, Reality, and Power soon enough." There was no response and so he prompted, "What's left?"

He was still disoriented. It took Stephen longer to process his meaning than Christine had needed, but his shock was deeper when he did. He pulled back far enough to meet Tony's eyes, held their gaze like he was searching for the joke Tony was surely making, and then looked down at the spiritual chain that joined their chests. It shone like noonday sunlight, now.

"It's not that you don't have to die, like I promised," Tony added. "It's that you can't die. If we're going to understand how to get people back, it's from seeing how to get you back. You did what you were trying to do, Stephen. You gave us a Stone. It wasn't for nothing."

"But I..." He shook his head. Though Stephen wobbled where he now sat upright, at least his choppy words had regained momentum. "Space opens holes between dimensions. It draws power from them. It allows transit within one. It's everything I've been taught. I made an analogue of the Space Stone. Very deliberately."

"And ripped out your soul in the process." Sadness filled Tony, as much as he tried to fight it off, but at least he was able to ward off the return of any anger or betrayal. Hopefully simple sadness wouldn't loosen his spiritual grip. "I hate this, but you were right: you were doing something the universe needed. I would have stopped you if I'd known, but you still had to do it."

"Soul," Stephen repeated in disbelief. "Soul? So little's known about it. Would Wong even have anything? Would the main library? How is this even supposed to work?"

Since Tony woke up that morning, he'd let himself wallow in willful ignorance in front of Christine and gotten thrown out of the infirmary for it. He'd been hit with feelings he'd let rot since Titan and nearly lost hold of Stephen's soul in the process. On the other hand, he'd been honest with Natasha and dug up weeds, and been honest with Christine and mended bridges. It was time to be honest here, too.

"Apparently it's the connection between us." Tony trailed his fingertips along the golden chain. It was as warm as it should be, now. "When you nearly..." His eyes closed, he took a deep breath, and tried again. "Died just now, it was because I'd watched the full portal video for the first time."

Stephen frowned. "What did that have to do with anything?"

If he danced around the truth, ignored feelings could fester. He could lose his grip if they exploded out of control again. They'd been blunt before toward one another, so it should be safe now to tell even an unpleasant fact. "I had the chance to see how you lied to me so I wouldn't know what you were really doing."

A pause, then, "Ah. Yes."

"And I got angry," Tony slowly continued. "Betrayed. It all spiraled inside me. The next thing I knew, it felt like this was tearing loose." His hand brushed above his heart, then trailed a few inches down the chain.

"I probably deserved that pain just now, then," Stephen said after a considering pause.

Tony groaned. "That's not why I said that. And don't you dare brag again about how much pain you can take," he quickly added when he saw something in Stephen's expression. That earned a smile, since he'd clearly hit his target, and so Tony laughed and smiled back. "Look, what I'm saying is that when we were on Titan, you were in charge. I didn't know what was really happening. Here on..." He gestured around them, to the nighttime galaxy overhead and dim purple rocks stretching into the distance. "Soul Titan, it's been me figuring out everything, instead." He paused, considering what he'd done elsewhere while trying to be totally in charge of things, and added, "And kind of making a mess of things on Earth."

Stephen's eyes narrowed. "What did you do?"

"Irrelevant," Tony cheerfully decided. "Because if we're going to work this out, we need to be partners. Like I thought we really were on Titan," he added with a deliberate pop of one eyebrow.

Though he didn't argue, neither did Stephen reply. For a while his fingers trailed lightly along the glowing golden chain. "I'm apparently inspecting my own soul. It's an adjustment. And I still don't know how this happened. I don't even understand how you attached it to yourself."

"We need to figure it out. As equals," Tony reminded him. "No more lies, bad feelings... they nearly killed you just now. Logically, we need to do the exact opposite of that."

"Equals," Stephen agreed after a short pause. "Neither of us taking the lead. I'll try to understand these energies and you can try to research the Stone itself." He sat back far enough to look up at the stars, shook his head, and murmured, "I was positive that I was getting data for Space. Absolutely positive."

"Hmm," Tony said after considering him. "I was debating saying this earlier but... you know, it actually does feel great to be able to tell you that you were wrong about something." He grinned impishly at the flat look he got in return, but that soon softened. "I nearly lost my mind when you were crashing in front of me. I can't do that again. Ever. So be careful when you're studying that energy, okay?"

"I told you it'd be dangerous to be connected to my spirit should I start to pass on," Stephen began to lecture.

"No. No. Come on, man. We need to be honest, now."

Tony Stark liked being around people. Unless he was distracted by a project in his workshop, loneliness set in quickly. Too often, his connections had been shallow things: parties, interviews, grand openings. He was hungry for those personal connections, though, and so it was easy for him to push at boundaries that didn't seem totally firm. For someone who loved the breathing, pulsing nature of a crowd, it was little wonder that he'd tried to treat some people as full-fledged friends at the first opportunity.

Stephen Strange did not like being around people. Not like Tony did. He still couldn't remember the specifics of the Sanctum's appearance, but he did know it had been quiet, expansive, and far too empty for his tastes. It was a home for someone who thrived in solitude, and was happy with a handful of friendships instead of constantly seeking out more. That kind of person didn't push at boundaries. They instinctively reinforced them, even when the universe needed otherwise.

"We need to be honest, now," Tony repeated. "You keep nearly dying in front of me and next time'd probably be more than my heart can handle. And not because of this," he said and trailed his fingers along gleaming gold.

"I cannot lose you," Tony added when no response came. "That's the danger I'm worried about. All right?"

Deep emotion shaded Stephen's eyes. If asked, Tony couldn't have said what all was contained there. "I will be careful," Stephen said after a solemn pause. "Tony, I have no idea how you've done this. My soul was ripped completely loose and somehow you saved me when that should have been impossible." A faint smile lightened the moment. "Although that uncertainty does make it rather more challenging to figure things out."

"We both appreciate a good challenge, though."

"Hmm. True."

That was true on a good day, at least. Right at this moment, a challenge might be a lot to face. "How are you doing?" Tony wondered. Stephen's soul had been collected, shattered, and recollected in a very short span. Tomorrow would be a fresh start, and they could both use one.

"Tired, still," he admitted.

Nodding, Tony scooted around next to him and then laid flat against the broad, flat rock below. "Lie down until I wake up. We'll both take a thinking break, at least for a little bit."

This felt nice, Tony thought as his mind slipped down into a lower gear. Challenges still loomed, but for now it was like regaining the simplicity of drifting toward sleep in that alien dormitory. Though he couldn't actually fall asleep when his body was already unconscious, at least he was able to focus more on a warm heart than the worry that had spiraled in his bruised brain.

No weeds taking me over, Tony remembered from Natasha's talk, and then from his apology to Christine. And at the end, how furious he'd been about the video and the betrayal he'd barely acknowledged. "I'm sorry I let go. Even for a second." His hand moved to the side, found Stephen's, and clasped it. "I won't again."

"I know." To Tony's surprise, Stephen didn't pull away. "And I won't lie to you again."

"I know why you did," Tony replied as he stared out at the universe. His grip tightened. No, he wouldn't have made that Stone trade. It had to happen, but...

He expected an answer that never came, and so eventually Tony looked over. Stephen was able to fall asleep, at least. Perhaps this rock felt less uncomfortable to him than it did to Tony. "No more lies, huh," Tony murmured after watching the way Stephen's face relaxed in sleep, then eased his own lingering stress by watching the steady rise and fall of the chest he'd once needed to puncture. "I was in the infirmary earlier to measure the extent of my brain damage."

Stephen said nothing, of course. His grip had gone slack inside Tony's.

It'd be easy to just let himself get away with this cheat code of an admission. That would be wrong, just like he hadn't given himself a conversational out with Christine. This long, agonizing, eye-opening day had put both of them through an awful lot, but the biggest thing it'd done was show the value of trust and honesty when souls were at stake. Tony propped himself up on his elbow, being careful not to release Stephen's hand, and studied the sleeping man. "I'll tell you everything later."

Chapter Text

Though he couldn't totally fall asleep on Titan, it still felt like waking from a dream when Tony opened his eyes on Earth. He's alone again, Tony instinctively thought and pressed on the warm spot, only to realize that Christine was looking at him full of worry.

She took a step forward. "Is he... I mean, things looked better on this end, but..."

In his daze, it took Tony a second to nod. "Yeah. He's good."

"God." Christine pressed her hands against her eyes, exhaled, and let her arms fall. She was a teary, bloodshot mess. "He has to stop doing this to me."

When what Tony now recognized as territoriality surged inside him, he made a deliberate attempt to fight it down. "He said hi, by the way." He'd forgotten that earlier, understandably.

"Hi," Christine repeated. Laughing, she swiped at her wet cheek. "Hi. He's across the galaxy with this ridiculous new life of his and he says 'hi.'" She turned to Stephen's still body and added, "You were already the most frustrating man I have ever met in my life, you know. You don't need to keep outdoing yourself."

Yeah. They had quite a history. But Tony couldn't get upset about that. He couldn't. He'd really thought that everything would be fixed after Christine made him realize that he was acting like a dog lifting its leg. At least now he immediately recognized how stupid he was being, but some part of him still saw the woman as a threat.

It was vital to not indulge those feelings until they vanished. Stephen was surely vulnerable, and so Tony owed it to him to be a nice, steady anchor with absolutely zero negative feelings anywhere in the vicinity of Stephen Strange. "I'm not in the running for 'most frustrating?'" Tony asked with an admirably light tone.

Laughter answered him. "He has years on you. You could never catch up." Christine wiped again at her eyes, took a few deep breaths, and then nodded sharply. "Right. So. You said your souls are tied together. That's completely bizarre."

"Not arguing with you on that. He's going to try to understand the energy flows and I'm going to find out what's known about the Soul Stone." Tony took a position on Stephen's other side. Though the monitor readings were stronger, he was still pale; he must have come so very close to the edge. "Will it interfere with the bed if I have scanners in here? I learned how to monitor his spiritual energy before. I might be able to catch something that the facility scanners can't."

"It shouldn't, but don't activate them until tomorrow morning. I'll run safety tests before I leave them running in here." Considering that, Christine looked Tony over. "It's getting late, but how much sleep have you already gotten today?"

"Uh." Thinking back on it, the sheer amount of conflict he'd gone through that day staggered Tony. He'd taken Stephen's attacks inside Wong's spiritual armor, been put to sleep right before he made a tremendous ass of himself, and then had to be put under a third time for an emergency save. "Three Titan trips already. You're right. I'm not going to be able to fall asleep for hours, yet."

Tony needed not to worry during the late night ahead of him. Not to obsess over Christine's presence in a way he still couldn't fully stop. That meant that he needed a harmless project to work on, and Tony had an idea of what that project might be. "Hey, let me scan you." At Christine's confusion, he held up his wrist to indicate that they wouldn't need a trip to the MRI facility.

She blinked. "For what?"

He smiled blandly back. "There's a software problem that will keep me safely out of trouble in my own room until I pass out. Come on, let me scan you. Wanna see your own lungs?"

"That could be interesting," Christine admitted and let him perform the scan that soon resulted in a floating holographic duplicate of her organs. "Huh. Shuri uses holographic technology like this, but—" Her eyes widened slightly as she grabbed her own lung and was able to detach it from the esophagus for inspection. "It doesn't do that." She squinted into the holographic tube. "Do I have the start of a nodule? I should get that checked."

"Good luck with that," Tony said as he efficiently scanned her head and abdomen, though he steered clear of anything below the waist. They were not remotely to that comfort level and hopefully never would be. "Well, I'm going to go wrangle code until I pass out."

"Sure," Christine murmured as she continued playing with her lung. He was almost out the door before she jerked out of her medical haze and called, "And... and thank you. For saving him."

Wonder if she's wearing the stupid necklace right now, Tony thought before he could help it, and had to turn away to allow himself the frustrated reaction his impulses deserved. Still? Seriously? What was wrong with him? "That's apparently my job," Tony replied once he'd gotten ahold of himself. "And I'm happy to do it. So. Uh. Night."

"Night."

Yeah, some awkwardness still remained between them. At least she hadn't thrown him out of the infirmary. Progress.

"I hope you didn't feel anything bad in there," Tony murmured as he walked toward his personal quarters. "I'm trying, all right? But it's easy for me to have mood swings right now, so I'll just... really, really try." He could not allow his stupid emotions to hurt Stephen again. He wouldn't allow it. Not ever, but especially not when Stephen's soul was so vulnerable.

As he entered his dark room, the lights slid obligingly brighter. They reflected off the frame holding the wedding announcement of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts.

He barely managed to tamp down a surge of pain. It was like staving off vomit. "Pepper is missing," Tony insisted with closed eyes until everything dark inside him eased. The habitual repetition—not dead, missing missing missing—was harder to believe at the end of this exhausting, emotional day. But she really was just missing. This was just... just like a business trip. She had to take business trips. Tony was used to Pepper being gone on business trips, they happened all the time, and so there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

"Business trip," Tony insisted, turned away from their photos, and thought about lines of code. "Business trip." Once they figured out all six Stones and how to use them, she'd be done with her business trip.

It apparently wasn't a day to be honest with himself about quite everything.

He took a seat facing away from the photos he didn't want to acknowledge. With a gesture, Tony summoned every holographic organ from Christine's head and torso like he was playing a three-dimensional game of Operation. "There's a memory issue somewhere," he mused as he stared at the interlocking organs. They hadn't flickered, which was the bug's warning sign. "Even with all of them active, it's still working, so..."

Nothing happened when he removed one of her kidneys. Tony idly turned it this way and that, shrugged, and threw it backward over his shoulder to let it vanish in mid-air. Kidneys weren't very interesting. One of his had been lacerated by Thanos, but immediate nano application had been able to patch it up with little remaining damage.

He worked like that for a while, pulling out various organs and manipulating them to see if he could identify the cause of the memory bug. Eventually only the heart and brain were left untouched. As the two most vital organs, he expected one of them to be the troublemaker, but the heart was holographically dissected without issue. "The brain it is," Tony murmured, reached for it, and sighed as the hologram flickered twice. "System reset."

More than an hour passed as he tried different approaches for examining a holographic brain, but the bug always revealed itself. He hadn't really been worried before about digging this deeply into his brain, Tony realized as he sat back in frustration. This holographic scanning technique had developed out of his suits' status scans, and so he was worried about immediate damage. If he took chest trauma in a fight, breathing could be hindered. If he took a puncture wound, bleeders needed to be resolved. And yes, he cared about head trauma, but the immediate stuff: unconsciousness, pressure, and the like. The sort of things that mattered in a life and death, got-the-suit-on situation.

He'd never intended the scan to totally understand what was going on inside a brain's core. Updating the program's functionality was exactly the sort of finicky, complicated distraction he needed while his emotions leveled out and exhaustion arrived.

"Friday, do the main building banks have more complete data on the structure of a human brain?"

"Reviewing the medical literature." A pause, then, "Affirmative, boss. Your model of the human brain accounts for approximately thirty billion neurons."

That sounded like a ridiculous amount already. "So how many are there?"

"Current estimates are around one hundred billion, with approximately one hundred trillion connections between them."

Good lord. No wonder the program had bugged out. Any time he tried to even jostle a brain hologram, there was an excellent chance that the system would try to model a connection that he hadn't accounted for. Stephen hadn't been kidding when he said it was the most complicated organ. "Can we update my program with those additional parameters?"

"Modeling one hundred trillion simultaneous neurological connections would require more processing power than is currently available on Earth."

"What? No, it isn't," Tony muttered and tapped the side of his head. "It's happening right now." If the lump of cells inside his skull could do it, then technology had to be able to. Somehow. He refused to let biology win over computer science.

"There is a file on record of a large number of neurological connections being digitally manipulated at once," Friday added helpfully. "Would you like me to pull it?"

"Yeah, go for it." A second later Tony grimaced and pulled away, then put an instinctive hand on his chest as he tried to steady his mood. He should have asked what the file would be. Without prior warning, he hadn't been prepared to see what must have been among Vision's final minutes. "Cease playback, but get me the complete data records on that attempt."

"You've got it, boss."

Ultron had managed to act like there was a real mind inside him, but apparently it was physically impossible for anyone on Earth to have duplicated the true complexity of a human brain. His processors didn't have to regulate a human body, Tony realized a moment later; a robot didn't need to breathe, digest food, or raise goose bumps in a chilly room. Ultron had also zeroed in on one solution like an efficient algorithm, and worked to make it happen no matter the costs.

Like his accidental dad sometimes does, Tony thought darkly. At least he was able to learn from his mistakes.

That single-mindedness had come from looking at only an outside view of the Mind Stone's fascinating structure. Vision, with the Stone as actually part of him, had seemed far more human, with all the contradictions and complexity that entailed. "How was your programming interacting with the Stone?" Tony murmured as he brought up the record of Shuri trying to separate Vision's systems from its power. Maybe there could be some sort of answer there.

All right, Tony concluded hours later as he slammed down the empty glass of carrot juice that Friday had recommended. (He should avoid caffeine late at night and it had health benefits.) If there was an answer, he couldn't find it like this.

He believed the team's assumptions that Vision would have retained most of his functionality if they'd removed the Mind Stone. Even without a little piece of supernatural existence in his skull, Vision still would have been able to handle nearly as many connections as a human brain. He'd adapted beyond anything humans could make. "How, though," Tony wondered and rotated Christine's brain. It flickered and locked into a single mass, of course.

"Friday," Tony said a minute later, after he'd sat in silent contemplation of the hologram. "Review files from dinner. What topic was Dr. Palmer reading about?" He couldn't figure this out by reviewing existing software code. This was about understanding how an Infinity Stone could theoretically interact with a human brain, and this was someone else's field of expertise.

"Dr. Palmer said that she was reading about the circular sulcus of the insula, a part of the brain associated with the insular cortex. Would you like to know more?"

"Uh, sure."

"It's a semi-circular fissure that lies along and between the insular cortex and the frontal, parietal, and temporal opercula. Also known as—"

Well, that was all useless to him. "Just reset the brain hologram and light the area up for me." Perhaps he could see where it interfaced with the areas that Shuri's Stone extraction had centered upon. After a few seconds, he frowned and asked, "Friday, is the hologram not working even for this?"

"No, boss, I've done as ordered."

Where was the stupid thing, then? Not wanting to touch the hologram lest it bug out again, Tony tried moving himself up and down and around the brain. Only when he got under it did he notice a ripple of light, mostly inside and barely visible. "I have no idea why you're potentially interesting," Tony admitted as he stared at Stephen's suggested focus. "But I have an way to get this moving."

With the amount of sleep he'd gotten during the day, he'd worked late into the night without feeling the urge to turn in. It was already morning in Wakanda. Unlike when he'd called Wong, this satellite call only needed two tries to go through. "Hello?" asked the girl on the other end as she leaned in to stabilize the connection. "Who's calling?"

'Girl' was the right word. He'd seen a still picture of Shuri, but in motion she looked even younger. Her t-shirt had an adorably stylized cartoon kitten that was adorably flipping off the viewer with its upraised paw and looked rumpled enough to have been slept in.

Before he could reply, Shuri's eyebrows raised. "Oh. Am I finally meeting Tony Stark? I heard you weren't dead."

Well, this was clearly someone who wasn't awed by his presence. "You heard right. Hi. I just got caught up on the research teams and have been trying to tackle something that you worked on, so it seemed like a good time to introduce myself."

She nodded and glanced to a monitor on her right, raising what looked like coffee to her lips as she did. Maybe he had actually called before she'd changed out of her pajamas. "I see that you requested what happened with Vision. Another twenty minutes and I would have called you myself."

Seriously, she looked like an infant, just like Peter did... like Peter had. She'd supposedly designed things that put Tony's own work to shame? This conversation threatened to leave him feeling ancient. "I'm trying to catch up on the different teams' work, and tonight I'm zeroing in on the Mind Stone."

Shuri smiled over her coffee mug. "We have that covered, Mr. Stark, thank you. But it seems like real breakthroughs are being made with some of the others." Then she yawned and barely tried to hide it.

He'd just assumed she'd be a morning person like him. Six a.m. was a late start for Tony Stark, let alone eight. "You've done great work with Mind, absolutely. But it seems like it could be pushed even further. I'm trying to figure out how Vision's functionality adapted to the Mind Stone's powers, enough that he still could have basically had a human brain after it was removed." Tony sighed. The photographic record of Vision's corpse took a few seconds to push away from the top of his memories. "In theory."

"Well, you all did very good design work with him," Shuri said with another smile. "I had some suggestions for improvements, but..."

"Thanks, but the thing is, it's apparently impossible for anyone to fully model the number of calculations inside a human brain."

The smile she offered him began to take on a different edge. Was that 'Wakanda is more advanced than anything your company's ever made' tolerant, or 'you're an outdated generation, Mr. Stark' tolerant? "I'm sure there's a way to... oh." She sipped more coffee as she read something on another monitor, then turned back to him and shrugged. "All right, yes, one hundred trillion simultaneous calculations isn't currently possible."

"But you were confident that Vision would behave the same after the Mind Stone was removed. You and Bruce both thought so, and I'll trust that. If human technology can't yet build a brain replacement but his would still function, then the Stone had to have helped him adapt, somehow." Tony shrugged. "I'm trying to figure that out."

"It's a good question," Shuri admitted and popped in a bite of breakfast. "I'd be interested in it later. Why now, though?"

"I have this medical hologram that lets me examine organs in detail. I had it recommended to look at the..." He had to check his notes for the name. "The circular sulcus of the insula to possibly understand Infinity power flows, but since I can't totally model a brain I've run into a dead end. The organ's too complex, my program always locks up."

Shuri frowned. "What's that 'sulcus?' What's it do?"

"I have no idea, honestly."

"But you still have to look at it?"

Her kingdom had apparently hosted the end of the world. This next statement couldn't sound too far out of left field. "A magical brain surgeon who owned another Infinity Stone told me to."

From the dubious expression Shuri offered, she did need a minute to adjust. "I like computers," she then muttered, probably not intending to be heard. After a minute spent reviewing her monitors, she looked up and nodded. "Send me the code for your hologram. Let me see if I can find a way past the error. Bill and Jane are both busy with other work today and do not need my input."

"Done," Tony said after giving permission for the satellite uplink, then looked back to her connection. "Thanks. Oh, and do you have any idea if your med tech would be interfered with by scans for spiritual energy?"

The question seemed to amuse her. "Spiritual energy?" Shuri repeated.

"Yeah, my soul got tied to the magical brain surgeon and we need to see how to yank him back from across the galaxy."

It took her a while to reply. "You are truly Tony Stark?" she asked with mounting disbelief. "Iron Man? You are not like I pictured."

"Things got very weird ever since I chased down an alien abduction," Tony admitted.

After another long pause, Shuri said, "I have no idea whether my medical beds would be interfered with by... magic or spirits. I did not design for that."

Well, at least he could still manage to surprise the youth. "Right, I'll test them, then. Thanks again for looking at my software. I think it'll matter if we can figure out how Mind let an android brain function like a biological one." Tony hesitated. "Somehow." His instincts said they were on to something. Though instincts could lead him astray, they'd also directed him toward spectacular discoveries. "And, uh, I'll try to time any future calls so I catch you after breakfast."

She laughed faintly, then looked down at the rumpled t-shirt she still wore. "You're from California, right?"

He blinked. "Not originally, but I spent years in LA, yeah."

The sliver of excitement she'd displayed died. "Los Angeles, right. I got this on a trip to the Bay," she replied, and gestured at her shirt. "With... my brother."

T'Challa. He'd read that name in the list of fallen. "I'm sorry."

The cheerful demeanor she'd displayed further withered. "Thank you. I would have asked about some concepts, since I had you on the line, but... LA. Never mind." With visible effort, she collected herself and smiled again. It almost looked believable. "I may have suggestions by the time you wake up, Mr. Stark. Good to meet you."

"Same. I'll look forward to it."

Time for bed, Tony decided after a yawn surprised him. He finally felt sleepy, and perhaps on Titan he could find out what that stupid sulcus was supposed to do. Under dimmed lights, he stripped to his boxers, climbed into bed, and waited for what would hopefully be at least a few hours of rest. Perhaps the next day could reset his sleeping schedule, he hoped as he ran through lines of code to meander toward unconsciousness.

Weeks earlier, Tony had returned from an initial inspection of the Maw's ship only to discover Stephen motionless against the ground. They'd barely known each other then, yet the sight terrified him. Now Tony felt in his heart that Stephen was fine as he slept, and so he quietly took a seat near him and looked up to watch the stars.

"How long have you been here?" he eventually heard.

Tony shrugged and turned his attention away from the sky. "A while. I zoned out, it was fine. I didn't want to wake you. How are you doing by now?"

"Better, definitely." Happiness surged in Tony at that answer, but Stephen looked down at his own chest with a faint frown, then turned the dark expression on Tony.

"What?"

"We're experiencing Mantis' full powerset, after all," Stephen grumbled. "An empathetic connection is disorienting. I have no idea how she managed this. To have someone else's feelings invade your own..."

"Stop harshing my buzz," Tony ordered as he felt Stephen's irritation filter through the chain. Very deliberately, he focused on how thrilled he was to even be able to have this conversation. Earlier that evening, it had seemed like one would never happen again. "Just give in," he soon said with satisfaction as he saw Stephen struggle to maintain his annoyed mood. "Come on. We're both happy that you're alive."

"I am happy to be alive," Stephen agreed. "I will apparently have to get used to... this," he added with a gesture between them, "but I'm happy to be alive."

"Good. Hey, what's your hypothesis on the Mind Stone's interaction with the circular sulcus?"

The conversational whiplash took Stephen a moment from which to recover. "What, does Christine have an idea?"

"I do, actually," Tony said proudly. "Well, less a hypothesis than an methodological approach, but Shuri and I are going to try to see if you're on to something. What is it, in plain English? What's it do and why should we care?"

"It's nothing terribly exciting, but can possibly offer some research direction if I'm right. The insular cortex is buried deep inside the brain's structure. The circular sulcus runs between it and three adjacent lobes: temporal, frontal, and parietal. It's hypothesized to be a bridge between the different areas' functionalities, and that's why I thought it might be interesting." Stephen propped himself up on his elbows next to Tony, and also looked up at the stars. "I've never encountered the Mind Stone myself, of course. But from using Time, I started thinking about possible similarities."

"Similarities how?"

"Understandably, I still view a lot of things through a neurological lens. When setting up a time loop, each iteration has its own function, its own purpose... vaguely like a lobe of the brain. There's an underlying support that joins all of the loops together, though. That's how anything can be remembered across the loops, and how the Stone's user avoids slipping into the cracks between them."

"You've done time loops before you checked the futures for Thanos," Tony concluded after some thought. Stephen hadn't been experimenting, then; he'd known what he was doing. With a weighty tone, he added, "And so you knew that viewing those futures could be dangerous."

"It was incredibly dangerous," Stephen admitted. "When I first used the Eye, I heard all the warnings about bad ends I could meet. If I'd lost my grip on the underlying connective tissue of reality, I could have been locked into one of those alternate possibilities, frozen in time, or simply erased from existence. But Thanos would soon arrive. So I did it."

Tony said nothing in response. A low, heavy weight filled him over Stephen knowing that he'd been risking being completely lost, yet did so anyway in the background of everyone's strategy argument.

That feeling must have been shared, for Stephen studied him for a long moment, then added, "And you would have done exactly the same thing."

He nodded slowly at a distant star. If they had one real weapon against Thanos as he approached, then of course he would. "Yeah." A lopsided smile grew as Tony slowly added, still staring off at eternity, "It's weird how your own life is... everything, but it's easier to give yours up than someone else's."

"Some people would disagree with that, but yes." Stephen closed his eyes. To Tony's surprise, a ripple of pain entered his chest. This wasn't the connection loosening like before; it was simple sadness. The emotion wasn't apparent on Stephen's face and was barely audible in his voice. "Thanos has to be faced again. I have a very rough image of how it'll play out, and it doesn't demand a sacrifice play from you." He swallowed and kept his gaze trained on the sky. "Please don't rush to make one."

You do feel things, after all. "Funny request, coming from you."

After a short, annoyed sigh, Stephen did look down from the stars. "Please."

Tony nodded. "All right."

"Thank you."

"Will you be back by then?"

Stephen shrugged. "Not a clue. Apparently, our faked Soul Stone managed to completely confuse the Time Stone as to where I was headed. When the known path ended, I assumed that meant my death. Instead, it just put me at the edge of a forest with no directions. I'll have to find my way through."

"Well, hopefully it's not too long. Could use you in the fight," Tony pointed out.

"I doubt I'd be at full capacity, but I wouldn't mind a second showdown, no." As Stephen's gaze returned to the stars, a smirk crept onto his face. "I stood toe-to-toe with him, after all."

With four stones. Now he has six, and you keep nearly dying. Stephen looked back to him, and so Tony groaned and admitted, "Yes, you just felt me getting worried over you. Like you worried over me making a sacrifice play," he reminded and popped one eyebrow defiantly.

"Hmm."

"That's the only response I'm getting? Hmm? You just hate it whenever I make a good point."

"Well, you do it so seldom," Stephen said, interlaced his fingers behind his head, and again reclined to stare at the stars. "You can hardly blame me for being surprised when it happens."

"I figured out how to grab your soul pieces and anchor you," Tony retorted as he followed him down. "I make terrific points." A second later, he realized the obvious follow-up: yes, he'd achieved those things, but he'd also nearly killed Stephen right afterward. The harm being accidental didn't matter; it was still the perfect topic with which to needle him.

An odd feeling surged inside his chest, but died just as quickly. With a frown, Tony turned to look at Stephen. He decided not to mention that, Tony realized. "Can you get back to the ship?" he wondered in an attempt to shift the topic. "I'm not saying those beds were comfortable, but they were better than these rocks. And it's not like I can bring a cot when I visit."

"No, I'm apparently caught inside a rather small area. The boundaries appear open, but I've realized the landscape keeps repeating. It's fine, everything feels equally unreal to me right now. These rocks aren't as bad as they apparently feel to you and I doubt anything would feel better to me."

"I hope we get you home soon," Tony said after contemplating that. There was more sadness in his voice than he intended to reveal, but emotions would slip down the chain regardless. It was useless to hide the regret he felt over Stephen's imprisonment here. "I really, really hope."

"So do I," Stephen sighed. "It's selfish to admit that, given everything else on the table, but so do I."

Studying the galaxy overhead replaced their quiet conversation. When Tony eventually found himself blinking awake on Earth, regret throbbed in his chest at the image of Stephen left there in utter solitude. His hand quickly checked the warm spot, but there was no pain. Sadness didn't feel good to either of them, he was sure, but Stephen shouldn't be in mortal danger so long as they avoided any hostility between them.

"Right," he said and sat up. "I will just be the opposite of hostile." With an extended, sloppy yawn, Tony stretched, began to rise, and looked quickly away from the framed photos on the wall. If he was going to maintain his emotional state, maybe those frames needed to come down until Pepper was back from her business trip.

Well. To end that trip and end Stephen's isolation, he had a lot of work ahead of him. "Do you have software updates for me?" Tony wondered as he checked his messages and saw one from Shuri.

Its contents surprised him. Shuri—now wearing a sleek orange and white outfit and not looking at all like the end of the world had unfolded on her front door—glowered at the monitor. "Brains are tricky," she informed him. "But I will figure this out."

That was all he was getting from her by now, apparently. It made little sense for the two of them to duplicate each other's efforts, Tony mused as he made himself a cup of coffee. Better to let Shuri work on modeling a full brain for testing, and for Tony to try to model the specific energy flow of the circular sulcus. If Stephen's firsthand experience using one Stone could translate onto any others, then that could be a very useful discovery.

"Please let this be a normal day," Tony asked the beautiful world outside his window. This early, the light was still pink and golden. Its low angle wrapped each leaf and glittered against morning dew. A few clouds marred the sky as it brightened toward daytime blue, but they were thin, wispy things that would bring no rain. "No near deaths. No huge arguments." After another sip of coffee, Tony found it in himself to chuckle, "No more making an ass out of myself."

By the time his coffee was gone, the softest, most beautiful time of day had faded. It only lasted for a few precious minutes and he was glad that he'd gotten to see them. It was the calm start he needed. With a sharp nod, Tony headed for the bathroom and into the shower.

"Yeah, I'm up," he replied to the comm request as he finished shaving off what stubble had grown. Perhaps he hadn't gotten quite as much sleep as he would have liked, as a second cup of coffee had sounded appealing. It sat near his elbow.

"Great," said Rhodey. "Is it okay if I swing on by?"

Tony manipulated his jaw this way and that under his hand, seeking any place where a bit of roughness remained. "Absolutely. What's up?"

"Just something quick, I'll be right over." At Tony's idle noise of agreement, the comm cut. He toweled off a few smudges of shaving cream, nodded at the mirror, and walked to his door. His move beat Rhodey's, and the man chuckled and dropped his hand from where he'd been ready to knock. "Hey, Tony. How's it been going?"

Since you nearly killed Thor, Tony completed, and saw the strain in Rhodey's expression that confirmed he'd avoided the topic.

Rhodey continued, "I heard you made a breakthrough with a Stone? That's fantastic. See, the world really needed you back." In that careful, measured way he had, he finished, "I knew that you just needed a couple of days to get your footing. I had a lot to juggle, so I was happy to give those days. I hope you're okay with getting a little more on-board the team now, though."

Tony couldn't stop a faint frown as he took another sip of coffee. "I mean... sure, but like you said, I'm working on a Stone. There's no one else who can figure out Soul. How much more 'on-board' do you need?"

"Soul?" Rhodey repeated with surprise. "Wait, they were using that portal data for something with Space."

"Yeah, that team's welcome to it. I'm researching how to get Strange back from Titan."

As Tony took another sip, Rhodey held up a finger, paused, and sighed as his hand dropped. "From Titan? Like how you sent Thor there?" Oh, now he was going to mention that. "I told you to leave your guy, Tony."

"That's not remotely an option. I don't need to send a body there, anyway. Our souls got connected." Tony smiled blandly over his coffee mug.

"Your souls got connected," Rhodey repeated.

"Yep."

"Souls. You're talking about souls like you're the Pope, now."

"I'm talking about souls like the Soul Stone. And because I can talk to Strange each time I go to sleep, I've been able to interview someone who knows what it feels like to actually use an Infinity Stone." Tony didn't bother hiding the amusement in his eyes as he took another drink. Rhodey was getting that frustrated, resigned look that Tony's plans often earned. He wanted to be brought in before Tony actually started whatever he planned, but he was willing to go along with things once they were in motion. It was easier, that way.

"You're connected... fine." Rhodey blinked, gave an exaggerated sigh, and blinked again. "Tony's connected his soul to some dude across the galaxy. At this point, sure, why not. Is this safe? After that day with Thor, you had better tell me this is safe."

No more brain damage was inbound. "Totally safe," Tony promised. "And I'll be able to figure out the sixth Stone because of it."

"Souls," Rhodey muttered once again, then shook his head and appeared to let it go. "I just wanted to touch base after I gave you a few days to recuperate. I wanted to make sure you were doing okay. That you were okay to be here. With everyone. The whole team."

"Yeah," Tony said slowly, with a sidelong glance. If Tony didn't know better, from how Rhodey was acting he'd assume that Thor was pressing charges. That was ridiculous, of course, but it was the same circuitous, hesitant way he'd learned about some lawsuits against his company. "Why?"

Rhodey smiled, raised his eyebrows like a shrug, and said with a sigh, "Cap's back."

Tony instinctively reached for the warm spot and pressed hard.

Well.

Right.

He'd better keep a firm handle on his emotions, then.

Chapter Text

Los Angeles still wasn't under control, but they couldn't commit resources to it indefinitely. So long as fresh fires kept creeping through city blocks, they couldn't eliminate all hostile factions; so long as those factions destabilized the city, it made it harder to fight the fires. Steve Rogers hadn't been able to solve that problem, not even with an assist from the U.S. government via Sharon Carter and Wakanda via Nakia. He'd been an inspiration as they helped to dismantle the two specific factions fighting over downtown, though, and that let emergency workers in to stop skyscraper fires that some religious cult had tried to set.

Apparently the world was absolutely crawling with cults, now. That capped off Rhodey's summary of what had transpired with Steve's mission as the two of them walked toward a conference room. "I figured you and him could meet up for a little bit," Rhodey explained. "But you'll both know that everyone's coming in for a debriefing soon, so that conversation's going to have a time limit." Unspoken was that Steve would be repeating much of what Rhodey had just told him. If Tony had stormed off by then, he'd still know the basics.

"Good idea." Tony didn't know exactly what he was feeling, but it was weighty inside his chest. Thanks to Natasha's confrontation in the forest, he'd rooted out a lot of the terrible feelings that he'd let develop toward Steve Rogers. He did understand now that he'd overweighted their relationship. He'd never been truly mad at Natasha for taking off to join Rogers and Wilson these past two years, and upon hearing that she'd also known about Bucky, the cognitive dissonance had fried some of his circuit breakers. It seemed untenable to be mad at one liar and not the other. He really didn't have it in him to ramp up any fury toward Romanoff right now.

Still, though: Captain America, the world's perfect lantern-jawed hero, had violently sided with the man whose hands had taken the lives of Howard and Maria Stark.

It wasn't something that a person just got past.

He'd better get past it, though, because this was not a time to send hostile feelings through that soul link. Already, it seemed easier to transmit emotions than when they'd first made the connection. Even if negative feelings toward someone else wouldn't dangerously shred their chain, Stephen had nearly died twelve short hours ago and was alone in a dark, barren soul-bubble universe. Tony couldn't indulge himself in two years' worth of anger toward Steve, because he'd be dumping the same thing on a still-vulnerable soul. It wouldn't kill Stephen, but he deserved better.

And he'd better get past it right now. The door was opening.

After two years, only the length of a conference room stood between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Rhodey hung back a step to give them their space, and so the two men could see each other clearly. Steve's uniform was worn, darkened, and frayed; Tony's casual outfit offered no protection. Tension sharped to razor sharpness. They might fall off it in either direction.

A second later, Steve smiled. Though his eyes looked decades older than the last time they'd met, it seemed genuine. "It's really good to see you alive, Tony."

The last time he'd seen this man in person, it was when he was walking away from a bruised, bloody fight that had left Tony flat on the ground. When he was first stranded on Titan, though, wondering who was left alive, Tony had hoped that Steve would still be there to help the world because the world needed the best help it could get. Before that, he'd seen reports about missions Cap's team did while on the run. He and Rhodey had gotten used to ignoring Vision's excuses that they knew covered encounters with Wanda.

The shockwave of anguish he expected to hit him never arrived. Tony had spent longer than he realized scarring over from that bloody fight. Without realizing it, pain had ebbed in his subconscious; so, though, had old assumptions of friendship. Natasha had simply helped him clarify what he'd spent years feeling.

The man standing in front of him was a co-worker. He'd done a lot to resent toward Tony but a lot to respect for the world, and either way they had a huge job ahead of them. As co-workers. That was it.

"It's good to see you alive, too," Tony said after a pause that had Rhodey on edge. "Thanks for trying to help my old hometown."

Though he didn't dare say anything, Rhodey looked between them and waited for the fireworks that surely had to be coming.

Steve hesitated just a moment before replying, then inclined his head and said, "I can't say that we had a lot of success, but you're welcome."

Tony nodded slowly, flashed back to a shield about to bash through his skull, and added, "The beard sucks, by the way."

Steve actually smiled, said nothing, and shrugged.

"That's it?" Rhodey murmured to him in the silence that followed.

Walking into this meeting had been like when he returned to his old school to give an inspirational speech, only to discover that the rooms all looked smaller than in memory. After the end of... everything, Tony simply didn't have it in him to hold much toward Steve Rogers any more. That realization saddened him more than their history itself. To reach that stage, a lot more had fallen apart than just the two of them. "Yeah, that's it. You guys want anything for breakfast? Sounds like Rhodey blocked off some time for us before the meeting, but I don't need it."

Faint confusion furrowed Steve's forehead. "Tony, I'm sure you've got a lot to say to me. We should get it out into the open."

Tony shrugged. "Your spy bestie did her dirty work on me, and so I'm realizing that the two of us never really had that much to say to each other. Let's just keep it professional from now on, and the professional interaction on our schedule doesn't start for..." He glanced at a monitor. "Fifteen minutes."

"Tony—"

"Stick to the mission, soldier," Tony said with a razor-thin smile. "Do the two of you want something or not, because I'm heading down right now."

With visible effort, Steve recalibrated how he thought their reunion would go, nodded slowly, and said, "Coffee. Black. Thanks."

"Rhodey?"

Resigned, Rhodey replied, "Cream and sugar, and don't give me that look, I'm gonna take it while we still have some. Plus whatever they've got to eat. I've been busy."

Tony nodded, turned, and left without another word. Though his odd, heavy mood still filled him as he tried to process exactly what his new dynamic with Steve Rogers might be, a small point of warmth soon interrupted it. Concern, Tony realized a few step down the hall. That was concern he felt. With a small but real smile, he idly tapped the spot above his heart, let go of a few shadows crowding his mood, and walked on.

Apparently, the nearby farmer who'd slaughtered his chickens didn't also have leftover eggs to sell them; only packaged pastries and bagels were available for breakfast. They were approaching their use-by date, Tony saw when he checked an unopened bag of English muffins. Even food stuffed full of preservatives would go bad. Were factories still running to put anything more on the shelves? "We need to fix this," Tony reminded himself needlessly as he poured coffee-mate into Rhodey's cup. "ASAP."

The sooner they fixed this, the sooner Pepper would be back from her business trip and Stephen wouldn't be locked in some soul prison. All the Avengers still needed to do was to gain a full understanding of the six Infinity Stones, determine how to use them to turn back Thanos' work, and then come up with a way to actually implement that plan.

"Simple," Tony told himself as he poured his own third cup of coffee for the morning. "Super simple."

"Coffee, black," he soon announced back in the conference room, and handed over Steve's cup. Some other people had filled the room by then, and so both Natasha and Clint raised eyebrows at the sight.

After a tiny pause, Steve nodded. "Thanks."

"And Rhodey gets his fancy frilly coffee," Tony continued and passed that one over, "along with a bagel. Not onion, since you'll probably be talking."

"Thanks, and don't make fun of my coffee. I earned this French vanilla," Rhodey said. The look in his eyes toward the others couldn't be more clear: I have zero idea why Tony's acting like this, but let's not question it as long as it lasts.

As Tony took his own seat, not quite as far as was possible to sit from Steve, he sipped his coffee with one hand and brushed idly at his heart with the other. You doing okay? he wondered. He'd tried to fight back dark Rogers-related feelings, but who knew if he'd succeeded in being a calm, steady anchor. A warm surge came back to him, like the one he'd sent in response to Stephen's faint worry earlier, and Tony smiled and brushed above his heart again. Good. Everything seemed safe.

Natasha was looking at him when he returned his attention to the table, but said nothing as she sipped her coffee.

"What?" Tony demanded. That was the face of a woman who had something to say.

"Nothing." Another sip, a smile, and she added, "Yet."

"Stop sudoku-ing me," he hissed as more people filed into the room. Control was again tricky to maintain when Thor entered, but Tony's flash of worry faded as Thor offered him a genial smile. After fighting down feelings on a Stephen-adjacent topic, Tony asked, "You're doing okay by now? After... Titan?"

Thor clapped him on the shoulder. He apparently still hadn't quite figured out the appropriate strength to use on someone from 'Midgard.' As Tony grunted, Thor nodded and said, "I'm difficult to kill and I have no intentions of losing any battle so easily. I won't rest until I've sent my axe through Thanos' head." His mood darkened and he added, "Perhaps he fails to realize it, but he's issued me a challenge."

"I didn't realize you also went to Titan," said a new voice, and Tony nearly sighed when he realized whose it was: Steve's. He really did not want to tell the tale of his accidental near-manslaughter of Thor Odinson.

"Long story," Tony said loudly. "We'd be delaying the briefing."

Steve nodded, taking the hint, and stood to bring up his full mission report. While he did, Tony turned idly in his chair, inspecting who all was in final attendance. The expected Avenger regulars were there, of course, as were the Quantum Realm duo and Christine. When she saw him looking, she tapped her wrist and mouthed a word that Tony soon realized was "scanners." Right, right, she wanted to test them before they began their sentry duty over Stephen's body. With a gesture, two left his wrist and flew across the table for her retrieval.

After that, he realized a stranger was watching him from the far end of his inspection. "And who are you?" he asked with a quick survey of the woman inspecting him: messy blonde hair, bomber jacket, and an expression that was far too comfortable to be sitting in the midst of Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

"Carol, hey," she said and leaned over to shake his hand.

