"I’d almost forgotten about her." Stephen peered into the improvised holding cell of the Sanctum.
Behind the one-way barrier that hid them from sight, Nebula glared daggers into the wall of her cell. The few pieces of furniture that had been inside – a chair, an empty cabinet and a narrow bed – had all been utterly demolished.
"What happened to her?" Tony’s arms were crossed in front of his chest. "She was on our side the last time."
"We accelerated the timeline," Stephen said. "We must have disrupted the event that changed her mind."
"Yay us," Tony muttered.
Nebula raised her head and glowered vaguely into their direction. She couldn't see them, but she seemed to sense the unwanted attention.
"Thanos is gone," Tony said. "That's gotta count for something."
They'd only met Nebula once, but someone who'd been set on killing Thanos in the future couldn't be far off from realizing her loyalty was misplaced – right?
"You've managed to turn my brother and I around." Wanda gave them a tentative smile. For a brief, fragile moment, she aimed it at Tony. “You could try again.”
Stephen hoped they’d figure out how to bring her around. Tony hadn't forgiven himself for almost driving the team apart. He’d take it badly if they’d ruined Nebula’s change of heart.
“We’ll try our best.”
"I’d say you stand a decent chance.” The Ancient One showed a level of interest in Nebula that Stephen likely shouldn't be surprised about. She'd jumped at the chance to extend a helping hand for Wanda.
"She's been driven to Earth by her fear. She’s still afraid, now." She took her eyes off Nebula. "Fear builds no base for true loyalty."
They'd figure it out. They'd dodged obstacles and cleared roadblocks at every turn they'd taken. Who was to tell them that this was the point where their actions no longer mattered?
Thanos' demise had left behind more than merely his once-defected daughter. The reality stone was yet another weapon of mass destruction they had no clue how to deal with.
"You cannot destroy them," the Ancient One told them. "Their absence would plunge this universe into chaos."
"If we can't destroy them," Tony said, "how do we make sure nobody else gets their hands on them? I don't know about you, but I'm not eager to fight another megalomaniac."
"The best we can do is scatter them." Stephen didn't like the thought any more than Tony did. "We'll make sure they're protected as well as they can be. There's nothing more we can do."
The space stone would remain in Asgard. Time would be guarded by the Sorceress Supreme. They dropped reality into an uninhabited world at the edge of the universe, and they’d never learned where the soul stone was being kept.
Thor promised to keep out an eye for a safe location for the remaining ones. Until then, they'd keep on guarding them like they'd been doing for the last several weeks.
Time passed. Their injuries healed. All of them – even Thor – found themselves sinking back into their routine like they’d never been off-planet to fight for the survival of the universe.
Tony found Thor demonstrating the use of the dishwasher to a bemused looking Bucky. His attempt was endearing, if not particularly accurate – Bucky looked more confused with every sentence that came out of Thor’s mouth. The concentrated frown on his face looked like he was plotting murder instead of trying to figure out one of the marvels of the 21st century.
"Hey, Thor. You got a minute?"
Bucky's eyes flickered towards him. They always made Tony feel like he was being analyzed. He uttered a ‘thank you’ in Thor’s vague direction, excused himself and scuttled away into the direction of his room.
"Sorry." Tony winced, now alone with Thor. "I didn't mean to break up the party."
"Worry not," Thor said. "James is not accustomed to company. He would have requested the break himself."
"Right." Tony supposed it was good to see him come out of his shell bit by bit. Perhaps it was for the best that there were so many other people in the tower – Bucky and Steve were making progress, but Bucky needed to get to know other people, too.
Tony was quietly glad that so far Loki wasn’t one of them. Thor's brother had settled back into the tower like he’d meant to move in permanently all along. Seeing as he'd actually been helpful in their fight against Thanos, there wasn't much they could say against it.
(Clint kept complaining to anybody who would listen. It was hard to take him seriously when the worst Loki had done to him all week was unceremoniously flatten him in his favorite video game.)
"Look, I know we already had this conversation, but I thought..." Tony paused, trying to bring the words scattered in his brain into some kind of order. "Everything’s started to settle, and we actually made it, so I guess now’s as good a time as any. I just… I guess I just wanted to tell you how sorry–”
He broke off with an undignified 'Oomph’ and found himself trapped between strong, Asgardian arms and an impossibly broad chest.
"Thank you, my friend." Thor clasped his back for good measure. Tony did his very best not to buckle under the force. "But there is no need. You meant no harm."
"I still caused it." Tony cleared his throat and tried his hardest not to act like Thor had almost sent him to his knees. "It could have ended much worse."
