On Titan, Stephen Strange looks into the future to see all possible outcomes of this battle, and what it means for the war. There are 14,000,605 possible outcomes, and only one where they win.
But it’s how Stephen Strange defines ‘win’ that determines there only being one favorable outcome. In this version of events, everyone makes it out the other end alive. Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Steve Rogers, Thor, Bruce Banner, Natasha Romanoff, T’Challa, Bucky Barnes, Sam Wilson, James Rhodes, Wanda Maximoff, Vision, Peter Quill, Drax, Mantis, Rocket, Groot, Gamora, Loki, and Stephen Strange himself are all alive at the end of the one, single, favorable, best-possible-outcome timeline. This is the path Stephen Strange tries to send them all down.
But after his surrender of the Time Stone on Titan, there are several ways the battle on Earth can go.
Even without the Eye of Agamotto, Stephen has been exposed to it’s energies long enough to tell that in this version of reality, the battle will go as it should for the most favorable outcome to come to fruition. Vision will fall. Thor aims for the chest. Thanos snaps, and half the world becomes ash, becomes dust.
After this, he recalls, the remaining heroes reunite, with Scott Lang and Carol Danvers arriving and playing crucial roles in setting things right. This is the sequence of events that will eventually lead to Thanos’s downfall and the restoration of the universe and the fallen, as it should be.
But in a universe just so slightly off from this one, Thor changes the outcome. In an alternate version of reality, Thor aims for Thanos’s head.
In this version of reality, they win too, but it’s at a higher cost.
Thanos’s body lays in the outskirts of Wakanda, bloody, lifeless, and still. Some yards away, Vision’s body lays broken, most of his head missing and mangled from when Thanos tore the Mind Stone from his head. Wanda has collapsed onto his body, sobbing.
Hundreds of Wakandan warriors also lay in the fields, having given their lives to stop Thanos. T’Challa and Okoye turn from staring at Thor and the giant purple body, and begin coordinating with the rest of the survivors to identify the fallen.
Thor remains, staring at where Stormbreaker is embedded in Thanos’s face and skull. He barely acknowledges Rocket and Groot and Steve, who are standing behind him. They’re staring too, but whether out of awe or horror is anyone’s guess at this point.
It’s Rocket who can’t stand the silence, and eventually breaks it. “So what are we gonna do with those stones now?”
“I do not know,” Thor replies slowly, trying to hide a tremor in his voice. “I…” He closes his eyes. “I should like to use the stones to restore those who Thanos has killed, but I do not know what effect this will have on the universe. And regardless, I think I would like to see if we can restore Vision, with or without the Mind Stone, before destroying any of them.
So they leave it, for now. No one can touch the Stones anyway, except Thor, unless they want to risk destroying themselves. A few Dora Milaje are stationed around the body and the Stones as Thor and the rest follow King T’Challa back to the palace to determine what happens next.
On Titan, Stephen’s eyes open and he drops from his meditative hover. “It’s over,” he announces, gaining the attention of their motley band. “They’ve killed Thanos on Earth. We’ve won.”
“How the heck do you know that?” Peter Quill asks. Peter Parker nods, watching the doctor, curious as well.
Stephen eyes Quill, then sighs and says, “I saw it, before, and sensed it just now.” And that’s all the explanation he gives.
Still, they all seem to believe him, for what it’s worth. Quill looks back at the rest of his group, including the blue lady, Nebula, who crashed a ship into Thanos halfway through their battle, and they all begin to head toward their ship, still somewhat shaken. Then Quill pauses, turning to watch as Stephen tries to shut Tony up and help heal the stab wound in his side with Peter Parker hovering nearby.
“Hey,” he calls, gaining their attention. “You guys want a lift back to Earth? We’ve got some medical supplies and shit too, so you can patch yourselves up on the way.”
The humans share a look, before Stark nods, turns, and says, “Thanks.”
When the Milano makes contact with Wakanda a day later and they get the clearance to touch down, the land around them is still littered with bodies. But these are the bodies of the Outriders, Thanos’s army; the people of Wakanda were efficient at finding their own so they could receive proper funerals.
So the ship touches down, and the Guardians emerge first. They are immediately swarmed by Rocket and Groot, Thor standing solemnly to the side with the Avengers. It’s Rocket who asks where Gamora is.