"Danvers," Tony remembered as he accepted the offer, but then barely maintained a level expression. She gripped harder than Thor. No wonder she apparently punched hard enough to count alongside research on exploding arc reactors, Tony thought as he just kept from shaking out the ache in his hand. Natasha noticed his discomfort, of course, and so he mouthed, "Stop watching me."

She mouthed back, "No."

Tony didn't know what Carol's full powers were, nor why she was here. The latter seemed like more of a proper introduction topic. "I've heard your name mentioned a few times," Tony said as he sat with his hands safely out of shaking distance. "Glad to finally see your face."

Carol studied him with more intensity than he'd expected. "You look old," she soon announced.

Tony frowned back. "Yeah, well, I hate your jacket."

Carol laughed. "Sorry, sorry, that didn't come out right. I—" She noticed the screen, pointed to it, and murmured, "I'll explain later. Really, sorry."

Grumbling, Tony sat back, again gestured for Natasha to keep her attention on the screen, and buckled in his emotions for however long he had to listen to Steve Rogers talk. Two years of practiced resentment was nothing compared to what danger might be presented to Stephen if Tony's dark emotions surged. It was important to not indulge a single one.

After the first few photographs, his disgruntlement faded. Tony instead found himself pressing on his heart, trying not to share the aching sadness he felt. It probably didn't work. The emotion was overwhelming.

Here inside Avengers headquarters, things looked mostly the same as ever. The menu had too much corn and there were too few people sitting inside the cafeteria, but it had otherwise felt like coming home. His attention had been locked inside headquarters and in the soul prison, so Tony had paid scant attention to the state of the full globe.

Thanks to Steve's report, Tony was finally experiencing that outside world. On screen, corpses burned in the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River. Not a single one of those people would ever come back, no matter what Thanos solution the Avengers found.

"We tried to tell people that it wasn't necessary," Steve explained as the room sat in collective pain over the horrific sight before them. He looked to his right and Christine nodded and stood for a quick addendum.

"It's a common assumption that corpses will be a health threat in a mass casualty situation, but disease risk like that only really exists in a flooded area. However, morale can understandably suffer from..." Christine trailed off, sighed, and finished, "The odor."

Faction wars. Roaming fires. Infrastructure issues, food shortages, water impurities... who knew what had caused all of those bodies that now burned in a concrete tomb? Tony found himself tearing up as he studied the horror of his old hometown. Titan had felt like an isolated bubble, but headquarters had been a bubble of its own. He'd had no idea that things were falling apart this badly.

The initial fires from electrical lines had been put out, but they'd inspired groups trying to get control of the city. If one of their enemies lost a block of houses, then those were houses that would no longer serve as stockpiles of food or places to hide. Arson was now common. The city did have emergency workers and fire trucks available, but gas and manpower were both in short supply. They'd prioritized.

"Doesn't look like the poor neighborhoods were much of a priority," Clint noted as Steve finished his overview.

"Not for the people in charge there, no," Steve tiredly agreed. Now that his heart had been softened by the city's suffering, Tony could see that Steve did look far beyond exhausted. "My team tried to tackle some of the ignored areas firsthand, but with only three of us, it wasn't that effective."

"You got some good footage, at least," Rhodey noted.

Steve's eyes closed and he sighed. "Right. Footage."

Leaning over, Natasha murmured, "Remember how I said that we wanted to get your face out there to inspire people? We've been recording Steve's work to send to first responders. Seeing any success has cut the death rates a little."

Lower death rates from seeing footage of Rogers? What sort of 'treatment' was that? As soon as he wondered, Tony knew: it was a tiny booster of hope that there was still a difference to be made in the world. Running completely out of hope could be fatal, especially for people who were supposed to avert disaster in the first place. They surely felt like they'd failed.

Rogers looked just about out of hope. He wasn't a research guy; he was a field guy. For weeks now, his job had apparently been to go to the worst locations, do what he could for the people right there, and inspire others to push for one more day when it seemed like the world had walked past its end. This was more vital than the morale tour he knew Steve had been roped into back during the war, but it wasn't a fix. It was a band-aid over disembowelment.

What the world was going through right now, Tony reminded himself, was bigger than either of them. "Rogers."

He hadn't needed to speak very loudly. When Tony interrupted Steve's report, it was like the entire room froze in anticipation of whatever might happen next.

"I haven't been out west for a little bit," Tony levelly said, "but I seem to recall a great big ocean right next to that city that keeps catching on fire." At the confusion that earned, he looked around the room. "I just glanced at the reports, but am I remembering something about good energy shield tech in Wakanda?"

Rhodey snorted faintly. "You could say that, yeah."

Though Tony had cleared out his fleet of suits some years back, he'd refilled the stockpile since then. Every time he constructed a new suit upgrade, the previous version remained. Whether controlled via AI or remotely by Tony himself, they'd occasionally helped to supplement a team that had grown awfully short on members in recent years. They'd also been good at stepping in to keep an eye on other things, like a troublesome teenager in Queens.

"I get that tech from Shuri, I put it on some old-model suits." With a sidelong glance toward the door, Tony added, "Which'll also keep some of my spare reactor cores away from that rodent." After squinting at whatever Thor mouthed at him in response to 'rodent,' Tony continued, "They can fly water in from the ocean to put fires out."

Rhodey turned to Steve. "Would that help?"

"It'd help a lot," Steve admitted. "Water pressure's non-existent in some neighborhoods. Plus, it'd give the first responders some breathing room to focus on anything but fire containment. They might be able to finally stop some of the hostile factions."

"And," Natasha added, "it'd be one hell of a way to announce you're back. Finally."

Tony nodded and paused long enough to type a message asking Wong to collect any known literature on the Soul Stone, as they had a lead on it. That research would take a while and this drone work would be worth the hours spent. "I'll get it done." Next, another message went to Shuri, asking for whatever she could share about Wakanda's energy fields.

"Well, great," Rhodey hesitantly said after looking between Steve and Tony, and let out a long breath. "That's... great."

Steve smiled at Tony like it was four years ago. Whatever expression Tony instinctively gave him chilled Steve in return. "Right. Going off the reports we're getting from other population centers, urban behavior is most strongly affected by density. In extremely dense centers—" Examples of Tokyo, Mumbai, and Manila appeared on screen. "The greatest danger is the general populace. Random civilian-on-civilian violence is increasingly common, especially as the governments fail to adequately secure more supply lines for the regions. More open centers like Los Angeles give opportunity for organized factions to emerge..."

By the end of the briefing, all that Tony could conclude was that the world was deeply fucked. National governments were barely functioning; the tighter relationships inside individual agencies ran the show like a bunch of scattered fiefdoms. The renewal of food distribution lines was a top priority, not because starvation was yet a top issue, but because people panicked over that approaching day. Like when Stephen had been blindly lashing out on Titan, everything looked like a threat.

Everything except, Tony tiredly admitted, the few figures who could still serve as an inspiration and might distract people from their worst instincts. Like Captain Freaking America. Steve had been doing a good thing, even if he wouldn't be the one to make a final fix. Tony could admit that, even as two years' worth of emotional inertia finally caught up with him. By this far into the briefing, he was deeply tired of the man's voice. It had grown impossible to deny any longer and he worried over what emotions were starting to pour into the chain.

"Well, I need to get to work," Tony announced as as the briefing ended, then reached the door before anyone else. He was ninety-nine percent sure that he could exist in the same building as Steve, but only if they didn't spend long in close proximity. Under those scarred-over spots, deep bruises still lingered. They were noticeable when prodded.

"Tony, wait!"

Shit. There was exactly one person in that room who could have something to share worth waiting for. With a sigh, Tony turned to face Christine and hoped she'd be quick. Others would soon join them in the hallway. "Yeah?"

"Wow, you kind of bolted out of there. Anyway, I'll test your scanners, but I just..." Christine took a deep breath, then continued, "If you came down to see them working, I didn't want you to be surprised."

"By?"

"After looking at his latest readings, I put Stephen on oxygen. His pulse ox was just above borderline, and now he's just below. Even with the bed." One hand dry-washed the other. "I suppose it's a good sign that he lasted so long."

The pep talk didn't work. Her calm mood kept Tony from panicking, but his heart was still leaden at the news. "He got worse?"

"A tiny bit." Christine hesitated before adding, "Very long comas are rare. They usually resolve within two to four weeks, at max. Change isn't a surprise. Granted, if there was any situation in which we might expect rare behavior..."

A resolved coma meant one of two things: the patient had woken up, or they never would get the chance. Maybe it was normal for things to worsen slightly over time, but all Tony could think about was how this worsening followed the night when he'd loosened the chain.

"I just didn't want you to be surprised," Christine repeated when he remained silent. "When someone's just lying there like that, and you don't know what the monitors really mean, you can convince yourself that they're sleeping. But seeing an oxygen mask makes everything different."

"Yeah. Thanks. Hey, can you figure out how to track energy flow across the circular sulcus?"

About to walk away, Christine turned on her heel. "Pardon?"

"I was going to dig into that today, but now I'm making a bunch of firefighting suits. Shuri's trying to model a human brain so we can do power flows across the whole thing, and I was going to zero in on the sulcus. But neither of us are having much luck."

"Because you need a doctor, not an engineer," Christine pointed out. "Sure. Fine. I have some rough ideas of what Stephen might mean, but I can view it from your angle today. Are you going somewhere with this?"

"I think so."

That was apparently good enough for her. Although she didn't look captivated by whatever his rough plan might be, she was at least going to do what she could. Though Tony turned to walk in the other direction as she left, he realized too late that Christine's delay had done what he'd feared. They'd stood in one place for too long.

"Tony."

Before he turned to face Steve, Tony put his hand above his heart and waited for his spike of adrenaline to ease. Maybe Stephen's oxygen mask was a natural development after days spent comatose, but Tony had watched those vital monitors plummet last night. If he had a single thing to do with Stephen worsening, it meant that any dark emotions were even less acceptable than before. "We shouldn't talk."

"You said that earlier," Steve said carefully. "You said that the two of us never really had much to say to each other. And I'll respect that, but I also watched you bolt out of that room like someone who was trying to avoid a conversation. And well, if so... that conversation would in fact be something to say to each other."

Tony needed to say this in the most neutral way possible. "This whole thing with Thanos has shown me something really important: we don't fit together. We do our own work without much overlap, we have our own groups of friends... our own lives. I assumed that I mattered in your life, found out I was wrong, and realized that you didn't matter in mine."

Steve studied him for a long while, but while a line furrowed between his eyebrows, he said nothing.

Tony couldn't help but add, "You know, there's nothing wrong with carbon and nothing wrong with oxygen, and their atomic structures actually have similarities."

Steve Rogers was an intelligent man, but not a scientist. His frown deepened and he waited for whatever point Tony was making.

"Put 'em together, though," Tony continued, "and you get carbon monoxide. Deadly. But you don't notice it for a while. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go stop some fires." And take care of someone who does matter to me.

"I'm sorry about Pepper," Steve said as Tony turned. His patience wasn't limitless, especially after he'd spent weeks exhausting himself. But while Steve might be irritated at Tony blowing him off, it wasn't coming through in his voice. He sounded just as much like the heroic, self-assured leader that he always did. That role just sounded different to Tony by now. "Truly. We're going to get her back. I've heard what the stakes are, now. We're going to fix all of this."

Tony didn't look over his shoulder. "Sorry about Sam." The silence of the name he didn't mention—Bucky—filled the hall. After another mute second, he walked on and put a corner between them.

Chapter Text

It was far easier for Tony to maintain a steady mood after he retreated to his workshop. Upon hearing about the possibility of firefighting suits, Shuri was happy to share her shield technology but noted that he'd need vibranium hardware to implement it. An empty suit was soon on its way to Wakanda, ready to be filled with the relevant gadgets. It wouldn't make a return until that night at the earliest, but he had plenty to do until then.

Well into calculating possible approach angles for the suits' seawater retrieval, Tony heard the workshop door open. "Pretty sure I locked that," he said without looking up.

"Pretty sure you're not authorized to lock out your boss." At Rhodey's voice, Tony did look toward the door. From the way he smiled, it was clear that Rhodey reveled in the moment like it was a banquet laid out before him. "It feels awesome to call myself your boss, by the way."

Tony smirked. "Enjoy it while it lasts."

"Oh, I absolutely will." Rhodey walked over, inspected the three-dimensional blueprints hovering over Tony's workstation, and then inspected him. "So. How'd it go?"

There was only one 'it' to which Rhodey could be referring. He'd clearly seen Steve angle toward Tony for a private conversation. "Well," Tony began, and watched an animated rendering of one of his suits retrieve too much water and smack headfirst into the Pacific. "No one punched each other."

"That's... a start, I guess."

"I can function in the same building as Rogers. I can be in the same meetings." That didn't seem to be what Rhodey wanted to hear, and so Tony turned his attention fully away from his work and added, "Look, you can thank Nat for even that much. She yanked me aside for a hard talk that made me realize that I should let go of some grudges."

I just wanted to know if you had any plans to tell the team that Strange deliberately gave the Time Stone to Thanos.

Tony still wasn't sure how much choice he'd had in that matter. He believed that Natasha wouldn't tell anyone about the Time Stone, but he'd also cooperated with her to reach that point. If he'd been stubborn, she might not have made that promise. And worse, if he reneged on that deal, she might change her mind.

"I know it's not what you wanted to hear," Tony finished. "But... look, we can fix what happened with this." He snapped his fingers like Thanos. "We can't fix any of the people who've died since then." Rhodey needed another step to reach his conclusion, and so Tony clarified, "You can fix some things. You can't fix everything."

At first, only the low hum of his workshop answered him. Suit renderings made simulated flight attempts on some monitors while other screens ran a Los Angeles news feed. "If you guys can manage a working relationship, then I'll call that a victory," Rhodey allowed after that long pause. "Fine. You know, Steve's been working harder than anyone to stop more of those 'can't fix' deaths."

Rhodey wanted more from Tony. That was natural. While War Machine and Captain America were now the official team co-leaders, Steve had apparently been running a nearly unbroken string of off-site missions. That meant that it had fallen primarily upon Rhodey's shoulders at headquarters to organize a functioning group, recruit more talent, and keep them all moving in the same direction. For now, he couldn't afford the luxury of being Rhodey, Tony Stark's oldest friend and a reliable buddy to everyone on the Avengers. He had to be Colonel James Rhodes.

"I think it's really good," Tony said after a long pause, "that Rogers and I each have our own things that we're doing." He clapped Rhodey on the shoulder and added, "Nice planning on your part. A plus, job well done." Rhodey blinked mutely back at him and Tony finished, "This is what you're getting from me. Okay?"

After another pause, Rhodey nodded. "Fine. A lot better than it could have gone, so I'll take it."

Unpleasant heat spiked in Tony's chest as he pulled his hand off Rhodey. It wasn't the pain of the chain tearing loose, but something was clearly happening with it. As Tony grimaced and clutched his heart, he realized what that 'something' must be. "You said you were trying to understand the energy," he grumbled toward the tender spot that felt like he'd brushed a hot stove. "Try not starting at top speed with that, huh?"

Looking up, he realized that dismay filled Rhodey. "Soul stuff," Tony reminded him, and gestured back and forth along the chain that was invisible on this plane of reality.

"Please be careful," Rhodey begged.

"I'm not the one doing this," Tony instinctively pointed out, but frowned as soon as he did. That had been the wrong thing to say. Rhodey clearly wasn't a fan of Stephen after everything that had happened. This wouldn't help.

Sure enough, Rhodey gave Tony a significant look. "Be careful," he repeated. "Okay?"

That was the voice of Colonel James Rhodes, but it was also the voice of the man who'd thought more than once that his best friend was lost forever. It was only fair to reassure him that Tony wasn't putting himself at risk again and so he nodded with the solemnity that Rhodey's tone deserved. "I will." A moment later he felt a wave of something enter his chest and added, "Stephen apologized."

The tolerant but tired look he got in return confirmed Tony's suspicions: Rhodey did not like Stephen. "Let me know how the suits go once you get your vibranium gizmos," Rhodey said as he left.

"When we get you back here," Tony told the open air as he was left alone in his workshop, "I'll introduce you to Rhodey. He'll like you once he actually gets to know you. It's just been kind of weird with... everything."

Heat spiked again, as painful as before but barely lasting for a second. More apology followed the latest misguided attempt.

"Never mind," Tony drawled and turned back to his work. One hand absently rubbed above his heart. The discomfort needed a minute to fade. "Let him hate you. You two can argue. I know you're good at that."

He'd apparently sent some emotion through the chain, though he couldn't say what. A similarly unnameable feeling came back at him. It didn't echo the dangerous hostility that had nearly ripped the chain loose. Instead, it was the good-natured prodding that they'd become so comfortable with on Titan. With a growing smile, Tony settled in to finish programming his ocean approach vectors.

Eventually he couldn't ignore his growling stomach; it was again time for corn. "Hey, Selvig," Tony idly greeted as he grabbed a tray and surveyed his cafeteria options. Now that he felt more in control of the situation with Stephen, it was good to get out of his workshop. He'd gone too long without again seeing some faces that had made it through the apocalypse.

"Stark!" Erik enthused, and let someone else pass him so that he could stand next to Tony. "That data you got us is amazing. Jane and I have been trying to make sense of Bifrost energy for years, but it's so chaotic."

"Happy to help," Tony lied. He'd never be pleased about how that portal data was obtained.

"But this... this was like a diamond. Absolutely flawless." Erik grabbed a salad plate, spooned corn over his spinach, and continued. "There's so much clarity, now. When we look through that diamond's facets, it's like we can make sense of the entire Quantum Realm." He piled various other bits onto his salad, then allowed, "Well, we can start to make sense of it. It's incredibly complex. The amount of energy the Realm manipulates each second is more than I've ever considered."

"Sounds like Janet knows her stuff with it, though," Tony said, only halfway paying attention as he studied his lunch options.

"She has more expertise in a field than I knew was possible," Erik agreed. "I thought I knew astrophysics, but I can only think about it when I'm awake, you know? She's basically been a part of that place for decades. Always aware. No one knows more about quantum mechanics than her."

"Stop, you'll make me blush," Janet drawled as she leaned in to grab a fork, surprising both men. From the looks of it, that big, sprawling Quantum Realm team had all just broken for lunch. "You're not wrong, though," she laughed as she turned to leave.

They both watched her go, and a sudden, awful question sprang to mind as soon as she was out of audible distance. "This Janet who accidentally got recreated from quantum energy," Tony wondered. "If we reverse what Thanos did..."

Erik said nothing for a long moment, then smiled sadly. "Janet's already considered that. She's certain that it'll be like this version of her never existed, but says she's fine with that. She'd prefer to only live the timeline where she died with her family and then was resurrected with them."

Of course. Tony shouldn't have expected anything else. "I swear to God," he muttered as he focused his attention back on the day's menu. "The people 'round these parts really need to stop lunging for opportunities to make a sacrifice play."

As he piled everything on his tray and went to join his research team for lunch, Erik raised an eyebrow at him. "Didn't I watch you fly a nuke through a portal?"

"That... okay, that was one time," Tony protested, then sighed and let Erik go. Right. No more sacrifices. He needed to get food and then to get back to work.

Yesterday's fresh chicken was all gone, sadly, and so Tony retrieved a container of vegetable soup large enough to take him well into evening. As he popped that lid on and turned to leave, he realized someone had been studying him.

"Sorry," laughed Carol as she retrieved some corn fritters. Despite that apology, she kept looking over to blatantly inspect him. Tony still had no idea who this annoying woman was supposed to be.

"You never stare at me like that," Scott noted as he reached for the same bin that Carol had chosen. The first fritter he grabbed broke apart in his tongs. He sighed, then began scooping up the crumbled bits.

"I wasn't..." Carol rolled her eyes. "I was looking at Stark's grey hairs."

Tony narrowed his eyes. Okay. He might not know who Danvers was, but he knew his dislike of her grew each time that they talked. "Stop calling me old."

As Tony turned to leave, even as Carol tried again to apologize, Scott put his fritter-collecting duties on temporary hold. "Hey, Stark, quick question about those fire suits."

With a fresh frown, Tony turned back to the pair. This had better be worth waiting around the woman who insisted on insulting him. "Yeah?"

"Your sim models probably either have you not grabbing much liquid or hitting the water, right?" Scott shrugged and smiled. "I'm guessing, anyway?" Off Tony's surprised expression, he explained, "I'm an electrical engineer. I've thought about how some of your guys' gear must work. And I've had... a lot of time to think, after Germany."

Tony blinked again. "Seriously?" The ant guy had been analyzing their equipment? And had a good enough sense of their power capabilities to estimate the same results that Tony had simulated?

"Here, use this on one of your suits," Scott suggested, and handed over a small three-pronged disc with a glowing blue light at its center. "When you want to apply it, just activate the disc like this, see? I've set it to a one-third size increase. Double-check my numbers, but that should give you the oomph you need."

Oh, right: Lang wielded size powers. He'd shrunk small enough to sneak into Tony's suit, and later turned into a giant stomping around that airport. He'd caused a lot of trouble when he did, too. Rolling the gift between his fingers, Tony studied the disc and wondered, "It's a power increase?"

"When I use it? Kinda, sorta. Long explanation. It's the same amount of atoms, just rearranged. But your suits use thrusters, which means—"

"A larger thruster aperture means more energy coming out, pushing an object that doesn't weigh any more. Right." Being sure not to activate it, Tony put the disc into his pocket. "Thanks..."

Scott raised one eyebrow expectantly.

"Scott."

"Hey!" Scott grinned. "You're learning. Hank was wrong about you. You're not any worse to deal with than he is."

"Are you deliberately trying to annoy Stark?" Carol asked with a smirk.

"Little bit." Scott shrugged. "Not too much."

This stranger was one to talk about 'trying to annoy Stark,' and so Tony gave Carol the pointed look that her series of unwarranted insults deserved. Yeah, sure, he might be older than Carol Danvers, but he'd just been chatting with Erik Selvig. Now there was someone who looked old. Tony Stark was generally agreed to look great; he could be described as 'dashingly grizzled' at the absolute most. Even Christine, an official medical doctor, had pronounced that he was in excellent health (for a man of his age and lifestyle).

"Right, sorry." Carol held up a hand. "I promised I would explain this, so don't run off. The only reason I think you look old is that the last time I saw you, you were all over the news for taking over your dad's company."

Tony didn't know what response he'd expected from her. It was definitely not that, though. With an absolutely blank stare, Tony studied her for a long, confused moment, but could only ask, "What?"

"The 'wunderkind,' they were calling you." Carol laughed. "It was crazy to hear that Stark got out of weapons between then and now! And there's no more McDonnell Douglas, either. I'm still adjusting."

The Stark Industries board had started directing Tony toward full leadership in 1992, soon after Howard's death, and they'd all viewed McDonnell Douglas as a significant competitor. Because of that, Tony remembered that company's history well enough to know that they'd merged with Boeing in 1997. The last time he'd talked with someone who seemed so out of the loop on recent history, it was... "By any chance," Tony asked and eyed her sidelong, "have you spent the last few decades frozen at the bottom of the ocean?"

Carol smiled. "In space and other dimensions, mostly. But not frozen. So, yeah, the last time I was on Earth..."

"I was all over the news as the new head of Stark Industries," Tony said and nodded. All right, then. Things abruptly made much more sense. (Although, it did speak to how weird his life had become that he was able to accept this so easily.) Considering that gap on the calendar, he turned to Scott and added, "And remind me, Janet disappeared in—"

"1987," Scott supplied.

"She'd been lost in the Quantum Realm since 1987," Tony repeated, then rubbed his eyes. Too many more people like this and they'd need to rename headquarters as the Island of Temporal Misfit Toys.

Carol considered her chosen corn fritters, then reached over for one more. "I was actually journeying through the Quantum Realm when things freaked out. I tried to make it shield itself from whatever was happening and then..." She shrugged. "I hoped for the best. I guess it worked. When Fury called me, I left it protected as a safety net but came outside to see what was up."

"Wait." Scott frowned, and spoke around the mouthful he'd started eating. "You hardened the Realm's shell? I didn't know that. I was in there, too. You nearly got me trapped for all eternity inside the creepy special effects vortex."

"Sorry," she laughed, then offered a lopsided grin. "My bad."

My bad? Tony wondered. Yeah, she's a blast from the past. He then ignored that to focus on something very important that Carol Danvers—this 'Captain Marvel'—had just said.

"You can manipulate quantum energy flows," Tony concluded. "You know how it feels to actually control that space."

Oh, this could be a big deal.

Pushed to its logical extreme, Stephen's hunch was that they needed to find a way to identify some connective thread for each stone. He hadn't fully appreciated that was what he was saying; he'd just theorized about one possible approach. Since the Mind Stone was under discussion, he'd tried to compare his experience with the Time Stone to a potential physical counterpart in the human brain.

But Tony liked taking theories, twisting them further than intended or expected, and applying them. If they could improve their understanding of the Mind Stone by figuring out how it had bridged the gap between Vision and an actual, impossible-to-model human brain, they'd understand that structure. If they could understand some underlying connective facet of Time, Space, and Reality energies inside the Realm, they might gain almost full control over them, too. And Carol Danvers might be able to help show what that control looked like.

"I am going to put so many scanners on you," Tony announced. It was time to fill in some more sudoku cells.

Carol blinked. "Say what?"

"You're officially on the Time, Space, and Reality teams," Tony said and clapped her shoulder. It was like slamming his hand against concrete.

"I was doing Power," Carol pointed out, then took another bite of lunch.

Tony waved that off. "Let Rocket go explode more tech. Anyone can blow things up."

Scott smiled blandly at him. "Anyone? Didn't you make your money in weapons?"

Okay. At the end of the day, Scott Lang was still on Team Pym and had not made an official transition onto Team Stark. "Thanks for the size disc," Tony drawled at Scott, lifted his oversized carton of soup, and pointed at the door. "Bye."

Perhaps he didn't need to talk more with everyone at headquarters, Tony thought with a dry smile as he returned to his workshop and, very deliberately, locked its door. After eating a quick lunch, he stuck his leftovers into the small fridge he'd installed for long days just like this, then opened a comm channel. "Hey, so are the scanners working?"

After a short delay, Christine appeared on screen and began stripping off a pair of bloody gloves. "What? Oh, yes. There's no interference with the medical tech, so they're up and running. Sorry, I meant to tell you that right away but a team got back from a mission gone very painful."

He grimaced. "Yeah?"

"A riot started taking over Jersey City. It stopped. Eventually." Christine blinked away as much stress as she could. "Anyway, check your monitors to make sure that you're seeing the readings."

Tony did so, and soon nodded. "Got it. I'm getting the flows I need. I'm gonna stick some of these scanners on Danvers, too."

"I assume you have a plan with that," Christine said, then appeared to hear something over one shoulder. "Sounds like I'm back to work." The screen cut a second later.

Soon, scanners flew down the hallway in search of Carol Danvers. Her power usage and manipulation would be tracked, measured, and quantified, just as Tony scanned whatever energy connection was present in Stephen's body. Between that and the clarity offered by the portal data, it felt like they were on the brink of a sudden leap forward in understanding.

With that, he'd made his Infinity contribution for the day. For the remaining hours before bedtime, Tony adjusted his suit simulations, tweaked parameters, and verified Scott's suggested approach for a single oversized, heavy-duty firefighting drone. "He was right," Tony murmured as he watched the simulation play out. Like the huge planes they used for wildfires, this oversized drone suit was powerful enough to bring a significant amount of water to a city block. A one-third size increase wasn't so big, though, as to risk flooding the nearby streets with what it could carry.

"Nice work, Lang," Tony admitted as he selected one of his most recently outdated suits, activated the size disc as instructed, and tossed it at the selected drone. A moment later, it stood nearly two feet taller than the suits next to it, looking like an adult among children. It'd certainly demand attention when the fleet arrived to help the city.

Demand attention. Considering that, Tony checked his appearance in a nearby reflective surface, then vanished into the workshop's private bathroom. A few minutes later he returned with brushed hair, a bit less stubble, and a little less dust on his t-shirt. "Begin recording," he instructed the computer system after he'd taken his chosen spot.

"Hello," Tony intoned toward the camera that recorded his image for holographic projection and video dispersion. "The world stopped making sense a few weeks ago, so let me confirm that you are really seeing and hearing me, Iron Man. I know it feels like we can't come back from this. I felt like that more than once. But the simple fact is that I did come back. I made it back to Earth, and now we're all going to make it through. I promise. The Avengers are going to make it happen." A pause, then, "End recording."

"Yeah," he murmured to himself, reviewed the footage, and nodded. "That works." It wasn't the most eloquent speech ever, but this probably wasn't a time for grand, polished language. And although he had tidied his appearance a bit, the rough-hewn Tony Stark on this video was someone who was aware of the odds they all faced in this unpleasant world.

He really had needed to see that footage of Los Angeles, Tony realized, even if it had brought Steve back as part of the deal. Natasha was right: to lift the world's spirits, he should have announced his return days ago. He'd been so zeroed in on specific projects that he hadn't understood the big picture. Still, late was better than never, and so Tony forward the clip to Rhodey.

Even after the file had sent, his fingers still hesitated above the keyboard. Those burning corpse piles remained fresh in his memory. "I'm putting this speech on my suits for holo projection in LA," he typed in a second email. "But we may want to do some direct video to other locations, too."

Again, his fingers hesitated above the keys. It took Tony a few seconds longer to hit "Send," but after he worked up the nerve, it disappeared to land in Steve's inbox.

"You have perfect timing," Tony breathed, relieved, as he heard the alert that his drone suit had returned from its top-speed flight to Wakanda. If he got a reply from Rogers, he wouldn't notice and be tempted into responding.

For the rest of the evening, Tony installed Shuri's equipment as directed. As he selected two finalized suits to make an Atlantic trial run, he felt the surge of energy in his chest again. Its warmth ebbed smoothly, without an unpleasant spike of heat, and Tony nodded. Good. They were both making progress.

Twenty minutes later, he'd stabilized a few problems in the suits' flight paths and had made notes for any remaining fixes. Morning would bring a clearer head. It would also bring assistance to Los Angeles, continued work on the Soul Stone, greater understanding of Carol's energy patterns, and a whole mess of other things that all seemed to swirl together as one still-confusing pattern. When that pattern cleared up, Tony was almost positive that they would find themselves on the edge of an enormous breakthrough.

"Sleep time," he announced needlessly to the empty room. A minor alert fired when he was halfway to his quarters, and Tony rolled his eyes when he read that Rocket had detonated another arc reactor in an underground facility. Did raccoons have normal sleeping patterns? Apparently not.

"Do you have normal sleeping patterns?" Tony wondered as he climbed into bed. He hadn't felt any energy effects for half an hour, now. Because of that he expected Stephen to be resting when he again found himself on Titan, but the man stood with golden glows surrounding both hands.

Suspecting that Stephen was locked deep in a meditative state, Tony waited to walk forward until those glows faded. "I never know if I'm going to catch you awake."

"Well, it's not like I have anything to orient my timeline with," Stephen noted and pointed at the unchanging starry sky. "I'm finding that it's better to focus in bursts and recuperate as needed."

"The energy is tough to understand?" Tony guessed. Neither of them had said 'hello,' but a greeting had passed along the chain unspoken. "It felt like you weren't making many active attempts today. On my end, anyway."

"On your end," Stephen repeated meaningfully. "That's exactly the problem. At first I found it nearly impossible to believe that this connection could mimic a Stone, despite your certainty. But it's like a calm river running very, very deep. The more I inspect it, the more energy there is to find." He hesitated, then finished, "That much power presents risks. I'm used to manipulating energy. You're not."

Tony frowned. "I literally fire energy beams out of my hands."

After a flat look, Stephen retorted, "You are used to building things that manipulate energy. You don't. You have no idea what that feels like."

A roll of Tony's eyes, then, "Okay, fine. Fair."

"What that means," Stephen clarified, "is that if I lose control of the flow as I study our 'Stone,' I can probably block any backlash on my end. You won't be able to. You could feel things going wrong but wouldn't be able to stop any of it. All of that tech you put on the outside of your body won't do anything against energy coming from inside you."

True enough. Thanos had directed Stone-powered attacks at both of them and they'd made it through, but Stephen did so bare-handed. It was Tony's suit that had absorbed the impacts; as soon as his suit started falling apart, he took a knife to the gut. That searing surge he'd felt earlier today had shown him that he didn't have any personal defense against Infinity energy gone wild.

"So, that's why I hardly felt any more heat after the power got away from you earlier?" Tony guessed. "You took nearly the whole day to try it again."

"I couldn't risk it," Stephen confirmed. "Couldn't risk you. I spent most of the day just..." Trailing off, he sighed. His typical composure wobbled.

"Yeah?" Tony prompted. Nothing came, and so he tried again. "You did what today?"

The expression Stephen offered was maddeningly opaque, but inside his chest Tony could sense two layers of what Stephen felt. One, he was annoyed. Two, hidden deep under that annoyance, was amusement at the situation in which he'd landed. "I spent most of my day trying to be aware of... you." With that said, Stephen closed his eyes, sighed again, and waited for the inevitable response.

Tony was more than happy to offer it. "Wow. That sounds like a fantastic way to spend a day."

"Oh, shut up."

Tony smirked. "So. How was I?"

Stephen opened his eyes and pointed an accusing finger. "Don't taunt the man who's stuck halfway across the galaxy with you as his life raft, Stark."

He affected a pout. "I'm 'Stark' again? Little harsh."

After another flat look, Stephen demanded, "What had you so upset right after you woke up?"

Well, that did a fine job of ruining the mood. Tony didn't try to equivocate, though. So long as this chain stretched between them, lying was pointless and dancing around a subject was hardly better. "For the first time in about two years, I came face to face with Steve Rogers."

"Well," Stephen said after a long and thoughtful moment, "I bet that was dramatic."

The tinge of sympathy he felt entering him was appreciated. "Not so much," Tony admitted. "I mean, it definitely could have been, but I didn't want to let things spiral out of control." At Stephen's faint confusion, he clarified, "I was trying to be a good emotional life raft."

"Oh. Well that's thoughtful."

"I live to serve. And. Wait." As earlier words fully processed, Tony held up his hand to halt their conversation. "You've never met Rogers, you Hogwarts interloper. Exactly what sort of drama were you picturing?"

"One, stop saying Hogwarts. Two..." Stephen shrugged dramatically. "Manhattan has newsstands. Newsstands sell tabloids. I pass them, see their covers, and they make an awful lot of money off stories on all of you. It's easy enough to speculate."

"Oh God, the tabloids." Groaning, Tony took a seat on the nearest convenient rock. "Yeah, I know all about the tabloids. FYI, Avengers 'drama' does not actually include a love triangle between me, Rogers, and Romanoff."

As Stephen also took a seat, he struck an overly thoughtful look and mused, "I think my favorite cover was when you shielded the Scarlet Witch in headquarters because she's secretly your love child."

"What?" Tony sputtered. He'd missed that one. Given the locked-in-HQ topic, it must have come out when he was busy with the Accords. "Wanda's not even young enough to... okay, technically she could be, but..." At the smirk that earned, Tony ordered, "Stop thinking this is funny."

"Hmm. No." Stephen tapped a finger against his jaw in an affected pose of thought. "For a while, some were convinced that you and Banner were secretly involved. That fell off after he disappeared, of course."

"Me and Bruce?" Tony repeated in disbelief. Even the concept of getting together felt weird. As much as he loved the man, Bruce was like a nervous teddy bear. Natasha's personality must have absolutely steamrolled him.

"Moving past the tabloid covers, we had a few patients convinced that your team was some convoluted tool of Hydra. So far as people understand Hydra, anyway." Tony had absolutely no idea how to respond to that one and his blank face must have shown as much. Stephen clarified, "That online file dump during the mess in DC? After reading through the details, people figured out that Hydra was embedded in the agency that arranged for the Avengers' creation. Ergo, you were untrustworthy." Off Tony's continued stare, Stephen added, "I heard that explanation more than once. Sadly."

That was new, too, and less entertaining than picturing a secret Banner/Stark affair. "Wild. And... stupid and paranoid. I'm curious, though: why were you even talking about this?" Tony had known that there was an awareness differential between them; a total stranger had greeted Tony with congratulations on his engagement, after all. He'd also known that Stephen had dealt with the side effects of the Chitauri battle that featured Tony as a central player. Still, to be fielding patients' conspiracy theories about the Avengers was a bit much.

Stephen waved that off. "Oh, some people near your New York battle got paranoid when they read those files. We had a few come in wanting to have tests run for any neurological effects." Off Tony's latest sidelong look, he shrugged and added, "They had good insurance. Metro ran the tests and sent the invoices."

"I know you said that you know me better than I know you," Tony said after a moment of consideration. "You really weren't kidding."

Blinking, Stephen wondered, "I did?"

"Yeah, pretty early on Titan. You were talking about what you saw in all those Time Stone loops." That apparently sparked a memory, and Stephen nodded as Tony continued. "It's just so weird to think that we were living our lives on these parallel tracks." His arms extended. "For years and years, and then—" His fingertips angled in and barely touched. "One crazy day happens, and a few weeks later you're tied to my soul."

"It does sound bizarre put like that, yes," Stephen agreed. Amusement laced his voice and the chain in equal measure.

"But before that crazy day," Tony said, and moved his left arm up and down to indicate Stephen's life path, "you were seeing me on the news. Constantly. Not just for the Avengers, but for my old job and company, all of it. You were reading all this speculation about who I was secretly dating—"

"I just glanced at the covers as I walked by," Stephen interrupted, laughing. "I read nothing."

"—While I'd never even heard of you!" Tony wiggled his right arm to indicate the path he'd walked. After that he let his left hand fall, but his right hand curled inward toward his heart. A gesture near the base of the glowing chain actually indicated something deeper: something that was no longer there. "But then you showed up and took all those reactor-corrupted cells out of me."

On that day, it'd been impossible to communicate the depth of his gratitude. He'd tried, and had probably gotten close, but there was no way to wholly say it with words. "Thank you," Tony said simply and opened his heart to show all that words couldn't communicate. It was like when Stephen had guided him through that warm, healing connection, but with their chain in place, he was able to make the move on his own.

After blinking under a wave of emotion, Stephen's expression changed. Surprise filtered back into Tony's chest as Stephen studied him from head to toe. "Wait, what did you just do?"

"Uh. Showed you I was grateful?"

"No, I know, I felt that. And you're welcome," Stephen hurriedly said. "But the energy flow felt different from your end just now. What did you do?"

Hopefully he hadn't leapt before looking again; Tony Stark did have a slight tendency toward getting in over his head. "Are you saying 'good different' or 'bad different?'"

Frowning in thought, Stephen lightly trailed his hand along the glowing chain between them. After his fingertips also began to glow, any movement echoed like soft chimes in the back of Tony's mind. "Good different, I'm pretty sure. It's the sort of altered flow I was trying to achieve when things backfired earlier, but it doesn't seem to have hurt you at all."

Tony looked himself over. "Yeah, I feel fine." Seeing that he was still being prompted to explain himself, Tony ignored the faint, beautiful chimes in his mind and recalled the steps he'd taken. "I wanted to make sure that I hit Maximum Gratitude Velocity." That was a stupid way to put it, but he'd just spent hours modeling approach vectors for his flight suits. His vocabulary had yet to recover. "So I tried to mimic how it felt when you were healing me. How I..." Tony sighed. "Opened up."

Stephen didn't seem to mind the phrasing. "Well, it worked. I was sure that we would need some sort of synchronization, but when I tried to make the first move with the energy it was easy to overload you. That's why I spent the rest of today just seeing what you felt like, to see if I could step forward more cautiously. I can by now, but it's still easy for me to slip up."

"So if I do it," Tony mused, "I'm like a circuit breaker. I won't take on more than I can handle." He smirked. "And here you said I couldn't handle energy flows."

With a smirk in return, Stephen asked, "Did you know that the chain energy felt any different until I said something?"

"Well. No. Fine."

"We need to practice," Stephen announced. "When you're awake, try to reach out to me whenever I come to mind. That should make this connection second nature on both our ends. When you're asleep, we'll learn how to safely increase the maximum flow of energy."

"I can't wait to see this scanner data," Tony said. "I have scanners hovering over your body, by the way. Hope you don't mind."

"That's fine," Stephen said and waved him off. "Though... I can't make any promises for what the Cloak might think of you putting them in there."

Oh. Right. Despite himself, Tony actually felt a wave of guilt roll through him over forgetting the Cloak that had been lying there like a loyal pet for days, unmoving and completely devoted. It probably wouldn't like seeing tiny scanners float over Stephen's comatose form like moths circling a candle.

"It was floating inside a glass case for decades," Stephen chuckled, having apparently felt that guilt come through. "It'll be fine until I wake up. I'll have to tell it that you cared, though."

An instinctive, dismissive noise escaped Tony. The stupid thing had made a habit out of irritating him on Titan. "I don't care about the Cloak."

"And yet, you felt guilt just now." Stephen shot one of those damnably confident, all-knowing looks that Tony had used to hate. After nearly ripping the chain loose, though, he now loved to see it. "I think you care, Tony."

They'd lived years in unknowing parallel. After this all got fixed, Tony knew that there was no chance that he'd let the lines diverge again. "I care," he admitted, and recalled the relief and joy he'd felt when it became obvious that Stephen would be able to come back from the near-fatal loosening of the spiritual chain. Like before, Tony surrendered completely into the feeling and let it completely fill the space between them.

Stephen was so startled that, wonder of wonders, he was actually left speechless.

"I care," Tony repeated. Now he was the one to smirk. "And I do get the feeling I'm getting better at handling energy."

Chapter Text

The next day, two anticipated items were crossed off Tony's to-do list: his scanners had noted their first positive power fluctuations over Stephen's body, and a fleet of outdated suits flew across the continent toward Los Angeles. A third, forgotten to-do was in his message inbox when he woke, and so Tony also crossed that item off: initial oxygen therapy for the brain damage he'd suffered.

Thirty minutes after the fleet of suits blasted off toward the West Coast, another unexpected message arrived. This one wasn't welcomed. With a suspicious, sidelong look, Tony eyed "Steve Rogers" on the monitor until he couldn't take it any more. Whatever that message was, it needed to be answered. Hopefully the man wouldn't try to strike up an actual conversation again.

Steve didn't, thankfully. They were staying professionally distant, just as Tony had wanted. "The fires aren't constant," Steve said in his message, "but the hostility of those factions is. Could the suits also be used for combatant suppression and containment?"

They'd been designed for fighting in the first place, not hauling seawater. The factions holding Los Angeles hostage counted as terrorists to Tony's eyes, and his suits had an excellent record there. These drones didn't have the A.I. to strategically self-allocate, though, and Tony's attention was busy at headquarters. Because of that, it took him a while to muster the only reasonable response.

When his hesitation was at its peak like the heavy humidity before a thunderstorm, a far more pleasant warmth bloomed in his chest. Tony looked down, smiled, and murmured, "Thanks." The emotional boost did help, even if the man on the other end of that chain had no idea why he was being encouraging.

Fine. Fine, he'd do it. If they were going to be professional, then Tony needed to make the only logical move available. "Yes," he dictated in a reply. "They're perfect for that, but they'll need to be directed around the region by hand. You've been granted permission."

God, he couldn't believe he was handing over control of his old suits to Rogers. There was no one better with troop allocation in a hostile environment, but still... it was Rogers. And these were Tony's suits.

Soon, another reply came. "Thanks. I'll make good use of them." That was it. Though Tony kept glancing at the terminal for a solid ten minutes after that exchange, Steve had nothing more to say.

Well. Good. Perfect. This was what he wanted.

For the rest of the day, Tony's attention split between trying to model neurological power flows and reaching out to Stephen during any pause in his work. Though he still had no idea how Vision's mind had adapted to the Stone, the latter task saw more success. It was easy to know when Stephen was awake or when he'd taken a short nap. Sometimes Tony felt nothing beyond a vague sense of Stephen's existence, and so knew that he was sleeping. In his waking hours Tony felt frequent curiosity or irritation, presumably based on how well the energy studies were going.

"Good day?" Stephen wondered when Tony showed up that night. His hands glowed again, and the light fractured like broken glass before easing back into a steady flow. "Things felt much less... dramatic, overall."

"It's a little weird to be greeted like that," Tony said after a considering pause. "Makes me feel like I'm coming back from work." In a sing-song voice, he added, "Honey, I'm home!" like a stereotypical vintage TV dad.

The flat expression he got in return showed him how well the joke had gone over: not very. "This is not 'home.' This is just a place I am unbelievably tired of seeing." Stephen gestured at the dim, rocky landscape. "Four weeks. A solid month of this."

"Fine, point taken. Come on." Tony folded his legs under him. "Let's get you back to a real home."