"You made a mistake." Thor made it sound so simple. Perhaps to him, it was. "We've all made them. I myself have filled more years with them than all of you have been alive for."
Relief rose up in Tony's chest in pleasant bubbles. "I don't know what I'd do without all of you."
Thor smiled, his expression so bright that it might have looked insincere coming from anyone other than him. "Nor do I. You are a fine warrior, Tony. And a greater friend."
If Thor was able to forgive him, maybe Tony wasn't too far off from forgiving himself, too.
Students loved to gossip. As someone who'd gone to medical school himself, Stephen had known this – perhaps not from a personal standpoint, but on some level.
He'd never expected to find himself on the receiving end of the rumor mill.
"Nobody's ever seen him drive here. It's like he lives at school or something."
“What’s with him pulling out his textbooks from nowhere? One second he’s empty-handed, the next – boom!”
“Whatever. He explained the hepatic portal system to me once and I got it. Do you know for how long I’ve been trying to understand that thing?”
"I dunno. There's something really weird about him..."
"You mean something strange?"
Stephen chose that moment of collective groaning to brush past the group of students. "You sound cheerful. Talking about the reading, I trust?"
One of the students paled. Another suppressed a shudder. Stephen did his very best not to smirk.
"O-Of course, Dr. Strange."
Wisps of conversation followed him down the hallway.
"– told you–”
"– like out of thin air–”
At the sight of the two women waiting for him at the other end of the hallway, Stephen gave up on keeping his expression at bay. A handful students spotted his cheerful smile and froze in their tracks.
Christine had texted him earlier to let him know she was meeting him at the university. Natasha was a pleasant surprise.
"Have you made someone cry yet?" she asked in lieu of a greeting.
"I hope not." Christine pulled him into a brief hug. "We've got a shortage of doctors even without you scaring them off before they graduate."
Stephen led them away from campus in the pointless attempt to keep his private life private.
"One of them came close," he admitted.
Christine closed her eyes and sighed. Natasha's lips curved upwards.
"He had it coming." A student who preferred cheating over preparing himself for his exams properly had no place in Stephen's class. If he knew what was good for him, he'd have learned his lesson.
"I'm sure a little natural fear does wonders for their motivation," Natasha said.
"I would prefer respect over fear." Stephen paused. "But yes, they've been doing admirably thus far."
Christine seemed to reevaluate her decision of encouraging Stephen to become a teacher. "Try telling them that from time to time."
Stephen was working part-time for the moment. It was plenty to form a routine and get back in touch with the medical field. It didn't take up his time to the point where he neglected his extracurriculars as a sort-of, unofficial Avenger.
He wasn't alone in his efforts to establish a life outside of superheroing (or, alternatively, villainy). Wanda had all but moved into the Sanctum, and only showed her face in the tower for weekly visits.
Pietro had agreed to give online schooling a go. He – unlike his sister – didn't join in on the Avenging unless absolutely necessary. What looked to be a hobby for her, seemed little more than a chore to him.
"See you tomorrow, professor!"
Stephen returned the wave one of his students gave him. She was one of the good ones – not brilliant, but dedicated, someone who asked for clarification three times before committing it to memory forever.
"At least they're not completely intimidated." Christine threw him a dry look.
"I'm strict," Stephen said, "not a tyrant."
He'd made the right decision. Stephen was more sure of it every day. He owed Christine a lot for making sure he gave this part of his life another shot.
"– can't believe I missed it! We all saw it on the news." Peter's chatter cut off long enough to shove an article on his phone in front of his webcam. It showed an excerpt of the Sanctum's fight against Nebula and her henchmen. "You should have called me. I could have helped!"
"From all the way in DC? Sorry kid, but until you develop the ability to teleport–”
"What about your friend? The wizard guy? He could have picked me up."
"Baby steps." Tony was quietly glad that Midtown's class trip had kept Peter far away from the action. Had he gotten wind of it at home, it would have been all but impossible to dissuade him from helping. "We can start with some basic training. See where you stand before we pit you against another intergalactic threat."
Peter's eyes grew to twice their normal size. His mouth fell open. "You want– You– You're going to train me?"
Tony shrugged, going for nonchalant. The grin tugging at his lips made it somewhat difficult. "If you want to."
"Do I want to?! Mr. Stark, that would be so– It would be awesome, thank you so much. You won't regret it, I swear."
"I know I won't." As far as Tony was concerned, Peter had proven himself tenfold. He could only hope he would make a more reliable mentor figure than he had in the first timeline.
