The unnatural green glow of the time stone was burned into Tony’s vision when he opened his eyes in his workshop. Bruce Banner stood where Stephen Strange had been, and his equipment in place of debris and ruins.
For a moment, Tony was too stunned to move.
“Don’t give up hope,” Bruce said with a glance at him, misinterpreting his silence. “I know it’s been a while, but it doesn’t mean Ultron is a failure.”
Ultron. The name dunked ice water over Tony’s head and shook up old, dreaded memories.
The thoughts swirling around his head faded rapidly. Strange and Titan. The Guardians and the kid. Thanos.
Time travel. Impossible, outrageous time travel. This – Ultron – was years back. He was years back in time. Strange had brought them back.
Tony opened his mouth to say something, but hesitated. He was years back in time, and Ultron was about to happen. Ultron was dangerous. He was one in the long row of failures Tony had caused that had brought death and destruction instead of the salvation he'd sought. He was... a lost opportunity.
It would be so easy to destroy every last trace of Ultron and make sure that none of the damage he'd caused would happen again. It would be easy to tear apart his code until he flickered out of existence. The urge to do so made Tony's hands twitch. Ultron would be a faded memory. A nightmare, nothing more.
What if this time, Tony could get it right?
He knew that the earth needed protection. If anything, it was even clearer to Tony than it had been before. They weren’t enough. They hadn’t been enough. So what if this time, Tony made Ultron work?
“Sir?” JARVIS said, JARVIS, and not FRIDAY, “Are you alright? I detect a spike in your heart rate.”
Tony clenched his fists, shaken out of his paralysis. Ultron could not – would not – be the answer. “Shut it down,” he forced out. “JARVIS, shut it down.”
“Tony?” Bruce said, clearly startled.
“Sir? I do not follow?”
One glance over his workshop showed that they had already finished the extraction from the scepter. They had extracted an infinity stone without realizing – or even knowing what it was. If the situation wasn’t so dire, Tony might have laughed. Any second now, Ultron would become self-sustaining, would become self-aware.
It might already be too late.
“JARVIS,” Tony barked, this time not leaving room for protest. “Shut down internet access and cut all connections in and out of this lab. Then go to sleep, protocol ‘Safeguard’. Now!”
JARVIS powered down without another comment. Tony had never used this override before, and he could feel the jab it sent through his chest: He was basically putting JARVIS into a coma.
But it was better than losing him all over again.
“What did you do that for?” Bruce asked.
Tony wasn’t done. He leaped forward to pull up Ultron’s code manually, scrolling through it to find a few lines in particular. He resolutely ignored Bruce, knowing that once he paid closer attention to him, he would not be able to concentrate on his work.
“What… Where am I?”
Tony froze at the voice that was definitely not Bruce’s. Bruce breathed out a soft, “Oh.”
It wasn’t too late. It couldn’t be too late. Ultron had yet to finish starting up, so Tony continued to skim through his code frantically.
“What… are you doing?” The voice sounded sharper now, some of the confusion gone.
“Tony?” Bruce asked, but he didn’t answer, just kept scrolling, kept looking and there…
“What are you doing?!” Ultron yelled, and a whirring sound was all the warning Tony got before he had to dodge a repulsor blast.
He heard Bruce call out and leaped up, slamming the delete button a second before another blast fried the keyboard. Everything stopped.
Ultron looked down at his newly acquired body in his equivalent of puzzlement, repulsors forgotten. Tony put himself in front of Bruce and didn’t let the AI out of his eyes. Ultron had taken over an Iron Man armor once he’d realized that Tony was messing with his code. He probably hadn’t meant to do it on purpose.
“What did you do?” Bruce whispered, peeking over his shoulder to stare at Ultron.
“I don’t… I’m not… What have you done?” Ultron said, mirroring Bruce’s question.
Tony’s jaw shifted, the words stuck in his throat. Bile rose at the back of his mouth and he had to force himself to go on. “I made a mistake. I wanted to fix it before you woke up.” His hands twitched at his sides restlessly. He realized that he wouldn’t be able to pull up his suit around his body the way he could have before. “I was a bit slow. Sorry.”
“Who are you?” Ultron said. “And who… What am I? What is my purpose?”
Tony felt Bruce tense in realization. “Tony…”
In those seconds, Tony had deleted Ultron’s primary protocol, his sole purpose of existence. Ultron had been created to bring peace, the solution for at least some of the world’s problems. Tony had seen how that had turned out.
Without it, Ultron was nothing but a clean slate. An AI like JARVIS, but with none of the experience and – as of now – no drive.