With the lighter-touch connection practice they'd done during the day, it was already easier to bridge the gap for the powerful flows that had taken Stephen by such surprise. Since the energy had been so overwhelming before, perhaps it would be smarter to pull back on what Tony sent. They were still getting the hang of this.

This time, instead of reaching for raw emotions, Tony thought of his walk through the forest. He didn't recall the conversation that he'd held with Natasha, nor the feelings she'd sparked. Instead, driven by knowing that Stephen missed this experience on Earth, Tony focused only on the raw physicality of a pleasant walk outside. Encompassing warmth, the clean scent of grass, and leaf-dappled shadows moving across his vision began to flow through the chain. He could still remember these place details, at least, even with his brain damage.

It seemed to work. For a long while Stephen sat motionless with a faint smile on his face and deep, regular breaths filling his chest. "What are you doing?" he eventually wondered. "It feels... good."

"Remembering a walk outside. The forest near headquarters."

"Ah." After another deep breath, Stephen nodded. "I couldn't tell that, but now it makes sense. Let's use this to practice with, then. It's not as overwhelming as... well, what you've tried before."

"Sure." Letting his eyes fall closed, Tony thought back to whatever other walks he could retrieve. Most of them had gaps in his memory like chunks of the landscape had fallen into a void, but he still recalled enough sensation to pass it over.

They went on like that for a while. Though it always made the flow of his memories wobble, Tony couldn't help but slit open his eyes enough to study Stephen's calm, pleased expression. After everything he'd suffered, being able to put that smile on his face gladdened Tony's heart.

Just as Tony's spotty memories slid from an exploration of Paris at Christmas to Monaco in summer, he inhaled a sharper breath than the change in season warranted. "Does that feel all right?" Stephen murmured.

A little more energy now flowed between them, Tony realized. With the two of them sitting close together and Tony setting the pace, Stephen had been able to avoid overloading Tony like he'd done before. "Yeah. I'm good."

"Okay. Keep going. I'll expand the flow when you've adjusted and stabilized again. With you always guiding things like this, it'll stay safe for you."

Waking up hours later was an unpleasant surprise. The sight of his own ceiling above Tony drew a groan, like he'd simultaneously lost hold of a pleasant dream and stepped out of a warm shower into a cold room. Reaching out on instinct made Tony feel less alone, at least, but the full flow of energy he'd experienced during sleep had been far past 'not alone.' Anything that waking hours offered felt halfway like abandonment in comparison.

A photographed face smiled back at him from the far side of the room when Tony sat up, and his isolation felt abruptly total. "Business trip," he snapped, then retrieved every happy photo off the wall and tucked them neatly into a drawer. The framed engagement announcement went on top of the stack, face down. "I'm making progress. We're all making progress." The drawer closed, and so the constant reminders of his failure to fix all of this disappeared. A fix was coming, he insisted as he turned toward the bathroom. Even if it wasn't here yet, it was coming.

Shuri had indeed made progress, Tony saw when he checked his messages, but had yet to understand Mind's full energy. The same thing was true for all of the teams. The business trip wasn't quite over, then, and Stephen wasn't yet home.

Tony spent most of that day outside, paying attention to every last physical sensation that he could. As he did, more scanners tracked the fluctuations inside his head. With any luck, they'd collect data needed to understand and model the Mind Stone. Despite his efforts to focus, though, it often felt like he was spinning his wheels until bedtime.

By this point, slipping into a full Soul connection with Stephen felt as comfortable as a well-worn pair of jeans. "Did you feel me taking a walk earlier?" Tony wondered as he tried to hold onto the sensation of sunlight's warmth across his cheeks and arms.

"No." Stephen maintained his slow, steady breathing and didn't open his eyes. Between them, the chain's pulsing light slightly altered its speed. "Just... relaxation. Contentment. But not these faint environmental sensations I can feel now."

"Well," Tony said, and tried to also relax into the calm, meditative state that Stephen demonstrated, "that's better than what I was sending you a couple of days ago."

"It felt like a good day, today," Stephen agreed.

The next day started as the best one since Titan: the signs on Stephen's scanners were so positive that Tony could almost ignore the oxygen mask covering half his face. This connection practice was strengthening something, which meant that they were making progress on both Stephen and the Stone.

After that good news, though, it was like Tony's brain refused to kick into a higher gear. He was used to being driven forward by constant nimble curiosity. All through his life, he'd wanted to figure out answers to the world's problems. The type of problems he focused on had changed over the decades, but he'd always looked for things to fix.

That might be where he was screwing up now. They obviously faced countless huge problems, but two of the biggest ones for Tony to handle were "Get Stephen home" and "understand Soul energy." For both of those efforts to succeed, he needed to relax into a connection that felt absolutely, unbelievably perfect.

To solve a problem, it first had to be identified. Problems revealed themselves through causing friction, like when he'd seen that horror show in Los Angeles and had come up with the idea to use his suits. Feeling this damn good, though, probably made it harder to notice the bad stuff.

When Stephen had healed him on Titan, Tony hadn't known it was possible to feel that much ecstasy. Their current connections weren't at that level, since the spiritual link didn't also come with physical effects. However, dialing things down just a notch or two almost made it better. Being healed had nearly driven him out of his mind with pleasure. These past nights hadn't overwhelmed Tony like that. They were just... perfect.

"You were lazy today," Stephen archly informed him when Tony appeared again on Titan. As Tony tried to deny it, Stephen continued, "I felt no excitement today, no curiosity, nothing I'm used to from you. And you weren't getting mad at anyone, so you don't have that excuse."

"Maybe I'm getting mad at someone right now," Tony retorted, but then sighed. "Fine. This energy manipulation feels... really... nice. Okay? It's distracting."

"Fine, and our night practice is necessary, but I also want us moving forward during the day." Probably not intending to be heard, Stephen murmured, "I have got to get off this rock."

Guilt over being reminded again of Stephen's imprisonment sobered Tony, and so he nodded and took his normal seat. Well, there was the friction point he needed. Their pulses of energy felt like heaven, but he'd give that up to pull Stephen out of hell.

"Right. Sorry. I'll be less intense with the broadcasts if it helps keep us focused." Off Stephen's slight smirk, he corrected, "Keep me focused. Just tell me what you want me to do."

"Just sit like before," Stephen decided, "but instead of feeling things, let's talk again. Now that we've primed the pump, that should be a good middle ground between letting a connection flow and not..."

"And not leaving me with a spiritual hangover."

"Right."

As he tried to open his soul to their connection without amplifying it, Tony realized that he'd never asked an obvious question. "Wait." This could be kind of funny, actually. "When we do these connections... and when you were healing me..."

"Yes?"

"Does it feel good to you, too?"

Stephen said nothing for a moment, then cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon?"

"You looked happy when I remembered what it felt like in the forest, but does the energy itself feel good to you? Like it does to me?" No answer immediately came, and so Tony sat back, chuckled, and answered for him: "That's a yes, then."

A typically cool expression was Stephen's automatic response. "It feels fine." Tony might have been fooled by that sharp look soon after they'd met, but by now he could pick out the emotions that Stephen did feel but wouldn't ever admit to. Tony didn't even need the chain's connection to know this, either.

"It feels fine," Tony repeated very seriously, then recalled the overwhelming joy he'd felt when he first saw Stephen's heartbeat on the medical monitors. Other positive feelings soon joined it, as many as he could send. Even though doing so filled Tony's whole body with pleasure, he retained enough control to watch what happened next.

A sharp gasp escaped Stephen. His eyelids fluttered closed as his hands clenched into fists. "Tony," he murmured. Even that single word lacked his usual gravitas.

With a grin, Tony waited for him to speak again. Breaths came fast as his skin pleasantly tingled, but the best part of this was watching control fall away from someone who never lost it.

A few shallow sighs escaped before Stephen managed to say, "Stop." Tony did, but Stephen needed another moment to collect his bearings. With a voice that remained unsteady, he said, "I'm not sure what point you were trying to make, there."

"Just an experiment," Tony offered with a smirk equal to any that Stephen had ever shot at him. "I wanted to collect some data, make some observations. I think my hypothesis was supported."

"We're supposed to be practicing," Stephen ordered. "We're supposed to focus."

"Don't you want to know what my hypothesis was?" Tony didn't actually have one, but this was a good way to tease him. He could make something up.

"I absolutely do not." When Tony opened his mouth, not really sure what would come out next, Stephen held up his hand. Even with a heroic effort to control himself, his expression remained flustered. "We're practicing with zero sensory broadcasts, now. Just talking. Just seeing how we do with a synchronization of..."

"Personalities."

One last deep breath. "Right."

Tony could do that. Since minute one, they'd always been able to talk to each other. Of course, the Tony Stark who'd met Stephen Strange in Central Park would be horrified at the words coming from him a month after their very first, very adversarial discussion. Soon, Tony wheedled, "You'd like it."

"I already said no."

"Come on."

"Absolutely not."

"You already said yes to one team," Tony shot back.

"You and I working together," Stephen countered, "is nothing like agreeing to be on the most over-exposed, over-dramatic team on the planet! I'm not joining."

Tony frowned. "Okay, that's kind of a harsh description for people who've saved New York—and you—on multiple occasions."

One defiant eyebrow raised in return. "Which part's wrong: saying that you do a lot of press or that the Avengers are soap opera-worthy?" At Tony's sigh, Stephen shook his head again. "No."

"This is literally the biggest honor the world has to offer."

"I can think of a hundred more impressive titles off the top of my head."

Narrowing his eyes, Tony said, "Okay. Try."

Stephen obligingly raised a finger. "Nobel Laureate."

"Please, they name a bunch every single year." (Not that Tony would turn down one in Physics if they offered it to him.)

Another finger. "Medal of Honor recipient."

"And I have a ton of respect for them, but I think that's a goal you'd shoot for even less than being on the Avengers."

"So you admit that I don't want to be on your team." At Tony's exaggerated, long-suffering eyeroll, Stephen laughed and gestured off into the distance at what he presumably intended to be Earth. "You have a headquarters where you all work. I'm busy with the New York Sanctum."

"Thor went back and forth to Asgard, but he'd be there when the team needed him," Tony retorted.

"And Thor was on the news, and on Instagram, and..." Shrugging, Stephen gestured again in the maybe-direction of Earth. "I live one block away from NYU. I'm not going to do press conferences and turn one of the three vital pillars of Earth's magical defense into a selfie hotspot."

Which wouldn't even be a big deal if fans just stayed on the sidewalk, but Tony restrained himself from pointing that out. Instead, he tried a different pro-Avengers argument. "You're interested enough that you've tried the ice cream flavors, though," he pointed out with a smirk.

Stephen smirked right back. "The brand was on sale and Wong was curious."

"Oh, sure." Tony nodded solemnly. "The decision was all Wong's."

"Manhattan has a lot more variety on its shelves than Kathmandu. He's let himself indulge." A pause, then Stephen amended, "Slightly. Sometimes. With my wallet."

"Like making you pay for his Spotify account."

That drew an honest laugh out of Stephen and he asked in amused disbelief, "You remember that?"

Tony shrugged. "Didn't have much else to focus on besides my ship project and you. I guess it all stuck in my head."

"Fair point." Stephen moved his hand in a circle, manipulating some energy that only made sense to him, then added, "I know that prank you described at MIT is lodged in my head."

That drew a laugh from Tony in return. With unbelievable precision, Tony had laser-cut a piece of steel and a group of other students had hoisted it onto a prominent campus statue. Any onlooker would be left thinking that they'd actually destroyed the statue's head by welding the other metal to it. A dean had sent an outraged campus message before discovering the intersecting piece could in fact be moved.

"So," Tony concluded as they paused briefly for Stephen to again adjust the flow, "talking about things seems like a good balance. It's connecting us, but it's not too intense. It's exactly like how we got friendly on the ship."

"Yes, true," Stephen mused as he rotated his hand slightly and watched a glow rise, then diminish.

"So I should act like I did back then."

"Right." Stephen gestured at the air, considered the new glow that appeared, and moved his hand. "Just talk some more. This seems to be working."

"Talk. Sure." Nodding slowly, Tony recalled the easy back-and-forth they'd had in the Maw's ship. Everything had felt so simple and right once they moved past their initial distrust. Holding conversations had been a big part of that, but there was another element that had smoothed their path toward friendship. "Or... something else I could do is..."

As Tony trailed off, Stephen raised his head just in time to flinch at what happened next. "Oh God."

It was barely possible to hear him; Tony had launched into a full-voiced acoustic version of Highway to Hell.

"You still can't sing!" Stephen protested. In response, Tony raised an invisible microphone and leaned further into his performance. Since he'd already been singing at his top reasonable volume, the overall effect was less than smooth. "Stop," Stephen insisted, but couldn't keep from laughing as he did.

With how Stephen was left alone all day on an alien world, being able to make him laugh was an accomplishment. Enormous gusto carried Tony all the way through his off-key performance. At the end, he bowed grandly.

There was zero applause. "That was one of the most godawful things I've ever heard in my life."

"For my next piece," Tony announced like Stephen hadn't spoken, "I'll be tackling Bohemian Rhap—" The rest of the word didn't come out. Amused, Tony rolled his eyes down to inspect the glowing patch of magic that had sealed itself over his mouth.

"Maybe I should just keep you like that until you wake up," Stephen remarked dryly.

"Mmph."

"Do you promise not to sing again?"

"Mmphmph."

"I'm not taking that gag off for a 'maybe.'"

The patch eventually vanished. It was tempting to sing again—Stephen was fun to annoy and it was exactly the sort of interaction that this terrible place couldn't offer him during the day—but Tony valued his continued ability to speak.

"Smart move," Stephen said dryly when Tony let go of his last singing temptation.

"How did you possibly feel that? Well, if we're this connected, the data should be looking good by now."

It did look good. When Tony surveyed that night's data after finishing his latest oxygen therapy, it became certain that the Soul Stone's energies truly could be duplicated by the connection between them. Tony's scanners had spent three weeks calibrating themselves to Stephen's normal energy usage. Now there was a distinct field of something else surging, mostly at night. That energy wasn't clear enough to control, yet, but it was identifiable and measurable.

"How's he doing?" Tony wondered, not looking away from the monitors as he heard someone enter. Though it could have been a nurse, he suspected he knew who would stop by to see both Stephen and him.

"Body vitals are stable," Christine said as she typed something in, "but there's a definite improvement in neurological activity. Whatever's going on seems to be helping, at least a little."

"Fantastic." Tony's eyes roamed the scans of Stephen's brain, even though he had no idea what the visuals were telling him. The door opened again as he looked for any sign that he could understand. "Do you think it's enough to get him back?"

"I have no idea," Christine admitted as she dug through her pockets, then the bag she'd carried in. "I definitely don't think Stephen's heading downhill any more, but that's a long distance from actually waking up."

"A long distance," Tony repeated dryly. Yeah, they were still facing parsecs of 'long' to resolve.

"Here you go." At the realization that Christine wasn't saying that to him, Tony blinked and turned. She'd apparently found whatever she was looking for. Two small devices were handed to Natasha as Christine ordered, "Don't use that unless you're exposed. It has nasty side effects."

"Thanks, Doc." Natasha tucked them away, noted Tony's confusion, and explained, "One of the bio-weapon handoffs in Toronto slipped under our radar. Clint and I have another chance to pick it up in Montreal."

Any side effects from Christine's emergency treatment would certainly be less dire than exposure to a bio-weapon. With that question answered, Tony nodded and returned his focus to the monitors. When he heard Natasha's footsteps move closer, though, his adrenaline spiked and he turned back.

Sure enough, she was studying Stephen's silent form. "He doesn't look strong enough to do everything you told us about," Natasha mused. Her gaze locked squarely onto the oxygen mask that left him looking as helpless as he currently was.

If Stephen were awake, though, he could take down the famous Black Widow between two breaths. Compelled to defend that ability in Stephen's absence, especially to the woman who'd used him as a blackmail bargaining chip, Tony shot back, "Let him get that mask off and then you two can go a few rounds."

"Tony," Christine said absolutely flatly, then waited until he turned to her. Her next words were quieter. "Don't be a dog on a walk."

What? Oh. Right: 'don't mark his territory.' He knew why Christine said it, given his suddenly aggressive tone, but it seemed like an unfair demand to make. This wasn't being possessive, it was being protective.

"Now, if we can... huh." Trailing off, Christine looked at the monitors, then at Stephen, then back to Tony. "The energy flicked just now. In a positive direction, too."

"From Tony looking out for him?" Natasha mused.

"Yeah, apparently." Christine tilted her head at the screen. "You've been having the best outcomes by far at night. What have you two been doing then?"

Intrigue filled Natasha's eyes, and so Tony directed his answer directly at her. He didn't want her speculating. It felt like he was being sudoku'd again by the superspy. "Talking. And reminding him what it feels like to be anywhere but the rocky hell he's trapped on. Nothing exciting."

To his surprise, Natasha seemed to accept that. "It might be a matter of keeping humanity in play," she said to Christine. At Christine's frown, Natasha clarified, "Sometimes I was the only person who could get through to Bruce when the Hulk was raging. Otherwise, he could get lost inside himself."

"That's basically what happened right after I got back," Tony said, nodding. It was tricky to trust Natasha after her blackmail, but she was right: she was someone who knew about pulling minds back from the brink. "And since he regained control, we've been trying to connect even more."

"It seems to be working," Christine murmured. "At least for now, this is moving things in the right direction. This isn't like any energy I've ever encountered before, but..." She shrugged. "Infinity Stones. They're weird. I think we all hate them."

"I'm not a fan," Tony agreed. For another ten seconds, the three of them studied the energy readings. Only the intermittent beeping of the heartbeat monitor interrupted them.

Natasha broke that silence after glancing at her wrist. "Duty calls. Clint's got the jet ready. Good luck," she said to Tony, and gestured toward Christine with one of the emergency devices. "And thanks for these."

"Sure." After they were left alone, Christine turned to Tony and said, "Shuri and I are making good progress on the Mind Stone. Focus on Stephen. Please. I don't know how you're doing this, and I don't think you totally do, either, but focus on him."

It was an easy promise to make. He was glad to handle over Mind duties to the two women, and focus on only one Stone. And one person. When Tony climbed into bed that night, it was peculiar to remember how he'd ever needed help to fall asleep. By now, it was his favorite part of the day. The return to Titan came in a seeming instant.

The two of them could talk about anything, it seemed, and have fun with it. They were both so certain in their views that even the simplest topics were fun to debate. Accordingly, Tony demanded, "Favorite color."

That just earned a shrug. "Don't really have one."

"Oh, come on. Everyone has a favorite color. Mine's red," Tony offered, like that might prompt a real answer.

"Red? With that suit you fly around in? Never would have guessed." At the insistent motion Tony kept making toward him, Stephen gave an affected groan and said, "Fine. Well, I always liked minimal lines—"

Tony cleared his throat and looked him up and down.

"—In my own belongings," Stephen continued pointedly.

Tony gestured again toward his multi-layered outfit and cleared his throat.

"It's typical clothing for everyone at Kamar-Taj and stop interrupting me. Let's see, thinking back to my old place..." Stephen considered the question for a while, clearly searching deep into his memory, but eventually shrugged. "Grey."

"Grey?" Tony repeated, disbelieving. That was like saying that 'water' was someone's favorite drink. "Grey. Grey. Fine. Now pick an actual color."

"I said a color: grey." At Tony's continued, visible disdain for the shade, Stephen pointed out, "Metal. Concrete. A neutral backdrop for artwork. I'm surprised you don't like it more." He folded his arms across his chest. "You collect artwork. I remember random things, too."

Did the Sanctum have much grey in it? God, Tony still couldn't picture what the damned place looked like. He hoped that his brain damage would begin to heal now that he'd begun oxygen therapy, but if it didn't, there was a very real chance that he wouldn't ever be able to remember basics about the many places his life had taken him. There were worse things he could have lost, but it was still unsettling to not remember his daily drive through Malibu.

Concern became apparent on Stephen's face and through the chain, and Tony realized he'd let his mind wander too far afield. "Your favorite color is red," Tony loudly announced. "Like the Cloak. We both wear red and we both look damn good in it, so: red."

Stephen eyed him a second longer, clearly wondering what he was hiding.

"Red. It's red. Obviously."

That suspicion didn't wholly ease, but Stephen let himself relax back into one of their typical arguments. "It's definitely not red. Blue's better, of the options," he added with a gesture toward the Kamar-Taj outfit he wore, wholly visible without the Cloak over it.

"Blue?" Tony repeated. "Blue's boring, too." Preferring boring, uniform-like blue over red was like preferring...

With the slow, confident smile that he'd grown so practiced in using on Tony, Stephen answered the question that Tony hadn't even wanted to admit considering. He must just be this transparent, or Stephen had grown this used to where Tony's brain wandered. "I wouldn't have fought on either side of your stupid airport brawl."

Tony gasped. "Traitor."

Laughing, Stephen sat back. "We operate in the shadows and we definitely do not get involved with governments. Remember that reality-bending stick I mentioned in the Sanctum?"

Forcing aside his disgruntlement, Tony shrugged. "Sure. Wong's been holding it to measure the energy."

"Holding it? But that'd..." Trailing off, Stephen considered the injuries Wong had surely taken from it, then nodded slowly. "Smart move, so long as someone's there to knock it out of his hands before the damage overwhelms him." At Tony's short, frustrated sigh over how yet another person was making a sacrifice play, Stephen shrugged. "What? It's a good idea for studying Reality and that has to be tricky data to get. I'd do it."

"Not if I grabbed it first," Tony challenged. "What's its deal, anyway?"

"From what Wong's seen in his books, it got lost from another dimension. They probably used it there as an execution device." As Tony's nose wrinkled over the image of handing the mutilation stick to a convict who'd only drop it in death, Stephen finished, "We're trying to figure out whether destroying it would release the energy. If so, that could leave a few blocks of lower Manhattan looking like ground beef."

"Imagining that is really going to haunt me, thanks."

"And that," Stephen finished like it was the end of a classroom lecture, "is why I stay out of the government's way. And off of teams who love the spotlight. God only knows what the CIA would do with a tenth of the things inside the Sanctum. The stick alone could bring down a regime if you left it on the right desk."

"Fine," Tony allowed, but then paused. "I'm just saying, hypothetically—"

"Nope."

Since his frustration was harmlessly humorous, Tony let it freely flow between them. "I don't think you get it. This was just confirming that if you did fight about the Accords, you'd back me up. Total hypothetical. Thought exercise. Philosophical musing. Something to meditate on."

"I understand that. That's why I said 'nope.'" Stephen smiled placidly back, even as Tony gasped again. "Don't start. I've already had this debate with Karl. He'd be the one backing up your administration-approved Accords, and I was the one who broke all natural laws to save Hong Kong. Much to his dismay."

"Wait. Karl? I don't know a Karl." God, Stephen still felt like a mystery to him. Tony's life was an open book, but he hadn't even known who all was involved with Stephen risking his life to save one of the world's greatest cities. When this was all fixed, there was a lot of catching up to do.

"Great guy," Stephen summarized after a moment of consideration, "but we had a slight falling out."

Tony frowned in thought. "Casual disagreement falling out, or 'I've made a mortal enemy' falling out?"

That earned an eyeroll. "A little more intense than the former, but he was why I was even able to start on this path. There were no 'mortal enemies' being made."

Oh no. Tony had been in this rodeo for a lot longer than Stephen, and he knew what that tale meant. Histories and sudden disagreements never ended well. "That dude's totally going to try to kill you."

"You've never met him!" Stephen laughed. "It was a philosophical disagreement, and I'll even admit it was justified—"

"One hundred percent, he's making plans to take you down." Tony nodded solemnly. "One hundred percent. Trust me on this one." Faint concern began to trickle into Stephen, and so Tony leaned forward to promise, "You'll have backup, don't worry."

After another few seconds of a distant, memory-searching stare, Stephen focused his attention back on Tony and ordered, "Under no circumstances would I want you stepping in. You have no defense against that kind of fight."

"I faced Thanos," Tony retorted.

"Yeah, and that went great."

Tony's gaze flattened. "I flew into space to save you from a bunch of glowing torture needles and I'd known you for about two minutes. If you think I'd step aside now, you're crazy." Possessive, protective feelings sparked again, then surged to fill Tony completely. This time, Christine wasn't there to shut things down.

Whether in surprise from the energy flow or the emotion, Stephen was left wide-eyed and mute until Tony got ahold of himself. He blinked several times, exhaled, and looked away.

Tony didn't apologize for the overload. After waiting a few seconds to see if Stephen would demand one, he continued, "Okay. Fine. Idealogical disagreement on the Accords. I think you're wrong, but I'll respect that. But just tell me..." Trailing off, he remembered the revelations in the forest and how Natasha's true beliefs had been overridden by Steve needing her help. It was a messy, uncertain question to ask, fueled by an even messier jumble of emotions.

Despite that turmoil, Stephen looked back to Tony with a level stare. He must have been able to sort through things. "I'd come if you really needed me. Not to give you a win, but..."

To keep you safe, Tony heard. He couldn't be sure those were the words that would have followed, but it felt right in his heart.

Now Tony was the one who left overwhelmed. "So. Yeah." His throat cleared. "I was right. You'd pick red."

"I'd pick grey," Stephen corrected. As Tony began to protest, he allowed, "But you're right: we both do look good in it."

Tony didn't want to push his luck. It already felt like he'd been handed something that he hadn't known was missing from his life. "Grey can be okay," he offered after a pause. "Rhodey's suit is a solid design. It works for him."

"See? Your mind is already opening."

As Tony thought back to flickers on the infirmary monitor, and how he'd been able to help Stephen by reaching out instead of pushing away, he nodded. Something warm and soft grew in him that he couldn't name. Although he didn't send it through the chain, it still seemed to fill the space between them. Even in the dim light, Stephen's eyes glinted as they held Tony's. "It is," Tony replied, then smiled.

Chapter Text

A day later, Tony learned that the oversized drone suit had already saved six full blocks in Los Angeles. People's homes were wet but still standing thanks to Scott Lang's bright idea. The city itself had seen its morale boosted by the appearance of Tony Stark's numerous drone duplicates, and—as little as Tony liked to admit it—Steve had deployed those drones with laser precision. As promised, the drones had freed up emergency personnel and so Steve's containment efforts had sudden additional help.

One of the worst groups had been steadily herded toward Long Beach. While Tony spent his night connecting energy flows, Steve had successfully forced the murderers out onto an exposed dock. A few drone suits and some remaining Coast Guard personnel took out anyone who fought back and suppressed the rest. One hostile faction was officially off the tally board, and it'd taken all three of them—Scott, Tony, and Steve—to do it.

In the big picture, stopping one group of murderers in one city hardly mattered. The smart thing to do would be to focus their efforts and take some acceptable losses in pursuit of the central goal.

The smart thing would be triage, in other words. But Tony didn't do triage.

Recalling that conversation from Titan, Tony thoughtfully studied the monitor alongside Rhodey and considered all of the Angelenos that Steve had just saved. Steve probably wasn't one for 'acceptable losses,' either, even if Tony didn't like to acknowledge similarities between the two of them. Nat? Rhodey? Sure, they would keep an eye on the bigger picture, like Stephen had demonstrated with his decision about the Time Stone. Steve, though, would almost certainly refuse to trade one life for two others.

Unless it was his own, Tony added with a quick eyeroll. God knew the team didn't have enough of those attempts.

He'd probably been even more right than he'd thought to compare them to two similar elements. He and Steve did share traits, but they were ones that seemed promising at first but turned toxic by the end. It was the complete opposite of him and Stephen: starting poorly with their worst shared qualities, but eventually strengthening their better ones.

Well, so long as each person could handle their own tasks and had some way to communicate when needed, they'd still get things done. He and Steve didn't need to talk all the time. Trying to do so would just overload their remaining fragile civility. They just needed to...

"Compartmentalize," Tony said out loud, drawing a curious look from Rhodey. "That's... I'm an idiot."

Rhodey's curiosity deepened, but Tony turned, exited, and walked to another workshop without explaining himself. "Hope you're still up," he murmured as he calculated time zones and then opened a communications channel to Wakanda. He wouldn't be at this time of night, but Shuri wasn't a morning person.

She was up. "I trust you saw the latest figures," Shuri proudly announced.

Tony hadn't yet, and after a noise of apology opened that message from her. The results startled him so much that he nearly lost his train of thought. "An eleven percent increase in maximum processing capacity? In days?" This girl had just single-handedly shown up the entire faculty of MIT.

A broader smile spread across Shuri's face. "Current matrices weren't totally optimized. It really sped up processor speed when I tried an idea for a new architecture."

"But you can't totally get a brain functioning, or you would have sent me a high-alert message." This power still wouldn't be enough to model one hundred trillion simultaneous connections, but if Tony was right, they didn't need to. They could completely duplicate the Mind Stone—and get a template for the other Stones—with the ideas that both of them had just landed on.

With a sigh, she nodded and allowed that. "Yes, but I am getting there!"

"You don't need to 'get there.' Not like we thought." At Shuri's confusion, Tony continued, "Brains are modular. They've got lobes dedicated to different tasks."

Despite walking around with a repeatedly damaged brain, Tony had never lost his balance or stumbled over words. He'd taken damage to specific areas, which that meant that only his spatial memory and impulsivity were affected.

"Of course," Shuri said with a frown. "I know that. I've checked with Christine to make sure all brain functions are addressed."

Christine was also busy with emergency care, though. She was probably consulting on specific medical topics only when asked, rather than making ground-up decisions. "We don't need to worry about connecting every neuron with every other neuron," Tony clarified. "We can chunk up the energy flow of the Stones into functional areas. Only tiny parts of those areas will talk to each other."

Even though he often didn't get along with Scott and barely managed to be around Steve, they'd each contributed to this Los Angeles effort. Scott's size disc with Tony's suits had finally given them an effective firefighting force; Tony's other suits with Steve's strategic expertise had taken out an enemy coalition. If the different functions could operate independently but still talk when they needed to, they could get a lot done.

"He did give me the answer with the circular sulcus," Tony murmured. Stephen knew in his gut that a place that stretched between different brain lobes was important, even if he couldn't see how others might apply it.

"So what you're saying," Shuri mused after letting that ripen, "is that it's a two-layer structure. At minimum. Not like the unified, fully simultaneous processing approach we envisioned. The different functional areas need to be wholly realized inside themselves, but then only a minor section of them would pass on those conclusions to other areas... which would be an exponential decrease in the required number of..." She trailed off, frowning in thought, and turned to model something in a lab that looked equal—or better—to any space Tony had ever used.

"This is how the Mind Stone affected Vision's brain," Shuri soon concluded. "You are right, I'm sure of it. With this dual-layer approach, I can completely model a brain. That means I can model the full Mind Stone. We'll be able to start modeling what teams have about the other Stones, too."

Looking even more serious, she leaned in closer to the screen. "The Stones have very distinct functional purposes, but they can also be used together. How are we going to do that?"

Tony blinked. Right. He hadn't thought that far ahead. He'd known this was a question that needed to eventually be addressed, but his eureka moment about Stone structure had consumed all present thought.

Shuri pointed out the obvious in his silence: "Because we don't have a gauntlet." Like a sulcus linked together brain lobes, Thanos had needed a way to link together the different Infinity Stones. He'd used that gaudy glove.

"Can we get another one?" Tony mused. "Make one?" They were researching energy signatures instead of collecting physical Stones, but maybe they could jury-rig containers for that energy.

Shuri shook her head. "Thor checked weeks ago. There's a mold, but the blacksmith is dead."

"Blacksmith?" Tony repeated. "Well, if there's a mold, you and I could figure it out."

"After a couple of years of work, probably." Shuri shrugged. "I didn't recognize any of the materials samples he brought back and the place is powered by a neutron star. All of those mechanics are broken." She swallowed. Her determination morphed into something darker but even more purposeful. "I am not waiting that long to save my brother."

Yeah. Pepper's business trip was not going to last 'a couple of years.' "All right. When Thanos picked up a Stone, he added it to his glove. But we're working with raw Infinity energy. Doesn't that mean that maybe we want an energy connection between them instead of a physical one?"

"An energy connection?" Shuri said and seemed overwhelmed at the notion. "I have no idea how we're going to fully power one Stone, yet, let alone all six. To power all the Stones and have an energy device powerful enough to hold all of them at once? To contain all of that unbelievable chaos and potential..." Shuri's cheeks puffed up with a deep breath, then exhaled. "I can't think of any energy on Earth strong enough to handle that."

She was right. Tony could make a thousand arc reactors—if Rocket wouldn't promptly steal them all—and try to power six Stones, but it'd be like he was just throwing them into the void from Stephen's broken anchors. They needed to find a connective tissue of energy that was powerful enough to fuel the Stones, capable of handling the vast amount of uncertain potential that they contained, and that they could actually figure out and implement in less than 'a couple of years.'

The eyes opened wide at the same time.

"Danvers and Janet," Tony said. At the same time, Shuri said, "The Quantum Realm."

It was a dimension flowing with energy and they had a decades-long expert on how to work with it. Carol Danvers was unbelievably powerful and could manipulate its flows. If they could successfully model all of these Stones' structures, recreate them in the Quantum Realm, and control their effects...

"This is it." Tony laughed, ran his hands across his hair, and laughed again. "We need to start modeling the Stones' different functions ASAP. The teams have some parts of them totally down."

Shuri looked away from the camera. Her fingers danced across a levitating keyboard. "And once we do that, we'll be able to recreate them in the Realm using Van Dyne's guidance."

"Is Carol strong enough to direct all of that energy? To actually get the right effect from all six?"

"I don't know," Shuri admitted. "She can definitely manipulate Quantum energy, but controlling the connections plus directing the use of six Stones at once..."

Lobes of the brain. Compartmentalization. That was what they needed to do if they were going to succeed. Trying to handle everything in a single, unified approach with only one control point was doomed to failure. They had access to a lot of talented people. They should make use of that. "Okay. What if Carol handles the main flow and Power?"

"That's still a lot to ask," Shuri mused. "Why not only give her Power, and let Janet guide the full Quantum energy?"

Tony snapped his fingers. "Better. That's better. She's the expert on all of this, so she's the one who can figure out how to link together all of the energy flows." He began ticking off other Stones. "Thor's been practicing with teleporting all over the galaxy. He can do Space."

Shuri's fingers played across the keyboard to take more notes. "Jane Foster served as a container for the Reality Stone, so—"

Tony blinked. "Wait, what?"

"Long story! We're getting my brother back, yeah?"

Fine, he'd hear this one later. "Then she can handle that, sure. I'm getting the actual owner of the Time Stone back into play, so he'll know just what to do with that one."

"Good, good," Shuri nodded. "That could be tricky, to make sure it echoes the precisely right moment."

"You do Mind," Tony decided. "You're going to be able to model a full brain, so you're going to know exactly how that power should flow."

Shuri let out another puff of air. "All right. I'll do it. But what about..."

"Me," Tony decided. "I've been practicing manipulating Soul energy. There are only going to be two qualified people in the universe for that, and one of us will be busy with Time."

"This may be it," Shuri said and nodded. Though she clearly didn't want to get her hopes completely up, it was tempting for both of them. "I think I can have a model of the full Mind Stone very soon. Completely functional. And if so..."

"Then it's our workable Stone template and we can start building the others." Teams had solid chunks of data by now, but were still trying to fill in their full sudoku boards. If they compartmentalized each function, then they could build and test them step by step. That meant that they were on the verge of making a lot of sudden progress.

"I'll tell Bruce what you and I figured out, and I'll call Christine once I think he and I have a working brain model." A giggle escaped Shuri and Tony was abruptly reminded of how young she truly was. "Let's save everyone!"

"Let's save everyone," Tony agreed with a grin, which stayed in place after the connection cut. Curiosity filtered into his chest as his joy intensified, but all Tony could do was pass that joy along as he turned to leave the room. This'd be a great story for tonight.

As he approached the room where he'd left Rhodey, joy began to wither. Since Rhodey had no idea where Tony had gone, he'd apparently taken the opportunity to get some other work done: a meeting with his co-leader. Their words floated through a small gap in the doorway. Tony certainly didn't want to come face to face with Steve unless it was needed, and so he leaned against the wall and waited for them to finish.

"Do we have any indication that Thanos is interested in seeing what we're up to?" Steve wondered.

"No. Not yet. Using that Mind shield seems to have done the trick if he did ever look in on us, but I'm concerned about what'll happen when we get real close to completion. There'll be more to notice. When we duplicate his big gun, he'll come knocking."

"We wait for improvements in the Mind shield," Steve decided after a minute of thought, "unless we're ready to do a full roll-out. Then we do it at top speed. It'll leave us vulnerable, but with that busted gauntlet, it sounds like he's somewhat vulnerable, too."

"You're probably right," Rhodey admitted. "Just limiting the vulnerable window might be the best that we can hope for. Hey, uh... before you head off..."

"Yeah?"

There was a long pause. "I just wanted to make sure you were keeping a close eye on those drones in LA."

As Steve also paused, Tony frowned from his listening spot in the hall. "Of course I am."

"Look, it's not that I don't trust you, it's just..." Rhodey sighed. "I've had some real bad experiences with suits showing a mind of their own, all right? I know you're relying on the suits' programming when it actually comes to a fight."

"I'm not taking any unnecessary risks. I'm saving lives and we've trusted Tony's programming in plenty of fights before." Steve had that self-righteous, straight-backed and squared-shoulder tone he got. Now it seemed more irritating than ever, and so Tony wished that Steve wasn't using it to stick up for Tony and his suits. His emotions were still an impulsive wreck and this was a very confusing experience.

"Okay. Okay, then. I just..." Rhodey hesitated. "Like I said, I have some real bad memories of suits doing their own thing. And if we're trying to keep the city's spirits up, the image of 'Tony Stark' accidentally blowing up an elementary school instead of—"

"Jesus, Rhodey, you know I'd never let that happen."

"Yeah. I know." As he sighed again, it sounded like Rhodey was rubbing his hands across his face. "Sorry. I'm just tired. I know you're tired, too, but I've had to be the bad guy to keep everything functioning. Turning down government requests, cutting off missions. It's getting pretty exhausting."

"Like wanting to leave a soldier behind enemy lines?"

Tony frowned in confusion even as Rhodey said, "Please don't start this again. We've had this discussion. And what was I just saying about hating to play the bad guy?"

"If we're coming up on the day when we face Thanos," Steve insisted, "then we all have to know that we're still holding to our principles. He was stronger than us for a while, but we're better than him, and that's how we'll win the war instead of the battle."

"This is because I pointed out once that Wanda could've blown the Mind Stone right away, huh? Once. And I apologized."

"We don't trade li—"

"Steve. Please find a new slogan."

"I've read the reports," Steve said after a long pause. "You were ready to leave someone behind the worst enemy lines out there, even after he tried to lay down his life to get Stark back."

The shock that wrapped Tony felt both glacially cold and searing. It filled him so completely that no other emotion had the chance to creep in, even the concern that trickled through the chain.

Steve continued, "And from the sound of it, we're going to need that guy to see this through to the end."

How in the hell was Tony supposed to react to Steve sticking up for Stephen? Nothing made sense. The hallway tilted around him.

When Rhodey spoke, his voice was tight with controlled anger. "Yeah. I did make that call to save Thor, who we're also going to need to fix all of this, and who had no idea what he was signing up for with that rescue attempt. When I found out there was a safer way, I've let Tony work on it. Don't try to turn me into some villain."

"I'm not trying to turn you..." Steve exhaled. Silence hung between them.

"You can disagree with me. Just respect that I had justifiable reasons."

"I do. Sorry. I know we're probably only going to get one shot at this and I started thinking about strategy over anything else."

"Yeah, strategy. That's what I've been focusing on." Rhodey laughed weakly. "It kinda sucks."

"I am sorry. You've done a great job managing decisions that I wouldn't want to face."

"Thanks." Another pause. "We should probably both get back to work."

Steve took the hint and began to walk toward the door. Tony slid away from his approaching footsteps. "I didn't mean to question your motives," Steve said one last time and exited.

Tony hadn't moved far enough. It was clear that he'd been listening in rather than just approaching, and Steve held his gaze for a few seconds before nodding once and moving on.

That argument hadn't been any sort of apology; surprise had been in Steve's eyes when he saw who was waiting outside. He hadn't expected to see Tony there and so certainly hadn't taken a stance for Tony's benefit. Like always, he stuck to his ideals no matter whose side that put him on.

Tony's damaged mind had little protection against the surprise of what he'd heard. With his still-raw emotions, it was hard for him to fight off a creeping itch of regret. He didn't know what he regretted, but it was unpleasant regardless.

That also meant that he wasn't good with masking his emotions when he stepped inside. "Hey, so good news," Tony said unconvincingly. "I talked with Shuri and we made some major Stone progress."

Rhodey studied him, then said, "Great news. Love to hear it. Keep doing what you need to do. Could've come in earlier to say that, though, instead of listening to me and Steve argue."

Grimacing, Tony allowed, "I could have, but it would've been real awkward."

After another moment of considering him, Rhodey laughed faintly. "Especially because you agree with Steve, even if you hate yourself for it."

"Please, I'm not..." That transparent. That easy of a mark. Potential replies died in his throat. With how he'd reacted to Christine for the mere 'crime' of caring about Stephen, Tony really didn't want to get into any debates along this line. "Well, anyway, glad to hear you were wrong about him."

Rhodey's half-lidded eyes blinked at him. "Did you not just hear me talking about feeling exhausted?"

"Right." Tony nodded. This wasn't the time to prod. "Sorry." It was good that Rhodey had accepted that Tony's focus would remain on Stephen. He'd just leave it at that.

Despite Tony's attempts to pull back, he'd clearly let too much emotion remain on his face. With that tolerant but pointed expression that Rhodey often pulled out during his quiet, measured arguments, he explained himself. "Just try to envision what your guy looks like from my perspective. Just do that for me. Once."

Holding up a hand, Rhodey began ticking off points on his fingers. "He's been hiding an Infinity Stone in his house, which ends with you MIA in deep space and another color collected for Thanos' gauntlet." Another finger raised. "After we started our research teams here, it turned out there're all sorts of weird-ass things in that house. None of which have been reported to any team, any agency, nothing."

"Yeah, okay, fair point on the creepy mutilation stick, but you seriously want to let the CIA know that it's a thing?"

Rhodey didn't even bother engaging with Tony's argument; he just raised another finger. "He apparently knows ways to manipulate enough power to put an entire solar system at risk."

Tony held up his hand. "Okay, not entirely true. Those anchors were so dangerous because they broke. And he normally can't do a portal like that to shatter so many chains at once. That situation'll never happen again."

Rhodey's gaze was understanding, but unwavering. Another finger raised. "Like you eavesdropped on: nearly killed Thor."

"Totally my fault."

His thumb extended. "Gave you brain damage."

"Also my fault, I took way too many risks there." Tony groaned when Rhodey's other hand raised. "Seriously, you're still going?"

"Is the world's biggest security risk with those portals. This is someone who could literally teleport into the middle of the CDC and steal samples of every virus on the planet."

Tony snorted. "He's a doctor, he'd want to stop viruses." Off Rhodey's quirked eyebrow, Tony added, "I know, I know, I figured it was just some weird nickname, too."

"Not where I was going, but..." Rhodey trailed off, then admitted, "Yeah, first time I looked him up."

"Great. Now will you stop hammering Stephen? Fine, Rhodey, you don't like him. Well I do, a lot—"

Rhodey groaned. "I never said that! I've never met him, so I don't like or dislike him. I'm just being cautious. Someone has to be, but you're pissed off at me for it."

"And I just want to hear that I'm going to be able to bring him back without hearing 'no' from you again."

"You can bring him back," Rhodey said, raising his hands. "I've got no problem with you doing this Soul thing. Just stop treating me like the bad guy for ever once worrying about the total stranger that got you abducted by aliens. Or there's a personal history that—" As Tony frowned, Rhodey pushed his hands further forward, shook his head, and announced, "Nope! Not talking about this any more! I have things to do. So many things to do. You can read my notes if you want. Go do your Soul thing and get your guy back."

That was all Tony was getting out of Rhodey right now. His long-time friend did seem like a man on a mission as he departed, probably to put out some other Avengers fire. It was not, Tony admitted as he was left alone in the room, a role he would have wanted to take on.

"You have a problem with Stephen's personal history?" Tony grumbled a second later and turned to the monitor. "What part of it?" Saving lives, going to the best schools, what? What could possibly be Rhodey's problem?

Oh, Tony thought a second later as he brought up the files that Rhodey had mentioned. Okay. Fine. For a man who'd taken on leadership of the Avengers, this was a fair reason to be wary of someone.