Last that Tony had heard, the kid had contemplated trusting his best friend with his secret. "How's your friend doing? Ted?"
Peter's back went ramrod straight. "Ned’s good! Very good. I thought about what you said, you know, about trust and secrets and trusting someone with your secrets–”
"– and I thought, if I couldn't trust my best friend with this part of me, who else could I trust?"
"And then I thought, what's the point of waiting? If I'm gonna trust him, I might as well do it now."
"He found out by accident?"
"Walked in on me changing in the bathroom."
"And you panicked."
"And I panicked."
Tony hummed. Peter grimaced.
"I was gonna tell him anyway?" he tried. "This way was just a lot quicker. Also stressful. But quick."
"Why didn't you lock the door?"
"I broke my key after I tried to– Nevermind, it's not important." Peter shook off the mortified look on his face. "He would never reveal my secret. I know I can trust him."
"Good." Tony hadn't known Peter for long, but he knew that the kid wasn't the loner type. He needed people in his corner – more so than Tony had needed back then. "Are you planning on telling your aunt?"
Peter's eyes dropped downwards. "I don't know. It's just... She worries, you know? I don't want to burden her."
"Yeah, kid. I get it." Pepper and Rhodey – or most of his team – could tell him a thing or two about keeping secrets 'for their own good'. "But what do you think would be better: Telling her on your own terms, or having her find out by accident?"
Peter chewed on his lip. "What if she tries making me stop?"
Tony paused. "She might try," he admitted. "But only because she wants you to be safe."
"I want to tell her. I just... I'm afraid of how she might react."
Tony couldn't quite relate. He'd become Iron Man in his late 30s. He'd told the entire world who he was less than a month after he'd first donned the armor. As much as he tried, he couldn't put himself into the shoes of a 15-year-old hiding superpowers from his parental figure.
Then again, he knew the visceral fear of sharing a secret he’d tried holding onto with all his might.
"Trusting someone with a new part of your life is always scary," Tony finally said. "But... It's worth it. It makes everything so much easier."
He didn't want Peter to grow up shouldering the same issues that he had. Anything he could do to pave the way for the kid – anything he could do to make it easier – he'd do.
Peter's lips twitched into a shy smile. "Thanks, Mr. Stark. That helps. A lot."
"Do you prefer your work at the university to your session with Miss Maximoff?"
Stephen put away his book. He’d just have to finish it later. "The teaching part?"
He hadn’t had much luck concentrating anyway. Putting more than two Avengers together in one room – especially if one of them was Clint and the other Thor – inevitably led to the inability to do anything other than watch whether or not their newest venture would leave the tower standing.
Vision waited expectantly. He still hadn't quite figured out how to initiate a conversation smoothly. Often he simply burst in on whatever the others were doing – which was fine while reading a book and less fine while concentrating on a new spell that had the potential to level a few city blocks if done incorrectly.
(Vision no longer entered Stephen’s room without asking JARVIS for permission. JARVIS did not give permission if he detected energy levels that surpassed those of a decent car battery.)
"I wouldn't say I prefer one over the other." Then again, he'd never felt quite as passionate about his magical prowess as he had about his medical profession.
"I find medicine highly intriguing," Vision said. "Are there other ways to learn about it than entering over a decade’s worth of studies?"
"You need ten years or more to become a certified doctor," Stephen said slowly. "If you mean to educate yourself more casually, there are other options. Most universities have lectures that are open for visitors."
He threw a questioning look at the nearest camera. JARVIS obliged with an instant, "The university website suggests several lectures available for visitors every month."
"I can take you along if you like," Stephen offered.
Vision had come a long way since the day Tony had introduced them. He’d had gained in confidence since then. He'd spent time discovering himself, exploring his interests and figuring out who he was as a person.
Stephen counted himself lucky that of all the interests to choose, Vision had latched onto Stephen's passion.
"I would like that very much." Vision pulled his lips into a smile that – for the first time that Stephen had seen – looked completely natural.
They lapsed into relative silence. It was never quiet at the tower – while everybody had their own private space, there were always at least two or three people hanging out in the common area.
Stephen could no longer remember what it was like living on his own.
"Colonel Rhodes has just entered the building," JARVIS announced around the time Clint tried coercing Natasha and Sam into an arm-wrestling tournament. (Thor enthusiastically offered to join. He let himself be persuaded to serve as referee instead.)
Natasha had beaten both of them and was now trying to catch Stephen's eyes when – blessedly – Rhodey entered the room and gave Stephen a reason not to lose pathetically.