“She’s – she’s –” Quill can’t get the words out, so Nebula speaks quietly from behind.
“Thanos sacrificed her for one of the Stones. She’s gone.”
Their stunned expressions quickly melt into ones of grief. As they mourn in their little group, Tony emerges from the ship, followed by Peter and Stephen.
“So who got to kill the big purple ballsack?” Tony asks wearily, in lieu of a proper greeting. Thor turns from watching the Guardians, gripping Stormbreaker tight.
“I, but I only wish I could have killed him sooner,” Thor says. “He killed Vision, Stark. Ripped the Mind Stone right from his head.”
Tony breaks. “No,” he whispers. “God, no.”
Behind him, Stephen swallows before stepping forward. “Where’s the Gauntlet?” he asks. “Where are the Stones?”
Thor eyes Stephen, before deflating or relaxing, just a bit. “Ah, yes. You sorcerers guarded the Time Stone.” Thor sighs, turning to gesture towards the palace. “I brought it to the lab of the Princess Shuri. No one else has wanted to risk touching it. Even for me, all six stones together like that are… tempting, and volatile.”
Stephen nods, at this. “I could at least manipulate the Time Stone back into the Eye of Agamotto,” he says. “And while I did not meet Vision, if you are trying to revive him –”
“If Bruce and Shuri and Wanda aren’t already trying to get him back up and running you better bet your ass I will,” Stark cuts in, fists clenched at his side. Stephen studies him for a moment, then nods.
“Well. I can do my best to assist, both medically and magically, if you will allow it. And we should keep the Mind Stone safe, in order to revive him again.”
“Hey, magic man,” a voice cuts in, and it’s Quill, looking both lost and determined at the same time. “Nebs here –”
“I told you to never call me that.”
“– She says that the Soul Stone required a sacrifice of a soul for a soul.” Peter Quill pauses, licks his lips, before continuing. “I… we were wondering if you could take a look at the Soul Stone for us, and just – just see. If Gamora – if she’s there, somehow. Before you destroy it. Please.”
Strange blinks, and then nods. “I’ll call Wong to help,” he says, “and we will try. But I make no promises. If it truly is a soul for a soul, I would imagine you’d need another sacrifice to get her back out, if she’s even in there.”
“Just… let us know what you find, okay?” The heartbreak in Quill’s voice causes Stephen to soften, just a bit more.
When Wong joins them, he and Stephen and Wanda are immediately asked to destroy the other three Stones – Space, Power, and Reality. Wong and Stephen debate over it with Thor, before they agree to it.
“It drastically reduces the risk of something like this happening again,” Stephen explains after it’s all said and done. The Soul and Mind Stones still rest in the Gauntlet, waiting for their turns to be examined. Vision’s body lays on one of Shuri’s medical benches behind them, almost completely repaired physically, but the neurons and coding are still a destroyed mess.
“Reduces, but doesn’t eliminate it totally?” Tony asks, crossing his arms. “I mean, you need all six to become a crazy powerful ultra-god, right?”
“Yes,” Stephen replies, “but even these three remaining Stones are powerful in their own way. Controlling the minds of others; altering time; and deciding the fate of people’s souls? Even with the other three destroyed, I can think of several beings that would look to amplify their own power with but one of the remaining Stones.”
Tony nods, thoughtful, before a light seems to go off in his head. “So your Stone – it’s Time. You could go back in time, if you wanted.”
Stephen swallows, licks his lips. He knows where this is going. “Tony, no,” he says. “I… if I could, I would. But going back in time on that big of a scale, it would cause too many ripples, contrast too sharply with natural law. It could quite honestly destroy our universe when we’re just trying to save it.”
“But…alright, but what about small scale?” Tony asks, gesturing to Vision. “Could you just – just reverse time on Vision only? Make it so he’s – he’s back?”
Stephen sighs, gripping the necklace housing the Time Stone. “Without affecting the rest of time around us? I’m good, but I’m not that good.” He breathes deeply. “The only time I’ve ever done time manipulation on a scale larger than messing around with an apple was restoring the Hong Kong Sanctum to prevent Dormammu from consuming our world. When I made a time loop to –” Stephen sucks in a breath. “– to repeat the same moment over and over and over until he went away, and left Earth in peace instead of pieces.”