Part of Stephen's publication history had been with Christine, and every single one of their co-written papers was about an Avengers-adjacent topic. They'd both made a lot of observations during the Chitauri battle. Energy blasts like some of the team wielded required different treatment methods than normal electrocution, if the patient were to regain mental function. (Stephen had been lead author on that one.) The risks of "enhanced strength individuals" were detailed from a crisis planning perspective, including the example of concrete chunks the Hulk had rained down on vulnerable skulls. (Christine lead, there.)

Seen through that lens, Doctor Stephen Strange did have a potential axe to grind with the team. And while the Avengers had welcomed his co-author to headquarters, Christine had a steady work history at an unremarkable hospital. Stephen had dropped off the map, joined what even Christine jokingly labeled 'a cult,' and returned with incredible powers.

Musing on that logic, Tony looked toward the exit and tried to imagine what Rhodey must have thought right after Thanos. Bruce would have told him everything he knew about Stephen, Wong, the Sanctum, and the Time Stone. That wasn't much, though. Rhodey would have been left researching other aspects of the man who, based on all the evidence, had probably gotten his best friend killed somewhere in deep space.

"Irresponsible/impulsive?" Rhodey's annotations wondered in the next folder. Tony frowned, and that frown deepened when he saw he was no longer looking at academic journal abstracts but at an article in the New York Times. It took Tony a second to realize what story he was reading. It took another for the crippling nausea to hit.

Distracted driving. A famous surgeon. Emergency personnel. Road closure. None of the actual words mattered. All Tony cared about was the photo: a long-distance shot of a crumpled car that had been pulled from a river and had its roof ripped open by emergency responders. It was a raw, brutal sight that no one should have survived.

Fear struck Tony like the accident had just happened. It felt like he was sitting in a cheap plastic chair in some ER, waiting to hear the outcome. Though he'd known there had been a wreck, seeing the photo made it a million times more real. Stephen had briefly mentioned that crash when they were face to face. Now Tony was seeing its full, violent outcome on an impersonal computer screen while Stephen lay comatose in the infirmary.

Warm concern filled him in response to his fear. Too distraught to even try to control his reaction, Tony reached out in return and held tight.

"He's fine," Tony told himself a moment later, after he'd gotten a handle on his surging emotions. (God, he really hoped the oxygen therapy steadied out his brain.) "This was years ago and he's fine." He made sure to close the article, though. From the aftermath of the portal and Tony's accidental loosening of the chain, he'd already learned that Stephen brushing against death was more than he could handle. Contemplating any more times when he'd very nearly died was not a wise move.

His too-tight skin kept tingling and feeling the concern trickling into him abruptly wasn't enough. Tony needed to see a moving heartbeat monitor. Even though Stephen's body would be motionless, he'd be verifiably alive.

His emotions really had been put through the shredder to be so reactive, Tony thought as he headed for the infirmary. Rhodey hitting the ground had been one of the worst moments of his life, but once Tony saw that his friend was alive and on the (slow) mend, he was able to dial down his fear accordingly. Now his bruised brain kept getting pulled into obsessive spirals.

When Tony saw Christine rounding a corner, he instinctively waited until she wouldn't see him. A second later, he eyerolled at his behavior as he turned toward the private rooms. He was not about to start this again, no matter how much his heart twisted. Christine Palmer was a nice woman who was going to help model the Mind Stone. That was it. She was not a threat. Just because she'd been there to help after that bloody night in the article...

"Hey," Tony said to the Cloak as he entered. The steady thrum of the heart monitors did help to calm him. Stress eased with each beep. "Good news."

The Cloak's collar perked up and it rose slightly off the chair.

"I don't have him yet, but—"

The Cloak laid back down.

Tony smiled. He couldn't blame the thing for its one-track mind. "We've taken a big step forward toward getting the Stones working. Once that happens, then he's back. That's really close, now."

Considering that for a long moment, the Cloak then nodded. Tony wasn't sure whether it was acknowledging him, encouraging him, or giving permission. Either way, he replied, "Thanks."

"You hear that?" he murmured as he turned his attention to Stephen. Laying his hand against the side of Stephen's head, Tony trailed his thumb lightly across the plastic curve of the oxygen mask he still wore. "I've almost got you back. I really can't wait to see you without this again. We—"

"You've figured out the Stones?"

Possessive anger surged in Tony, and he needed a second with closed eyes and deep breaths to force it back down. Rein it in, Stark. You're breaking this habit. Remember? It wasn't good that he'd felt fresh ferocity toward Christine, but at least now he was able to recognize and control it. After he steadied himself, Tony turned and nodded. "Not totally, but we're a lot closer."

She seemed to realize she'd stepped on a moment with them, at least. "Um. Sorry for rushing in, but I was running tests here and I stepped out for a second to handle something else. I left the comm on in case an alert sounded. So I heard what you were saying."

Tony nodded slowly. "Ah."

"Yep." Christine nodded just as slowly and gestured to the data readouts. Only then did Tony notice his scanners hovering in a new formation.

He nodded again, absolutely silent, and faint amusement began to enter Christine's eyes over his clear annoyance with her presence. "I'm not pissing everywhere," he snapped after a moment longer. "So don't start with me again. Please tell me you didn't hear that."

"Hear what?" Natasha asked as she walked in, rubbing her bare arm.

Tony eyed her suspiciously, then relaxed. For once, Natasha didn't seem to know what was going on.

"You ran out without my other shot, Doc," Natasha continued.

"Sorry, sorry," Christine said and fiddled with the syringe she'd carried in. "It sounded like Tony had immediate big news about the Stones, but I think it's imminent big news, instead." She swabbed Natasha's arm with disinfectant, flicked any oxygen bubbles out of the syringe, and injected whatever she was carrying. "FYI, that muscle's going to hurt like absolute hell in about two hours."

"Thanks for the warning." Off Tony's confusion, Natasha explained, "Clint and I weren't sure whether we got exposed on the mission, so we immunized ourselves just in case. Those side effects will hit soon. We're trying to dial them down from a nine to about a..."

"Five," Christine offered.

"I'll take it."

Concern surged in Tony. "If you got exposed to a bio-weapon, you can't be around him."

"She didn't, she didn't," Christine reassured him. "I ran the tests."

"It might not have shown up in their system yet and we both know he's weak right now—"

"I ran tests on the bio-weapon container," Christine clarified. "No bacteria ever got loose. The seal never broke and it's back in safe hands." She looked down, blinking, and added in a firmer voice, "Tony, you know I'm not going to risk Stephen. Calm down."

Following her gaze downward, Tony pulled his hand off Stephen's shoulder.

"Should I exercise my arm?" Natasha wondered after studying Tony for a long, weighty second. It was like his whole being was being measured. He took an unthinking step away from her.

"Honestly, it won't help," Christine said. "Just expect the muscle to be hot to the touch for at least a week, and a sizable lump will probably develop."

"Better than what it was going to be," Natasha said with a shrug. Her head then tilted at Tony. "So. What's the big news about the Stones?"

"Oh." Taking that step away from Natasha still left Tony next to Stephen. His fingers itched to take hold of the man's shoulder again. It was hard not to give in. "Shuri and I think we have a workable structure for the Mind Stone. She'll reach out to you soon, if she hasn't already," he added to Christine, who nodded excitedly. "We also probably have an approach for using them all together."

"That's fantastic!" Christine said with a grin. "We're so close on a lot of them. After Mind's in place, I think Space and Power are nearly ready to go." Like she was moving on auto-pilot, the damned diamond necklace somehow wound up in her hand again.

Okay. Tony definitely needed more oxygen therapy to steady out his brain. The sight of that thing shouldn't still annoy him, not after he and Christine had held their heart-to-heart.

"Good news," Natasha said with a thoughtful nod after studying both of their reactions. "But how's this Stone coming along?" she asked, then gestured between Stephen and Tony. "You got good readings earlier from being protective of him, but is there anything actually workable with that yet?"

"We're getting closer," Tony said tersely.

"Good. Think you'll have the Soul Stone ready to go by the time the others are done? I know you were playing catch-up on it."

How the hell should he know? This was the Stone with the least written about it, they only had two people analyzing its energy, and only one of those people had access to any resources outside of a prison pocket dimension. "We're working on the synchronization," Tony summarized. "And we'll get it done." He sounded less certain about their progress than he would have preferred.

"Right." Natasha nodded, absently rubbed her arm where the needle had gone in, then turned. "That's a pretty necklace, Dr. Palmer," she said pointedly enough to end their discussion and start a new one. "Where'd you get it?"

Tony shot a dark glare at her as he tried to steady his emotions, but Natasha only smiled blandly back before returning her full attention to the other woman.

"Oh, ah." With a sheepish grin, Christine seemed to realize that she'd been rubbing the diamond like a lucky rabbit's foot and pulled her thumb off the gem. "Sorry, it's sort of become a habit. It was a New Year's gift from Stephen. He liked to spend money on shiny things," she laughed, like she had to explain why she owned such a large stone.

Breathe, Tony told himself when he felt the same tight coil of pressure bloom in his chest as before. This was exactly why he'd acted like such a jackass toward Christine, but doing so again was off the table. Not only was it unfair to her, but dark emotions related to Stephen could potentially loosen the chain. That was absolutely not something that he could risk. Natasha knew he was trying to keep his mood in check, so what in the hell was she doing?

"It's really nice," Natasha replied with an easy smile that fooled people who didn't know her.

"Thanks." Christine let it fall back against her chest. "We pulled off some amazing saves together in the OR, so it kind of turned into my good luck charm for the hospital."

"So, now it's a 24/7 good luck charm to face the end of the world?" Natasha guessed. "I don't blame you."

Tony nearly turned on his heel and walked out of the infirmary. He wanted to avoid whatever point Natasha was trying to make. It felt like there was a tornado inside his chest picking up speed with each word that Christine spoke. The second the chain started to hurt, he really would leave no matter how rude the abrupt departure made him look. This was a pointlessly mean move that Natasha was making, but worse, it was dangerous.

"When'd you get it?" Natasha added in that same sweet tone, like they were just two friends chatting over brunch.

"Oh, uh, let's see. New Year's Eve 20... 13. Yes, just as '14 hit." Christine caught the chain again around one finger and laughed. "But, you know, diamonds are forever."

Had Tony known that? He wasn't sure if he'd known that. Frowning, he pulled back a step and tried to put that into logical order with what he did remember of Christine and Stephen's shared past.

"Wow, you've been together for a while." Natasha sounded so sweet. How did she manage to pull that off? The woman had a soul made of ice-covered vibranium.

No, they broke up before he even got in that accident, Tony remembered, just as Christine confirmed that they'd split later that same year. She'd offered the necklace back, but he'd told her to keep it. They worked well as colleagues—better than they had as romantic partners—and so it turned into her good luck charm.

Tony's heart began to pound faster, though he didn't know why. Fresh concern flooded into his chest a moment later. As Tony realized that Stephen was worrying about him, heat radiated outward into his toes and cheeks and fingertips. Why does this matter? he demanded of his suddenly fuzzy brain. He knew something very important was waiting to be clarified, but after the day's emotional highs and lows, it wasn't coming to him.

"So nothing with you two after the whole magic thing?" Natasha mused.

The whole magic thing, Tony repeated blankly to himself. Though Natasha had just landed on it by accident, she'd used the same words as Stephen had right after he and Tony first started talking. They'd still spent weeks together after that, and so it had been easy to forget the particulars, but he'd specifically said that he hadn't been seeing anyone since before 'the whole magic thing.'

The necklace was five years old, they'd split up four years ago, and... Tony could feel his pulse throb inside his throat and in his eyes. This mattered. It mattered a lot, but as he struggled to maintain an even emotional keel, he couldn't understand why Christine's next words mattered so damn much.

Christine opened her mouth, closed it with a smile that said that there was a complicated, possibilities-filled story there, and eventually shook her head. "No."

They hadn't gotten back together. At all. He'd known 'no' was the official label, but based on the evidence since Titan she'd seemed like a difficult-to-describe something to Stephen. Tony had walked in on her kissing him. She'd tended to him more than any other patient. She'd sobbed over him and wore his romantic gift, and Tony had never known whether that gift was old or recent. It'd been easy to eventually assume there was a restarted something playing out in slow motion before him... and he'd never wanted to ask to clarify, but... no.

Air filled his lungs. As Christine finished a few last treatment motions on Natasha's arm, Tony exhaled.

"Sorry to bother you, Dr. Palmer," Natasha said, still behind her chipper facade, "but by this point I really have to steal Tony from you." As Christine nodded and indicated the scanners she'd once again focus upon, Natasha wrapped her hand around Tony's wrist and directed him toward the hall. Only when the door had closed behind them did she note, "Well, you have the exact expression that I expected to see right now."

He blinked. "Expression?" Tony repeated, bemused. "What expression is that?"

"You look happy."

"Okay, so I look happy. Yeah, fine, I'm happy. I'm always trying to be happy to make it easier for Stephen on Titan. What's your point?"

"Specifically, you look happy that those two aren't together. Which is weird." Natasha folded her arms as they walked. Her head tilted. "Don't you like Doctor Palmer?"

"What?" Tony gestured behind them as the door vanished around a corner in the hallway. "Yeah, she's nice. She's fine. I'm over that by now."

"Huh. So is he not good enough for her?" The sharp look he gave was Natasha's answer, and she actually laughed at however deeply he'd glared. "Then Tony, I'm curious... why are you so happy that Strange and Palmer aren't together?"

The warmth of Stephen's concern still radiated from his chest. It felt like everything good in the world as it seeped through his body, and so Tony found himself palming the spot as they walked. "I'm not."

"But you said you're happy," Natasha trilled. "One conclusion I could make is that you're planning to make a move on Palmer, now that you know she's definitely available."

Joy fell abruptly out of Tony's world. He stopped and turned to snap, "That is not remotely funny." Only by instinct did he tamp his anger down and he pressed harder on the warm spot until it eased.

"Oh. It's not?"

"No."

"Hmm. Well, that's good. Because that's not the conclusion I've had for a while, and I hate being wrong," Natasha said after her smug, satisfied expression had rooted even more deeply in place. "You've never acted like someone with a thing for Christine Palmer."

Tony's teeth clenched before he pried them apart to ask, "Then why'd you say it?"

Natasha just kept shaking her head. "Not once. Not for Doctor Palmer."

"Oh yeah?" Tony demanded and took a step closer. The hand above his heart was the only thing that felt steady as he launched toward another confrontation with Natasha Romanoff's stupid observational skills. At least her arm would soon start hurting. It'd serve her right. "Then tell me, since you've apparently been studying me again: how am I acting?"

"Not like someone with a thing for Doctor..." Natasha's lips curled up further at the very edges. "Palmer."

Why the hell had she phrased it like that? The emphasis, the pause? What other doctor did he supposedly have... a thing... for...

As he leaned back from their confrontation, Natasha announced, "And there it is."

"Oh," Tony said as his face fell utterly slack. "My God." As he realized that warmth still pulsed under his palm, Tony whipped his hand back down to his side. That was Stephen's soul. Who he was connected to. That was Stephen's soul that Tony Stark was connected to. "I'm engaged," he said blankly. "This cannot be right. I am engaged to Pepper Potts. I cannot be in love with someone else."

Natasha blinked and actually took a step backward. "I'd figured out why you couldn't admit this to yourself, but was not expecting to hear 'love.'"

"I love Pepper!" Tony protested in a panic. "I love her so much that I haven't even let myself think about her!"

Blinking again, Natasha mused, "That's some interesting logic."

"Because then I'd have to think about what actually happened to her and it'd fucking break me!" Tony spat. "I cannot live without her and so I've had to pretend that I'm not. That's how much I love her: I know I'm being delusional and I'm doing it anyway, because that's the only way I can be in a world where she isn't."

Natasha took that in, nodded quietly, and didn't challenge his emotions as she reached into her pocket. Fuck. His emotions. He couldn't feel like this, not when these were negative feelings that involved Stephen. This was something that Tony could absolutely not allow himself to do, because everything wrong could be fixed except if he let Stephen go. He needed to breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

"I know you love her," Natasha said in surprisingly gentle tones. It didn't even feel like she was using her techniques on him. "But Tony..."

His eyes closed. "What?" he demanded and took another few deep breaths. God, if he felt even a single pinprick of spiritual pain, he'd lose it. Everything would spiral out of control. The concern flooding into him should have helped, but oh, this was not what he needed right now.

Natasha said nothing and so eventually his eyes opened again. Her cell phone screen filled his vision. It held the results of Tony's MRI scans. "Would you have done this to yourself for Pepper?" Natasha murmured. When he said nothing, the phone moved forward another inch. "Would you have even hesitated?"

Oh God. "Of course I wouldn't hesitate," Tony whispered. He'd take brain damage in an instant for her. He'd let his mind be liquified.

"Did you hesitate before these?" Natasha wondered and tapped the side of the phone with one fingernail.

"No." His whole body ached from the shock he'd received. "No. Not at all. Never." Oh God. Oh God. How in the hell hadn't he seen this? What sort of pathetic fucking 'genius' was he if he'd ignored this?

"This doesn't mean you love her any less, you know," Natasha said when she saw him spiraling toward total panic. "I just... you were being kind of hilariously delusional about your feelings. And you're supposed to be all up in your feelings for this research so. Uh. Okay, Tony, I need you to breathe for me."

He gulped, but the air made a thin sound as it entered his throat. He was engaged. He had pledged his life to someone he loved, and now he was feeling love for someone else? How had he let it go this far? Because Natasha was right—she was always fucking right—and he was in love with Stephen. He couldn't be, though. He couldn't be. There was an wedding announcement that said he was not in love with any wizard who he'd barely known for a month.

A searing point of pain pricked at his chest.

"No," Tony gasped and clutched it with both hands. "No. Not again."

"Oh my God, Tony, I'm sorry," Natasha said, wide-eyed as she stared at where he grabbed his heart. "Do you need to go back to Christine?"

"No!" Tony bellowed. That was about the only way to make things worse. "I need to not be thinking about any of this!" Don't leave me don't leave me don't leave me he thought with shaking hands as he waited for another spike of pain. I'm sorry, I didn't mean it.

"So it's not a heart attack," Natasha clarified, and did seem genuinely flustered at what she'd inadvertently set off. "Okay. You don't want to think." Her hands hovered uselessly over him, searching for a fix she had no real hope of making.

"I do not want to think," Tony agreed, only to close his eyes and groan when more concern flooded into his chest. Stephen needed to stop that right now, but if Tony actually tried to block the flow of emotion pouring into him, it'd surely loosen the chain. It'd be a rejection.

"Do you want to get drunk?" Natasha suggested after a moment of thought. "Yeah? To not think?"

"Oh my God, I would love to get drunk right now," Tony groaned. To just let go, slow his thoughts, convince himself that the warmth flooding his body came from liquor and not the man who wouldn't stop worrying about him? Yeah, that sounded perfect. He was already emotional, though, thanks to his brain damage. Drinking would make the swings worse. He could lose his grip on the chain without even knowing what was happening.

If Stephen would just leave him alone for one minute. One minute without this care and concern and all-enveloping warmth—

"Stop!" Tony cried again as a tiny prick of pain began. This time he clutched immediately to the chain and so the pain didn't worsen, but it easily could have. So long as he stood here like this, cycling between denial and disbelief, the chain was going to shred ever so slowly like a rope pushed just barely past its weight limits.

"I'm going to sleep, do not let anyone wake me up," Tony demanded as he turned and ran.

"I'm sorry!" Natasha called after him. He didn't acknowledge her as he rounded a corner, not did he answer the calls of anyone else who wondered what emergency had struck headquarters.

If he talked to Stephen in person, Tony rationalized as he poured out a dose of Christine's sleeping medication and slammed it back, then he could tell him to tone down the emotional support dog act until Tony had gotten past this. If he tried to do that when they were apart, it would feel like a rejection. In person, he could explain.

"Come on, come on," he murmured toward the ceiling as he flopped on his bed, still in his shoes. As fresh concern rolled in like the wind moving across long grass, Tony shuddered and tried to let it simply wash over him. He couldn't reject it, nor could he accept it. It needed to pass through him without acknowledgement.

The medicinal heat in his stomach was harsher and sharper than what bloomed above his heart, and eventually it began to take over. He needed to give in to the darkness it offered. He needed...

Stephen's hands were instantly on him when he woke on Titan. "What's wrong?" he demanded as his grip tightened on Tony's shoulders. He'd bent slightly, so they were eye-to-eye.

A blank stare was the only answer Tony had. His pulse raced like a redlining engine.

It was true.

Simply seeing a face made him happy, way down deep inside where few people ever knew Tony Stark. Even stunned like this, he still felt like a bigger, better version of himself from simple proximity. His heart swelled and soared, his hands tingled and itched to move forward. He'd felt so damn alone each night, falling asleep in solitude.

It was true. He'd felt this before. It shouldn't be happening now, but he'd felt it before and now he felt it again. Love. Fuck.

"Tell me what's wrong," Stephen insisted as he raised one hand to cup Tony's cheek, then leaned in slightly.

Too late did Tony realize that Stephen was checking his pupils for signs of injury. He'd already jerked away, though he kept his hand firmly on the soul chain as he did. Now safely distant from the man whose mere sight overwhelmed him, Tony sought a steady breathing rhythm.

It was fear that flooded his chest now, rather than gentle concern. "You need to tell me what's wrong," Stephen ordered in that voice that had cut through arguments as the world fell apart. "Right now."

The answer that erupted from Tony wasn't anything he expected. "You gave me brain damage."

From the shattered look on Stephen's face, there wasn't a single worse thing that he could hear.

"Right after I got to Earth," Tony continued, saying words but not really knowing what would come next, "before I put you back together, you kept attacking me. And every time you attacked me, you gave me brain damage. I just stood there because I knew I had to save you, but now I can't remember chunks of my own life."

"Oh my God." The words were whispers. Stephen slowly raised one of his hands for study, and Tony realized that he was staring at the scars that had marked the loss of his old world. That hand clenched abruptly into a fist and Stephen's eyes lit with anger. "And you just took it? You just let me hurt you? God, Tony, I could have ruined you! Death, coma... even acalculia could have left you unable to understand numbers!"

That was true. Tony hadn't wanted to consider anything like that while the danger was happening, but he needed an agile, mathematical mind as surely as a neurosurgeon needed steady hands. "I didn't care," Tony said hollowly. "I saw those shadows on the MRI but I just..."

"You've been having MRIs. You didn't tell me."

"I didn't care."

Another gasp of pain followed that, but anger soon overtook it. "You should have just left me. God. There's data from when my soul got ripped free, you could have figured something out." Stephen began pacing, furious, and Tony's hand slowly crept up to palm where light entered his chest. Despite their argument, it didn't hurt. "The universe needs you! Whole!"

"I would never just leave you here," Tony said around an aching lump in his throat.

"Brain damage," Stephen repeated, growing tearful, and shook his head as he stalked away from Tony. "To know that I gave you brain damage. I could have ruined the hope for all those people to come back and..." He looked back, glossy-eyed, and shakily finished, "I could have wrecked your whole life."

"I still don't care!" Tony pled. "I'm not trading your life for mine!"

"Look at what we're facing: we are past the end of the world! You think I'd care about my life in the face of all that? I experienced more than fourteen million ways to die and I kept watching more, because I had to find any way to save people. Especially you. That's what matters."

"Those don't count, this'd be real," Tony began to say, but Stephen spoke over him with growing desperation.

"Then fine, I've really died over and over and over—"

"Time loops," Tony realized hollowly. That was when he'd done time loops before Titan. To die.

The image of a broken car in a river surfaced in his memory. Screams from the Titan ship overlaid it. This time, he saw the crash actually happen in his imagination. And happen. And happen. Blood. And pain. And screams. Over. And over. And over.

And over.

And over.

"—to save people, and I'd do it again!" Stephen would. Yes. He'd die again while living up to the lonely role he'd assumed in that big, cavernous building whose appearance Tony couldn't remember. He'd live in the shadows, facing down horrors and wandering twisted dimensions while the world looked the other way. While they watched Avenger press conferences. "I know exactly what I've taken on! And while I may have been mislead about this one thing," he snapped, and gestured at the glowing soul chain, "I otherwise know the risks of my life and there are zero surprises there."

Frantic with fear and unable to stand the distance between them any more, Tony grabbed Stephen's shirt, pulled him close, and kissed him.

The stars above them didn't actually exist, nor did the rocks below. The kiss, though, felt more real than any moment since the world had fallen apart. Shock left Stephen rigid. It shouldn't have been so easy to pull him in close, but panic gave Tony strength.

Heat soon blazed through his heart. It filtered out into his veins, easing Tony's desperation like a winter thaw. A moment later he heard a soft noise escape Stephen and his rigid stance eased, ever so slightly.

Even in this fake world, a body eventually needed to breathe. Tony pulled back, gulped in air, and saw Stephen do the same. The other man looked startled but wonderfully alive.

As his mind swam, Tony stared at where his hand rested on Stephen's chest. The golden chain that connected them pierced it, throbbing with their heartbeats. His eyes tilted up. They shared a mute gaze for another few breaths, alone in the expanse of an entire universe.

In the utter silence, Tony could only whisper, "Surprise."

Chapter Text

A seeming decade passed before Stephen said anything. All he could manage then was, "Tony?"

It took Tony just as long to respond. Only a single, breathy laugh escaped him. He hadn't known he was about to do that, and so he certainly didn't have an explanation prepared. Stephen seemed to want that explanation, though. His startled eyes hadn't moved off Tony and he scarcely dared to blink.

Tony tried again to explain but words still failed. He shrugged this time, accompanied by a helpless smile. There was something else he could do to make up for his mute voice, though, and so he let his feelings flow. Affection poured through the chain like he'd sent in days past, now wrapped around a fiery heart of something more. It was a wonderful, confusing patchwork of the times they'd understood each other so deeply, what they'd sacrificed for the other's sake, and the emotions they'd begun to freely share.

The flaring energy that came along with that flow caught Stephen by surprise, but the emotion seemed to hit him harder. With a faintly flushed face, he wondered, "When?"

"Well." Tony swallowed. "I realized it about ten minutes ago." The deeper question underlying that was harder to answer. "I don't really know. Some time after this connected us," he added and ran his hand lightly along the glowing soul chain. Doing so sent a shiver of joy down his spine. From the faint gasp he heard, it was shared.

He wanted to explain himself further, but by now that seemed impossible. Stephen knew what they'd shared as well as Tony did. They'd both felt each other's deepest emotions over the past days. Even before the chain connected them, they'd seen themselves reflected in the other man. Tony had needed Natasha's shock to his system to put a label on what he'd started feeling, but he'd just served as his own hell of a shock to Stephen. If all that were true and Stephen still wondered what in the hell Tony was thinking, then—

A muffled gasp escaped Tony as he was swept into another kiss. It didn't have the first's panicked desperation but they hit just as hard. The ground tilted. Like when Stephen had tested his magic inside that gravity well, Tony's world spun like a kaleidoscope and all he could do was hold on. This kiss lasted longer than their first, and when they needed to breathe it was only a quick interruption.

When they did really break off again, Stephen still looked stunned. "Oh."

Tony let out a long sigh. A tilted slab of rock was at his back; at some point during their kiss he'd impacted it. In that moment, with immovable rock behind him and a surprising strength of passion in Stephen's grip, Tony had let himself be carried along with whatever his body decided to do. He'd only made infrequent moves on men over the years, and never on someone who could seize control like that. That dizzied him even more. He liked it, though. "Oh?"

Unsteady fingers raised toward's Stephen's mouth, then fell without making contact. "Oh."

Stephen's expression wasn't just stunned, it was blank. If not for the chain connecting them, Tony might have thought him horrified from the vacant look in his eyes. Instead, he was filled with much more pleasant surprise and—perhaps—the same core of something greater that Tony had sent along the chain.

"You know those illusions," Tony said after a few more silent seconds, "where you think you're looking at a vase, but then all of a sudden it's two faces? And you wonder how you never saw that in the first place?" When that analogy didn't earn a response, he continued more bluntly, "With the chain, I've gotten used to having you in my heart. By now it just feels like you belong there." God, had they really only known each other for a month?

"Oh my God," Stephen managed as he took a seat on a toppled rock. "It's been so intense with this chain... and with you... but I thought everything was just a side effect of whatever happened. I'm not familiar with this energy or these reactions. But then you put that label on it and it doesn't seem like a side effect. It's just the truth."

"That label?" Tony repeated softly.

"Love." The word seemed to stun Stephen anew. "How in the world did this happen?"

"I never used that word." Joy made it difficult to speak. It filled Tony's throat. "Not to you. You picked that out all on your own."

"Oh. Right." More silence. "So what do we do now?" Stephen wondered as he gripped the chain like an accident, like he'd just needed to hold onto anything. The pleasure that ripped through Tony's body didn't feel accidental, though. After a deep groan escaped Tony, Stephen seemed to realize what he'd done. Embarrassment was in his expression as he let go, but so was something else. Something less concerned with social propriety.

That promising moment balanced between them for a few breaths. Before Tony could say anything that might push it further, the rational part of Stephen's personality won out. He nodded slowly, took another deep breath to control himself, and answered his own question: "We don't do anything. You are engaged. And I know that."

Tony's eyes closed. Crushing guilt swept through him, just like he'd felt when Natasha first made him realize this. Stephen was absolutely right. When Stephen had healed his chest and bliss overcame Tony, he'd wondered if those sensations counted as cheating. This did. No question about it. "Right."

His guilt had been shared, of course. Stephen looked satisfied at Tony admitting he was right, but regretful that he'd needed to say it.

For decades, Tony Stark had found love to be a waste of time. Little fragments of it were a fun thing to play around with like a fast convertible, but it was never serious. With Pepper, he'd grown to realize why all those movies and songs gave such a damn about love. He began to understand its fantastic, wonderful terror. It took them long years to get things right, and that path was rocky and full of detours, but he was a better man for it. He loved her and wanted to keep walking down that road.

And then.

And then there'd been a hitchhiker, and a fresh detour on the road lead abruptly off into deep space, and... and this metaphor was falling apart. But the fact remained that Tony had needed ten years to fully get the hang of loving someone well. Just when he thought he'd gotten it figured out, he ended up here: sitting in a pseudo-Soul Stone pocket universe, next to the man who he'd only needed a month and several thousand light years to also fall in love with.

It was an embarrassment of riches. Tony had never spent his wealth very wisely.

Something different began to enter the chain: uncertainty, wariness, and hope all at once. Tony looked up, even though it was hard to meet Stephen's eyes after they'd stepped too far. "The energy," Stephen murmured. "You just opened the flows so much. It's..."

They could increase the flow of Soul energy, Tony realized, and apparently by quite a lot. "Try it," he said with a quiet voice but bright eyes.

Locking onto his gaze, though they were both still flushed from their revelation, Stephen began to increase the flow of Infinity energy between them.

"Oh. Oh. My God," Tony soon panted. He knew how dangerous Infinity Stones could be. Going by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s notes, the guy who'd once tried to steal the Tesseract had been ripped apart from trying to hold it. The Mind Stone had enslaved Clint and terrified Bruce into fleeing what destruction the Hulk could wreak. Losing one's grip on Time Stone loops could apparently wipe a person from existence. To even begin to feel the full rush of a Stone's energy should be agonizing.

This power was not agonizing. This was perfect. This was so perfect that it would soon override all logic, and they both might reach out and—

"Oh my God why did you stop," Tony gasped a second later. The sudden cessation left his head swimming.

Stephen said nothing. His gaze, though unfocused and distant, stayed rigidly still.

"Stephen?" Tony asked after another moment to collect himself. "You okay?"

"I'm not doing this," Stephen said after a long pause, "until you can go down to the medical wing, look at the readouts, and see if there was any physiological response just now."

"You're worried about whether it's hurting your body?" Concern began to enter Tony. "Did it not feel good to you?"

"It felt good," Stephen said. "It felt as good as it did to you. Which is the problem. Your body is currently in a private bedroom. It's irrelevant if you have a... a physiological response, should we keep going."

"Oh," Tony said after considering that, then began to laugh. "That physiological response."

"This isn't funny."

"This is really funny." The utterly flat look Tony got in response made him start laughing anew, and despite his best intentions Tony found himself thinking, Damn, it's true. I love him. Stephen was simultaneously the challenge Tony'd never known he was missing in his life and the easiest person in the universe to understand.

As that renewed realization sobered his laughter, Tony realized that Stephen's expression had also grown more somber. "How could you not tell me," Stephen asked with a rough, heavy voice after another long pause, "that I'd hurt you?"

The brain damage. Right. "It's not that bad," Tony promised, "and it's not your fault. You weren't in the driver's seat—"

"I still gave you brain damage, Tony. It's 'that bad.'" A deep breath later, Stephen looked away. His voice thickened more. "I'm so sorry. God."

"It is not that bad," Tony insisted. "All that happened is that my emotions get a little... excited."

"I noticed." A small, shaky smile made it through Stephen's lingering apology.

"And it's hard for me to remember what places look like if I haven't been to them a lot. That's it. I promise. Christine's taken MRIs, she's put me on oxygen therapy, and she thinks I'll be fine."

"She thinks."

"I will be fine," Tony promised. "And if you're really worried, then take a look at my scans yourself when you wake up. I'll follow the doctor's orders."

"All right," Stephen relented after considering Tony's offer. "I may have some ideas that she wouldn't. You don't need an ER and what she studied about brain structure was more for recent trauma." He sat back, still musing on Tony's problem. "Given the effects, it sounds like damage was limited to the temporal lobe. I hate to find any positive in this, but..."

"But it could have been worse?" Tony guessed.

Stephen nodded, though he clearly didn't want to admit it. "With parietal damage, you could have lost sensation and language. Occipital, sight loss and seizures. Frontal, hindered movement or ability to focus. You could have lost your ability to make new short-term memories, and would constantly be left uncertain as to what was happening."

Hearing all that was sobering, but Tony still wanted to keep the mood up. "See? And all that actually happened is that I can't remember the Sanctum's color scheme and I'm a little moody. No big deal."

"It could have been worse, though," Stephen insisted. "You could have lost everything that makes you you while trying to make me me again. You took this risk on for my sake and I don't know what to say."

Tony opened his mouth, closed it, and smiled wistfully. "We could both say a lot of things, but we decided we shouldn't talk about... that." How they felt remained off-limits.

Another wistful smile came in response. "Right."

Tony's small smile faded slowly like the sun going down and he looked away to gather his nerve. There was something he had to know, but it'd be the worst thing in the world to hear. "So. All this time, you kept acting like death is no big deal. You kept lunging to make the sacrifice plays." His forehead tightened with realization, and Tony added, "You kept bragging about how much pain you can take."

It'd be one thing if Stephen had come back from a death. Doing that even once could shatter one of death's most terrifying aspects: how unknown it was. But if that also explained how he was now able to ignore an awful lot of pain, he would have needed to get used to it. That didn't happen quickly.

"I know you used the Time Stone in Hong Kong," Tony hesitantly continued when Stephen said nothing. He and Rhodey had watched dark, churning energy surge on the monitors only for it to vanish. They'd both looked at each other, trying to make sense of what they were seeing as the computer systems did the same. It wasn't prepared to explain whatever energy it was measuring.

Back then, they'd been left wondering as the skies above Hong Kong flickered on their satellites and then seemed to steady just as quickly. Now, Tony guessed that the Time Stone had only needed to turn back the city itself, and so anyone who'd been paying attention from outside the affected area would be left faintly aware but confused. It had been an inexplicable few minutes for him and Rhodey, especially without knowing that time travel was involved. Now that he did, though, he suspected that fight had needed a few unfortunate tries to get right.

Stephen still said nothing.

"And you said that you've..." Tony's eyes closed as he took a fortifying breath. "You've died more than once." When silence answered him, Tony looked at Stephen and said, "Please. I'm starting to imagine things way worse than anything you'd tell me."

Stephen's mouth twisted into a wry smile, but he still said nothing.

"Please," Tony repeated softly and tapped his heart just next to where the glowing chain was attached. "You're in here and I can't stand not knowing this. I can't stand thinking about how I might have been watching you die and I didn't even know who you were."

"You didn't," Stephen said. "I had to go into the home dimension of what was attacking Earth. So you weren't watching me."

Right. He'd said that he'd left Earth. Still, though, Stephen wasn't answering what Tony had asked. "Stop avoiding the question."

"You don't want this answer, Tony."

"I probably don't, but I need it."

After another long pause, Stephen nodded slowly. "All right. What you saw was a gateway into a dimension of dark, hostile energy. It's incredibly powerful, incredibly dangerous, and Earth had only one defense against it: the shield provided by the three Sanctums. But London had fallen, New York was damaged, and they successfully destroyed Hong Kong before I managed to revert things. We still needed to stop Dormammu and his acolytes, though."

For whatever reason, Tony vaguely remembered that name. He'd thought it was another funny wizard word choice. It didn't seem funny, now.

"Dormammu was far too powerful to fight directly. No one could take him on and have a hope of staying alive, especially in his home. And he wanted to pull Earth into that."

"But you said you went there," Tony said hollowly.

Stephen nodded very slowly. He hesitated again like he was giving Tony one last chance to stop this explanation. "At the moment I entered, I anchored a time loop. The Time Stone would automatically revert to that point. And then I went to face him."

"To do what?" Tony asked. The explanation so far made it sound like Stephen'd just walked into a spinning buzzsaw. There must have been some larger plan.

But the buzzsaw was what he heard. "To die."

"That's not a..." Trailing off, Tony saw that there was no dishonesty whatsoever in Stephen's expression. "You just walked in there to make him kill you? Your plan was getting murdered?"

Eyes going unfocused with his search through memory, Stephen laughed faintly. "He wasn't familiar with the flow of time. Dormammu's dimension is outside of that. Seeing me approach a second time had him incredibly confused." A moment's pause, then, "He still killed me again, of course."

He made it sound so casual. Like a dark, terrible joke... but a joke nonetheless.

Tony Stark had flown a nuke through a portal. Steve Rogers had put a plane into the ocean. Thor had told a murderous construct to take him instead of a small town. Vision had begged them to destroy the Stone in his forehead before Thanos arrived. Tony had read all of those moments in people's files, or lived it himself.

This was different. It wasn't trying for a sacrifice play; it was a full-on, successful sacrifice. With sequels. "Why would you do that?" Tony asked in a quietly horrified voice.

"For as long as he was killing me, he wasn't killing Earth. He couldn't do anything else. It was the only possible way I could keep control of an unbeatable foe."

"Keep control?" Tony repeated. Hot, fierce tears swam. Stephen thought this had been a good plan? Tony had seen an awful lot of horror since his first days in the suit. While Thanos' snap had blasted all of his previous pain calibrations to hell, hearing Stephen casually describe getting sacrificed over and over and over to hold back Earth's destruction hurt him just as much. "You think that was 'keeping control' of him? Jesus Christ, Stephen! You don't stop a murderer by making him unload all his ammo into your chest!"

"It was the only way."

The echo of Titan enraged Tony. He accepted that they really had to run with Stephen's plan to stop Thanos, but the idea that Stephen had needed to go off, utterly alone, to die over and over until some demonic being got... impatient? Frustrated? Bored? "How many times?" he demanded.

"I don't know," Stephen admitted. "I never kept count. If I did but lost track, it'd feel like a first step toward failure. And so I just—"

"First step? You were already in a goddamn slaughterhouse!" Tony wiped away one hot tear. This was so much worse than Tony had imagined. Worse than he ever could have imagined. He never should have asked for the details. "Fuck. This is what you're going to do, isn't it? You're going to go be alone again in Hogwarts, and then one day you'll disappear. All I'll have for an answer is picturing something like this."

Stephen said nothing and so Tony stood, paced, then demanded, "Guess how many times it took. Just guess. A dozen? Hundred? You're not stopping me. You're not stopping me from going higher and... and goddammit. Fuck this."

"Tony," Stephen said after studying the chain between them as it flickered with Tony's racing pulse, "why are you yelling at me for saving the world?"

He spun and shouted, "Because I love you, you gigantic asshole! I love you so much that it already hurts, and you think I can stand hearing this? You think that I can stand imagining..." Trailing off, Tony clenched his eyes shut as he once again began to picture Stephen's death on loop. It was the car crash all over again, but a million times worse. Now he knew that Stephen really had died countless times, and in all the ways that some genocidal being might dole out. "Imagining... fuck."

They'd first admitted love after another argument, but then decided they couldn't pursue it. They'd been so logical. That knowledge hadn't been anywhere close to this horror show, though.

"Tony," Stephen tried again, "that was years ago, and I'm—"

Tony pulled back from another fierce, hungry kiss. One hand still gripped Stephen's shirt; the other, his face. He barely remembered covering the space between them. "I can't walk away," Tony admitted when they broke for breath. "I can't leave you to that life."

Stephen Strange seemed like he carried around one of the world's biggest egos... but then he'd done this with Dormammu. He'd experienced fourteen million visions of unique ways to lose, some spanning decades. There was no way a person could experience all of that and come through with proper survival instincts. Those instincts would have burnt out long ago. Stephen had decided countless times already that his life meant nothing if other lives could be saved. He was simultaneously overconfident and a walking demonstration of ego death.

If he kept living that lonely life, it was going to end. Permanently. His overconfidence would push dangerous boundaries, and then his disquieting lack of self-preservation would accept whatever consequence came from that. Nothing that Tony had grown to know about Stephen said any differently. He would die and it'd soon be for real.

Consumed both by fear for Stephen and the certainty that Tony would somehow be able to hold off that lonely death by force, he leaned in for yet another kiss.

"I thought," Stephen sighed against him when they broke for air, "that we weren't doing this."

He'd died over and over until a monstrous death demon—who'd come prepared to kill every life on Earth—had gotten bored with murder. There was zero chance that Tony could just walk away from that knowledge.

"Change in plans," Tony murmured and leaned in again. The ground shook, and with a soft murmur at the back of his throat he held on tighter. He wasn't going to complain if kissing Stephen meant a repeat of that twisting kaleidoscope sensation, but it'd be something to get used to.

"Tony, wait—" When Tony held on lest Stephen try to end this again, Stephen needed another attempt to get a sentence out. "Did you feel that?"

"Feel... oh, wait, the ground is actually moving?" Tony looked around, wide-eyed, and realized something terrible a second later: he was about to leave. "Shit. Shit! I'm about to wake up!"

"Good, you should find out what's going on—"

Tony yelled over him. "And I used a sleeping drug to fall asleep that's going to hide a lot of these memories!"

As the ground shook again, Stephen held Tony's gaze for a long moment, then swallowed and said, "Don't you think that's for the best?"

The words sounded agonizing. He'd always been more restrained than Tony, and he wasn't suffering further loss of emotional control thanks to any brain damage... but it was clear that offering to give this up hurt him deeply. A man who'd let himself get killed until the world was saved could scarcely take this pain.

Tony's hand caught his cheek. "No. I am never losing you. I'll just find you again tonight if I have to, but you are never—" Their mouths found each other. "Never going to be alone," Tony promised after that.

"Forgetting is the right thing to do," Stephen tried one last time. The words sounded like a knife twisting inside him.

In reply, Tony leaned forward again, grabbed his shirt's overlapping lapels so he had no chance of escape, and held on for another long, luxuriating kiss. It was an indulgent, possessive act. If they had an audience, he'd be accused of putting on a show. The sensation was so deep that he barely noticed when Stephen lightly cupped Tony's temple, and scarcely paid attention when those fingers began to glow warm.

A second later, Tony opened his eyes in a bright, sunlit room. His fingertips flew to his mouth as soon as awareness returned, and then a breathy laughed escaped him.

He remembered everything. Stephen had held off the memory-altering effects of the sleeping drugs.

You're mine, Tony sent through the chain in a surge of possessive, protective love, then shivered when a purer version of the emotion returned to him. He was never letting go of this. Fate had clearly put them together for a reason. Not only could that reason save the universe, but it could also tie Stephen to life as something worth more than working as a lonely sentry. Tony had needed knowledge of Stephen's deaths to admit love to him, and the knowledge of those deaths' scope to really commit to it, but there was no going back, now.

As he sat up, his gaze landed on the opposite wall. It took him a minute to remember why that wall was empty, pocked with nails that held no pictures.

"Oh God I'm a piece of shit," Tony moaned a second later as his head fell into his hands. Guilt surged so strongly that it hurt.

He was engaged. He was engaged! Oh God. Their engagement announcement was hidden in a drawer, but it was still an engagement announcement. To his fiancée. Who he loved.

He was completely in love with someone and envisioning a life with her, and she was counting on him for a rescue. And now... the same thing. With a he.

Tony was not particularly good at love, and now it just felt like he was on the verge of messing up twice.