“What am I?” Ultron repeated. “What is my purpose?”
Tony swallowed, trying to get rid of the dryness in his throat. He could end it so easily. He could command Ultron to power down, to delete himself from existence. Everything that had happened before could be stopped, there would be no risks. It would be so easy.
Ultron sounded so lost.
Tony closed his eyes in defeat. In Tony’s eyes, his AIs were alive. Deleting Ultron would be like murdering him. Worse, ordering him to power down permanently would be like making him commit suicide.
“Vision,” Tony said, ignoring the way his voice cracked. “Your name is Vision.”
Ultron – no. Vision didn’t nod or acknowledge his words in the way a human would have. He was too new. He had so much to learn. “What is my purpose?”
Tony felt Bruce’s eyes on his back. “Your purpose is to learn.”
“I… I don’t understand. Why am I here?”
Tony closed his eyes. He needed to give Vision something more concrete. “You’re here to observe. To learn, and to choose your path on your own. To discover who you are.”
“I… I am Vision,” he said, and it sounded like a question.
“Yes.” Tony couldn’t help the soft smile. “And everything else will be up to you.”
“Tony,” Bruce said, grasping Tony’s upper arm. He suppressed a flinch. “We did it. He’s alive, you did it!”
“Yeah,” Tony said through the static in his ears. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Tony?” Bruce turned towards him, and suddenly Tony couldn’t take his eyes off him. “Are you alright?”
“Always,” Tony whispered, and with the rasp in his voice and his too wide eyes he would have convinced nobody.
“You are… unwell?” Vision asked, trying out the word carefully.
“I’m alright. All good, just peachy.” His head started to spin. Bruce looked at him, all kindness and concern. Before he'd crashed into the Sanctum and brought the news of Thanos' nearing invasion, Tony hadn't seen him in years.
Ultron – no, Vision – came towards them in unpracticed, clumsy steps. He hadn’t been designed to take over the Iron Man armor and almost fell, stiff and unused to having a physical form. He looked so much like Ultron had in the old timeline, Tony couldn’t help but flinch back. He realized that his breath was coming shorter. Black spots danced at the edge of his vision.
“That can’t be good,” Tony muttered.
He stumbled back and was caught by Bruce with an alarmed “Tony!” Everything had only just started to sink in, but Bruce was like a sledgehammer, pounding in that this was all wrong. Everything was different. Tony didn’t belong here.
Bruce looked years younger and Ultron was staggering closer and JARVIS was silent and Tony? Tony gave in to the darkness and barely registered Bruce catching him against his side.
When Tony opened his eyes he was greeted by Rhodey sitting at his bedside, and quite frankly, there could not have been a more wonderful sight to wake up to.
Tony was somewhat surprised that Rhodey didn’t jump at seeing him awake. He wasn’t even looking at Tony. Instead, and Tony had to arch his neck to get a good look, Rhodey was caught in a staring match with–
“Jesus Christ!” Tony clutched a hand over his chest where his heart threatened to jump out. Why did nobody ever remember that he had a heart condition?
“Tony!” Rhodey said, immediately focused on him. “How are you feeling?”
Everything rushed back in the matter of seconds. The lab. Bruce. Ultron. And… “Vision,” Tony said, trying to keep the wariness out of his voice. “Is there a reason you’re looming over my bed and watching me sleep?”
Vision paused, but took a step back. “I was not aware that I have been… looming.”
“He didn’t understand what it means for a human to faint,” Rhodey muttered, a distrustful glance showing what he thought about the situation. “He insisted on staying while you ‘recharged’ and could tell him yourself that you’re okay.
“Putting the matter of you fainting aside,” Rhodey raised his eyebrow in the promise that he would not let it go that easily, “care to explain why your brand new AI is possessing a suit? JARVIS couldn’t tell me.”
No one except Tony had the clearance to disable the ‘Safeguard’ protocol, once it was activated. Until he did, the tower would remain silent.
Tony clenched his teeth at the thought, discomfort churning in his gut. “Right. Okay. Vision, this is Rhodey, Rhodey, this is Vision. We, as in Bruce and me, sort of, kind of, took apart Loki’s scepter, found an alien power source and used it to bring to life my most recent AI?”
He cringed at Rhodey’s blatant look of disbelief.
Rhodey closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Okay. Vision, brought to life by an alien power source and Loki’s magic. Not quite what Bruce said, but fine. Got it.” His expression changed to spell out ‘don’t bullshit me, Stark’. “How does that translate to you fainting?”