"Pepper called. Said she's gonna be here in roughly half an hour." Rhodey paused and cast a glance around the room. "Where's Tony gotten off to?"
"Last I've heard, he was still in his lab." Stephen turned his head. JARVIS pulled up live-footage from the workshop.
It didn't look like a video at first glance. Tony was inside, but he was barely moving. Holograms and data were displayed in front of him additionally to heaping piles of notes and sketches. Tony didn't look like he was taking in any of it. His eyes were glassy, like his thoughts were miles away from his workshop.
"I'll check up on him," Rhodey said.
Stephen pushed himself to his feet. "I'll do it." Somebody needed to pull Tony out of his thoughts now and again.
Rhodey looked like he wanted to protest. He settled for a half-joking, "Don't take no for an answer."
The notes and projects that had dictated Tony's life for the past months were piled up in front of him. Diagrams and equations detailing the process of creating Vision's body, blueprints for his armor, ideas for improvements on the Spider-Man suit, schematics for Stephen's therapy glove, weeks worth of security footage of the twins in their cells, of Bucky on the run, of Loki.
The timeline he'd started drawing up on his first day back was at the very center. More and more events had been crossed off: Sokovia first, then Dormammu, then the twins and the Civil War and Bucky.
Thanos had been last. With him, everything they’d known from the first timeline was taken care of. Everything was done. Tony dragged his hand over his face and kept repeating the thought in his mind. Repetition didn't help make it feel any more real.
Tony felt like he was in mid air, that moment of weightlessness and anticipation in the pit of his stomach right before either panic or thrill set in.
"Sir." JARVIS tore him out of his thoughts. "You are about to have company."
Stephen swept in shortly after he'd finished speaking.
Tony didn't try making himself look busy. Stephen knew as well as he did that their mission was supposed to be over – they'd won. So how come Stephen was able to move on with his life while Tony kept agonizing over problems they'd already solved?
Stephen's eyes trailed over the heaps of finished projects Tony had so far failed to clear from his work space. "Pepper is on her way," he said, meeting Tony's eyes at last. "I have permission from Rhodey to drag you upstairs kicking and screaming, if need be."
"How needlessly dramatic, seeing as you can just portal me instead."
"That sounds so dreadfully simple."
"Because why would anything in our life ever be simple," Tony said dryly.
Stephen lapsed into silence. Tony didn't think he'd come across as particularly bitter. Then again, it was hard to tell when every second word from his mouth was dripping with sarcasm, and cynicism was written into his very soul.
"Come upstairs," Stephen said, more softly this time. "This can wait."
DUM-E chose that moment to jab a button that turned off all of his holograms and likely broke the keyboard in the process. He tried being sneaky, but bumped Tony's elbow in his attempt to make a swift retreat.
Were JARVIS not better behaved than his less advanced brother, Tony was sure he'd have dimmed the lights for good measure.
Upstairs, Rhodey was absorbed in a conversation with Natasha. Half the team was lazing around the common area. Somebody had introduced Vision to Cat's Cradle – a pair of scissors and cut-up pieces of yarn on the coffee table beside him suggested it wasn't his first attempt.
The others were busy trying to decide which one of them got to pick a place for lunch.
"I'm voting for a battle royale," Clint said. "First blood wins, winner gets to pick."
Sam didn't seem to know whether Clint was being serious. "What's wrong with rock-paper-scissors?"
"What is 'rocks-papers-scissors'?" Thor asked. "Is it another form of combat?"
Something welled up in Tony’s chest, so steadily and gently that he didn’t realize until it was on the verge of spilling over. His throat felt tight.
"Hey." Stephen lowered his voice so only Tony could hear him. "Are you alright?"
Tony didn't pull his eyes away from his team. Vision had untangled the yarn from his hands, presumably meaning to learn the rules of rock-paper-scissors himself. Clint kept winning; Thor was so busy concentrating on doing it the right way that he didn't realize Clint was choosing his hand gestures a split second after Thor did.
Stephen's Cloak perked up at JARVIS’ announcement that Pepper was about to enter the tower. It had taken up the habit of collecting the coats from new visitors – which had endeared it to Christine and terribly frightened the last delivery guy who’d found his way to their front door.
Tony pulled his attention back. Warmth pooled into his stomach in a cozy puddle. His team was all here, and the threat was gone and conquered. Everybody was moving on with their lives.
It was time that Tony started doing the same. The next time he entered the workshop, he’d see how many of his projects he was able to shelve for good.
"Yeah," he said, settling down among his friends and allowing their warmth to surround him. "Everything’s perfect.”