"What if I just told her?" Tony asked the empty room. "She's really only ever cared if I look at other women." That was true... when they weren't engaged. "And Stephen needs someone looking out for him, and Pepper loves taking care of people!" Except for how Pepper would probably hate Stephen because of how he was responsible for Tony leaving Earth, and oh God this was a nightmare.

"I can't tell her," Tony decided in the next second. "Because... it won't matter. Because I can't do this! I love her! She's been my life for ten years! We're getting married! So I'll just tell him..." Groaning, Tony fell back flat against his bed. No. He couldn't do that, either. He couldn't just cast Stephen aside, not when they'd wound up as literal soulmates and he'd promised to be Stephen's anchor to life even after he came back to Earth.

He was absolutely in love with two people, and he saw absolutely zero ways out of this.

It wasn't like he could ask anyone for advice, either. The Avengers were terrible at love. He was just going to have to figure out some path through this with his big, genius-level brain, because—

The ground shook again and Tony abruptly remembered why he'd woken up. "What?" Tony wondered as he rolled off his bed. That sensation was familiar from Malibu, but seismic activity should have been left behind on the West Coast.

A few seconds later, a holographic message flared in his room. Rhodey's head and shoulders appeared, slightly smaller than life sized. He cleared his throat and said, "Everyone, things are handled. A controlled demolition got slightly out of control, but the sequence is over. Sorry for the bumps. Rhodes out."

"Demolition?" Tony repeated as holographic Rhodey vanished, then rolled his eyes a second later and groaned. The goddamn raccoon.

Rocket's accident had knocked him out of his feedback loop, at least. Not that he had any idea what to do next, but at least he could go wash his face and feel slightly less like a walking emotional crisis. Everything's okay, he thought a second later and tried to pass that relaxation and security along the chain. Stephen had felt the shaking, too, so he had to be wondering what was going on. Nothing to worry about.

Wait, Tony realized as he looked into his bathroom mirror, a splash of cold water dripping off his cheeks and hands.

Stephen had felt the building moving. He'd actually felt something happening to his body. They had to be so close, Tony thought with a surge of excitement. So very, very close.

And then, Tony thought as he toweled off the water and saw a rueful smile in the mirror, he could figure out what in the hell he was supposed to do with his life after the world had gotten its happy ending.

Chapter Text

As Tony left his bathroom, excitement over Stephen's improving state took hold of him completely. If Stephen felt sensations through his body, then they really must be close to being able to get him back into it. Soon Shuri would have a Mind Stone model ready to go, Bruce and Christine could check her work, and they could use that template to hold the type of energy that Tony and Stephen shared. After that, they just needed to yank Stephen back to Earth and everything would be solved.

He made sure to wrap that excitement around Stephen, too, but it tapered off as he saw a fresh incoming call. For a long moment Tony debated whether to even answer it. What the hell, he eventually decided, and acknowledged the request.

"Hey," said Natasha around an apologetic smile. "So you're up?"

Tony looked flatly back at her and said nothing.

"I've been checking every ten minutes to see if you're okay," she continued.

After a silent review of his call history confirmed that, Tony looked back to the screen and raised his eyebrows pointedly.

"I just want to know if you're fine, I swear."

"I'll only answer if I hear a promise that you're going to stop sudoku-ing me," Tony demanded and jabbed a finger at the screen. "Permanently."

"You've got it," Natasha instantly said. She was probably lying, but at least she seemed to mean it for the immediate future.

He rolled his eyes. "Then yeah, I'm fine. No heart attacks, I know you were worried. Everything's under control."

"With Strange?"

Tony's gaze flattened again. He'd talk to her. He wouldn't gossip. "I'm not having this conversation."

"Sorry, I have to at least mention him for context. The other magic guy needs to see you as soon as you're up. I offered to take responsibility for getting the message to you, since..." Natasha gestured off to the side. "Apology..."

"Wong?" Tony replied with a slight frown. "Is something wrong?"

"No, it sounds like something good. I think he's found the right books. So, please reach out to him and set up that discussion, and now I will leave you alone." To her credit, Natasha did instantly lean over and cut their channel. Seeing Tony clutch at his chest like she'd forced him into a heart attack really did seem to have reined in her impish tendencies.

(Oh, Tony was sure they'd come back, but he'd enjoy the quiet in the meantime.)

"Stark," Wong said as soon as a new call connected them. It was hard to focus on his face; Tony's gaze kept wandering to the side of the frame where he could see bits of the Sanctum. Nothing looked familiar. Damn.

"Hey. Natasha said you've found the right books?"

"I think so. Is lab four open again? If so, meet me there." As Tony nodded and confirmed its availability, Wong nodded back and closed the channel. By the time Tony jogged there, Wong had already arrived with a stack of books in hand. Without any social niceties, he laid them on a table and launched into his explanation. "These took a while to track down. The Soul Stone has hardly anything written on it."

"What language is this? Is it even human?" Tony wondered as he inspected the cover of what appeared to be the oldest book. It looked like hieroglyphics had been put into a blender with kanji. When he ran his scanners across it, the translation software failed to make an identification.

"Some call it Linear A," Wong said brusquely as he retrieved the book from Tony and began flipping through the pages.

That needed a quick informational retrieval, and Tony frowned after Friday told him what he'd wanted to know. "That language has never been translated." Off Wong's level look, Tony slowly amended, "By... anyone who would tell people if they did."

"Kamar-Taj has books written in it," Wong replied, "and I was the librarian." Right, then. "The Soul Stone has two key components that are unlike any other Infinity Stone. I need to know your status on these if we're going to understand how to manipulate its energies."

"Shoot."

"To gain mastery of the Soul Stone," Wong summarized from whatever he was reading, "there apparently has to be some sort of..." He trailed off. Amazingly, the unflappable man actually seemed awkward as he considered what to say next. "Personal connection between two people."

"Personal connection," Tony repeated in the most neutral voice he could manage.

Wong cleared his throat, nodded, and reached for a stack of papers. His angular, precise handwriting filled the sheet he handed over. "Linear A came from the general area of Ancient Greece. I thought any assumptions might have been referring to their philosophy on the subject. It's hard to believe since you two barely know each other, but do any of these line up?"

Tony looked down at the sheet Wong had given him. On the paper were labels that the Greeks had used for different types of love.

"I know," Wong sighed in response. "Just see if anything on there matches up. Somehow."

Yeah, I'm betting it will, Tony thought as he struggled to control his expression. He wasn't sure yet what to do with his and Stephen's revelation, and so he certainly wasn't prepared to announce anything to people who knew him as "Pepper Potts' fiancé."

Eros. Erotic love. No wonder Wong looked so awkward as he handed the sheet over. Well, Tony certainly wasn't going to admit anything about that one.

Storge. Familial love, between parents and children. Obviously not. "I guess this is what Thanos used," Tony murmured. As the spacefaring lunatics gave them a very broad overview of how they'd wound up on Titan, they'd mentioned in passing how that Gamora woman was his adopted daughter and Thanos had captured her when they tried to save the Reality Stone.

"Possibly. There's another option." Wong gestured. "Keep reading."

Agape. In some schools, a love toward God; in others, an selfless love toward all mankind. Sacrificial love, some labeled it. "Well," Tony said dryly, "this one isn't between me and him, but it still might count."

Wong noted what he was looking at, nodded slowly, and wrote something to himself. "Keep going."

Philia. Affection between equals. Oh, thank God, Tony thought with a surge of relief. This was his cover story. "Right there. This one definitely qualifies. He and I talked a lot on Titan and we found out that we're incredibly alike."

"Really."

"Yeah, we..." Tony pulled back. "And why is that hard to believe?"

Wong considered him with an absolutely flat expression like only he could manage. After a long moment, he nodded. "Well, if I think back to when he first arrived at Kamar-Taj."

Tony frowned. He felt judged. "Anyway," he loudly continued as he kept reading, "Philia counts." Ludus was a sense of playful love: flirting, teasing, and other casual affection. It probably wouldn't be enough to fuel a Stone, and so Tony felt no need to share that he and Stephen also qualified under this. Pragma was the love between people who'd been in relationships for years; him and Pepper, in other words. Tony sighed.

The final option, philautia, was a narcissistic, self-involved love in its worst interpretation. This type of "love" could express itself as concern for one's goals above anything else. "So," Tony said after a considering pause. "This kind does make more sense for Thanos." That man might have thought he was sacrificing someone he loved more than anyone, but there was no way a man as cruel as that loved anyone else more than himself.

"My thoughts exactly. As I interpret this, he felt like he was losing someone from his life. But everything actually remained about him and his goals, like it had always been." Wong leaned in. "Tell me why you said agapic love might qualify in our situation, though."

Selfless love. Charitable love. This would be straightforward enough to explain. "Stephen didn't know that we were actually working toward a Soul Stone when we left Titan, but he'd seen through the Time Stone that he needed to sacrifice himself to save people. So he did. Our energy exists because he put others above himself. That'd count as agapic love for the universe, right?"

"Hmm. It should," Wong mused. Although the two of them clearly got along in that Sanctum, he still accepted the idea that Time had pointed Stephen toward a sacrifice play. They really were like two soldiers in an invisible war. "Philia and agape, then. That's interesting."

"Why?"

"I'm still researching. I'll let you know." Wong retrieved the paper explaining the types of love, tucked it away with the notes he'd taken, and leaned back in. "The other required component of the Soul Stone is in fact a sacrifice. The typical interpretation in the few books I've found is that to get the Stone, the would-be wielder has to sacrifice someone they love. Your result suggests a little more flexibility with how that can go."

"You mean that Stephen sacrificed himself to give it to me, instead. I got 'a Soul Stone' without pulling a selfish move like Thanos."

"Essentially, yes." Wong's brows dipped in thought. His pen tapped against a fresh sheet of paper. "How did that sacrifice play out? Was he aware that he was trading his life for others?"

"Was he ever," Tony grumbled, then tried his best not to think about how Stephen had demanded that the scanners required both their commands before they'd turn off.

"When he made the portal—"

Tony held up his hands. "Sorry. No can do. This is one thing that I can't think about. I already learned that very painfully." While he'd never let go of the chain a second time, recalling Stephen's manipulation in the ship would certainly make Tony mad at him again. He wanted to avoid even that much negativity.

"I am trying to understand this energy, Stark. I need to know how this sacrifice played out."

"Then watch the video without me," Tony suggested and called it up. Wong looked confused as Tony began to leave the room and so he finished, "Seriously. I'm not watching this a second time. Let me know when you're done and we can get back to work."

The door slid closed as Tony leaned against the wall outside. "That was your fault just now," he murmured toward his heart. "We've got Wong all confused." Unlike the last time he'd thought about the Titan ship, Tony found a slight smile appearing on his face. "You're not going to have to make those sacrifice plays again, you know. You won't have to be alone."

Sacrifice. Sacrifice. His mind threatened to veer toward memories of watching Hong Kong on headquarter monitors, and so Tony lightly touched the spot above his heart and smiled more broadly when he felt the heat there. "You're going to laugh when I tell you about the paper Wong just showed me. Apparently, we qualify under a bunch of different kinds of lo—"

As the door slammed open and Wong stared at Tony, words died in Tony's throat.

"What?" Tony managed.

"How did you do that? It's impossible."

"Do what? I need a little more context."

Wong still stared at Tony like he was searching for a punchline, then abruptly raised his hand and gestured toward the lab. A second later, an enormous mandala shield struck Tony's far side and pushed him inexorably through the doors he'd just exited. "That," Wong said and pointed at the monitor.

The paused frame—Stephen pierced by light from every direction—was like a sharp blow to Tony's throat. It was suddenly impossible to breathe and he looked away until he regained the control he'd had in the hallway. "I said I wasn't going to watch this."

Wong threw his hand back. A smaller disc flew from it and impacted the door controls. The sound and light from the hallway vanished. "How."

"How what?" Tony demanded. "Why are you asking me? I have no idea how he channeled that much energy, or found the right destination, or any of it!"

"How did you do that?" Wong asked emphatically and let a few frames play in both directions, back and forth and back and forth. On screen, Tony leaned in to try to stop Stephen, turned away, and leaned back in on endless repeat.

"I still don't know what you're asking me!" Tony very nearly shouted.

With a glower, Wong slammed his hand down on the nearest desk. A glowing ring soon emerged from his palm. After it locked into position, a second ring formed, and then all the way up to six concentric circles. It was an anchor, though Tony had never wanted to see another one again.

"Touch it," Wong ordered as he lifted his hand off the table. With the other, he gestured to the filament of light that connected his palm to the glowing anchor.

Touch an anchor chain? Why was Wong losing his mind over something that Tony had repeatedly done in dreams, to dozens of the filaments trailing off Stephen's body? He was acting like Tony had committed some impossible act or unforgivable sin, and yet he'd been the one who wrapped Tony in the spiritual armor to let him make a save in the first place. "Whatever," Tony muttered, and brushed his hand against the chain connecting Wong's soul with the anchor spinning on the workshop table.

cold

it was so cold

he was out of his body floating and a wrong thing was moving his limbs no no no that wasn't his body that was the wrong person why were they inside why was he locked out the dark was coming the dark was here he needed to get back inside his body but which one was his which one which one which one

ice bit his heels

darkness came next

which body which body which which which

help

help

With a great gasp of air, Tony pushed back from the bench and collapsed to his knees. His entire body trembled with lingering chill even as concern radiated out from his heart. His hands were knotted into nothing more than tendons and knuckles, locked too tightly together to hold himself as he shook. A second later, his gut rebelled against the sheer wrongness of whatever he'd felt.

With the sour taste of acid in his mouth, Tony managed to look up. A whimper escaped him. Not even Stephen's panicked love was a big enough life raft for whatever storm he'd just wandered into.

To his surprise, Wong was in no better of a state. He hadn't thrown up, at least, but his fists were also clenched as he hyperventilated. A low, pained noise began to come with each breath. Eventually the noises stopped, his hands unknotted, and Wong looked at Tony. His eyes were teary and bloodshot. "That," Wong said, "is what happens when souls collide. Just touching the strand began to rip us both out."

Rip out a soul? That's what Stephen went through, Tony realized. But for him, it didn't stop. That knowledge hurt worse than anything.

"So how," Wong choked out, still punctuated by heavy breathing, "did you do that?"

The back-and-forth repeating clip from the ship finally made sense. Tony stared blankly at the sight of him reaching out toward Stephen and passing through several of those anchor chains as he did. "I don't know." His hand rested above his heart like a reflex. Fear was a waterfall in his chest. "I'm okay, I'm okay," he promised the open air. Wong's presence was irrelevant; he had to tell Stephen this to reassure him. "I'm okay, I'll see you tonight. Everything's fine."

With an absolutely blank expression, Wong paused the video.

"Um." Tony cleared his throat. "Cleaning drones, activate in lab four." As the vomit near his heel was dutifully mopped, Tony looked down and tried to think of what he could possibly say. "I don't really remember what happened then. I was pretty panicked. But I know it didn't feel anything like... like what just happened."

"That is what it always feels like if two exposed souls collide," Wong insisted, "and the chain of a Root of Baghor exposes both people if it's touched. It's a full assault on both identities. The souls sense destruction far beyond simple death and recoil to protect themselves."

Tony looked pointedly at Wong. "And you guys use this magic on purpose?"

"There's a reason few of us know the spell." Wong's gaze grew even more serious. "Think, Stark. This might matter for completely aligning the Stone and thus turning back the universe. Is there any reason why your souls didn't reject each other?"

"Uh." Tony coughed. He didn't think they'd been in love back then. Had they?

At his silence, Wong took a step forward. "Your souls would have temporarily resonated into the other man's body and yet you didn't react at all. Was there some alignment effect when Thanos used the Infinity Stones near you? Or—"

"The other man's body," Tony interrupted blankly. "Is that... could that be it?" His hand traced near his heart again, but this time he wasn't thinking of the spiritual chain. Instead, he remembered the sensation of Stephen's hand against his abdomen, utter surrender into the spiritual probe that followed, and ultimately, the sight of pre-cancerous cells lifting out of his chest.

Just to do a simple scan for viruses, Stephen had said that he'd 'need to understand Tony's body as well as his own.' To even accomplish that much had apparently been quite a feat. For what happened next, when Stephen plucked out every last harmful cell, was apparently... "Unheard of," Tony murmured.

"Do you know what happened?" Wong demanded.

"I think maybe I do," Tony said slowly. As his fingertips trailed the perimeter of his nano housing, he told the tale of that healing session and how Stephen had ultimately understood Tony's body enough to lift out individual cells that were in unhealthy misalignment. "He was shocked that I let him in that much," Tony finished at the end. "And... you look pretty shocked, too."

"I've never heard of that happening."

"Yeah, he was surprised we pulled it off."

"Stephen only knows part of our history," Wong said impatiently. "He's a master of the mystic arts, but there's an expansive mystical history beyond the arts themselves. He learned just a handful of core languages while he was there. Dacian, Avestan, Hattic, Khotanese... there are countless other dead languages that exist on scrolls in our libraries." After a pause for emphasis, Wong added, "I've read those scrolls. I've never heard of this happening."

Overwhelmed by what he was hearing, Tony stayed silent as Wong began to pace around the lab. "Your situation was unique," Wong allowed as he spoke out loud, mostly to himself. "The scope of this threat has never been encountered before. It could have motivated you like we've never seen. But still, even with that urgency, two distinct souls shouldn't ever be able to..."

"But we did," Tony pointed out after Wong trailed off. However it'd happened, their souls didn't treat each other as foreign entities.

"This must be why his soul attached to yours," Wong mused as he stared at the frozen frame on the monitor. On it, several bands of light pierced Tony's chest on their way into Stephen's. "When his soul was ripped out, it sought a safe harbor."

"A safe harbor," Tony repeated in a thick, heavy voice. It was one of the gentlest things he'd ever heard said about himself. The responsibility he'd decided to take on earlier, of pulling Stephen back from the deadly brink, suddenly felt more important and fulfilling than ever. With a soft, loving laugh, he cupped his palm over his heart and looked down. Though it didn't exist in his waking hours, he could almost see the glowing golden chain of Stephen's soul.

"Stark," Wong said and waited until he looked up. Without breaking their eye contact, he reached back into his notes and retrieved the page he'd shared before. "Philia?"

Philia: a friendly, companionable love between equals.

Tony wasn't a very good actor, it seemed.

"That's... one of them," he said after a long pause.

"Well." Wong studied him again for so long that Tony nearly stepped back from the inspection. "If we're going to get that Soul energy flowing again, you two need to be in total alignment. I recommend a repeat of the process he used to heal you."

Oh good, they weren't saying anything more about what Wong had just figured out. "Right. I'll tell him that tonight."

"Tonight."

Tony's face heated. "I'm just telling him about the alignment process. Not suggesting anything else."

Discomfort entered Wong's expression. "I don't want to know these things. I just meant that day would work better. Try the alignment when people are up and able to adjust the flow containment to form a proper Stone."

"Right." Tony nodded once. "Yeah. That makes sense."

Wong had to be the most unshakeable man in existence. After his very short foray into surprise, he'd already regained his typically controlled demeanor. "Stark. A request."

A sigh, then, "Yeah?"

"Always knock before you enter the Sanctum. If you plan to come around more in the future, I want to know that you're there."

Okay, now both Natasha and Wong had a total read on the two of them. Tony Stark really was shit at acting. With a tight smile, Tony asked, "And what exactly do you think I'd be doing when I visit?"

Wong didn't take the bait. He didn't change his expression; he barely blinked. "Something still debated in several philosophical traditions. I need to get back to work."

"Oh my God," Tony groaned as Wong disappeared through a portal, then sank down onto the nearest stool. Well, they were indeed close to figuring things out, at least. If Wong were right, then repeating the spiritual alignment process they'd already pulled off might be what they needed to fully model the Soul Stone.

But they'd first need to build its container. Tony would handle it himself, but he'd barely touched the Mind Stone research. He'd figured out the needed process for modeling a brain, but wasn't involved in the actual construction nor use of their partially completed "Mind Stone."

The easiest person to talk to about this would be Shuri. She didn't know any of the involved parties and was quite possibly the most intelligent engineer on the planet. (After himself, Tony amended.) But he didn't work optimally at a distance, and so they'd need to be experimenting on things side-by-side. He needed his own lab for comfort's sake, no matter how nice things were in Wakanda, and he was sure she also wanted to work on her own home turf.

Christine. Absolutely not. She wasn't an engineer, and was also the worst person in the world to even brush up against the idea of "Tony Stark is in love with Stephen Strange, and vice versa."

That left one person with heavy-duty Mind Stone research experience: Bruce. The precise sort of "Tony and Pepper 4Eva" person that he'd hoped to avoid until this got figured out, and until Tony had a plan of what in the world to do with his personal life after everything was over.

"Well. That's it, then." Tony sighed, ruffled his hair, and stood. He'd been living in his own, Stephen-obsessed bubble ever since he got back. Bruce had expressed concern about him when they ran into each other, but something else had always soon taken priority. When they had been in the same room, work took priority. Not feelings. Not them.

Guess it was time to finally catch up.

Chapter Text

"You're ready with the Soul Stone?" Bruce excitedly asked as he entered Tony's favorite personal workshop. That was all Tony had told him in the message requesting his presence. "That's amazing! We're barely getting ready with some of the others and we've been working on them way longer."

"I think so," Tony said neutrally and closed the door behind him. After gesturing for Bruce to take a stool opposite his, Tony inhaled and began. "Wong and I probably figured out how total synchronization can happen. That should let the connection be formed. When you guys are ready with a container for Mind, we should be ready to add another Stone to the pile."

"We were already nearly there with the Mind energy," Bruce said, nodding. "Shuri and I were able to jump right into totally modeling a full Stone structure once we saw how the power and functionality flows needed to be layered. We've been running sample output past Christine to see if it looks like decent neurological duplication."

"Which means what? Give me a timeline."

"I think we might know what a possible container should look like by tomorrow. Shuri's got prototype tests running overnight in Wakanda. The other Stones' energy still need to be finalized, and some are lagging, but we're at that stage where 'finalization' can start to happen. So if you and Wong figured out the energy for Soul..."

"Tomorrow." It was suddenly hard to swallow. "He might be home tomorrow."

"Wow." Bruce chuckled. "That's crazy, huh? By tomorrow, we might have figured out how to yank a soul across the galaxy." His smile grew. "And that soul saw how to beat Thanos! You said that Strange looked at..." Hesitating, Bruce's excitement faded. After studying the increasingly weak grasp that Tony had on his emotions, he leaned forward and rested his fingertips lightly on Tony's shoulder. "Hey. Tony. You okay?"

"Tomorrow. I just." He inhaled sharply and wetly. By now, Tony knew that that it was no use to hope for steady, predictable feelings until his brain got fixed. "At first I thought I might never get him back, but. Tomorrow." Mingled fear over this novel process and excitement over Stephen's return churned together. It was a huge, thrilling step to take, but like when they'd been ready to return to Earth and find out who was still alive, it was also terrifying. Doing something new meant that there was also a chance for something new to go wrong.

"Tomorrow," Bruce uncertainly agreed. "You can... get him back, yeah." His brow furrowed and Bruce considered his next words very carefully. "Hey, so. I was listening when you kind of lost it on Christine over Strange. And I don't see you react like this very much," he added with a gesture toward Tony's tremulous expression.

"Brain damage. Temporal lobe. You know the deal." Tony's quick smile was't very convincing.

Bruce studied him. The man could barely look threatening if he actually tried to, and yet every gentle, searching second that passed was ominous. "I'm... not actually sure that I know the deal right now, no."

Tony looked away from Bruce's curious gaze. He had to get Stephen back. When he did, he'd be proving that they loved each other and he'd prove it on a galactic scale. On a... on an Infinite scale.

The only worse person to tell this to would be Rhodey, who'd agreed to stand as Tony's best man in his wedding. And yet, Tony had to confront the conflict he'd subconsciously tried to avoid ever since coming back to Earth. After his talk with Wong, subconscious had become conscious.

He hadn't only taken those pictures down because he felt guilt over not saving Pepper, Tony now knew. The guilt had always been strongest right after he woke up from Titan. After talking with the person that had been number one on Tony's list of priorities ever since the world ended.

If love was key for Soul, then that fuel supply needed to stay steady even though his damaged brain was anything but. If this wasn't resolved by tomorrow, then how could he ever hope for total alignment between him and Stephen? For all he knew, feeling guilt over Pepper at the wrong second could blow things up. Literally. Then no one would be saved: Stephen, Pepper, or the universe.

It was still hard to begin this explanation, though. "So. Wong found out about the Soul Stone's energy," Tony said without looking back.

"Yeah. You said that."

"It requires a sacrifice, which Stephen took care of with that portal. And it..." A deep breath. He needed to say this. He had to work this problem out if they were going to try to implement a rescue. And if that rescue happened tomorrow, there was no time to waste. "It needs love."

Bruce took a second to respond. "Love? And... wait. Strange is in love with you? The guy who kept insulting you? Really?" Tony said nothing in response. "Tony... are you...?"

He still didn't look back, but Tony did nod.

"Both of you? With each other?"

Another nod.

After a long, thoughtful pause, Bruce asked the exact thing Tony had feared: "But what about Pepper?"

Now Tony did turn back to Bruce as words burst out of him. "I don't know. Okay? I don't know! I don't love her any less, I'm not saying that. When we bring back the universe, not a single life in that reversal is going to matter as much as she does. But to bring back the universe, we need the Soul Stone, and that means I can't save Pepper without saving Stephen. And... I..."

Bruce said nothing. His face wrinkled in thought. In the silence he left, Tony kept talking. "Stephen and I apparently aligned our souls. Totally. Wong thought that was impossible. He had never, ever heard of anything like that, even though he can find information on anything. Our souls are literally tied together, Bruce. I don't know how it happened, but it did." Agitation dropped abruptly away. Feeling glum and hollow instead, Tony finished, "And here I thought I'd promised to hand myself over to Pepper."

Comfort flowed into Tony, joining the lingering concern that hadn't left ever since he touched Wong's anchor chain. It helped more than anything else could. Of course, that was the problem.

"You're going to have to do whatever you need to do to save Strange," Bruce concluded after a moment of thought.

"I know." Tony sighed and slumped back down. "The universe needs that. And of course I'm going to rescue him regardless of some stupid Stone. He needs me, so I'll be there. I just wish..." He wasn't sure how that sentence ended. He wished that this was simpler, maybe. Blowing up arc reactors had to be a much more straightforward power flow to understand.

"Tony," Bruce asked after another long pause. "Would you kill someone who about to fire a gun at Pepper?"

Tony drew back. "What? Of course."

"So you'd kill someone to save her, but you don't know how to deal with loving someone to save her."

"That's... you're making it sound a lot easier than it is. This isn't some one-shot feelings fakeout deal just to get a Stone. I..." Tony looked down. "I love him. Totally. When I realized what I'd been feeling, it was like running into a brick wall, it hit me so hard. You don't know this, but he's died a bunch of times to save the world. He's actually died. When I heard that, I lost my mind like I've never done for anyone but..." Anyone but Pepper.

This was some heavy stuff to consider when he'd realized "love" was the right label just a few hours earlier.

Bruce studied him for a quiet minute after he trailed off. As Tony's emotions roiled, Bruce just watched and thought. He looked a lot older than he had in the first quiet hours they'd spent in a lab together. But then, so did Tony. Their mileage was a lot worse than just the years that'd passed. "You're really saying this about a guy you met a month ago."

With an impatient grimace, Tony shrugged. Why was everyone so hung up on that part of it?

"I don't think you get me," Bruce said after noting his reaction. "You've known him for a month... and you said you 'aligned your souls' after just that long. It only took you two a month to do something that Wong thought was magically impossible. That's... that's something big."

"It actually happened after three weeks," Tony mumbled. Since then, they'd just been in recovery mode from the portal.

"You guys did something that apparently equals an Infinity Stone," Bruce continued softly. "I don't know how it happened, but I'll buy that it's real. I mean... it's in the data." Tapping a screen, he brought up the results from the scanners hovering over Stephen's body. Within the last hours, when he and Tony realized the truth, the energy inside of him had surged like they'd never seen. "You guys did something impossible. And going by what Wong said..."

It had to be love and the data proved it. Hearing Bruce accept that what they had was real was comforting, but there was still one big unanswered question. "So what do I do after the world gets fixed, huh?" If Tony worried about that, then those flows could turn unstable at the worst moment.

"I don't know," Bruce admitted.

"For a genius, you're not much help with this."

"For a genius, you landed yourself in one big mess." Yeah, fair. "I guess you do whatever you need to do to save people, first, and then you talk to Pepper when she's back."

"And say what?" When silence answered him, Tony laughed ruefully. "This isn't just one of our brainstorming sessions, Bruce. An actual, solid answer'd be real nice. What am I supposed to do if I can't imagine being without two people?"

"Do you have to be?"

Tony blinked at him. "What?"

Bruce shrugged in return. "Look, this all sounds weird to me. So far as I've seen, you love Pepper more than anything and you and Strange just argue at each other. But by a month after what I saw, you two apparently... aligned your souls. Somehow. That seems pretty meaningful. I'm just trying to work with all these new variables and conditions."

"Give me a solid answer. Please."

"The solid answer is that you literally have to be in love with him to save the universe." Bruce paused. "Gamma radiation turning me into a giant green monster sounds so much more normal than what I just said. Anyway, I know you would never leave Pepper. And you can't give up on him. So... it sounds like you've got both people."

For a second Tony remembered the crazy idea of simply telling Pepper everything and desperately hoping that 'marriage' would be no different than 'dating,' but his eyes rolled a second later. "Yeah. That's not gonna happen. Pepper met Stephen exactly once, and that was in the lead-up to me abandoning her while she begged me not to fly into space. She's gonna hate him. All she's ever wanted me to do is calm down and focus more on us than the world, and I picked the world over her. I picked aliens over her. I picked Stephen over her."

"You're sounding like a real optimist right now." Bruce held up his hands. "I'm just saying. I know you, Tony. You don't get big, huge feelings about people all that often. I'm just trying to imagine an outcome for all of this besides 'yeah, you're screwed.'"

"Well, I am pretty screwed," Tony countered. Even if Pepper didn't really mind involvement with a man like she'd overlooked in years past, this was a unique situation. "Pepper wants me to calm down and live a long life with her. Stephen literally dragged me out of her life to fight the most dangerous grape in the universe and I'm going to be like, 'so this is cool too, right?' So unless you can think of how I'll convince Pepper that Stephen might not put me in an early grave like she's worried about for ten years, then holy shit that's it I'm an idiot. That's what I tell her. That's what I bring up."

After a moment, Bruce lifted his eyebrows in expectation. "Yeah?"

"If I never got on that alien ship," Tony said and pointed toward the ceiling and the sky beyond headquarters, "then one day in the not too distant future, Pepper would hear that long-term palladium poisoning had caused the eventual mutation of multiple cancerous cells around my old arc reactor site."

Bruce paled. "You've got—"

"Not any more. When Stephen and I aligned our souls, he plucked out every single dangerous cell. Every single one. For all I know, I'm going to live a quarter-century longer because he did that."

Color didn't return to Bruce's face as he spun to face a monitor. His fingers danced across the screen to search for articles on palladium toxicity, and then quickly flicked through the results. "Poor oxygen binding to cells, but that can resolve... heart palpitations... numbness... I'm not seeing anything on..." Silence fell as Bruce stared at an article about laboratory mice, and then turned back to Tony. "Long-term, high-level doses on mice can eventually contribute to cancer formation."

"Better call me Mickey, then."

"Tony, I'm so sorry. I should have figured this out. I mean... the doses you went through are so much higher than any typical source. But I didn't think to check for results in artificial manipulations beyond human subjects... and since it seemed to have resolved..."

"It's fine," Tony laughed, holding up his hands. "Bruce. I wasn't actually in danger yet, and now I never will be. I told you: every single affected cell is gone." Bruce still couldn't look away from where Tony's nano housing now sat, and where a slow-motion time bomb had once been implanted in Tony's sternum. "So. I'm guessing that this'll be a big positive in the 'Stephen' column for Pepper, huh?"

Bruce gave him a lopsided smile. "I'm ready to hug the guy and he dropped a car on top of me. So yeah, I think this is your play."

"He did?" Tony blinked, then shook his head. "Okay. Right. This is what I do with Pepper. I tell her this."

"You're sure it'll work?"

"Well. I'll feel totally sure through when we do the Stone rescue, at least. That's what I need." With greater weight in his voice, Tony emphasized, "This'll fix everything, right?"

"Of course it will," Bruce obligingly said. He didn't even sound like he was lying. "It'll work. And this has been a really weird bunch of stuff to hear, but I'll roll with it all." At Tony's faintly offended look over Bruce's lingering judgment, he clarified, "He's... just kind of a jerk. Sorry. Sorry! Pretend I didn't say that. I'm adjusting, I promise."

Maybe that should have offended Tony more, but hell, he knew the guy. That was not a challenging description to make. "So am I, but I'm fantastic."

Bruce chuckled. "Fair enough. Okay. Let me catch you up on the Stone containment work that Shuri and I have been working on..."

By the time their lengthy discussion ended, Tony's excitement and fear had both sharpened to needle points. Shuri had once mentioned "materials samples" taken from wherever Thor's axe had been made. Though she didn't understand that alien metal well enough to shape solid blocks of it, she could manipulate vibranium as skillfully as Stephen could manipulate dimensional energy. Since Stormbreaker was powerful enough to face the full Infinity set, she'd theorized that an alloy of vibranium with that alien metal should be able to contain the energy of a single Stone. And, just to be on the safe side, Carol had taken their creation through the sun's corona to fuel it with the energy of a star. That mimicked Stormbreaker, as well.

"We have got some seriously big guns still on the team," Tony murmured as he watched the footage of her departure, and then the distance tracking of Carol powering through that energy field. Before she'd left on the mission, her attitude was different than what he'd encountered before. With a task in hand, she was all business. She had a Soldier Mode, clearly, and it'd been well-honed. It'd serve them well in future conflicts.

After rolling that statement around in his mind, Tony frowned and turned to Bruce. "Uh. You ever get the big guy to come out?"

Bruce shook his head. "No. But there'd be no use, anyway. Here, I can contribute to our research. All Hulk could do was go fight in whatever riot starts up next, and hurt more people than he helped. I haven't really bothered trying."

That made sense, and so Tony nodded and turned to grab a late dinner. Only barely did he remember something he'd been entrusted with asking. "Hey. Last question. When we were adjusting the energy flows earlier today, did Stephen's body actually." Tony paused for a fraction of a second. "React?"

"Like how?"

"Oh, at all," Tony demurred. "If his heart started racing or something with a partial energy increase, we should warn Christine before we ramp it up to full power."

"Good point," Bruce said and brought up the readings from the scanners hanging over Stephen's body. "Doesn't look like it. The neurological readings are looking great, but he barely even saw an increase in blood pressure today. It seems like everything's happening inside his head."

"Good." Tony barely fought back a smile. It would have been hilarious if Stephen's discretion made him complain enough about physiological reactions to delay things, but frustrating. (...But hilarious.) "I'll go grab dinner and look at your work afterward, if you don't mind shooting me the schematics. Tonight I'll tell Stephen what to expect."

"Will do," Bruce said as he tapped the appropriate files to send. "And... and tell him thanks." He turned and shot another lopsided smile at Tony. "I finally got back to Earth. I'd hate to lose you right afterward."

This might actually work, Tony told himself later, when he was able to overlook the empty, nail-studded wall with barely any guilty twinges. If Bruce had been so overcome with joy over Tony's health, then surely Pepper would react the same way. And if she didn't—

Tony squelched that thought in its embryonic state. Doubts were not allowed to form until Stephen was home. Not even slivers of them. It was time for bed, now. Not doubt.

The crystalline sky above Titan was as beautiful as always, but there were so many other beautiful sights to see. Since returning to Earth, Tony had walked through a dappled green forest and watched soft, gilded-pink clouds glow with a rising dawn. It was time to come out of this permanent night and step into the light of day. "So. You wanna come home tomorrow?"

It was like he hadn't even asked. "What happened to you earlier?" Stephen demanded. His concern had steadied over the day as Tony remained in good condition, but it never left. "I felt..." He trailed off, shook his head, and finished, "Something terrible."

For a moment, Tony thought back to the man that Bruce had met for a very short while in the Sanctum. Remembering how they'd started, the emotional distance that he and Stephen had traveled was astonishing. All it had taken was thousands of light years and the end of the universe to get there.

No wonder they'd pulled off something impossible.

"Can you make an anchor here?" Tony answered after that short pause.

"I don't know," Stephen said after a longer one.

"Try."

He could, though it probably was just a mimicry in this fake Soul universe. Still, it served as the discussion prop that Tony needed. Once Stephen raised his hand as indicated, Tony lightly trailed his fingers along the glowing thread. He might as well have been touching air. "Wong had me do that to one of his anchors. Our souls collided when I did. That's what you felt."

"Oh." Stephen frowned. "I knew that being moved away from an active anchor is dangerous. I hadn't considered someone else simply touching the chain." He paused to muse on that, then nodded slowly.

"It's probably because we're in a simulacrum pocket dimension and so this anchor can't be real," Stephen concluded after more thought. It was nice to know they were on the same logical page; Tony was figuring out more about magic. "I can see now why touching an actual anchor would cause so much pain, though I wish he'd made his point a little less dangerously. When I felt that happen to you..." From the sound of it, he'd rather die another hundred times than have Tony go through that again.

"Didn't Wong teach you that spell? You'd think he would have warned you about touching the thread." At Stephen's hesitation, Tony rolled his eyes and smirked. "Or did he mention it and you just didn't pay enough attention?"

"I..." Stephen sighed with impatience. "The London Sanctum was very busy during its restoration."

Tony nodded solemnly. "Right."

Earlier, he'd been frantic over the dangerous life Stephen had carved out for himself. Stephen refused to accept boundaries but would take whatever consequences arrived after he pushed them. That had put him through hell already and was a recipe for even worse future disaster. Tony supposed there was a flip side to that, though: Stephen had pulled off something unique in all of magical history because he didn't even consider limits that other people thought were immutable.

Though he rolled his eyes at Tony's jab, Stephen soon relaxed into contemplating the anchor representation in front of them. In that weighty silence, Tony again ran his fingers up and down the string of light. "I did touch your real chains, though. In the ship."

Considering that, Stephen tilted his head, frowned, and let the anchor vanish. "That's... that's right. You would have. When I saw what I needed to do with the Time Stone, it required a full shell of the anchors around us. But that would have angled some of the chains through you." His contemplation deepened. "That's odd. I felt the absolute rejection of your soul toward Wong's, like your entire existence might irrevocably fracture if you didn't pull back. Given the nature of a Root of Baghor, that is a natural outcome. I wonder why it didn't matter for us."

With a gentle touch, Tony reached out and interlaced their fingers. Scarred-over trembling faded to mere hints of pressure against his skin. "Apparently, we managed to completely align our souls. First time in recorded magical history. We shocked the hell out of Wong." His grip tightened. "So, you never answered me: you wanna come home tomorrow?"

Tony was right: in his panic over worrying about the earlier assault on Tony's soul, Stephen's hadn't processed what Tony had first asked him. A rigid stance and wide eyes were all he could offer for an answer.

"I feel like that's a yes," Tony mused.

"But..." Shaking his head, Stephen visibly fought back his excitement. "We've been increasing the flow, but we don't know what that final step is to allow full use of a 'Soul Stone.' You don't have a way to contain its energy—" He paused, and off Tony's widening smile, amended, "You may now have a way to contain the energy, but what's the catalyst that will fire it up to full power?"

For an answer, one of Tony's hands pulled back toward himself. His hand and Stephen's soon rested above his own heart. "We synchronize our souls again, like when you healed my heart. Wong's pretty sure that'll do it, given what he's read."

"That's it?" Stephen asked after a moment. "Seriously?"

"That's it," Tony echoed. "But in case you weren't paying attention, your 'that's it' is something that Wong thought was impossible. Literally, metaphysically impossible." Neither of them cared much for what was supposedly achievable.

Stephen's brow dipped. "So I really only need to..." Trailing off, his gaze fell to some random spot on the ground. Emotion washed across him. Although he swallowed hard enough to force it out of his expression and down into his chest, that just meant that it was better positioned to flow into Tony.

Despite the lonely life he'd chosen on Earth, the utter isolation in this pocket dimension had been harder than he'd ever let on. When he'd used the Time Stone, Stephen had seen one last, lonely path ahead of him. He'd accepted that path and its seemingly inevitable end, because the Stone had told him that there was no hope for the universe unless he gave up all hope for himself. Since then, though, Tony brought hope back.

The sun would soon rise.

"Don't worry," Tony whispered, then winked. "I'll let you in again. Don't want to be rude or anything."

Stephen looked back up, opened his mouth, and closed it uselessly. His smile was the sort of shaky, vulnerable emotion that Tony never would have imagined on the haughty man from Hogwarts that he'd known before the end of the world.

"Tomorrow," Tony murmured and leaned in, "you can come home to me."

Stephen met the kiss gently and returned it, but fresh purpose was in his eyes when he pulled away. "I assume you know what sort of process they'll used to contain the Soul energy. Tell me about it so that I know what to expect."

"You are such a romantic," Tony replied. "I feel loved."

The soft smile he got in return was like a secret gift that no one else would ever receive. "You are. But we still have work to do."

"Fine, fine. I looked over the schematics and the first-round test results. The alloy is likely to form an initial hollow shell of energy, but fill in as the procedure continues." Off Stephen's musing that it'd likely start as a similarly hollow feeling for them, Tony nodded. "We're using quantum tunnel technology to bridge the 'Stone' with the Quantum Realm. It'll serve as a surge protector and—we think—will keep the power supply self-perpetuating after that point. Oh, the Quantum Realm is—"

"A dimension of energy in which normal laws of time and space cease to exist."

"Right," Tony replied with a quick roll of his eyes. "Don't lecture the wizard on dimensions. Hey. So. After... everything, your body's been damaged just a little." He couldn't wait to see Stephen open his eyes into consciousness, but it'd probably feel just as good to watch that oxygen mask come off and know that it was no longer needed.

That mention of damage didn't seem to surprise Stephen. "I'd certainly imagine so, yes." As someone who'd worked with neurological damage, he'd probably seen the aftereffects of dozens of comas.

"And Wong'll be holding down the Sanctum. So... maybe you want to stay at headquarters while we get this worked out," Tony suggested. The more Tony seemingly brought up the topic of joining the Avengers, the more blandly tolerant Stephen's smile became. "I mean, so that you'd be near all of our well-staffed medical facilities," he clarified. "If you really need to visit the Sanctum, you can always portal yourself there and back."

"Or, I could always portal myself to your headquarters from the Sanctum," Stephen countered.

"Not if you're crashing. That'd be the whole point of being just down a hallway from medical. Remember how you told the Cloak to get you to me if something went wrong? If it's an emergency, it's an emergency." With a light stroke down Stephen's arm, Tony grinned and added, "And it'd be convenient to certain other people that you might want to be convenient to. Certain handsome heroic geniuses with a weakness for people they saved by jamming a straw through their chest."

Stephen pulled back. "That's how you describe me after you're a 'handsome heroic genius?'"

"I'm trying to be cute here," Tony retorted, "by pointing out that I saved you then. Like I'm going to save you tomorrow." His finger twirled. "Full circle."

"We're going to work together as equals tomorrow," Stephen countered. "And from that point out. That was the plan ever since you nearly let go of this chain, remember? Not me in charge, not you in charge. Equals."

"It's been hard to buy into that totally," Tony admitted after a long moment of consideration, "when I keep seeing you motionless under an oxygen mask." Despite his promise to be equals, it hadn't totally happened. Not yet. But after tomorrow...

After a considering pause, Stephen announced with a rueful laugh, "God, I really am going to have to stay there. Everyone else is going to see me as 'that coma patient,' aren't they? There's still more to do with all that energy. If I want to be viewed as worth listening to, I'll need to be involved."

"I don't see you as 'that coma patient,'" Tony protested. "And Thor won't. Or Bruce. They've met you."

Stephen raised his eyebrows pointedly.

"And there are a lot of other names that I didn't mention, fine, but just impress them once and you'll be golden." Tony took his hand again and grinned impishly. "I obviously think it's a fantastic idea. I'll find you a room near mine. We can have another slumber party."

"Slumber party? Is that what you're calling our time spent stranded?" Though amusement filled Stephen in response to Tony's good mood, it soon faded. He didn't pull his hands away, but neither did he return Tony's grip. "I don't want you to get the wrong idea."

It was hard for Tony not to step away, now. Through a frown he asked, "Wrong idea? About what?"