Tony sighs, runs a hand down his face. “Alright. Fine.” He looks back at Stephen, then puts a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks, anyway.”
It doesn’t feel like he’s done anything worth thanking, but Stephen forces a smile nonetheless.
Peter Quill is impatient and emotional, so when he finds Stephen again it takes a lot of effort to remain outwardly calm as he asks, “Any luck?”
But he takes in the expression on Stephen’s face, as well as the other sorcerer Wong, and just knows the answer even before the sorcerers speak. “It requires a soul for a soul,” Stephen says quietly. “Her soul… it exists within the Stone, in a sense, but it is impossible to–”
“I’ll sacrifice myself if I have to,” Peter cuts in, desperation lacing his words. “Just. Please. She deserves to live.”
Stephen’s heart breaks a little bit more. “I’m sorry,” he says. “We still don’t understand it fully, but from what we do understand you need to sacrifice the soul of someone you love to wield the stone. That is literally all we know.”
“It may be possible to sacrifice yourself to free her soul,” Wong says softly, “but without her body, she will just be like a ghost, or so we believe. And we would not want to risk any more lives if none of this works.”
“I’m sorry,” Stephen says again as Peter’s heart shatters. All he can do is slump into the sorcerer and sob.
Tony and Shuri and Bruce stare at the mess of neurons, the mess of Vision’s brain, and slump in defeat. “I should be able to do this,” Shuri says. “I was so close, before…”
Tony takes a shaky breath. “It’s alright, kid,” he says, because he doesn’t know what else he can say. Beside him, Bruce puts a hand on his shoulder. Bruce knew that Vision was important to Tony. Bruce knew that Vision was all he had left of JARVIS. Bruce knew.
Shuri, though, bless her heart, she wanted to help him too. “I’m sorry,” she says, for the fifth time today. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Stark – Tony.”
“I could try inserting the Mind Stone back into his body,” Stephen’s voice says, and the three whirl around to see the sorcerer standing behind him, the fading glow of sparks indicating he’s only just opened a portal into the lab. “It might jump-start some of the neural connections that were severed, but I don’t know…how efficient it would be.”
Tony swallows. Opens his mouth, then closes it, thinking. Then he says, “Alright. We… we should try it, if you think it has even the slightest chance. For Vision.”
Everyone else in the room nods in agreement.
So they try.
But it doesn’t bring Vision back.
So they continue on existing. Thor has lost his people, his brother. Nebula has lost her sister, Peter Quill has lost his lover, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have lost a beloved friend. Wanda Maximoff has lost her love, and Tony Stark has lost his – his – his Vision. Wakanda has lost hundreds of good soldiers.
In an alternate version of reality, Thor aims for Thanos’s head. In this reality, they win, but they also lose.
There are hundreds of thousands of millions of alternate realities just like that. One little act has ripples throughout space-time. There are realities where the Hulk does not hide away and changes the tide of the fights. There are realities where Peter Quill shoots Gamora before Thanos can change his blaster to bubbles. There are realities where Gamora lets Nebula suffer and refuses to give the location of the Soul Stone, and realities where Gamora is successful in killing herself before Thanos can use her. There are realities where Peter Quill does not strike Thanos, either because he recognizes that he needs to wait or because someone holds him back or because he hesitates one extra second and that’s all Peter Parker and Tony Stark need to rip the Gauntlet from Thanos’s hand. There are realities where Stephen Strange does not give up the Time Stone for Tony Stark, and runs or continues to fight or even reverses time in an effort to save his new friends, save the world. There are realities where Shuri successfully removes the Mind Stone from Vision without harm, and Wanda Maximoff destroys it long before Thanos arrives. There are realities where they destroy the Time Stone before confronting Thanos. There are millions and millions of realities. They lose in most. They are partially successful in others. It’s all a game of should’ve, could’ve, would’ve; each action has an equal and opposite reaction. Butterfly effects. All of these realities exist. Stephen Strange sees all of these realities, and remembers them all too.
But Stephen Strange sees just one reality where everyone comes out the other side alive. They have to sacrifice much to achieve that end, but that is the reality in which they exist. The odds are 14,000,605 to one, but they’ll get lucky in this universe.
In other realities, it’s should’ve, could’ve, would’ve.