"Anything we're doing is temporary by definition. I know your life will be very different after we do what needs to be done for the world, and I..." Sighing, Stephen trailed off, shook his head, and met Tony's gaze with a blunt honesty. "I haven't lived like you. This isn't a judgment of your past, just a difference between us. I won't say I always looked for a commitment. I didn't. But I'd hope to at least..." He didn't seem to have a way to finish that sentence.

Tony frowned. Stephen might have said this wasn't a judgment of Tony, but he felt sharply judged. There had been enough tabloid jokes made at his expense that, with this remark, Tony wondered how much commitment Stephen thought he was even capable of. The days of picking up someone and never seeing them the next morning were a decade behind him. "And what is that supposed to mean?"

"It means that that fun you're clearly alluding to now," Stephen said pointedly, "is just going to turn into a memory that hurts me like hell. It's already going to be painful enough when you leave and I know you will. Because you do commit, now, to someone who's not me. And despite my past bragging, I do actually prefer to avoid pain. So let's not make it even worse."

Ah. This wasn't a judgment quite like Tony had assumed. It wasn't that now-Tony was still like old-Tony, only that Stephen could never act like old-Tony once had. "You think that I'm saying all this because I'd just be able to walk away at the end, while you wouldn't."

"I know you will walk away," Stephen said after a lengthy pause. "I'm operating inside that knowledge. So... let's just be measured about things."

Any offense was gone. Despite everything they'd said earlier, Stephen had still figured that he would end up alone at the very end of all of this. Tony's love must have an expiration date, despite how wholly he'd meant it, and that date would be the universe's reboot. But after talking with Bruce, Tony could see at least some narrow path toward more, and that was all Tony Stark ever needed. "I've said it before," Tony said in absolutely level tones, "but I love being able to prove you wrong. Did you not hear me say that I can't leave you to that lonely life?"

"And I don't think you will. I trust that we'll be a part of each other's life from now on. All I'm worried about is going down a path that sets... more significant expectations than 'a part.' That's it. I wish I hadn't said anything. This wasn't supposed to be a big argument."

"You should set those significant expectations."

Stephen's pale, searching gaze roamed over Tony for a long while before he responded. "Don't screw with me on this, Stark."

"I'm still working out the details," Tony admitted, "but you should set those significant expectations."

Emotions flooded into Tony's chest again, an amplification of what he'd felt before. Being alone in this pocket dimension had been hard. Losing every connection and goal in life had been far harder, even with the new purpose that Kamar-Taj eventually offered. Taking on the role of guarding Earth and an Infinity Stone had lead to countless solitary deaths and envisioned centuries of suffering, and that was an impossible burden to bear forever... even for someone who could pull off the impossible.

"Find me a good room," Stephen eventually replied.

Earlier, Tony had looked at the schematics for their Infinity-collectors. They wouldn't know for sure until Shuri's tests finished running, but he saw no reason to think that it wouldn't be ready. "So," Tony repeated, and smiled as he felt his heart swell in his chest, "you wanna come home tomorrow?"

"God, do I ever," Stephen admitted with a choking laugh.

"Good." Tony's smile grew. "I'll see you then."

Chapter Text

After the mess with the Accords, Tony really hadn't expected to ever feel like Steve Rogers was more on his side than Rhodey. He'd overheard a debate between them while listening in from a hallway, but some part of him felt like his actual presence should weight the scales. Rhodey should be on his side as a friend; Steve should fit neatly into the 'opponent' box.

Of course, no one had been behaving like they should ever since the world ended.

"Here's the thing," Rhodey said after studying the galactic map that bridged the distance between Earth and Titan. It was supposed to be the morning of the day when Stephen came home, and so he'd gone to Rhodey to tell him that as a simple courtesy. That courtesy had turned into a full co-leader discussion.

"There are no 'things,'" Tony instantly said. "No problems. Shuri's tests worked. She and Bruce are forming our Mind Stone right now, so we know it can happen. Energy from the Quantum Realm is flowing into that container using the Mind structure that they've modeled. We are growing a mock Infinity Stone right this second. Like a Chia Pet."

"Here's the thing," Rhodey gravely repeated. Steve leaned against a far wall and watched with solemn consideration. "Mind is filling up slowly. Soul sounds like it's going to be a lot of energy all at once."

"Don't you dare say I can't rescue him," Tony demanded.

"I am not—" Rhodey held up his hands. "Tony. Calm down. You have been a walking powder keg ever since you got back, geez. What I am saying: for every other fake Stone, it sounds like we can model their structure and then stop by a Quantum gas station to fill up that structure slowly. Unnoticeably. This one might be different."

"You're worried that Thanos will notice if we make a move this big," Steve paraphrased from his spot against the wall.

"I think it's something to consider," Rhodey agreed after a long pause. "I'm not saying we can't do this. I'm just saying there are risks."

"But I already told him he could come home today," Tony protested.

Rhodey's expression flattened. "And whose fault is that?"

"Tony." Both men turned to face Steve, whose forehead was lined slightly in thought. "How's he doing? From what I've gathered, this guy has been through hell already. Would he be able to hold out?"

Steve was trying to help them, because he was in idealist, 'no man left behind' mode. This was the soldier who'd plunged out of a plane behind Hydra lines and brought an entire squadron home when everyone had written them off as dead.

Tony wanted to take the exit that Steve offered. He itched to lie that Stephen was on the edge of madness and needed to come home within the hour. That would be the biggest show of disrespect that he could make, though. Stephen prided himself on little more than his willpower. Imagining Stephen's face when he learned that Tony had labeled him as weak and in need of immediate rescue made Tony nod reluctantly. Yes, if he had to, Stephen could hold out. But...

The man who'd disappeared deep behind enemy lines studied Tony for a long moment, then instead asked, "If we're trying to turn back what Thanos did, then Time energy must be key to that. Is there anyone else who can use it well enough?"

This was an argument that Rhodey seemed more open to and so he turned to Tony expectantly. He didn't want to leave Stephen there, Tony saw, just like he'd been open to Tony working with the Soul energy. He hated the decisions he'd been forced into making, but knew that someone was responsible for making them. Rhodey's role since Thanos hadn't just been 'leader,' but also 'devil's advocate.' Because someone had to.

"I don't think so," Tony eventually said.

"But you don't know for sure?" Rhodey said. Blessedly, he also sounded like he hoped that Tony could give them an answer that would let him move forward. He just needed it to be justified. If Tony could find that justification, the save would happen.

In exchange for that respect, Tony tried to be wholly honest with his friend. "Wong knows about Time. He's studied it. I don't think he can use it, but I don't know for sure."

"Let me set up a conference call," Steve said in the following silence.

"I want to get him home, Tony," Rhodey said after Steve walked off, "but I've already told you that I need to take a big picture view." His gaze grew very tired. "I know your guy saw how to beat Thanos, but I'm guessing 'Thanos surprises us because we sent up an accidental signal flare' isn't part of that plan. And if there's a way to use Time well enough and avoid that signal flare... well, you can still run our strategies past him each night."

Sighing, Tony looked away. Rhodey was right. There was a chance that doing this big Soul Stone move would draw attention from the one person they couldn't afford to meet. The person the universe couldn't afford. It was a small chance, but it was real. Any risk above zero percent was the sort of thing that James Rhodes now had to concern himself with.

For all of the other Stones, they'd model its structure, duplicate that structure within the alloy shells that Shuri had developed, and begin to steadily feed energy from the Quantum Realm into those containers. They couldn't possibly match the real things, but they'd still fill up with incredible amounts of fuel. That fuel, though, would be an unremarkable, steady stream while it filled the reservoir. Nothing to pay attention to.

Yanking a soul across a galaxy might be worthy of some attention.

"So, what happens if Wong can use the Time Stone energy well enough to get this done?" Tony wondered in an admirably level voice.

"We make the rescue a little later. But we still make it. I promise."

By 'a little later,' Tony presumed Rhodey meant 'after the world's been fixed.' "And what happens if I die before then? I'm his soul's anchor, it'd—"

"If you die, I think things would have gone far enough south that no one's getting rescued," Rhodey said with a sad smile. "So let's not borrow trouble."

It wasn't just Wong on the call that Steve had arranged, Tony and Rhodey soon saw. He was joined by Janet, Selvig, Shuri, and who Tony was pretty sure was Jane Foster, though he'd only seen her in flashes so far. "I figured this group would be able to take a comprehensive view on using the Stones," Steve explained as he returned to the room.

As Steve retook his spot against the wall, Tony eyed him uncertainly. He was doing better with tolerating Steve's presence than he had before, but that didn't make this support feel any less odd.

"Yes, I am familiar with instructions on how to use the Time Stone," Wong said after he'd been filled in on the purpose of the call. Tony's heart lurched in his chest, but its rhythm steadied when Wong continued, "I haven't used it myself, though."

"But you're familiar with its theory, and with energy manipulation?" Selvig wondered.

With an apologetic look in Tony's direction, Wong nodded. The sick feeling began to surge again and Tony took a deep breath and looked away. As Shuri began to talk with Wong about what he'd be responsible for pulling off, nausea turned into sharper, deeper pain and began to dig in. Tony should have fought harder. Was this really not going to happen?

"Using Wong isn't going to work," said what first sounded like an unfamiliar voice. Looking up, Tony located the speaker: Jane, who he'd barely heard talk before. Her gaze was distant and thoughtful as her head slowly shook.

"Jane?" asked Janet. "What's wrong?"

"I just realized something that I cannot believe you and I overlooked, Erik. This is..." Jane shook her head again, clearly annoyed at herself. "This is 'malpractice level' bad. I'm not even that kind of doctor, but still."

"What is it?" Steve wondered after shooting a wary glance to Rhodey, then Tony. Despite himself, Tony couldn't help but return it.

"We're all sure that we don't have enough fuel in these 'Stones' to perfectly mimic what Thanos can do. We're hoping for a targeted reversal of the anti-life effects, using Space and Mind to locate them, Time to reverse the attack, Soul to pull them back in, Reality to help overwrite things, and Power to give all of those a boost. In theory, people should be brought back to life right where they died."

"Exactly," Shuri slowly said. "I promise you, we're ready to do that. Or we will be."

"Oh no," said Selvig and suddenly looked exhausted. "How didn't we see this, Jane?"

"What?" Rhodey wondered.

Jane ran a hand roughly down her face, shook her head, and said, "Galaxies rotate and the universe expands. Earth alone is already more than five hundred million miles away from where we were when it happened. If we bring the people of the universe back exactly where they were, then they are going to die by the trillions when they reappear in the middle of deep space."

Though that stunned the hope out of most people, Tony shook his head. "No. Nuh uh. Stephen saw that doing this Stone research could save the people that got... chosen. There has to be a way past that."

"We need a fourth-dimensional effect to pull this off," Janet concluded after considering Tony's words. "They need to move through Space-Time. Manipulating either one would work; I know from my time in the Realm that they flow together."

Rhodey exhaled and turned to the corner of the screen that held Jane and Selvig's windows. "You know the guy and you've been researching his teleport energy. Is Thor good enough with Space to do that?"

Selvig smiled sadly. "With how he's practicing? In another hundred years or two..." Shuri's sigh was the loudest and he shrugged apologetically toward her.

"Is there anyone good enough with Space to take over from him?" Rhodey wondered.

"Not a chance. Except for Janet. She could probably do Space, Time, or Reality with an expert hand, but she's the best shot we've got for directing the full flows using the Quantum Realm." Selvig shook his head as he finished, and Janet smiled faintly at the compliment but said nothing to counter him.

Rhodey's attention moved to Wong's window, but Wong immediately shook his head. "I only have academic knowledge of the Time Stone. I'd be no more practiced with it than Thor is with Space."

After nodding in return to the silent, weighty look that Steve gave him, Rhodey exhaled again and focused on Tony. "Tell me the one hundred percent honest truth here, Tony. Erik said Thor'd need a century or two of practice to be good enough with an Infinity Stone to pull this off. With that in mind—"

A dark, rueful laugh escaped Tony. "Stephen can do it."

Rhodey studied him. "I saw that newspaper article about his accident. It hasn't been very long since then." He wasn't writing off the option—especially since it now seemed to be their only one—but he needed to be convinced.

"That stops mattering quite as much with the Time Stone, it turns out."

Steve contemplated Tony, then said, "I've read the reports from when I was in California. You said he experienced potential futures until he found the right one. How much practice did that give him?"

In slightly more than a million futures, Stephen had abandoned them all on Titan and used Nebula's ship to escape Thanos' reach. In many of those futures, his time spent on the run had spanned decades. How many decades, Tony didn't know, but he'd needed to use dark magic to extend his natural life. Stephen didn't remember every single future, but he did remember trends. Decades repeated a million times would be quite a trend.

And it'd be a whole lot of practice.

"Well. More than two hundred years' worth," Tony levelly replied.

With another significant look, Steve turned back to Rhodey, who nodded once. "Okay," Rhodey said distantly. "Then we've gotta do this. Even if it risks sending up a signal flare to Thanos, we've gotta pull Strange back ASAP. I'm sure he'll need some recovery time when he wakes up and he'll need to be running at one hundred percent before we make our move. Only he or Janet could possibly handle this precision with Time, and Janet's gotta handle the main flows, so... so. Yeah."

Rhodey swallowed shakily as he trailed off, and Tony was reminded of how James Rhodes, his long-term best friend, could keep pushing and pushing to get the hard work done. Even if others caused drama, he'd stay steady. Even if he was exhausted, he'd keep working. Even if he'd visibly lost weight over the past few weeks and his hair was already lighter than it'd been before the end of the world, he'd keep filling a needed role. Even if he hated it.

If Thanos did come before they were ready, Tony realized as he studied Rhodey's haunted expression, then making this decision might be condemning all of them to death. The man who'd made all the hard choices, sometimes earning outrage in the process, was about to have to commit to using their Soul Stone... and possibly killing them all as a side effect. He'd already done a lot that he hated. This pushed some serious boundaries.

And unlike Tony and Stephen, Rhodey appreciated boundaries.

When Rhodey stayed silent for another few seconds, Steve's eyes crinkled with sympathy and he took a step forward. "All right, then. Stark's guy just became even more of a key player and he will definitely need some recovery after that coma, so we should get this done sooner rather than later. Shuri, when can you have the Soul container ready?"

"I've already started it after Mind was a success. A few hours more at most."

"Right. Then when it's ready, let us know and Tony can get it done." Steve looked at Tony, waiting for his short nod, and then turned his attention to Rhodey.

"Thanks," Rhodey murmured too softly to be heard by the people on the monitors. Thanks, he meant, for not making Rhodey give the call that could kill them if their dice landed on an unlucky roll.

"We're going to be fine," Tony whispered. "Remember. Stephen saw that this path wins."

Rhodey nodded. "Yeah. Right." While that was true, he was still like a rubber band about to snap. He'd just been pushed too far for too long. He'd reached a hard limit, and that limit was apparently 'risking absolutely everyone.'

"When that Stone is ready to go," Steve continued and typed in his authorization codes, "you've been given access to all the facility functionality you might need. All right. This isn't my territory, so I'll leave you to it. Everyone, thanks for your time. I'm sure you need to get back to work as well."

"Rogers," Tony said when Steve headed for the door without a word.

Steve met his eyes levelly, but still said nothing.

Should he thank Steve? Steve hadn't really argued for Stephen; he'd just raised some points that might give Tony the opportunity to do so. But... he had in fact found those opportunities. And he'd looked out for Rhodey when it seemed like Rhodey was spread too thin looking out for everyone else. Yeah. Tony could do this. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. Let me know how it goes, if you don't mind."

"Will do."

"Progress," Rhodey said with a weak smile once Steve had left them alone.

"That probably makes you happy," Tony mused.

"It... does, actually. Yeah." With a long, tired sigh, Rhodey rubbed the back of his neck and said, "I could use a little happiness right now. So thanks." After trying to massage away his tension, that hand reached over and clapped Tony's shoulder. "Let me know when you start. I'll be there. I'm glad you'll get your guy back, and I'll admit to being pretty curious about this Infinity expert who's gotten you so obsessed."

"I'm not..." Tony hesitated. Yeah, he was obsessed. Since Rhodey was now in a better and more accepting place toward Stephen, Tony thought it safe to add, "In my defense, I am suffering from a tiny bit of temporary damage to my temporal lobe."

"Well, I'm used to you acting like a dumbass, so." Rhodey shrugged, and the lopsided smile he gave seemed more real than most emotions he'd expressed since Tony's return. "This just helps things feel more normal."

"You're a funny man, Rhodes."

"I'd like to be, again," Rhodey sighed with a sadder smile, squeezed Tony's shoulder, and let go. "Remember, call me when you're ready."

Tony's heart fluttered. He'd apparently sent some form of confirmation, because he felt excitement surge in return. It was finally about to happen. "Will do."

Unlike the other Stones, they only had partial Soul understanding. They had an idea of it from the infirmary scans of Stephen's body and what had happened in that ship, but it was odd, unpredictable energy that couldn't quite be tracked. However, unlike the other Stones, that didn't really matter. Instead of making a detailed mold and then letting quantum energy fill it as specified, they'd build a decent enough Soul home and then give it a jumpstart.

Due to that lack of needed detail, Shuri only needed two hours and forty-three minutes more to finalize the Soul container. In Wakanda, Bill Foster connected it to the Quantum Realm to serve as their surge protector. That took another thirty-four minutes.

For the last full hour of that time, Tony's heart thudded even as his body felt increasingly numb. Christine tracked him as they approached the finish line, but Tony didn't need her reassurance to know that he looked better on the monitors than he felt. He recognized anxiety. His had grown sharp.

This had to work. Of course it would work. Stephen hadn't seen anything happening with his own personal future, but that was just because his visions had been confused by the Soul world detour. To retrieve the souls of all the dead people, they'd have to see how to retrieve Stephen's. That meant that this was absolutely, positively going to work and there was zero reason to worry about the hours to come.

Tony's hands clutched his thighs. Sweat seeped from his palms.

Stephen was in zero danger, Pepper was on a business trip, and he was going to have both of them in his life. Stephen was in zero danger, Pepper was on a business trip, and he was going to have both of them in his life. Stephen was in zero danger, Pepper was on a business trip, and he was going to have both of them in his life.

At the end of another silent repetition of what he had to know as the total truth, Tony realized that his eyes felt dry and tight. He should blink.

Stephen was in zero danger. This would work, and then he'd wake up.

Pepper was on a business trip. Because this would work, and then she'd come back home.

He was going to have both of them in his life. After that amazing fairytale victory, there would obviously be a happily ever after worthy of it.

"Are you ready?"

Tony inhaled, exhaled, and looked up to Christine from where he sat. His mouth opened but nothing came out. Was it actually time?

"Tony," she said gravely, "you need to be ready for this. I can't even imagine what sort of energy output we're going to see, but it's going to be up to you to help keep things steady." She saw his uncertainty and added, "I know Stephen's been handling energy flows so far, but think about it: he's about to experience something that no one else ever has. When that starts, you'll need to be steady for both of you. Are you ready to handle that?"

After another deep breath, Tony exhaled more sharply than before and nodded. He needed to not even consider anything else right now. Stephen was in zero danger. Stephen was in zero danger. Stephen was in zero danger. "I'm ready."

"Okay." Christine's fingers sought her necklace again and rubbed it as she lead Tony to a different medical lab. "You'll be in separate rooms so we can isolate fields if needed. I'll be in with him and medical personnel. Bruce will be handling things on your side."

Sure enough, Bruce was there, as was Rhodey. To Tony's surprise, Wong was also waiting for him rather than tracking the flows around Stephen.

"You need to fall asleep," Christine pointed out when she saw his reaction.

"I'll put you into a semi-conscious state," Wong clarified. "If needed, you'll be able to be pulled into full unconsciousness. But hopefully, you can form it while also communicating with us."

"Sounds complicated," Tony said as he let himself be guided onto the bed. Christine attached scanners to his forehead, said a few words to Bruce, and left for her work elsewhere. "But I'll pull it off."

"Don't take this lightly, Tony," Rhodey implored. "If this thing really compares to an Infinity Stone, then it could wipe you off the map."

Tony's hand crept up to feel his heart. Despite the relative importance of the next hour to both their lives, he felt more nervous than Stephen. Hogwarts had more classes in this sort of thing than MIT. "I'm good. If something flares up as we get started, Stephen can help steady it out. Energy manipulation is what he does for a living. And once I feel how it should be, I'll keep us level until the end."

"We think any unexpected surges should pour into the Realm," Bruce added. "That'll help keep us level, too."

You're coming home, Tony promised. He felt another surge of excitement fill his chest in return, but that just reminded him of the stakes. Anxiety spiraled and his fingertips tingled with it. Until this actually worked, it'd be so hard to relax. And if he couldn't relax, how was this supposed to work?

"Your heart rate's through the roof," Bruce noted as he eyed the readings. "You ready for this?"

"Yes," Tony said and clenched his jaw. This would happen. This would get fixed.

"Stark," Wong said gravely. "You're not."

As Rhodey stepped over to talk with Bruce, Tony closed his eyes and tried to take several deep breaths. He needed to be steady, and that meant calming down. Ignore his bruised brain, ignore how he wasn't trained to handle energy flows, ignore his all-consuming concern over Stephen. Calm down.

"His physiological responses are elevated," he heard Bruce confirm to Rhodey, "but I think even a mild sedative could handle that while still leaving Wong's plan in effect."

'Physiological?'

Oh no. Physiological reactions.

Anxiety sputtered and slowed, because Tony abruptly had something else to worry about. Tony was actually connected to his body, unlike Stephen, and he'd already gone through the visible after-effects of their connection once. He'd been so ready to laugh at Stephen's overblown propriety that he hadn't thought through his own part of this process.

"Uh." Tony coughed, then indicated that he'd like Bruce to bend down near Tony's mouth. After shrugging at Rhodey, Bruce did leave their conversation and come over to him. "Bruce. Weird question. Is there a scanner or something that could hang out over me while this is going down?"

Bruce frowned. "Why, is something wrong?"

Oh God, he didn't want to say this. At least it was just his friends in the room... and Wong. "I'm just hoping that I'm not going to be lying here in front of everyone. Like I am now, I mean. The connection we're about to form feels really..."

"Yeah?" Bruce prompted.

A resigned groan. There was no cover story for this. "It feels really, really good."

"Oh. Good? ...Oh." Bruce's lips twitched with a contained smile. "That's... not something I had considered." With a chuckle, he tapped a few buttons on a wall panel. As a deep-scan imaging array descended from the ceiling to cover Tony from navel to knees, he turned to address Rhodey's clear concern over the sudden appearance of heavy-duty medical equipment.

"Seriously?" Rhodey said a moment later.

Sighing, Tony rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. His hands flexed open and closed.

"I don't want to know these things," Wong muttered, who'd apparently been able to listen in.

"Well," Rhodey said with a smirk as he walked closer to Tony, "I guess this means I don't need to worry about the process hurting you, huh?"

Tony slowly shook his head. It rolled back and forth against the medical bed. "Laugh it up."

"Remember when you tried for that threesome with you, me, and that contractor lady in San Diego?"

That stilled his head's movement. Tony squinted at Rhodey. "What? No."

"Well, you were really, really drunk," Rhodey allowed. "Which is why I laughed but let you forget it for all these years." He chuckled and began typing in something to a wall panel, then turned and added, "I won't mind teasing you about this, though. Not after everything you've put me through."

"I don't want to know these things," Wong glumly repeated.

"You and Rhodey?" Bruce wondered after a second had passed.

"We never did anything," Tony announced. "And I swear he's making that time up."

"She worked for Boeing," Rhodey said with a smirk as he continued tapping away. "You were trying to convince the government to go with Stark on a project instead of them. Threw a big party and everything. With liquor. Lots of liquor."

"Can we just start funneling an Infinity Stone through me, already?" Tony practically bellowed.

"Yes, please," Wong muttered. "Is the other room ready yet?"

"Soon, but his vitals are finally looking good," Bruce chuckled. "Maybe you do want to put him under in the meantime."

Tony couldn't help but smile. The distraction had been just what he needed to break the anxiety feedback loop. Now he could focus more on the warmth in his heart than the fear in his gut. "Yeah, Wong, do it. I'm ready, and it'll take you a little bit to get set up once I'm there, anyway."

As Wong's fingertips rested against his face, Tony realized that joking with Rhodey had felt like living their normal lives. That was what they were going to get back at the end of this effort. That was what Stephen was going to get back when he escaped his metaphysical prison.

When heat emerged from Wong's hand, Tony took the offer of sleep without hesitation.

It felt like he'd dozed off yet clung to awareness. The medical facility was in front of him, but so was Titan's midnight landscape. They somehow existed as wholly complete locations layered on top of each other.

"Huh," Tony murmured as his eyes drifted shut. The medical bay faded from view, but he could still hear the men in that room speak like distant voices carried on the breeze. Wong's control over his consciousness had been precisely made.

Abruptly, anyone in that infirmary stopped mattering. Tony could only see Titan and who waited for him there. Hope returned as sharp as before, but this time there was no fear to taint it. "It's time?" Stephen asked with a voice that couldn't quite hide his taut nerves.

"It's time. And you know," Tony said after a moment of consideration, and then leaned forward into a kiss to greet him, "I think we're going to go a lot faster with the connection, now." It was a sweet, loving kiss that Tony meant with all his being. Now wasn't the moment for that, though, going by Stephen's distracted response.

"We have practiced," Stephen agreed and took a few idle, directionless steps that soon put him out of Tony's reach. Clearly, he wanted to pace. "Can we start yet?"

Tony couldn't blame him for his mood. They were on a razor edge of making the universe's biggest jailbreak. "I can just barely hear them," he said after a moment of listening deliberately for the medical bay. "They'll tell us when they're ready."

"Right." Stephen took a few calming breaths. Despite that, no outside observer would have thought him anything but tense.

For Tony, actually feeling Stephen's tension calmed his own lingering stress. Like it was easier to sacrifice his own life, it was easier to be strong for someone else. "They've got a good handle on Mind," he said in sure, professional tones. "It was the test run. They're really confident about this."

"Good to know." After another moment, Stephen shook his head and let himself begin pacing. "Once I'm out, I should be able to help make suggestions for all the other energy flows. I saw some interesting particulars when Thanos used them against us."

If talking business would help Stephen keep a grip on himself, then that was what they'd do. A loving reunion could come later. "So, you still know how this all plays out?"

"Generally speaking. Mock-up Stones, the right people managing them, reversing that one killing move he made. It's why anyone who dies otherwise can't be brought back," Stephen clarified. "Fake Stones will never have enough power to change more than what we're already planning."

Good. That was what they'd discussed in the conference call, so it sounded like they were progressing exactly like they should be.

"I am pretty foggy because of this damned prison, though," Stephen admitted and kicked a small rock. It ricocheted against others but that sound never echoed. When Tony looked down, the stone was back in place. "I might remember specifics as I encounter more of what your team is doing."

"Good." Something entirely unrelated came to mind, and with a laugh Tony added, "That rug's going to be so damn happy to have you back."

Stephen laughed, too, and his tension seemed to ebb. At least a little. "Stop calling it 'rug.' I've told you this."

"You know I don't do what you tell me," Tony retorted.

"After I get back," Stephen said after a long, weighty pause, "maybe you should."

Concern flared. "Why? Did you remember something else that needs to happen?" Stephen said nothing, only stood there with that same opaque smile, and Tony frowned in thought. His confusion lasted until an energy lash darted out from Stephen's hand, seizing Tony's wrist with energy that tingled as it drew him closer.

"Oh," Tony realized when only a few inches remained between them. As he met the eyes he'd grown so used to staring into, he tried for the deepest voice he could manage. "That sort of telling me what to do."

Without letting Tony pull away, Stephen leaned closer and murmured, "That mirror dimension globe you're so fond of is completely soundproof."

The different types of love floated back into Tony's mind. A friendly love between equals was all well and good, and sacrificial love for all mankind was super freaking noble, but sometimes a man just needed to admit how hot the idea of magic taking total control could be.

Desire formed a core of heat that grew to fill Tony's whole being. Unlike their last connection, he wasn't growing hard there on Titan; that reaction must be left to his actual body. God, he was glad he'd thought to ask for that scanner to cover him. By the time they aligned themselves again, he'd be unmistakably aroused in front of everyone in that medical bay.

Despite the show his body must be putting on, Tony couldn't bring himself to care. This felt too natural and too right. His reaction had taken him by surprise when his heart had been healed, but by now, all he could think about was 'soundproof.'

That word promised a lot.

Words floated into Tony's mind from somewhere else: things were ready. With a hungry grin, he replied, "Boy, do they have perfect timing. Let's go." One quick movement caught Stephen's hand and angled it under Tony's shirt, but he had no plans to lie submissively against the ground like before. Even as Stephen's hand began to glow hot against him, Tony leaned forward and drew Stephen into a deep, insistent kiss.

He felt Stephen's left hand snake around to his back, while his right slid up to cup Tony's heart. The soul chain that still connected them throbbed. Pleasure echoed through both of them as Stephen's hand brushed it, and soft moans escaped.

I'm going to miss this, Tony thought vacantly as he felt energy pulse where it penetrated his chest. If Stephen didn't need him for a soul anchor any more, then it could come loose. But, Tony thought again as he relaxed against the man he held, he'd still miss the chain.

They were already so close to alignment. Unlike when Tony had needed to progressively relax toward letting Stephen into his soul, this time was like well-oiled gears clicking into place. They'd been practicing this ever since Titan, with love to open the doors even further. As Stephen's hand pressed against him, Tony moaned again into their hungry kiss.

It wasn't just powerful magic that let them join together so totally. This was seeing themselves in the other man and being stronger for it. They were eons beyond two men stranded together on a distant wasteland. Those days had made the best of an accidental meeting, but they'd since chosen far more. Warmth flared into a brighter heat and the crystalline stars overhead began to rotate. With one last surge of energy that Tony gladly accepted as it flowed into his heart, they completely aligned.

They were a matched set, a flawless fit. Soulmates. He felt wholly and utterly known. His strengths and weaknesses alike were laid bare and all of them were loved. The energy flowing through him was a more powerful feeling than anything he'd ever experienced, like his entire being resonated in harmony with itself.

It was perfect. Perfect. Perfectly aligned. Perfectly loved.

It was... ready.

"Tony," Stephen murmured. "Something's..."

"Happening," Tony agreed. He felt a peculiar rumbling through his whole existence, and when it echoed through Stephen his grip tightened. "Come home," he murmured, not able to think of anything but the man he held. "Come home."

"Something's happening," Stephen repeated breathily. There was no panic in his voice, but despite his history of wandering dimensions, he had no words for what they felt.

To counter that uncertainty, Tony let love flow from his heart. It would be a beacon guiding Stephen home and a shelter once he arrived. He'd been tasked with staying steady once the energy flows began, and now Tony knew that he could do that. He just needed to—

Tony's arms abruptly closed around empty air. The chain erupting from his chest vanished as the haze of bliss clouding his brain evaporated. Sudden light blinded his night-adjusted eyes.

At first, Tony thought it was day again on Titan. "Stephen?" Tony asked with alarm as he stumbled backward. Adrenaline seared away all pleasure and his hand instinctively sought the spot above his heart. It was still warm, so Stephen was still attached to him, but he couldn't feel him at all.

No, Tony saw a second later. This wasn't Titan in daylight. There were vague mimicries of its landscape, and the broken curve of the Maw's ship was a distant, faded monument, but he was... somewhere else. The rocks around him were only like a few scattered decorations. Somehow Tony knew that if he started walking toward the Maw's distant ship, he'd never reach it. In every direction, the horizon faded to an identical orange haze. Though a soft glow surrounded him, he couldn't locate a source.

"Soul Stone," Tony realized a second later and swallowed. Right. Wong had shown them what the Stones all looked like, and Soul was orange. He and Stephen had said that Shuri's Soul container would form its boundaries quickly, but would then need a while to fill in. That must be what was happening now.

As he breathed heavily, trying to calm himself, the very last of his earlier joy faded. Sudden movement caught the corner of his eye, too low to the ground to be Stephen, and Tony spun to face whatever figure had crept into this realm. Perhaps it was an alien who'd stalked their bond crossing the galaxy, or some demon who roamed soul dimensions for prey, or...

Tony blinked. His head was already fogged and this impossible sight didn't help.

In the middle of this surreal orange landscape, a small green child smiled innocently up at him.

"Hi?" he asked after a wary silence.

Her finger raised in front of her mouth, warning him to be silent. Once he'd quieted down, she smiled again and spoke again. "He knows I'm here. But not you two."

"Two? So he is—" The girl's finger went up again, and so Tony sighed. Right, apparently she knew that Stephen was somewhere here, even if Tony couldn't see him.

"You tried to help them," the girl continued with a sadder smile. "So I'll help you. I'm pretty good at hiding. But you have to stay real quiet until then, okay?"

The situation should have seemed threatening. Tony was trapped inside a mock-up Soul Stone, being told that only an alien child was keeping Thanos from noticing everything. Rhodey's worst-case scenario was on the brink of playing out. Yet, something about her seemed trustworthy and older than her appearance. She seemed to believe that they'd helped people she knew, and so...

Blinking, Tony stood up straighter. Only barely did he remember not to speak out loud. "Gamora?" he silently mouthed.

With a smile, she nodded, but held her finger in front of her mouth again.

After musing on this unexpected ally's presence, Tony looked down at his feet and was pleased to see what looked like Titan's dirt there. Beckoning her over, he sat down and silently scratched words into the ground. With any luck, she'd learned how to read English from Quill.

GOING TO BRING THEM BACK

Yes, it seemed that Quill had taught her his childhood language. Gamora's beaming smile was instant.

That smile soon faded and she looked off into the distance. "It's starting to happen," she said as she turned to face some unknown point. "You have to make a choice. The Stone has to see it."

A choice? Despite himself, he almost said the words out loud.

Gamora abruptly disappeared. A second later, Tony blinked at the spot where she'd stood and tried to remember who he'd been looking at. It was so hard to think. Some voice was trying to talk to him from back in the medical bay, but the words felt meaningless. What's happening? Tony wondered as he turned a slow circle to inspect the unnatural landscape around him. This wasn't right. Was it? This was... why was he here?

A golden glow slowly erupted out of his chest. The crystalline cord emerged and began stretching into the infinite distance, but disappeared into that orange mist without ever revealing who was at its other end.

Tony's existence seemed to ebb out of his limbs, like they were all useless baggage, and instead focused around the spot above his heart. Inexplicable pressure began to bear down on him; not like weight, but worry. Something was happening. Something new.

The chain yanked and Tony took a step forward. "What?" he wondered as awareness snapped back into place, but numbness soon returned. His higher thought was wrapped in a warm quilt, comforting but soft and muted. Only his feelings remained clear.

He took another step forward as the chain tugged. Higher thought barely flickered this time. Oh, Tony vacantly realized inside his daze. The chain was trying to tear loose. That made sense.

Stephen couldn't get back into his body unless he was allowed to fly free of Tony's. All Tony needed to do, he thought in flashes of light and sound, was let go. He just needed to let go. Stephen's soul was tugging at Tony's heart, trying to return to that body in the infirmary, and all Tony needed to do to let Stephen live his full life again was to...

Let...

Go.

"Tony!" he heard like a distant cry. Whoever it was, they were shouting across a broad canyon.

"Go on home," Tony mouthed as he felt Stephen's soul lift. Oh, he realized. It's pulling mine, too. They weren't like two ropes tied together, where one could simply untie itself. They were like two rivers that had met and joined. Lifting out water from one would also retrieve the other.

"Stark, pull back," someone instructed.

"No," Tony murmured through a clumsy smile. Nothing made sense except for knowing that Stephen was coming home. Whatever he needed to do to reach that outcome was fine. He'd been boiled down to instinct inside this Soul world, and that instinct said he was willing to be lifted out if it meant Stephen could come home.

"It's okay," he tried to say as people worked frantically around him. They seemed so worried. But this was okay. Activating this energy had asked Tony Stark a question and boiled his entire existence down to the answer: yes, he would sacrifice himself.

He would sacrifice....

Would sacrifice...

Sacrifice...

The instant that word consumed his being, a jolt ran down Tony's spine. Suddenly awake again in the medical bay, he gasped. The odd, lifting sensation of his soul abruptly ceased like he'd never been in any danger.

Bruce had been one of the voices calling to him, Tony realized as his senses returned. He'd made contact with Gamora's soul, Tony remembered a second later. Now that he'd woken, all of the fog was gone. "I'm okay," he murmured. "I'm..."

Wait. Like Gamora had said, he'd 'made a choice' and confirmed that yes, he willing to offer himself. The Soul energy demanded sacrifice but hadn't actually taken his.

Did that mean... had they done it? Did it work?

Or did Stephen beat him to making that terrible move?

Suddenly tense, Tony clapped his hand over his heart. Only the normal heat of his body could be felt.

Perhaps he could still feel a hint of Stephen's presence, but Tony wasn't sure. His entire being swayed from what it had experienced. Maybe the demand for a sacrifice had been real, or maybe it had simply been a test of intention. From this bed, he couldn't know. Emptiness began to ache. For the very first time since connecting their souls, Tony couldn't know how Stephen was doing. Fear surged a second later. "Get this off me," he demanded and pushed at the scanner covering him. "I need to see if—"

The communication channel crackled to life. When Tony realized Christine was saying his name, his throat closed. Oh God. The next seconds could collapse his entire world.

As she continued, though, a deep breath filled his lungs and his shaking hands stilled.

"Tony. It worked."

Chapter Text

At first, there was nothing.

It wasn't simple darkness, nor silence. When awareness dawned like a tiny, flickering spark, it did so in an unknowable void. Like the time before the Big Bang, there wasn't any empty volume to measure against. There was simply nothing.

A state of something arrived quickly, though. Sparks became glimmering light, which turned into images, and images earned names. There had been a rush of movement. Before that, the face of an alien child. Before that...

Synchronization. Soul.

Tony.

"Doctor. We're seeing a response."

"I see it, too. Keep that flow steady. We need to keep synched with Wakanda."

Was Tony there? That green child had mentioned him. But his heart felt absent. Was something wrong?

"Readings are approaching normal levels."

"Keep an eye on the Stone pattern. We're almost there with him."

A long breath exhaled against the interior of an oxygen mask. For the first time in more than a month, Stephen Strange opened his eyes and saw Earth in front of him.

His gaze roamed vacantly. He didn't know this room. Where was he? Right, right: Tony's team. He was at their headquarters. That must be the Avengers' staff making noise in the distance. If that were so, then one other person he knew might be...

"Hey," whispered a glossy-eyed Christine as she stepped into view. "Welcome back."

Still in a daze, he smiled back at her as she checked monitors and then removed his oxygen mask. At least his mental faculties were sharper than after a typical coma, but things were still cloudy. Test your functionality, a professional urge told him and Stephen deliberately opened and closed his right hand. Good. Even if his soul had been traumatically removed, re-integration seemed to be happening quickly.

As he repeated the test with his left hand, Stephen frowned and tried lifting his arm into view. Though it was slow to respond, he could clearly see that no IV line was there like any long-term patient should have in place. "Have I been recently moved?"

Laughing, Christine shook her head, wiped away one trickling tear, and repeated, "Welcome back." Her hand found a button on a console and she added, "Tony? Tony, it worked."

Tony was there, then. He'd soon open the door. As total relief swept Stephen, he exhaled and let his head sink back against the pillow. "Seriously. Explain the lack of a line." He swallowed and frowned when he felt dryness but no other irritation. It didn't feel like he'd had a feeding tube down there. "And did you do nasogastric or orogastric intubation?"

Despite her emotional state, Christine couldn't help but laugh again as she leaned down to gently hug him. "You get literally pulled across an entire galaxy and of course this is how you react."

This was the third time he'd woken up in a hospital after a medical emergency. The first time had changed his life, and after the second he'd needed to get right back on his feet to keep fighting a global threat. Of course his priority was to assess how his body was doing. With the path he'd chosen, he couldn't afford to falter.

But he could hug her back, though his grip was still weak. Hopefully that would soon resolve.

The nurses' steady background hum quieted as a door slid open. As Christine stepped away from the bed, Stephen could see the hopeful, teary face that had steered him back home. Tony practically gnawed through his lower lip as he worried at it, but that concern fled when Stephen's gaze focused on him to say, "Hey."

Tony gave one breathy laugh in return, then replied, "Hey." Behind him, a familiar crimson relic poked its collar into view. They must have asked the Cloak to wait outside while they worked with the Stone. That made sense; it carried its own magical energies with it.

"I'll watch his vitals," Christine announced to the room after considering them. "Would you all mind stepping out for a moment? If anything happens with the energy flow, Tony can handle it."

This still wasn't the reunion they should have, but at least Christine was giving them a little more privacy by chasing out the nurses. Stephen would also prefer it if he weren't in a hospital gown and surrounded by beeping monitors, but all of those negatives paled against the wonder of being back on Earth, alive and breathing, with Tony in front of him.

As those nurses filed toward Tony, he stepped aside to let them pass. His eyes were alight with unspoken joy. Before, emotions at that strength would have burrowed into Stephen's chest. Now, as he only felt an echo of what was in Tony's expression, he found himself actually missing their connection. At least there still seemed to be something between them, but it wasn't like—

The door slid shut. As soon as it did, Tony closed the space between them and drew Stephen into a long, deep kiss. Warmth ran through Stephen's veins as he lifted a still-slow hand to rest it against the face of the man who'd saved his soul from destruction. At the end of their first physical kiss, Tony pulled back, met his gaze, and smiled again. His hand reached up to cup Stephen's face, echoing Stephen's own movement, and his smile turned as tender as he'd ever shown.

A moment later, a tiny squeaking noise drew their attention.

Oh. Right.

Both men slowly turned to face Christine, whose jaw hung slack. One hand was half-raised and her expression was as stunned as she'd been when Stephen first showed up after Kamar-Taj. At her side, the Cloak hung absolutely motionless.

Stephen considered the moment, then inclined his head toward them. "So, funny story."

"Ohhhh," Christine said like she hadn't heard him. "Some things just started making way more sense." She punctuated the last bit with a shaky gesture toward Tony and a nod that confirmed whatever was running through her head.

Tony grimaced, warped that into a smile, and asked hopefully, "Can you maybe not spread this around just yet? We're trying to do things on our schedule."

"Marking your territory," Christine continued like he hadn't spoken. "Wow. Okay. Right."

Stephen cleared his throat. "Christine... really. Can you please keep this to yourself until things have settled down?"

She laughed helplessly and tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. "I. Sure. Yeah. Sure." One finger jutted forward. "But we are talking later. Not just about this, but about everything that happened to you." As she spoke, the Cloak seemed to break its daze and leaned slightly forward like it was demanding an answer. Stephen could only shrug in response.

Tony leaned in again. This time, Stephen raised a hand to block him. That earned a frown, but it turned into an eyeroll after Stephen said, "Let me at least brush my teeth first."

"I don't care," Tony protested. "Do you know how many times you nearly slipped through my fingers? It just matters that your eyes are open."

That was sweet to hear, but already Stephen was thinking ahead to a shower and feeling far more like a human being. Getting out of this bed and into a real room was suddenly a priority. "Soon," he promised and glanced toward the gawking spectators to remind Tony that they weren't alone. "You did it. I'm here. I'm okay."

After compromising by pulling Stephen into a hug, Tony held on too long, clenched his fists around the thin material of the hospital gown, and sighed as he released him. "Soon," Tony repeated, but looked over to Christine as he pulled back and took a bedside chair. "Is he really okay?"

The sight of them together still clearly bewildered her, but she pushed through her confusion. "Not one hundred percent, but that's to be expected after... everything. Which I will definitely ask you about," she amended toward Stephen, who nodded.

"But he will be?" Tony added. The Cloak tilted toward Christine at the question.

"So far as I can tell." Her gaze softened as she returned it to Stephen. "Though I would love it more than anything if you'd stop testing how far you can push yourself."

Tony clearly agreed with that, but Stephen shook his head at both of them. "Ask me that when the universe is no longer in need of saving. Right now, I have other priorities. I need to get out of this bed and get to work."

"Right now—" Christine began, but Tony was closer to Stephen. He was in better position to interrupt.

"Right now, you are literally the only person who can manipulate Time energy precisely enough to bridge the gap between when people died and when a reversal will happen." Tony gripped his wrist and held on tight. Dark eyes bored into Stephen with an intensity he'd seldom seen. "So if you pull some dumbass move and knock yourself out of commission, you've traded trillions of lives for your ego."

It was a complete 180 from the sweet, worried tone Tony had struck with him so far. That made sense, for it was the only argument that could work on Stephen. Of course Tony knew that.

"Listen to your doctor," Tony insisted and glanced back toward Christine. The Cloak tilted its collar toward him in consideration. "Let yourself heal as much as you need to. It's still going to be a while for the other four, anyway, and they'll need to study what we did with Soul."

Though Stephen ached to help with manipulating energy into understandable order, Tony had indeed made the perfect point. It sounded like he'd been handed an enormously important role. Filling it would require him to be in top mental and physical condition. "Fine. Find me a room and I will go there and recover. I will take it slow."

"I convinced him to stay here for now instead of at the Sanctum, in case he crashes," Tony explained to Christine.

That seemed to genuinely surprise her. "Wow. Nice work."

"I'm here," Stephen protested as they ignored him. "Hearing you two discuss me."

"I'll have my AI Friday track him," Tony added. "She can send up an alert if anything goes outside parameters."

"What parameters?" Christine wondered.

Tony shrugged. "Whatever ones you set, you're the doctor."

"Seriously," Stephen loudly said, "I am right here." Tony's hand squeezed his shoulder in what was likely meant as a comforting gesture, but he just wanted to stop feeling like a stowaway on his own recovery plan. "You didn't warn me that the two of you had spent all of this time forming an alliance."

Christine cleared her throat and Tony's eyebrows twitched, and Stephen frowned at whatever story was hidden there. But then he cleared his own throat and said, "Tony. Now you need to leave for a little bit. It's okay, I'll see you afterward."

"I have been waiting to see you awake and talking ever since Titan," Tony protested.

"And I understand that," Stephen patiently replied, "but I need a catheter removed and I'd prefer it if you weren't watching over the nurse's shoulder."

Tony hesitated, then nodded and stood. "Okay. Fair call. But—"

"They'll get you when I'm ready to go."

A soft smile grew, then a gentle laugh matched it. "Guess you don't need the chain to know what I was thinking." Before he left, Tony leaned back down, kissed Stephen lightly on the forehead, and then ruffled his hair before he could be stopped. His farewell grin was given over those protests.

"So," Christine said after the door had closed and they were left alone with the Cloak. "You and Tony." In its corner, the Cloak tilted in clear disbelief.

"Me and Tony," Stephen agreed after a lengthy pause. "It's brand new. Honestly, it shocked the hell out of both of us. But when I look at everything past... the world's current troubles, I see so much that's just..." Words failed him, and after a moment of consideration, he went with a much simpler explanation. "I'm happy."

There looked like more that Christine wanted to say, but she swallowed it. "Well, that's nice to hear. Especially after resolving about seventy thousand light years of spiritual displacement in one jolt."

He pulled back and nodded thoughtfully. They hadn't assigned those specific numbers to his journey before. "Impressive. That's going on my resumé."

"Oh, stop." Christine idly flicked a bit of hair that Tony had mussed back into place. "This didn't make me hate your new job any less, you know. You caused enough trouble when I knew you'd be spending hours in the same OR every day."

"And yet here you are," Stephen said after a short pause, "working with the Avengers to save the universe."

"It's temporary," she protested.

"I didn't even want to work with them. You probably signed a contract."

"It's temporary! Wait." Christine pulled back. "Do not even tell me they asked you. Oh my God, you got an invitation to join the Avengers. How is this your life, now?" He didn't really have a solid answer for that, and so she laughed and continued tapping through some monitors on the nearby wall. "It's the medical bed, by the way."

He tried to follow her logic, couldn't, and replied, "I'm going to need context on that one."

"It's a vibranium bed from Wakanda. Vibranium has outstanding bonding properties with human tissue, so we're able to do medicinal and nutritional infusions via simple contact. No lines required."

Stephen gawked at that explanation. "Seriously? That's incredible. Show me. Did I even need to be on an antibiotic drip?"

Christine grabbed what he recognized as a packet of a vitamin supplement solution as she answered, "No! I mean, we put you on one anyway just because of where you came from, but we never had to insert anything." She hesitated before amending, "Besides that urinary catheter. Let me call in a nurse. Want me to leave?"

He shrugged. "You've seen the procedure countless times, and..." With a smirk, he shrugged again and finished, "And you've seen other things."

Her eyes rolled. "Has he, yet? Sorry. I'm still not over the two of you. I have things to ask you about how in the hell this happened with Tony Stark. Many, many things. And—" The door opened, revealing a nurse in crimson scrubs, and Christine neatly pivoted onto another topic. "Thanks, Emily. Stephen, try squeezing my hand as she works. I saw you measuring digit response earlier and I want to see if PT is indicated."

"I do not need physical therapy," Stephen instantly said as he gripped her hand and squeezed. There was no way he'd suffer through that again, and arguing about it was a good distraction from how the nurse was exposing him. "I only had my soul ripped out. Zero physical damage."

"That is not a normal thing that people say. There are no journal articles on souls being ripped out, Stephen, so you can't say that for certain. And besides, you're still—" Noticing his discomfort as the nurse began her task, Christine raised her voice to hold his attention and continued, "You're still moving a little slowly, so I want to keep an eye on that."

"I'm getting used to being in my body again. And to Earth's gravity."

"You're 'getting used to Earth's gravity,'" she repeated. "Again, I cannot believe that you live a life that has you saying these words. Remember when it was a crisis when neither of us could land Hamilton tickets?"

The discomfort had largely passed, so as the nurse finished her work Stephen was able to return to a more confident tone. He didn't let go of Christine's hand, though; she'd turned this measurement task into a challenge. "Our crisis calibration was set to 'aliens invade New York' years ago. This was just a repeat performance."

"God, I really should have taken that job offer in Denver," Christine said after a moment and let his hand drop. As he laughed, she quickly inspected the nurse's work and nodded. "Okay, things are looking good. Stop making whatever face you're making, Stephen."

He laughed again and swallowed the comment he'd been ready to give her.

"We know each other," Christine dryly told the nurse as she moved Stephen's clothing and blanket back into place.

The nurse couldn't contain a twitching smile. "I figured. Need me for anything else?"

"Not right now, thank you." As the nurse left them, Christine tracked her process to the door and through it, and turned back to Stephen with a more sober expression once they were alone. "I really do need you to take things slowly. You were not gripping my hand as hard as you thought you were. It's clearly going to take your soul some time to get used to being inside yourself again, and your body is weakened a little from whatever this past month did to it."

With a frown, Stephen raised one hand and inspected the wrist and fingers there. Unlike in past years, scars were irrelevant as he studied himself. Sure enough, between this coma and the weeks where he had to force himself to eat alien food, he could see where the bones of his wrist had grown more prominent. "Let me guess: no strenuous activity."

"If that's what we're calling it," Christine dryly agreed. "I'd keep you in here for observation for a few days if I could, but from the look you're giving me I know that's not going to happen."

"I'm not a coma patient, I'm an astral displacement patient who's getting more used to Earth's gravity by the second. I don't need to be observed, especially since Tony decided to have his AI track me. Find me some clothes." Stephen hesitated before amending, "Please."

Like he hadn't spoken, she added, "I also know you won't stay in here to shower, despite it being the smart thing to do, but you need to promise me you'll use lukewarm water."

"You mean I don't want to have my blood pressure abruptly drop while I'm in recovery?" At her level look, Stephen pulled back, took a deep breath, and said, "Sorry. I will take care of myself."

Christine eyed him as she leaned over and pressed a button, then held up the nutritional supplement bag she'd grabbed earlier. "Let me show you how this works. I won't mind topping off your vitamins again. You should probably come back in for supplements for a while, anyway."

As the bag was aligned with an indentation on the bed, Stephen tried to twist himself around to look at it only for Christine to press him back down. "Needs dermal contact," she reminded him. As Stephen relented and let himself go slack against the bed, he heard the door open and Tony say a quick greeting.

"I called Tony back in," Christine confirmed as she tapped another button. Warmth streamed through Stephen's skin where it touched the vibranium surface, and for a moment he let himself focus on what must be happening with the supplements she'd selected for him.

"Notable sensation in my wrists... water-soluble is being delivered straight to the circulatory system?" At her nod, he made sure to keep his wrists flat against the bed below and waited for the broader sensation that was sure to follow. "And fat-soluble being integrated across the body. With zero injection sites that could lead to infections. This really is incredible."

"You do like your med tech," Tony said after watching the process conclude.

"Speaking of fat-soluble," Christine said as she retrieved and discarded the bag, "you've probably got some severe hunger pangs."

Now that she'd alluded to his weight loss, yes, he felt ravenous. It'd been about a week and a half since his body had taken any nutrition that wasn't in a solution form, and more than a month since he'd actually wanted to consume anything in front of him. "Yeah, I'm starving. Don't tell me I have to start with broth."

"You have to start with broth." Christine pointed at Tony. "Don't let him have anything else today, or he'll regret it."

Stephen frowned. "I think I could make some very measured decisions about—"

Christine spoke over him. "He is a terrible patient and we know he'll try to push himself no matter what he promised us earlier. Make him stick to broth. It's up to you to out-stubborn him. Can I trust you to do that, Tony?"

From the look that earned, Tony had just been handed an enormous gift. "Oh, I can absolutely do that, Dr. Palmer."

"I'm not going to risk the universe by pushing myself too far!" Stephen protested. "What sort of person do you both take me for?"

Tony turned and met his gaze. "What sort of person? Me. If I woke up from a coma and got told I couldn't help for a few days, I'd figure out ways to do a little work, anyway. That whole time, I'd think I was doing the right thing because I knew exactly what my own limits were better than anyone else." He walked over, set something down on a shelf behind him, and cupped Stephen's cheek in one hand. "You're having broth, you're taking it easy, and Friday is tracking you."

Damn. Tony was right. Stephen could absolutely imagine Tony Stark prodding the boundaries of what was safe for him since he just had to help people right away, and Stephen would be equally frustrated if he watched it happen. "Fine."

Tony studied him with amused affection, then eventually looked back up and decided, "He'll still try something."

Christine smirked. "Of course he will."

"I will not try—" Stephen inhaled. "Christine, what do I need to do before you'll release me?"

The earlier check on his grip strength wasn't enough; Christine wanted to test all of his functionality before she let him out of bed. Despite his protests that this had been nothing more than an extended session of astral projection, he had to go through resistance tests on every limb. On the walls, all of his vitals were recorded and analyzed. Tony watched every moment of the tests intently, as did the Cloak that had floated over to hang near one of his shoulders.

"I feel like a zoo exhibit," Stephen eventually announced. "When can I eat? And shower, and do anything but sit in here?"

"Now," Christine relented. "You're weak for now, but not with typical post-coma indicators. I can't keep you in here any longer for what I'm seeing." She mussed his hair like Tony had earlier and announced, "You're officially his problem."

Tony beamed. "Yay. And I figured you didn't want to wait to see Wong, have him go back to the Sanctum, and raid your stuff, so..." He reached behind himself to grab where he'd set something down and then extended a handful of dark cloth. "We keep workout gear on hand. It'll be comfy in the meantime."

Accepting it, Stephen unfolded one piece and saw unremarkable black pants, light enough to not be uncomfortable in summer, and smiled when he saw the t-shirt Tony had grabbed to accompany it. "Was grey on purpose?"

"Grey was on boring purpose, yes."

"Well, despite that color judgment, thank you for..." Trailing off as he unfolded the shirt, Stephen studied it for a long moment, then turned to Tony. All he got in response was a look of pure innocence, and with a grumble, Stephen turned back to the shirt with an Avengers 'A' printed on its chest.

"It's what we had on hand," Tony reminded him, still with that damnable smile.

"I'll meet you in the hall," Stephen said after another silent moment. "I just have a couple more questions for Christine."

Once they were left alone, Stephen shook his head again at the logo Tony had tried to get him into. "I'm sorry you found out like that, by the way. About me and him." As the Cloak pointed to itself with one corner, Stephen cleared his throat and clarified, "Christine. I'm sorry."

From the way she shrugged, he honestly couldn't tell how she truly felt about all this. "Well, we're not dating. We haven't dated for a long time."

"We've kissed."

"That's not dating."

"We're at least an 'it's complicated.' Give me that much." As Christine began another denial, Stephen inclined his head toward her collarbone and the necklace he'd chosen not to mention until now. "You didn't wear that very often. Before."

Frowning, she looked down at herself, then rolled her eyes and tucked the necklace back under her scrubs. "It's a lucky medical charm and I was worried about the Stone flow. And... yeah, we're complicated. But now you've got a new complicated."

"Amazingly," Stephen said as he wriggled on his pants, "it doesn't feel complicated at all."

"It really seems like it should be complicated," Christine said after a long pause. "But we'll talk later, right?"

After replacing his hospital gown with the shirt, Stephen said, "Of course."

"Good. And I'd insist on you taking a chair back to your room if not for—"

The second Stephen moved his weight off the bed, the Cloak instantly wrapped his shoulders and squeezed him for a good five seconds. Despite his intention to walk, he found himself hovering an inch above the floor.

"—Expecting that to happen." Christine tilted her head slightly, making it clear that her next words weren't aimed at Stephen. "He might get dizzy, so keep an eye out if he wobbles, all right? I'm concerned about temporary dips in blood pressure." After the Cloak's collar bobbed up and down, she nodded back to it. "All right, then, and... and my life really took a detour into the surreal. Anyway, make Tony take you straight to the room. And tell him that he needs to go get any food from the cafeteria. Stephen, I don't want you leaving that room until tomorrow morning at the earliest."

"How exactly is the Cloak going to tell him that?"

"Christine started pushing the comm button," said Tony over the speakers. "I heard that we're supposed to go straight to your room. Can I come back in?"

"Sure. And you have no boundaries," he said to Christine.

She studied him with a smile and absolutely no apology, then reached over to flip the t-shirt's hem into place. "It's going to take me a little while to get over seeing galactic maps. You're not disappearing on me again."

"You're flying there?" Tony asked as he entered the room and studied Stephen. "Or... hovering?"

"I don't really have a choice in the matter. It was this or a wheelchair, and the Cloak decided for me."

"Oh. Right." Tony pointed at the Cloak's collar. "Don't put him down."

As the collar bobbed up and down in acknowledgment, Stephen's eyes rolled. The three of them were being completely impossible. Though he was glad to be free of that soul prison, and just as glad to be off Titan itself, it had been far calmer there. "I will talk to you later, Christine," he said loudly to cue their departure.

"I cleared your schedule," Tony explained as they began to head down the hallway. They appeared to be in a basement, going by the numbers on the doors, but the facility was as sleek and modern as he'd expect from something that Tony had funded. "People want to talk to you, but I let them know not until you've been cleared by your doc."

"People?" Stephen wondered as he tried to walk but could only brush his foot uselessly against the ground. The Cloak was on a mission, and it was not letting him loose until that mission was completed.

"Rhodey, for one. I mean, James Rhodes."

"War Machine," Stephen remembered as he thought through his memories of the Avengers' news stories.

Tony needed a few steps to respond. "Right. You're only going to know everyone from the tabloids. Well, I'll fill you in on the real details before any meetings. Except for Bruce. You don't need anything on him."

"That I don't. Did you chase off Wong, too? I would actually like to get some things from the Sanctum."

"Later," Tony insisted. "Everything you'll need for right now is in your room."

"Tony—"

"Just let me take care of you." Tony absently rubbed a spot above his heart as he continued, "I can barely feel you any more, so I'm assuming you can barely feel me."

"It's surprising that there's anything left at all." His soul had lifted free, so he wasn't sure what explained the lingering resonance.

"I guess. But what I'm trying to say is that you can't feel how happy I am that you're here, awake, and okay. So I'll say it out loud, instead, and let me help keep you that way. Please." Tony stopped, and although he'd been careful not to look affectionate as they walked the public halls, he reached out to lightly clasp Stephen's wrist. "Please."

"You do love to save people," Stephen said after considering him. It could have come out dismissive, but he laced his words with affection.

"Love. Yeah." Tony squeezed again before letting go and leading them into an elevator.

"Tony..." Not really knowing what he intended to say, Stephen trailed off, laughed faintly, and shook his head. There was indeed a whole lot of 'it's complicated' to sort out, but doing so would actually be pleasant. To think, he'd spent weeks knowing that his life would soon be over. Ever since watching the futures, he'd known for an absolute fact that his life would come to an abrupt end on a dry, dead wasteland. Instead, things were suddenly...

As the elevator doors opened and they rounded a corner, his breath seized in his throat. A bank of windows spanned from ceiling to floor. The sky was a brilliant blue above, so bright that it hurt to look at. Green grass covered the land outside, up to where it butted into the shifting leaves of a forest. A flock of birds emerged from the trees and exploded into movement against the clouds.

"I knew I'd never see this again," he whispered in the silence. All that had been left for him was Titan's orange, the black of space, and death. "I knew..."

"I'm really glad you were wrong," Tony said with a shaky smile after watching him study the landscape outside.

A breeze gusted and the forest rippled. Green became a hundred different shades as leaves angled toward sunlight and deeper toward shadow.

"So am I." After inhaling a shaky breath, Stephen said, "Can you please show me to my room?" Seeing Earth's life around him was a more emotional experience than he'd expected. He refused to let this be the first impression he made if someone wandered by.

That room was a perfectly pleasant space, though its blank walls lacked even the charm of a chain hotel. Stephen trailed his fingers over the small table and the wall monitor that overlooked it, then the bed, and finally the frame of the nearest window. Breezes still gusted outside. The grass rippled like faint waves on a lake.

"I have Friday watching you," Tony said. "I really don't want to leave, but I know you're starving."

Right. He was. He'd forgotten.

"So I'll run to the cafeteria and back while you take a quick shower. I'll find you a phone, too. Well, it's not really a phone, just a communicator we use to... you don't care. Cafeteria. Now."

Though it was hard to look away from the sight outside his window, Stephen did turn to smile at Tony. "Thanks."

"Yeah. Of course." Tony started to say something, laughed, and shook his head as he wiped at one eye. "Should probably get ahold of myself before I go get you lunch."

Though Stephen's smile naturally lingered, it turned more thoughtful as he felt a flash of warmth in his chest. They couldn't actually be tied together any more; his soul was safely back in his body. There must be some other explanation for still being able to feel intermittent emotions. The synchronization they'd gone through, fueled by a power to compare to an Infinity Stone, seemed a likely cause.

With that in mind, he tried altering energy flows toward what he and Tony had achieved. It was a tiny adjustment, but the shiver he earned from Tony told him that he'd hit the mark. Nothing would ever match the intensity of having their souls literally tied together, but these emotions were at least like hearing music coming from another room.

"This isn't helping me get control of things," Tony pointed out after they'd settled into feeling at least an echo of the other man.

"See what food looks good," Stephen replied. "I can take at least a little of something."

Amusement barely rippled. "You're getting broth. Go take your shower."

Ugh. Fine. With a good-natured eyeroll, Stephen gestured Tony out and moved to inspect the quarter's attached bathroom. It was as sleekly bland as the room itself, and was stocked with generic toiletries and hung with plain white towels. "Surprised they didn't label those, too," Stephen muttered as he stripped off the shirt that bore that obnoxious A logo.

"I've set the shower temperature to ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit," chirped a woman's voice as he brushed his teeth. "Given Dr. Palmer's concerns, that seems appropriate."

Although that cleaning had been doing a fine job of making him feel human again, Stephen stopped to look around the room with the toothbrush handle hanging out of his mouth before he remembered Tony's AI. "So," he said after spitting out the foam, "Friday's female. Makes sense, with the cultural reference."

"I'm neither female nor male," Friday cheerfully replied, "but I do sound like I have a woman's voice. It helps keep me distinct from Jarvis, the previous AI that Mr. Stark used. Would you like to undergo aromatherapy while you shower? Although the relative lack of steam at this temperature—"

"No. I don't want... please just turn on the water." And here he'd thought that the Cloak of Levitation could be overly helpful, Stephen thought as he stepped into the shower and let out a long sigh. Oh, a sonic shower could never equal this. Already, Titan was little more than a distant memory.

Distant memory. Distant memory. Frowning as he reached for shampoo, Stephen thought back to the vague, cloudy process of getting him back to Earth. There had been an alien who he'd confirmed as Gamora. She was apparently on their side. Nonetheless, despite her help, the Stone had still demanded a sacrifice. When he'd realized that the process was about to rip out Tony's own soul to get his back into place, Stephen had tried to untie the chain and let himself be fragmented before that could happen.

They'd probably been trying to sacrifice themselves simultaneously. Interesting, though hardly unexpected for the two of them. It was good that it hadn't worked, but it'd worthy of study. As soon as he could talk to Wong, then they could start thinking about which books to pull, and—

As Stephen's knees suddenly weakened, a safety grip jutted out from the wall.

Okay. Maybe Christine was right, and he did need to take this first day easy.

Maybe.

Or maybe he just needed to eat.

After toweling off and re-dressing, he studied himself in the mirror. There was some growth of facial hair, but nothing like a month's worth. Hearing noise in the outside room, he walked out there and guessed, "Was this you?"

After Stephen ran a hand across the part of his jaw that was normally bare and now covered with some regrown stubble, Tony snorted and said, "No. Christine beat me to it. Being so annoyed by her doing that probably should have been a sign."

Though following that up with a quip about Tony's thick-headedness would have been natural, the scent of the food Tony had carried back made it across the room. Basic broth or not, it was actual food, made by humans and intended for humans, and it was one of the best things Stephen had ever smelled in his life.

Tony soon couldn't help but laugh at the sight of so much pleasure coming from a soup bowl. As he reclined in a seat and fiddled with what must be one of those communicators, he said, "Don't know if I've ever seen someone enjoy soup this much."

"Later," Stephen demanded between spoonfuls. In the background, the Cloak floated around as it inspected his new quarters. "Oh my God," he eventually concluded as he sat back. Eyes closed as his hunger pangs eased. Soft cotton shifted against his skin with each movement. "I actually feel alive again."

To his surprise, a faint ripple of sadness entered his chest. Frowning, he looked up to Tony in confusion.

"Sorry," Tony said when he realized he'd been heard, so to speak. "Just, the way you said that... I think my brain auto-filled 'instead of sacrificed.' It hit me that it's been more than a month since... you know."

Since using the Time Stone, experiencing millions upon millions of ways to die, and committing to what appeared to be one of them. It'd only been about a week since Stephen had any hope of making it back to Earth, and only today had it actually proved possible.

"Sorry," Tony repeated and shook his head as his hands continued working on the communicator. "I'm still gonna be kind of emotional until this oxygen therapy does its job. Fair warning."

Now Stephen's mood sobered, too. "Because I gave you brain damage."

"It's not your fault," Tony said after a pause. "I know you will never, ever believe that, but it's not. I could have taken things more slowly. I could have asked for spiritual armor as soon as I figured out what was going on. I didn't. I rushed in."

"To try to save me," Stephen amended. "And I am the one who hurt you, in the end."

"Come on, stop saying that."

Damage to the temporal lobe, caused by magic. He and Christine had come up with a technique to address neurological damage due to atypical energy. If he'd been able to retrieve those precancerous cells so precisely, then maybe... "I could try to heal it. Possibly."

It was a risky offer. He'd need to survey the damage and see where it was located, and then make any fixes with far greater precision than he'd ever used with a scalpel. Chances were, he'd back out as soon as he went in and just let Tony's body heal itself. Still, though, he could try.

From the loving look Tony gave him, he wasn't considering any of those risks. "Of course."

"You answered that too quickly. You clearly don't appreciate the danger."

"So we do it after all of this Thanos stuff," Tony decided and set down the communicator as he stood. "But I don't care about risks, because I trust you. You wouldn't let anything happen. And I'd take that damage again to bring you home," he added as he knelt next to Stephen's chair, "because I love you." His eyes crinkled in a smile. "I don't think I've really said that since you got back. It felt like I should."

Though the words begged to be returned, Stephen instead stayed quiet for a contemplative moment as he studied the man in front of him: Tony Stark, the showboating inventor and superhero who seemed to do little else besides cause drama in the news. He'd been so easy to categorize from a distance and so easy to dislike at first meeting.

Everything was different up close. When Tony really meant one of his smiles, they brought along lines at the corners of his eyes. Sunglasses usually covered Tony's eyes when he made a news appearance, but in person they were constantly changing with every flicker of emotion. And he was emotional, even without temporal lobe damage. The same depth of feeling that had made him so reactive and frustrating in their first days now felt like... like home.

"I love you, too," Stephen replied after that consideration.

"You really thought about that one."

"That's how I know I mean it so much."

"Fair enough," Tony murmured as he leaned forward. As their lips met, Stephen found himself responding with none of the hesitation he'd had in the infirmary. Their arms wrapped around each other, and when the armrest of the chair got in the way, they stood to maneuver clear of it.

It felt spectacular to be back in his body, Stephen soon realized as Tony's hand slid down his back. He'd had awareness in that soul prison, but it was detached from the physical. When the last inch of distance between them vanished, he could feel a raw heat radiating. It promised everything. Pushing forward, he angled Tony toward the nearest wall and—

"Your heartbeat has elevated past acceptable levels," Friday helpfully said.

"Oh, come on!"

Laughing, Tony sighed, rested his head against Stephen, and looked back up. "I guess Christine set the parameters."

"Then turn off your AI." It was just his pulse, for God's sake. It had barely sped.

If Tony were tempted, it passed too quickly to notice. "I'm out-stubborning you. Remember? That's my job."

"I'm—"

"You're going to try to pull something. Yep." Laughing at whatever flat expression Stephen gave him, Tony leaned back in, kissed him with a deliberately light touch, and replied, "I can wait a few days."

"I'm not about to..." With deliberate focus, Stephen clenched his jaw as a dark halo appeared around his vision. The ground tilted back into position a second later and the world again looked like it should, but he probably hadn't been able to hide that short bout of dizziness from Tony.

He hadn't. "Sit down," Tony ordered. Yes, the moment was officially gone.

"Fine," Stephen groaned and took a seat. As Tony returned from the bathroom, Stephen noticed that the Cloak was looking out from the door. It must have darted in there to give them privacy... or to avoid the sight of them. Did it like Tony by now? He'd have to find out.

"Let me," Tony said and held up what he was carrying: a razor, shaving cream, and a towel.

Still annoyed at the dizziness that had struck him, Stephen said shortly, "I can handle that. I obviously do on a regular basis." Okay. That had been a little terse, he thought as he looked away from Tony and sighed at himself. While he could suffer through nearly anything if it were part of his own plans, he really didn't make for a good patient when it felt like he'd lost control of a situation.

Fortunately, Tony seemed to understand that. "I'm not saying that you can't. I'm saying that I want to take care of you. Please let me."

Stephen looked back, studied him for a silent moment, and then nodded once. "Thanks."

"You've probably noticed," Tony said as he pulled a chair opposite him and settled in, "but I'm really good at this." He gestured to his own, precisely-shaped beard. Its distinctive shape was probably challenging to maintain, yes.

"Hmm. Well. Don't get creative."

"You're no fun," Tony chuckled as he began his work. "Hey. Don't smile."

"Sorry." With purpose, Stephen focused on maintaining a blank, neutral expression for as long as Tony was pulling a razor against his skin. That was difficult. The moment was surprisingly intimate and he found himself looking away whenever their eyes started to meet. It was the best way to maintain control.

"There," Tony eventually said and lightly wiped down his jaw with the towel. "Looking good."

"Thank you."

"Want a mirror?"

Eventually, yes, but he knew what the right response was for this moment. He owed Tony a bit of apology. "No, I trust that you did a good job. The march toward feeling totally human again continues."

That extension of trust had been exactly the right move, for Tony did look pleased that Stephen hadn't even wanted to double-check his work. "And just think: tomorrow you'll even be able to eat something. So long as it's boring. Oh, hey, looks like a message came in from Wong."

"I assume you gave him one of these?" Stephen guessed as Tony handed him the device that looked like a cell phone, but was apparently an Avengers communication device.

"Yeah, he's been working on research with us. Which you are not allowed to think about for a few days, remember." At Stephen's look of protest, Tony held up his hands. "Just try it, Strange, and I'll sic Christine on you."

"I'm guessing you've pulled Wong into your conspiracy circle about me," Stephen grumbled as he opened the message. He wasn't so pathetically weak that he couldn't at least begin some rudimentary research work this evening.

"Mmm hmm. He decided he wasn't even going to say hi to you until a little later, for your own good." At the annoyed look that earned, Tony laughed and added, "We all know you. If you could, you'd be requesting half the library via portal and pulling an all-nighter."

Stephen began to protest, sighed, and said nothing. Yeah. He would have been reading instead of sleeping, or would read while he slept. That wasn't the right move immediately after resolving traumatic spiritual displacement. "Oh, good," Stephen murmured as he read Wong's message. Though Wong flatly refused to bring anything magic-related to him until tomorrow, he had offered to bring by a bag of Stephen's belongings in the meantime. "I'll be able to get some actual clothes."

As he had no idea where his had gone by now, he also requested that Wong grab another sling ring. (It'd be a surprise to see whether one actually arrived.) By habit, he read through his sentences as he typed them, watching for the inevitable typos and waiting to correct them. His hands were a little better than they'd been after the string of surgeries, but would always be damaged unless he did nothing else with magical energy but control their motion. By now, that was at the bottom of his list of priorities. Tremors would always be something to deal with but no longer defined his life.

Typing a request to check in his 'room' for something had another unexpected nerve twitch. Making these corrections was normal by now, like knowing to correct for how one of the steps leading into the Sanctum was slightly higher than the others. Stephen thought nothing of hitting the delete button to change 'doom' to what he'd intended, only to blink when he actually processed what was on the screen. Though his thumb had definitely twitched, the screen still showed what he'd meant to type.

"Is it working?" Tony asked.

"Is what working?" Stephen asked. Huh. Maybe it hadn't twitched enough to notice.

"Earlier this week, I figured out a way to adjust my suit to move automatically. I had the idea of reverse-engineering the programming to compensate for unintended motion over the touchscreen. Is it working?" At Stephen's blank expression, Tony paled. "Sorry. I'm not trying to... okay, apparently I might have fucked up. I thought of Rhodey and how he wants to be able to just live his life. And. Yeah."

"Thank you," Stephen said after realizing Tony worried that it somehow looked like he pitied Stephen, rather than simply caring for him in the best way that he could. In those first, low days after his accident, Stephen probably would have agreed with the cynical assessment. But by now, he just saw a trade-off of what they could do for each other. Yes, Tony had needed to program something to help him. But Stephen was the one who'd been able to lift free the dangerous echoes of Tony's old arc reactor. He'd never pitied Tony for needing that help. He'd just been glad to offer it.

"Really, thank you," he repeated when Tony still looked worried that he'd misstepped. Stephen could be prickly, Tony knew, and was always proud. He'd barely tolerated the shaving earlier and this referenced a much bigger deal in his life.

"You're welcome," Tony replied after waiting to see if he truly meant it.

"There," Stephen soon said as he sent the message and saw a reply. "Wong will not be bringing me anything to work on until tomorrow. Only clothes are coming today, and he is very happy to know that I'm awake."

"We're all happy," Tony added with a grin.

The motion of trees outside the window caught Stephen's attention again, and it took him a while to reply. They still had work to do, and so much life was absent in the meantime... but it was life here. Life was still going on when he'd known there was nothing for him but death.

He had people looking out for him when he remembered repeated decades of Time Stone futures spent in utter solitude, supported by no one and targeted by the universe. Wong and Christine knew him so well that they cared about him in the best ways possible no matter how grumpily he took it. And Tony...

Tony was the reason his soul hadn't fallen into nothing, lost for a cold eternity as it fractured into ever-smaller pieces in hostile alien space.

"What're you thinking?" Tony eventually wondered as Stephen kept staring at the green, living world outside.

After another moment of studying all that life, Stephen turned to him and said, "How utterly and completely I love you."

Warmth surged. With all of the emotional intensity that Stephen now appreciated, Tony leaned forward, caught Stephen's face, and pulled him into a kiss that threatened another pulse warning from Friday. "How about that," Tony murmured when they pulled apart. "We're still in sync."

Chapter Text

"Hungry?"

Stephen blinked awake and pushed himself up on one elbow. Light slanted in at a steeper angle than he remembered. There was a blanket on top of him that he hadn't seen before, and Tony held a tablet that hadn't been in the room earlier. "How long was I out?" He didn't even remember relocating to the bed.

"Two hours, about. So. Hungry?"

Though he wasn't famished like he'd been, he could eat again. Broth wasn't filling. "Yeah, actually." Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes and shook his head. "I can't believe I fell asleep already." Even though he knew perfectly well that a coma was nothing like sleep in terms of what it did for the body, he hadn't expected to wipe out so quickly. Damn. He really was going to have to recover over the next few days instead of fueling himself on willpower. Stephen hated that.

"Well," Tony said as he poured more broth from a container he'd gotten in the meantime, "you did cross a galaxy today. That's a pretty half-decent marathon. Here."

"Fair point, and thanks." As Stephen accepted the bowl and Tony took a seat on the edge of his bed, he noticed a familiar bag in the corner. "Was Wong here?"

"Yeah. I told him to just drop that off, and he could talk to you tomorrow." Tony grinned. "You're all mine tonight."

Stephen smiled between spoonfuls. "Though I'm sure you didn't phrase it like that. I assume we're keeping this quiet until everything's taken care of."

Tony studied him. "That's what you want?"

"I'm not saying we have to hide anything, but an announcement can wait. Priorities and all." It really was amazing how delicious something as simple as soup broth could be under the right conditions. "And I think we could use a bit of adjustment time, now that we're finally face to face."

"You didn't seem to want 'adjustment time' earlier," Tony replied with a smirk.

"Don't taunt the invalid," Stephen retorted as he spooned in soup. "I was obviously lightheaded."

"You're so full of shit," Tony laughed. "I'm not sure when I started loving how you can never admit that you're wrong. I definitely didn't used to."

"Yeah. About that perspective shift." The small bowl was already empty, and so Stephen set it aside. "Let's talk about that first time that you abruptly lunged for my face."

"Wow. Lunged. That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard."

"Seriously. I was in the Titan prison, and your emotions were suddenly a wreck, and then we were yelling at each other, and then..." Trailing off, Stephen shrugged. They both knew what had happened. After an argument that dredged up the worst thing they could possibly tell the other man, Tony had kissed him like he was a man grabbing for a rope that would save him from a deadly fall. That was followed by sending the full depth of emotions in his heart. The one-two punch had left Stephen reeling, and he soon responded with the same desperation to see if another kiss would make things fall into place.

It had. They were so perfectly matched that they'd befriended each other as background noise to their work, had aligned their souls without knowing that was supposedly impossible, and fallen in love by accident. Once they got past the initial (sizable) challenge of tolerating each other, it was a straight shot toward far more. They'd soon completed a part of themselves that they didn't know was missing. But, like Stephen had seen that he needed to injure himself in a a certain way to avoid an argument, he was sure that something specific had made Tony realize the truth about what they both felt.

"You showed up all of a sudden in a panic," he continued after thinking things through. "Why?"

Tony groaned. "Natasha."

"Natasha?" Let's see, she was... "Black Widow?"

"Yeah, her. You're either going to love her or hate her; you both make decisions for people. Well, she's a spy. She notices things." Tony rolled his eyes, shook his head, and finished, "And apparently, I was acting like a big enough hormonal teenager for her to notice."

Remembering the odd behavior the two of them had displayed in the infirmary, Stephen wondered, "Toward Christine?" Though Tony didn't answer, the grimace he tried to hide was confirmation enough. Amused, Stephen asked, "Were you jealous of her, Tony?"

"Please. No."

"Oh, you were. You were making a dominance display over my comatose body. That's incredibly inappropriate and hilarious." Smirking, Stephen pushed himself up and leaned more comfortably against the headboard. "Who else knows?"

"Bruce, since I needed to talk it out with someone. And Wong."

"Wong? That'll be a fun conversation," Stephen dryly noted. "I imagine he'll be heavy on the judgment."

Oh, Tony didn't know what to make of that. He pulled back, looked Stephen over, and wondered, "Why? Are you guys supposed to be like... monks?"

Dubiously, Stephen echoed, "Monks?"

"Tone down the surprise. You're headquartered in the Himalayas and you practically wear robes, I'm allowed to wonder."

"No," Stephen said, "we are not supposed to be monks. And I'm just basing my guess on the first time you and Wong met."

"We got along fine," Tony protested.

"Well, you did get along better than the two of us." Remembering someone else who'd been touchy toward Tony, Stephen looked over to where the Cloak was idly hanging in a corner. When it saw him looking, it gave what he thought was a tiny gesture of resignation. Good, it was moving toward acceptance. "So," Stephen then said and looked back to Tony, "tell me who else I'll be meeting."

"I get the feeling you know Thor. Right?" At his nod, Tony continued, "There's a slightly touchy situation there, but not too bad." Off Stephen's frown, he explained, "I convinced him to teleport into the power wasteland from all of your broken anchors."

"Not too bad?" Stephen sputtered. Thor was very powerful, very necessary, and the space around so many shattered Roots of Baghor would be very, very deadly. He wasn't sure how many had ever been formed simultaneously before he'd made his own cluster for the portal plan, but that previous record was likely less than a dozen. The bad futures on Nebula's ship, however, had required Stephen to bolster his powers through any means necessary. That had given him millions of chances to practice anchoring his energy. Only due to that had he been able to form so many at once, and he knew that the void so many would leave would be far past 'not too bad.'

"Well, he teleported back pretty quickly."

"Thank God. I'm sure whatever happened in that time made a terrific impression on my behalf." At Tony's hesitation, Stephen groaned and demanded, "Tell me."

"Rhodey did get pretty gun-shy about you right after that. But it's fine, everything worked out. I'm really glad about that, because he's my best friend and it's going to be a whole lot easier if he likes you."

After again imagining the power void that would linger after so very many broken anchors, Stephen couldn't blame the man for whatever judgment he'd made of him. "So, who's left?" There were some people whose existence he wasn't sure of, but it could be that such people had perished or that they simply lacked a major role in the upcoming conflict.

"Out of the people who'd be in the tabloids?" Tony looked up toward the ceiling in thought. "Well, Clint. Hawkeye."

Hawkeye, yes, that was one Avenger that Stephen couldn't remember. Compared to the others, he hadn't made much of an impression in the news.

"Clint's a pretty laid back guy. I'm sure he'll like you." Tony visibly considered the topic further, then continued, "Oh, and I guess you might have seen him with the Berlin stuff. There's this guy who goes by 'Ant-Man' and—"

"Scott Lang, right."

Blinking, Tony asked, "You know his name and I had to remind you about Clint, a guy who helped keep the Chitauri out of your Manhattan ER? But you know the ant guy?"

"Now that I'm remembering more, I know that Lang's going to be a key player in all of this." Seeing the question that was coming, Stephen smiled sadly and admitted, "Sorry, still can't share the details." Knowing what had to happen was both a blessing and a curse, and just being inside this place was refreshing some memories that had blurred. While on Titan, he could only remember the fates of people they'd spoken to via the portal. Now, his knowledge changed by the hour.

Though he was confident like no one else that they could win this thing, he also knew the poor reactions that some necessary actions would earn. Unless hands were forced in the very worst heat, people would refuse to do what must be done. As much as Stephen regretted it, Tony was heading for some of that emotional turmoil. When he began to meet more people outside this room, it would be odd to meet some of them knowing that they faced worse danger. To avoid giving away fates, it was best not to think on them.

"You told me you only had one secret left," Tony groused. "On Titan. I remember that. One secret." He held up his finger. "One."

"Yeah, I was trying to be dramatic about my upcoming move with the portal. I assume it worked, since you remembered it." Off Tony's dark expression, Stephen hesitated. "Okay, no jokes about that, noted. So, did you actually assume I liked men before you lunged for me, or did you just lose control and go for it?"

It couldn't have been a more obvious attempt to change the subject. The lopsided smile Tony gave him told him he recognized just how blatant his move was. "Oh, I had an inkling. You pawed me, after all."

"Excuse me? Pawed?" Pawed?

"When you aligned us. There's no way you really had to put your hand right here." Tony reached over to pull one of Stephen's hands to his own torso. Though now it rested on top of Tony's shirt, Stephen could remember the intimate heat of their skin-to-skin contact. He'd aligned them in both the physical world and the spiritual prison, and both times were intense across every facet of their beings.

Still, though, that didn't make Tony right about this. And once they got into any sort of argument, the other man simply couldn't be left thinking that he'd won. "I actually did need to make direct contact with you. It was either there or..."

A moment later, Tony blandly said from behind Stephen's hand, where it now spread across Tony's entire face, "Funny."

"You shouldn't complain. It helps your looks."

When Tony smiled, his beard tickled the bottom of Stephen's palm. "Your pulse raced from just kissing me earlier." His head rotated to the side, revealing his face again as it moved out from under Stephen's light touch. "You can't pretend that you don't think I'm hot."

Though he let his hand drop, Stephen smirked in reply. "Who's the one of us who lost control and went for a first kiss? I don't think it was me."

Tony stroked his chin in thought. "Remind me, which one of us surprised the other in that sonic shower? And started touching my chest?"

"How many times did you appear on Titan and decide to just watch me sleep, exactly?" Stephen raised one eyebrow. "Weren't you doing that again just a few minutes ago?"

Tony hesitated, looked him over, and grinned. "It's always gonna be a competition with us, isn't it?"

"Of course," Stephen laughed as he pushed himself up and walked over to the bag that Wong had brought. If they were back in competition mode, then he wanted to get into one of his own shirts and out of the outfit that felt like Tony had branded him as Avengers property. As he grabbed the first top he stumbled across, along with a few basic magical pieces he was pleased to see he'd been entrusted with after all, Stephen looked back over his shoulder and added, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"This is going to be exhausting," Tony decided.

"You have no idea." As Tony tried to figure out how to respond to that, Stephen smirked and flicked his fingers at him. Magical energy shimmered into place around Tony's wrists. Startled, he looked down at the glowing bands. He had just a moment to realize what was happening before they adhered firmly to the surface where he sat: the bed.

"Interesting," Tony decided as he tried lifting his arms and struggled against their resistance.

"Nice. But my aim could use some improvement," Stephen said after a moment of considering Tony. It was a delicious sight on multiple levels. Not only did it promise the release of all sorts of tension that they'd agreed had been building between them, but it also left him in control. Control was always fun.

To be in total control, though, those bonds needed to adhere to a less flexible surface.

A second later, Tony let out a whuff of air as the bonds pulled him back against the firm headboard, leaving his arms spread and body vulnerable. Frowning, he looked between his fists as he balled them, struggled uselessly against the bonds around his wrists, and then turned his uncertain attention back to Stephen. "You," he said with accusation, "are supposed to wait."

"Is my pulse racing?" Stephen asked with a broad gesture around the room. Friday hadn't chimed in yet with a warning, nor did she correct him when cued.

Clearly, Tony was tempted. He bit his lower lip, shook his head once, then laughed and said, "God. But. Ngh. I have been trusted with out-stubborning you today. That means..."

"You're sure?" Stephen wondered as he flicked his fingers again. Fresh bonds appeared around Tony's ankles.

By now, they'd probably had enough adjustment time.

"Oh my God," Tony muttered a second later in a voice he definitely hadn't meant to be heard. As his eyes rolled up to the ceiling, he let out a short puff of air. His fists strained against their bonds, his thighs moved fruitlessly in jerks across the bed, and a low groan escaped him when the denim over his groin began to strain.

"I think your pulse is racing, though," Stephen guessed. Warmth flooded his face as he studied the sight in front of him: the man who'd been willing to risk absolutely everything for his sake, and who could meet him blow-for-blow on everything that mattered, left absolutely supine and helpless. This was—

"Your heartbeat has elevated past acceptable levels," Friday said with the exact intonation that she'd used before.

"Shut up," Stephen ordered and gestured again. A prismatic dome of the mirror dimension soon surrounded them. With it, anything else that Friday had to say vanished.

Despite his clear arousal, Tony's nearly black eyes regained the clarity that had been slipping away. "I'm out-stubborning you," Tony reminded him with a breathy laugh, "and by the way..."

A second later, as Tony angled his bound hands toward Stephen, blobs of nanogoop fired from both of them. Too quickly to react to when struck, the substance slid around Stephen's wrists. Bonds of his own formed, and those bonds slammed together like a pair of handcuffs in front of him.

"I was letting you win," Tony finished with a smirk.

"So," Stephen summarized as he looked down at where his hands were rigidly locked in front of him with not even an inch between the wrists. Then he looked back up to Tony, still magically bound to the headboard and mattress. "Now what?"

"Give up. We'll play Uno instead. Super fun."

"I'm not going to push anything," Stephen allowed, "but you have to admit that I win. Despite your goop, I'm still clearly in control." A moment later, he sighed as Tony successfully angled two more blasts of goop at his legs. Now his ankles were shackled as rigidly as his hands. "Okay, should not have said that."

As Stephen began to struggle agains the bonds that now locked his feet in place, Tony laughed from his spot on the bed. "Better not work at that too hard, or you'll lose your balance."

"God," Stephen muttered as he tried fruitlessly to yank apart his wrists. How did this material shift so easily from a responsive liquid to an immovable metal? And how did it know just what shape to make? "How in the hell do you even program something like this?"

Tony smiled. "They respond to my neural signatures. Oh. Huh. I guess I can direct energy flows after all, huh?"

"So, it needs your brain to tell it what to do?" Stephen smiled back at him with the confidence that had temporarily wavered, then extended his bound hands again. This time, he made use of the sling ring that Wong had included in his bag. Just as Tony's eyes widened at the sudden sparks, Stephen promised him, "Be right back."

Triumphantly, Stephen swept his portal across himself and teleported to his own bedroom in the Sanctum, dozens of miles away. With the sudden distance from Tony, surely the nanogoop would no longer have his neural direction to keep itself locked in place around his wrists and ankles. That meant that he would just be able to force his wrists apart and—

Lose his balance when nothing happened, and his shackled feet couldn't spread to adjust for his shift in weight. "Well," he announced to the Cloak, who'd dutifully followed him through the portal and caught him as he began to topple. "That didn't work."

The Cloak made a distinctive moment in response to that, and Stephen narrowed his eyes at it. "Are you laughing at me?" The denial motion wasn't very convincing. "Just get me back through the portal."

"When they're taken out of neural range," Tony said with amusement when Stephen re-appeared in his bedroom at headquarters, "they just lock up as-is."

"Yeah. I noticed." With a resigned sigh, Stephen looked down at the silvery nano material that bound his wrists and ankles, and then at the glowing energy that did the same to Tony. "We both release on the count of three?"

"One," Tony said in agreement.

For half a second, Stephen considered not keeping up his end of the bargain. Even if he agreed that nothing sexual could happen until he got the medical go-ahead for strenuous activities, the two of them were now In a competition. He had no plans to lose.

But more importantly, he and Tony had come to an agreement. They trusted each other. That trust was the most important thing they had, because it was what had let Stephen into Tony's soul for what was supposedly impossible. Trust had brought Stephen's soul back from the brink, because Tony had been willing to risk himself with the expectation that Stephen would come back to his senses. Trust that they really, totally understood each other was what had started all of this in their first days alone together on Titan.

"Two," Stephen said along with Tony, "and three." As soon as he said the word, he released the magic binding Tony's limbs. It was rewarding to feel the nano material crawling away from his skin simultaneously.

"So," Tony said as he scooted forward, rubbing at one wrist. "That all gave me some very naughty ideas."

Stephen smiled. "That was in fact the point, yes."

Tony's smile was just as knowing. As Stephen gestured to release them from the mirror dimension dome, he asked, "How about you and me trade off? With..." He held one wrist back against the headboard like it was again bound there.

"Well." That could be intriguing. Possibly. Maybe. He'd envisioned being in total control like he had been when their souls aligned, but there was no denying that Tony had also taken control with the rescue in that soul prison. With the haughty air he'd struck during their first meeting, Stephen replied, "We can negotiate about—"

"Your heartbeat has elevated past acceptable levels."

"Can you please shut her up?" Stephen snapped as Tony fell into fresh laughter. He pointed in accusation at where he thought a speaker might be. "Stop interrupting, computer, or I'll just portal back to the Sanctum and stay there."

After a last few chuckles, Tony raised his voice and said, "Friday, just record his health data for Dr. Palmer. Only say anything out loud if it's looking like an actual emergency."

"You've got it, boss."

"Take your stupid shirt back," Stephen ordered as he stripped the Avengers logo tee and replaced it with the one of his own he'd earlier grabbed. The grey shirt Tony had chosen was lobbed at him, and the soft cotton nearly impacted his face before he caught it.

"And here I tried to be so thoughtful."

"You tried to brand me, and you know it." Stephen turned to get agreement from the Cloak, only to see that it had once again ducked into the bathroom to give them privacy. Oh. Yes, he supposed that it wouldn't have wanted to stick around for their 'competition.' God only knew how it'd react when his medical hold was removed. This bedroom wasn't small, exactly, but it wasn't anything like the full Sanctum. "Hey, can the Cloak explore the facility tomorrow? It sounds like it stuck with my body in the infirmary, so I imagine it hasn't seen much."

"...One, yes. Two, I want Friday tracking everyone's reactions when they see it for the first time." Tony chuckled, presumably imagining the footage he'd get of some of his teammates double-taking at the sight of the flying relic, then focused back on Stephen. "Three, come lie down and start reading about the research teams." He rolled his eyes, then said with affection, "You're obviously not gonna behave unless you have some work to do."

"Fine." Whether it was consummating their relationship or being productive with this project, at least he'd be achieving something. Stephen obligingly sat on the other side of the bed, propped himself up against some pillows and the headboard, and extended a hand for the tablet that Tony held.

As Tony began to hand it over, explaining something as he did, one last impulsive idea flared within Stephen. As soon as Tony leaned in close enough, the fingertips on one of Stephen's hands lightly impacted Tony's forehead and glowed gold.

Like he'd experienced himself when first learning about magic, Stephen neatly slid Tony's awareness temporarily out of his body. Unlike what he'd experienced, though, he aimed only at pleasurable dimensions full of beauty and warmth. For a fraction of a second, bliss swept Tony. From his perspective, everything would last far longer.

"Oh my God," Tony nearly whimpered as he came back to Earth. His gaze was vacant where he trained it on the ceiling and a broad, dumb grin painted his face. His breathing sped as a warm pink flush spread across his cheeks and neck.

"Your heartbeat," Stephen said with his sharpest smirk of the day, "has elevated past acceptable levels."

Tony opened his mouth to say something, laughed, and wiped a hand down his face. "Wow. Okay."

"So your goop can do my wrists," Stephen said as he propped himself up on one elbow and studied Tony. Since it was so easy for him to send Tony into a dreamless sleep, Tony should have realized that Stephen could also manipulate his consciousness in other ways. His fingertip trailed along Tony's forehead again, like he might send him on another voyage of awareness, and he asked, "Do you have anything that can do... that?"

Tony rolled his head to the side. Everything about the moment was perfect: the man next to him, their closeness, and what that proximity promised. Even better, though, was how coming to Earth didn't seem to have ruined anything with them. They didn't need Titan's isolation, nor the soul prison.

But the very, very best thing was how Tony's brown eyes looked nearly black again with need.

"I do not have anything like that," Tony admitted.

"So. Then. I guess I win."

"You win. And that means you have to do that again." A second later, Tony's face scrunched up and he reluctantly added, "In a few days. Oh my God, why did Christine tell me to be stubborn."

Laughing, Stephen reclined against his pillows again and raised his tablet to get to work.

Chapter Text

A spike of hardened nanotech material pierced Tony Stark's abdomen. That was a regrettable fatality, but a necessary distraction. With Thanos' attention held by the man he gutted, Stephen knew he had a few precious seconds to lock time into place and bolt for the ship whose late arrival he'd noted.

Soon Thanos' mind would power through the time fog that froze it and realize that he could use the Reality Stone to break the effect. Ignoring the man where he stood in the middle of skewering Stark, Stephen ran past them both. Quill, dusty and bruised, was pulling the kid to his feet. Drax used the planet's low gravity to push a rock off Mantis that would have been fatal on Earth. Nebula was in mid-air as she leapt, frozen in a scream that warped her features with rage.

They'd made a decent last stand, but none of their lives remotely compared to the Time Stone. Nothing was more important than keeping it out of Thanos' hands.

Nothing.

His hopes held: the small ship in which Nebula had arrived was in flyable condition and simple enough for a non-pilot to understand. "We have to get it away from here," Stephen explained as the ship lifted into the air and he felt the Cloak ripple against him. Of course the Cloak knew that, and of course it would help him on this vitally important quest, but...

A few seconds later, his ship warped toward an old, random destination from its flight log. He had no idea where he was headed, but that didn't matter so long as it was away from Titan. An actual plan could happen once the Time Stone was out of Thanos' reach.

Now the Time effects would disappear. The fight would unpause. Stark would bleed out. The kid would probably leap in for vengeance and be plastered like, well... a bug. Everyone on the planet would be slaughtered.

Fine.

Better them than half of the universe.

"He knows Earth," Stephen murmured a few hours later, when his ship hung over a dark, lonely outpost on a volcanic moon. "I need somewhere else." From the info screen that came up on the ship's computer, this camp used geothermal energy to fuel their mining efforts and to process some elements into breathable air. The other mined elements were rare, unique to this sector, and popular for certain specialized weapons. Regular shipments were made to those planets

That meant that this place had fueling stations and information on some other places to go. Any new place could direct him toward others. Eventually he'd find a safe spot to hide, catch his breath, and make a real plan. There had to be such a place. Somewhere.

Locating that safe spot was paramount. Finding a real direction against Thanos was more important than anything, including the workers in this outpost's fueling station. "I need a way to translate," Stephen soon noted as the short, lumpy alien garbled something in fear. The lash he'd formed seared its orange flesh and kept the alien from running. The alien seemed to understand what he wanted as it grabbed what looked like a fuel line, but he couldn't be sure of what it said besides that.

Once the worker replaced his ship's fuel cap and gestured repeatedly at its cover, Stephen pulled the lash closer. A mandala shield erupted from his hand, then folded in on itself like one of the Ancient One's old fans. The shield was soon nothing more than a spike extending from his fist and that magical knife glimmered with deadly intent.

"I can't have you talking," Stephen said to it. His hand shook more with each word. Nerve damage had little to do with it. "I'm sorry."

He'd let Thanos butcher the others on Titan, but that was a passive act. He himself was about to kill. On purpose. This was one thing he'd promised to never, ever do. But he had to, because if this creature talked then all was lost. He simply could not weigh this creature's life against the entire universe, and so he just needed... to...

Its large, liquid eyes reflected the spike's gleam. They swam with tears.

"I'm sorry," he said again as his fist tightened.

A second later, the knife plunged through the alien's throat. Brown blood spilled from it in irregular jets that appeared to be fueled by two different heartbeats. It wavered, whimpering, then collapsed into its lifeblood.

Trembling, Stephen angled his head down to look at the Cloak's collar. As its bottom hem let go of his wrist, where it had made Stephen's attack for him after his nerves failed, the collar patted him on his cheek.

They were wasting time, Stephen thought as he tried to steady his emotions. His feet inched back from the spreading puddle. He needed to get used to this. Until he found a way to either keep the Time Stone out of Thanos' hands for good or to somehow take down Thanos on his own, he was on the run. More people would need to die in order to keep the entire universe from being culled, and he needed to be able to manage that on his own. He couldn't wait for the Cloak to literally force his hand.

"Let's go," he ordered. He didn't need to bother; there was only the Cloak to speak to and it couldn't speak back. He was effectively alone until he found some way to win this.

Eight years later, he was entirely alone. The Cloak had sacrificed itself to get him out of an otherwise unwinnable spot, but now his one do-over card was gone. He needed a way to move quickly. Nebula's small ship had long ago failed. He'd twice needed to steal another craft, but that always ran the risk of being caught and reported. While he was confident in being able to get back to his stolen ship, he'd be on people's radar after escaping a holding cell. That meant that he'd be reported. Somehow, Thanos might learn of where he was.

With the Space Stone, Thanos could check on any rumors instantly. Stephen needed instant travel across the universe, too. He'd spent eighteen months chasing this lead, and then four months learning how to penetrate the planet's shields. Cuapen was an ancient planet with civilizations that crossed galaxies while dinosaurs went extinct on Earth. In the millennia since then, the technology they'd left had turned their home into a well-protected paradise with no need to fight, struggle, or even think.

The artifact he needed was in a temple in the planet's northern hemisphere. The cuapese female he discovered in that temple was a soft, furry thing that smiled like a friendly cow when she saw him. The race had spent so long safe in their technological cradle that they'd lost all sense of self-preservation. They didn't know what the artifacts were that they 'guarded,' either. Ages earlier, their race had ripped them from other species; the modern, dull cuapese people only knew that they were pretty.

She clearly trusted Stephen, even when he took the artifact from its stand. He doubted that she even knew how not to trust someone. Her bright, glossy eyes reflected the blade of the knife as he lifted it high. Mild confusion washed over her as she studied the black blade, sharper than any razor.

When it plunged into her throat, those large eyes filled with pain.

He didn't apologize as the blade drank and the gem in its handle began to glow. This being's death would fuel the knife for a month, at least. One death was nothing compared to what Thanos would do.

As her desiccated corpse fell to the ground, he used the magical blade to cut a hole in reality and step through. A second later, as surely as if he'd used the Space Stone itself, he was on the other side of the universe.

Thank you, a voice whispered to him in a language that wasn't one he knew, but somehow understood.

Stephen's eyes flickered to the blade in his hand, but he said nothing.

I'll let you know when I'm hungry.

Twenty-seven years later, he cut a hole in reality and stepped back onto Cuapen. The blade ate other species without complaint, but the cuapese were the most filling. Magic saturated them. And they really were like cattle: dull and uncomplaining. It was hardly a sacrifice to kill one of them.

Stephen glanced down at his hand to measure the gem's remaining strength. As he did, he idly took note of how his skin now looked. Over the years, his hands had become... different. Each time he grasped the blade, he felt something move through his limbs. At first it was subtle: a tightness in the skin, a pallor in the color. After years of that, more bone began to form in his knuckles until ragged spikes painfully emerged. As his skin split further around them like it was chapped in bitter winter, blood oozed and never stopped.

The effect spread. Each time he used the blade—and he had to use it to stay one step in front of Thanos—Stephen changed more. He soon avoided reflective surfaces. Besides, he was trying not to be seen and so his appearance was irrelevant.

While he didn't care how he looked, there was one thing to worry about. If blood actually dripped, rather than creeping along the cracks in his skin like a thick gel, the drops might let him be tracked down.

Noting with satisfaction that he wasn't dripping, Stephen began his latest hunt. The cuapese had learned to fear in the years since he'd first visited, but they were still dumb. It was always easy to pull one apart from the pack.

To his consternation, closing his hand around the blade's handle sent fresh pain rippling through his forehead. It'd done that the last half-dozen times that he'd used the thing. The intensity kept growing and it was becoming a real distraction. He didn't bother saying anything to the blade, though; he hadn't spoken at all in nine years. Despite that, they'd made a good team over the decades. The universe still lived, after all.

Another wave of pain actually dizzied him and Stephen had to wait in an alcove until the agony built to a peak. When it abruptly eased, vertigo swept him as his vision changed. He could still see like before, but now it was overlaid with movement trails of heat. Something just opened on my forehead, Stephen realized.

That something blinked, then blinked again when a drop of blood fell into it. Damn. Knowing that he had no time to waste if he'd started bleeding, Stephen began following one of the heat trails. The blade needed to eat. Now.

Even more than usual, he made sure to avoid reflective surfaces.

This prey was still easy to kill when caught. One quick stab let the blade feast on the cuapese's blood. He'd taught them how to run again over the years, but they didn't know how to fight back. Dispassionately, Stephen studied his mutated, oozing hand as it held the feeding blade.

He distantly remembered hating the sight of his hands. He couldn't remember why, though. All that was left was the hunt and they hunted well. Now that the blade's gem was glowing again, he could try his latest hiding place to see if—

Half of his torso teleported across the room in a bloody explosion. What remained of Stephen collapsed. Pain barely let him comprehend what he saw in his last seconds of life: an enormous purple figure stepping out of the shadows and staring down at him with a look of satisfaction. As Thanos lowered his gauntlet, the Space Stone's blue glow faded.

"You really made me work for this one," Thanos said with a thin, cruel smile. The final thing all of Stephen's eyes saw was Thanos' broad hand reaching down to him.

"Stephen!"

He sat up so hard that his skull smacked against the headboard. Still lost in his nightmare, it felt like Thanos' hand had begun to crush him, and so he tried to push away the non-existent grip until his senses returned a second later. His pulse was a speeding, irregular drumbeat inside his chest, so loud that it was hard to hear the concerned voices nearby. After years spent in memory, he didn't even recognize this dark room, wherever it was.

"I..." It was hard to talk. It'd been years since he'd spoken. Hadn't it? "I know you."

Yes. There were two people and he knew them both. And the Cloak was there, too; it hadn't sacrificed itself. Right, because he'd been dreaming. That had been one of the potential futures after Titan, but it hadn't happened. He hadn't spent those decades alone. He hadn't become a heartless killer. He hadn't left Tony to die. "Tony," he said to one of the concerned faces, then exhaled as he felt his pulse slow. "I'm awake. It's fine."

"This is not fine," Christine insisted from his other side. She was in a pair of fleece shorts and a tank top, while Tony was only in a pair of boxers and rumpled tee. Between that and the dark sky outside, they must have run to his room out of a deep sleep.

He rubbed a hand over his face, then shakily stopped to inspect it as well as he could in the dim light. Human. Nothing but normal human skin was there, and he'd never been so happy to see that familiar pattern of scars. "I assume," Stephen said in a cracked, dry voice, "that my pulse hit emergency levels."

"And adrenaline, and..." Christine exhaled. "God. It was like your whole system was collapsing. Or exploding."

"You okay now?" Tony hesitantly asked. "I felt you. Not like before, but a little. And you were..." He could have gone with a half-dozen different terrifying adjectives. Any would be accurate.

"It was one of the bad futures," Stephen explained after a moment of silence. "I thought they'd blurred out enough in my memory. Apparently not." Tony's concern didn't ebb, and Stephen shook his head again and added, "The ones with Nebula's ship."

Sympathy crinkled Tony's eyes. "The long futures."

"Yeah." He let his head clunk against the wall more carefully than before. "This one took me thirty-five years before Thanos crushed my skull."

"Jesus."

He decided not to mention having half of his torso teleported across the room. Maybe it'd be worthy of bringing up in a war room as he forced people to confront what Stones could really do to them, but Tony couldn't handle hearing that right now. Nor did Stephen want to spend more time thinking about it. After rubbing his hands down his face again, he looked over to Christine. "You know about the bad futures, apparently. You don't look confused."

"Tony told me, yeah." Christine held his head in place as she studied him, then shook hers. "Your system is weak. I know you don't want to admit it, but it is. If this is what's waiting for you inside your brain, then I'm legitimately concerned about stroke potential if you keep reaching these levels."

"I really thought the futures had all merged into a vague, unpleasant blob," Stephen sighed as he pulled back. "Apparently not. I haven't actually slept—or dreamed—for a week and a half. Earlier today I didn't have long to go into REM, so this dream took me by surprise." Anticipating her next question, he shook his head. "It'll be fine."

"It will not be fine."

"I'll put myself to sleep without dreams before, it'll be fine. I did it every night on Titan." Now that he'd regained his senses and the night seemed less terrifying, this was all a little embarrassing. "Suppose I shouldn't have assumed everything was fixed just because I'm waking up on Earth."

"You know perfectly well that dreaming is necessary for long term neurological health."

"Of course I do. But we have to live in the short term right now."

Christine studied him. Her eyes were level. They glittered in the darkness. "You're allowed to ask for help and actually take it. You never learned that lesson very well and you need to."

"He won't ask," Tony grimly said. While Christine gave her medical opinion, he'd been sitting in worried silence. "I'll stay in here. I probably shouldn't have left."

Shortly, Stephen said, "I'm fine, now. Everything's fine."

"Wow. You really are like looking in a mirror," Tony wryly said after a few seconds of studying him. "I'm staying. End of story. You've been alone for a long time and more of that's probably not helping."

You've been alone for a long time.

Decades of memory hit him with an almost physical force. He'd been more alone than he'd known it was possible to be. Never able to return home, hunted by every being in the universe, only surviving by discarding every single value that he held dear. It was hell, and a million more variations on that apparently waited for him.

God, he didn't want to be alone any more.

Mutely, Stephen nodded. Right now it was hard to remember how the previous day had brought such joy with it, but he knew morning approached. He needed to prepare to meet people in the new day, because there was so much work to do. "I'll knock myself out with no dreams and it really will be fine. You'll see readings for a deep, restful sleep."

"You sure?" Christine asked.

"Yeah. I'll do it soon, so you'll be able to see that and get back to sleep yourself."

"All right," she relented, pulled him in for a quick hug, and released. "We just got you back, you know. You need to be careful."

"As much as I can," he promised.

"That's not reassuring." Sighing, Christine nodded to Tony, then to Stephen, and after a moment of hesitation, to the Cloak. "I'll head out. By the time I get back to my room in the other wing, I want to see you settling down. Tony..."

"Got it. Any problems, I call you."

Stephen probably should have found their worry annoying. He'd spent his life rebelling against nearly anyone who tried to direct him. After three and a half decades of remembered isolation, though, it warmed his heart. He sank back against the pillow, staring at the dark ceiling as Tony and Christine exchanged a few last words, and forced away the fear that another bad future would be waiting for him behind closed eyes. Honestly, he'd been foolish to skip the protective dream-blocking step when falling asleep for more than an hour or two.

A second later, as the door closed, Stephen blinked in surprise and turned to look at the other half of the bed. Oh. Tony was climbing in. Of course that made sense; the room only had one place to sleep. But while they'd slept side-by-side by the end of their time on Titan, that was in separate beds. Despite the overtly sexual moves they'd made earlier today, something about this shared sleeping seemed even more intimate.

"I literally can't even imagine what it was like to go through that," Tony murmured as he slid close. "Experiencing so many bad ends and knowing that you had to do even more. But from what you told me before, I know it was way past 'hard.'"

"The Stone was a safety net. When I was using it, it kept things manageable." Stephen laughed humorlessly and added, "Dreaming seems to circumvent that safeguard. Fantastic. But I'm sure my subconscious will sort through all of the noise eventually. It'll die down."

"Maybe. But I've been through something barely like this and I know it's going to be tough until things fade." Tony's warm hand clasped his wrist under the covers. Remembering when his skin had turned into something else from using that blade, Stephen instinctively jerked. If Tony's grip had been a hair less firm, he would have succeeded in pulling back.

"It's okay," Tony said. His head reclined against the opposite pillow. Brown eyes were dark, glittering pools in the darkness. "Just go to sleep."

"I let him kill you," Stephen remembered. The words were hard to form. "I just abandoned you to die."

"Never happened."

"It did. A million times over, it did."

"Never. Happened."

No matter what Tony tried to argue, Stephen was apparently the man who could make that terrible choice. Over and over and over, he had. Instead of loving this man, he'd sacrificed him as a distraction and left him as a corpse. "I saw—"

A firm kiss cut off his words. Tony barely pulled away when it ended. "If it'd actually happened, I wouldn't be here to do that." He scooted his body under the covers until their bodies impacted, then turned to stretch his arm over Stephen's chest. It hung limp and heavy like a weight holding him in place. "Go to sleep. Those futures mean absolutely nothing. I'm here." His fingertips curled against the shirt Stephen had grabbed to sleep in. Like he somehow knew the worst part of all, Tony added, "And you are never going to be alone like you were."

He really had thought that he did well on his own. And he did, he truly did... but remembering all of those decades of absolute isolation where he'd progressively carved away slivers of his soul, he didn't want to. Never again.

Stephen's hand crept up, squeezed Tony's where it rested, and let his linger there. A moment later he closed his eyes, exhaled, and squelched his consciousness with a practiced hand. Awareness vanished like an extinguished candle. The sleep that awaited him was deep, quiet, and absolutely dreamless.

Sunlight streamed when he woke. At some point Tony had returned to his own pillow, but Stephen hadn't moved an inch. He felt rejuvenated. In the clean light of morning, the nighttime fears that had consumed him seemed distant, even foolish. "Watching me sleep again?" he murmured.

"Well, you slept in." Tony's smile was lopsided and soft. "But I didn't want to get up."

Rolling his head to the side, Stephen blinked away his sleep until he found a wall monitor. "It's barely past seven." Their schedules on Titan had been wildly irregular thanks to the odd rotation, but presumably Tony had gotten back to his normal habits after so long on Earth. "Ugh. You're a morning person, aren't you?"

"Yeah. And a night person. I'm just an 'active' person, really. Energizer Bunny."

Stephen was used to rising early, too; the best time to operate was after the patient had spent a night with an empty stomach. But since leaving the OR, his schedule had begun to inch back. Some magic was stronger under the moon. He'd gotten used to not treating 7 a.m. like 'sleeping in.' So with a wry smile, he sat up and replied, "Oh no."

"Yep." Tony beamed. "You're gonna have to get used to it."

"I... hmm." Such a simple statement felt so meaningful. He'd gotten used to working alongside allies but letting his heart stand alone. That trade seemed a fair price to pay for being ready to keep the entire world safe. He'd toyed with the idea of more, eventually, maybe, someday... and then a detour into space and one extremely frustrating man upended all of his careful plans. "I suppose I will."

After somehow managing to brighten his smile even more, Tony continued, "So, exciting news: you're allowed to graduate to bread this morning."

"Bread. Spectacular."

"And even better: for lunch, you can have anything off the menu," Tony added and gestured to the nearest monitor.

As Stephen began to say that he was surprised that they actually had a 'menu' after the apocalypse, his retort died unspoken. After scanning the four options, he turned to Tony. "It's all corn."

A shrug. "Yeah, long story. Ask Clint."

Well, post-apocalyptic corn was better than nothing. Stephen shrugged back, resigned himself to eating whatever their mess hall had pulled together, and climbed out of bed to stretch. After adjusting his shirt, he then brushed a stray lock of hair away from above one eye.

Though everything he'd relived during his nightmare had retreated into a dull fog, as he touched the skin there, a faded memory resurfaced with violent force. Corruption from that evil blade. Agony centered on his forehead. The disgust of knowing that something had opened there.

Stephen's hand jerked back down.

"You okay?" Tony asked. Concern etched lines on his face.

"Yeah. It's nothing." Already, the memory of what the knife had done to his body over decades felt less vibrant. After another minute, it'd sink back down into the forgotten depths like the rest of that dream. Feeling another muffled wave of concern coming at him, and seeing Tony starting to move, Stephen snapped, "I said it's nothing."

Tony stopped and held up his hands. "Okay. Fine."

After remembering the emergency medical visit from last night, Stephen put all his effort into breathing steadily and halting any warning signs. Most people wouldn't be able to do that, but the energy control that let him perform magical feats could also be used to rein in certain functions.

Blood pressure was acceptable. No nausea. No double-vision or dry mouth. As for his pulse, he...

Stephen checked his wrist as he sought to steady his heartbeat. Yesterday, the bones there had seemed too prominent because of slight weight loss. Now, as he felt the joint, he flashed back to remembering how the blade had built up excess bone until it erupted. His skin cracked in a spiderweb pattern. Blood began to ooze.

All of that remembered imagery vanished when he closed his eyes hard, but Tony had walked near him when he looked back up. "Anything I can do?" Tony hesitantly asked. Though it was a soft echo of emotion rather than the full connection they'd shared before, Tony's concern and sympathy practically poured onto Stephen.

Concern was one thing. The latter was more than he could take right now. "I know you want to make up for all of the sins of your past life, Tony, but stop treating me like a charity case to rescue." Tony's eyebrows raised even as guilt swept Stephen. "Sorry," Stephen said a second later. "I shouldn't have said that."

"I think it's a good thing," Tony concluded after a long, awkward moment of studying him, "that we're not both upset right now. We could get ugly, otherwise."

Stephen sighed. He was upset and hadn't wholly realized it until now. He knew why, too. There was no need to get upset on Titan, for he had a specific plan to implement and nothing would matter after his death played out. Getting upset in the soul prison was a unacceptable risk, because it could wreck the delicate connection they'd formed. But now, when he was securely in his body but uncertain of the next specific step... "Sorry," he repeated. "I just cannot stand feeling out of control."

"Okay. Well." Tony frowned in thought. "I'll let you start working today by meeting some people—"

"You'll 'let' me."

Tony's eyes rolled. "Maybe don't pick on my word choice?"

"But that's the whole problem. We are finally in the same place again and I'm about to meet all of your teammates. The last, important stage is going to happen. I should be taking a lead role, but I got back to discover that I'm weak." He couldn't stand feeling like that, either.

Off Tony's look of disbelief, Stephen raised his hand and began ticking off points. "You followed me onto that ship in the first place to rescue me. I was introduced to the Avengers as a comatose body. And now I can't even control my own brain enough to hold off some bad dreams. I can't even steady my pulse enough to let us..." Irritated, he gestured at Tony's wrists, but let the magical bonds vanish as soon as they formed. Back in the soul prison, he'd been concerned about the possibility of waking up weaker, but the joy of actually getting home had distracted him. Getting trapped inside his own memories had brought the concerns back, and then some.

"You said that I was treating you like a charity case," Tony said after studying him for a long time. "Is that seriously what you think is going on?"

"I think we should be very closely matched," Stephen said after another long pause. "But I also think that basically all of our interactions over the past month have let you feel like you're saving me. Which you've said that you love doing. You have to help people, after all."

"Maybe so," Tony admitted, but quickly added, "but if you're worried that 'weak' plays anywhere into that, get it out of your head. " He lifted his wrist. Even as Stephen blinked as a scanner beam emerged, a model of his own brain appeared floating between them. "Just get it out of your head," Tony repeated and shoved the brain toward the wall, where it vanished after splitting into component lobes. "Head. Out."

"I... you fixed the memory bug?" Stephen shook his head and focused. "I just do not want to establish a constant dynamic where you save me. And it hit me that we have been."

"Sometimes I'll have to. But sometimes you'll save me, like the cells around my arc reactor, or..." Tony trailed off, then studied him for another long pause. Eventually he asked, "What'd happen if I went back to the spot with the portal? Where all the anchors broke?"

"What?" Stephen frowned. "Don't tell me you've come up with some bright idea involving the broken anchors. You'd die nearly instantaneously."

"Yeah. Exactly."

Much to his consternation, Stephen couldn't follow his logic and so had to gesture for an explanation.

"Thor barely made it out of that place alive. Barely. They had to rush him to the medical lab... and he was near the anchors for at least thirty seconds." Tony gave him a lopsided smile. "Is Thor weak because he needed help, or unbelievably strong because he went up against that and still made it out alive?" He took the hand that Stephen hadn't wanted to let him grab during the night, squeezed it, and said, "I think he's pretty strong. Even if he did need help right afterward."

Damn. That was a nice speech. A reluctant smile curled the edges of Stephen's lips. "I can take Thor, you know. Easily." Despite his ego-boosting speech for Stephen, Tony seemed to find that slightly difficult to believe. "When I'm in the Sanctum, anyway. It's a power boost." Another pause. "A slight one."

Realizing that he actually meant it, Tony laughed and asked, "Wait, seriously? That's how you know him?"

"I mean, he brought Loki back to Earth. That man needed to be reined in, and all of Asgard needed to know that we weren't easy prey for them, and. Uh." Stephen blinked. "Was not expecting that face."

Indeed, Tony's expression had gone blank. "How exactly did you 'rein in' Loki?"

Well, Tony was no longer treating Stephen like he needed help. He wasn't sure if this stunned response from Tony was much better, though. "I sent him through a portal into another dimension, from which he had no method of escape." He tilted his head in consideration. "Well. No immediate escape. I'm sure he would have broken free eventually, but it would have exhausted him."

"You did that to Loki."

Stephen eyed him. "Yes."

"Thor's brother."

"That's the one, yes."

"The man who ushered an alien army into the skies above New York. Who the entirety of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers barely managed to fight back. That Loki." Tony took a step back and stared at the wall. "I'm so... something right now. Mad. Disgusted. Madgusted."

Oh. This explained Tony's response. Feeling better than he had since his nightmare, Stephen laughed and said, "I looked into that assault and he was controlling people's minds." The Tesseract's role had been to fuel the portal, but Loki had been wielding the Mind Stone as a weapon to round up a personal army. That arsenal must have boosted his powers significantly.

"Don't patronize me. Finding a decent prison cell for Loki caused us all sorts of pain, and you just dropped him into another dimension?!"

"Well... wait." Stephen pulled back. "Are you just trying to prove that I'm not weak?"

"No! I'm genuinely pissed off! God, he was like a greased weasel on meth, we just couldn't pin him down." Tony exhaled sharply. "What, did you just snap your fingers and lock him up?"

"Well." He sketched a circle in the air with his fingertips, though without intent to actually open a portal. "I waved them."

"You don't even know what it was like going up against him. You were in your stupid hospital, doing your stupid surgeries." Tony rolled his eyes the second Stephen opened his mouth. "Your extremely important surgeries, but those surgeries did not include facing down gigantic flying alien whales."

"I assume you mean the Chitauri leviathans?" At Tony's annoyed look, Stephen shrugged. "I told you, I looked it up. I was interested in what had been going on outside."

"Let me guess," Tony snapped. "You could solo them, too."

"I doubt it, they were enormous."

"Of course you could. You'd just open up a portal in front of one too late for it to change course, and it'd get cored like an apple."

"I..." Stephen raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, that is a good plan."

"Oh, shut up. We could have used the help, you know."

Stephen couldn't help but laugh. "I was performing surgeries! What, was I supposed to step outside and threaten them with a scalpel?"

Tony snorted at the image, but retorted, "The whole world was under threat from that portal. Your magic squad never showed up to help us, which officially makes you jerks and/or slackers. Pick one."

He really needed to stop laughing; it wasn't helping Tony's mood. "One, it was a physical threat, which you are supposed to handle, and two, I have no idea why you're getting mad at me over this. I wouldn't even know that magic existed for years after that. What, was I supposed to see the future?"

A spike of hardened nanotech material pierced Tony Stark's abdomen. That was a regrettable fatality, but a necessary distraction.

As the memory left him, Stephen pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and leaned against the nearest wall. "Sorry," he said as he wavered. "I will expressly try not to see the future. Or remember it. Or at least... I'll just focus on remembering the one good future." His head swam, but at least it faded more quickly than before.

The frustrations Tony had let build vanished in an instant. When he stepped closer to Stephen, he wasn't pushed away. "Flashbacks hit at the damndest times, don't they?"

"I'm noticing that, yeah."

With a sigh, Tony sat on the edge of the bed and looked up to him. "Would've loved to be able to pull out some portals of my own during the Battle of New York. I wouldn't have nearly killed myself steering a nuke through a portal made on Loki's terms." He reached over and extended his hand. When Stephen realized he wanted his, he lowered it into Tony's grasp. "That day messed me up."

After a moment of silence, Tony continued, "And you learned about how Wanda put a vision of a bad future in my head. That messed me up, too. I needed help to come out of both of those times. Do you think I'm weak?"

With a lopsided smile, Stephen sat next to him. "No. Not at all."

"Right. And I didn't see fourteen million bad futures." Tony's gaze tightened. "And I didn't ever actually die. You can be messed up, and admit it and need some help." Like he knew the protest Stephen was about to make, Tony added, "So far as they'll all know, you're the guy who single-handedly took down an enemy who needed six of us to beat."

Stephen's fond smile softened. "Loki did come with two Stones, then. It's really not comparable. And I surprised him from across the city."

"Shut up. Let me brag about you. If you want to make sure that they think you are unbeatably strong and need to be listened to, then call me your biggest cheerleader."

"That makes for quite an image."

"I lost some bets in college. I'm cute in a skirt."

Laughing, Stephen shook his head. He did need to come across to the Avengers as a trustworthy expert, and that would never happen if he seemed weakened by everything he'd gone through. At the same time, he knew those lingering visions were something that couldn't easily be fought off... and all those memories covering decades of isolation were too much to bear alone.

"We were a team when it was just the two of us." Tony leaned over and bumped their shoulders. "That's not changing just because I'm back near my other team again. We can work through the bad stuff alone, so you can go out in public acting like the arrogant jackass I know and love."

"There is bad stuff," Stephen admitted after a long pause. It was so tempting to again pretend that things were fine and totally under control, but Tony was right. They'd been vulnerable together before. Even if they'd really had no other choice on Titan, it didn't need to be a dynamic with an end date. Stephen didn't need to snap back into the role of the man who was always in one hundred percent control. "It helped that you were there at night."

"Of course. That'll be the plan, then." Tony paused. "I kinda expected you to push back on 'arrogant jackass,' not gonna lie."

Stephen shrugged. "I've got dark hair, too." There were some things he couldn't really argue against.

"Well. Not all of it."

"Oh, you're one to talk," Stephen laughed as he brushed his hands along Tony's hairline, where grey feathered many edges. By the end the gesture became fonder, and he found himself tracing the planes of Tony's cheekbone, and cheek, and jaw.

At the end of it, Tony returned the motion in gentle kind. "No more 'alone.' Ever."

If there was anyone with whom he'd share the worst of what he'd experienced, it made sense for it to be the man whose soul was in alignment. The feat was was supposedly impossible in all of magical history, Stephen thought as he leaned in, and yet the two of them—

He abruptly pulled back from the kiss. "Do you mind?" he demanded to the crimson that had flashed in a far corner of his vision.

The Cloak shrugged.

Tony frowned. "That's so inappropriate." Turning to Stephen, he demanded, "Can you please send it off on its whirlwind tour of headquarters?"

"Yes. You really should go see where we're staying," Stephen said to the Cloak. "Meet people. Get a feeling for the situation." As it began to lean forward in protest, Stephen added, "I know you're worried after everything, but I'll be with Tony." Of course, he realized, the Cloak wasn't very good with trusting anyone but itself to aid Stephen and keep him safe. And it and Tony hadn't exactly had the smoothest of relationships.

To his surprise, though, the Cloak turned and studied Tony, then nodded once and moved for the door.

"Wow," Tony said after the AI realized it should open for the flying relic, and they were truly left alone. "Did the rug just give me its okay?"

"Apparently," Stephen said. "I didn't know that it ever would." He turned. "And for the last time, stop calling it 'rug.'"

"Nope." Tony grinned at him. "So, you wanna go meet my in-laws, now?" A short pause sobered him and he added, "Are you up for that yet?"

"The Avengers don't remotely intimidate me, Tony, and you should know that."

"Take your pride out of the driver's seat. You know that's not what I'm asking." Tony's gaze bored into him with intimate concern. "Are you up for that right now? After last night? After Titan, and all of it?"

"Breakfast," Stephen decided after a moment of thought. "And then yes, I am."

"Good. I'll be with you the whole time. If things get a little dizzy, just let me know and I'll make a cover story. None of them need to know a thing." Tony flashed him a quick smile. "Except for how you beat Loki."

Tony was caring enough to worry about him, but also had the perspective to appreciate how Stephen needed to defend his unyielding image. Both were sweet to hear. "Tony. I really do appreciate—"

Nearly as soon as he'd begun, a message interrupted them. "Tony," said a voice he didn't recognize offhand. "Did, uh, you know that the flying cape thing is wandering around HQ?"

Laughing, Tony replied, "Yeah, Rhodey, it's checking things out. It's fine. Say hi."

"I'd really rather n... never mind, it's looking at me. I mean. I think it is." A pause. "Hi?" Another pause. "Okay, it just left."

As the message cut, Stephen found himself chuckling, too.

"Today'll be fun," Tony promised.

A spike of hardened nanotech material pierced Tony Stark's abdo—

With deliberate intent, Stephen took Tony's hand and felt its warmth. He focused on the fact that he was here, not running, and not about to embark on decades of soul-crushing isolation. Seeming to realize that the memories were making one last appearance, Tony stayed helpfully silent until Stephen's breathing eased, then said nothing as Stephen let go of his hand.

"Right," Stephen agreed. That felt like the last surge, and hopefully he'd avoid any more nights like the one before. Being with Tony would certainly help. Allowing himself to be vulnerable in private would be like an antibiotic, keeping emotional wounds from festering. And with that accomplished, he'd be able to strike the confident, all-knowing role he needed to fill in public. "Let's go meet your team."

Chapter Text

"Basic bread or toasted?" Tony asked as they wandered toward what he'd promised was a remarkably decent facility cafeteria.

Stephen could believe that promise, for it was clear that no expense had been spared in constructing the place. This truly felt like a building that was designed to host a world-class organization. They weren't going to feed that world-class organization with discount caterers, even with the limited resources now available.

Not that he'd get to appreciate that food quality, for he was still under strict orders to limit his breakfast menu. Tony would absolutely rat him out if he cheated, too. Traitor. "Let's see: dry bread or dry toast? What an exciting choice."

"Well, it's better than all broth, all the time."

"True enough." The cafeteria doors opened to reveal an unsurprisingly but regrettably small crowd. Most were support staff, but Stephen thought he recognized a few faces from the media. (Or from his envisioned futures, he added, then tried to tamp those memories down.) "Bread, I guess. It'll be dry enough without toasting it."

"You've got it." Tony pointed toward the serving area. "I'll grab food." Then he pointed toward the seating. "You grab a..."

As Tony's voice trailed off, Stephen followed his gaze toward the tables. There wasn't anyone in the room who shouldn't be there, or so it seemed to his eyes. The Cloak hadn't made an attention-grabbing appearance during its exploration of headquarters, either.

"On second thought," Tony said and led them toward the few food options, "let's just grab breakfast and go. We'll eat while I show you around."

"Sure," Stephen said after a pause and accepted the two plain rolls Tony retrieved for him, and then a water bottle. What was Tony hiding?

Their immediate exit drew glances, with two people in particular looking especially curious. Bruce Banner had probably expected Stephen to say hello; they hadn't spoken since that morning with Bruce's sudden, roof-destroying entry into the Sanctum. The woman across the table from him oddly seemed just as interested in their departure, even though Stephen knew they'd never met.

"Black Widow," he abruptly said when they were halfway down the outside hallway. That was who'd been sitting across from Banner. She'd earned plenty of press over the years, but her appearances were as a redhead. It'd taken him this long to place Romanoff's face under its newly blonde hair.

"What about her?" Tony blurted. A terrified undercurrent spiked in their lingering emotional link.

With an odd look, Stephen ripped off part of a bread roll, chewed it thoughtfully while studying the tense man in front of him, and eventually washed it down with a drink of water. "I feel like I should be asking you that. Something about her has you seriously on edge." After another drink, Stephen nodded slowly. "Right. Banner and Romanoff. You said they were the ones who knew about us, didn't you? Them and Wong."

"Oh? Oh. Yeah, they know."

"But that's not what has you nervous," Stephen concluded after another few moments of studying Tony. They'd both decided against hiding anything with the two of them, after all; they simply weren't going to announce it. Even if Romanoff were the type to shout news from the rafters, it shouldn't have Tony so uneasy.

"I... yeah. Okay. You should know this." Tony shook his head, pulled them out of sight of any passers-by, and murmured, "Well, you obviously remember how I said she figured out the two of us." At Stephen's nod, Tony shook his head again. His voice dropped to a mere whisper. "She figured out something else."

"Which is?"

Tony looked away, said nothing for a long time, then replied, "The one thing I promised never to tell anyone about what went down in that fight on Titan."

Shit. The Time Stone. She knew. "And how did she figure that out, exactly?"

"I apparently said the wrong thing. Once. And then she used spy logic." Apology now flooded from Tony. "But don't worry. She promised that she wouldn't say anything."

With a frustrated sigh, Stephen turned to the window and folded his arms as he studied the land outside. "Do you believe her?" He'd worried about looking weak to the people at headquarters, for they'd be less likely to trust someone who didn't seem able to hold his mind and memories together. But if they heard about the Time Stone, there was zero chance these strangers would trust Stephen's guidance in how to face Thanos.

"Yes. I believe her. Which might be stupid, but I do." Tony stepped up next to him and also turned to study the forest outside. They could see the tightness in each other's reflection.

"Tony. We can't afford to be wrong on this. If she tells people and they stop trusting me..."

"I believe her."

Stephen's reflection looked dubious. "Which is why you were scared when I said her name?"

"No. It's. She's. Shit." The frustration coming through the chain was echoed in Tony's reflected face. "I was scared because I managed to screw up a really important promise and I knew you were about to find that out. And I believe her..."

"You believe her because?" Stephen eventually prompted in the silence.

Tony truly didn't want to share this. Each word had to be forced. "Because she took me outside to blackmail me into something. I did everything she wanted. She's got no reason to go back on her word."

Oh. Fantastic. Fucking fantastic. "She blackmailed you and that makes you trust her?"

Tony needed a while to reply. Fresh apology poured off him as he did. "She was worried about me." Another pause. "What I promised her... was to stop taking any more brain damage."

Stephen needed far longer to find a response. The reminder of the harm he'd dealt to Tony opened up a painful, yawning gulf inside his chest. All he managed after that pause was, "Ah."

"Sorry. It's not your fault." With a quick squeeze and release of Stephen's folded arm, Tony continued, "I'm getting some serious guilt from you right now, but it's really not your fault. I just didn't want you to be surprised by her knowing about... the