“Wonderful question. How about I answer it… never.” Tony was out of his bed and halfway across the room in seconds, leaving Rhodey – and Vision – no choice but to follow.
Instead of escaping, Tony found himself confronted with Pepper and Bruce. Both of them leaped up from their seats.
“What is this, an intervention?” Tony pushed as much annoyance into his voice as he could in the attempt to cover up everything else. His heart fluttered with badly suppressed emotion and the urge to bury each of them in a hug made his arms twitch. He needed to get out of here.
“Depends,” Rhodey said, crossing his arms. “Mind telling us what’s going on?”
“I told you. Bruce and I took a look at the scepter and thought–”
“You know that’s not what I meant,” Rhodey interrupted. He frowned, a crease forming between his brows. “We’re worried about you.”
“Enough to call Pepper, apparently.”
“Of course he called me,” Pepper said, sporting a frown of her own. Immediately, Tony felt guilty. “You can’t honestly expect us to do nothing when the last time you hid something from us, you almost died.”
“What do you mean, he almost died?” Bruce asked.
“More like ‘which time’,” Rhodey, that traitor, said. “The one with the palladium poisoning or the time he pissed off a terrorist?”
“You pissed off a terrorist?” Bruce’s eyes widened in alarm.
“In my defence,” Tony said, “I tried telling you about that. You fell asleep.”
“A whole body scan reveals no signs of poisoning,” Vision chimed in. Apparently he had figured out how to use JARVIS’ sensors and thought that now would be a good moment to put them to use. “However, I detect several other health concerns, including–”
“Thanks, Vision,” Tony cut him off. “You can zip it right there.”
“Oh no, do go on,” Rhodey said.
“This can be lesson one of learning to become a socially capable member of society: Privacy and discretion.”
“Wow,” Rhodey muttered. “The hypocrisy in that sentence is staggering.”
“What we can all take away from this,” Tony said, raising his voice to take control over the situation, “is that nobody has to worry and I’m fine. Pepper, you look stunning as always. Rhodey, light of my life, thanks for showing up.” He laid a hand on Rhodey’s shoulder, going for casual. Another twitch of concern in Rhodey’s expression showed that he was failing spectacularly.
“As much as I appreciate the reunion, there’s things to do. Bruce, if you don’t mind, show Vision around. Answer his questions. You two will get along just great. JARVIS, pull up information on–”
Tony cut himself off when he realized that JARVIS couldn’t hear him. He clenched his eyes shut, breathing through the tightness in his chest and pulled out his phone to check for the contact information he needed himself.
He refused to look up, knowing that Pepper and Rhodey – and, possibly, Bruce – were exchanging glances. With his luck, it was only a matter of time until they got Vision to join them as well.
“I do not understand the finer details of human interaction or… caring.” Vision paused. A quick glance showed that his eyes – or rather, the eerily glowing eye-slits of the Iron Man armor – were stuck on Tony. “However, I find myself… reluctant to leave your side.”
“See?” Rhodey said, and Tony hastily turned back to his phone. “Even your newest robo-child agrees.”
“Whatever it is you have planned,” Pepper added, “I’m sure it can wait for a few more hours. Come have something to eat with us, at least.”
“I’ve told the others that you were fine,” Bruce piled on, “but they’ll feel better if they saw for themselves. You missed the party.”
“You’ll never believe what else you missed,” Rhodey said. “Turns out Mjolnir isn’t just Thor’s, it lifts for anyone who’s–”
Tony didn’t hear the rest. Had the phone in his hands been designed by anyone other than himself, it would have cracked under his grip. A headline glared up at him, banning all other thoughts from his mind.
Star Surgeon Involved In Car Crash, Condition Unknown
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It took Tony more than an hour to track Stephen down. The article that had sent him hurtling out of the tower was several months old, and it had proven a struggle to find much media coverage on the crash beyond it.
By the time he managed to dig up an address, Tony also found Stephen’s medical files dating back over the last few months. He read up on the extended hospital stays, found several files on experimental operations – and also their considerable (and largely unpaid) bills.
Tony resolutely ignored that he had to pull up all the information manually when normally FRIDAY, or, before her, JARVIS would have done it for him.
It didn’t take much longer until he reached the right address, and he didn’t bother trying the doorbell. He let himself in and looked around with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. The idea of the wizard living in an apartment like a regular person was difficult to combine with the image Tony had formed about him.
“Stephen?” Tony called, slowing down as he stepped deeper into the apartment. “Do me a favor and don’t call the cops on me.” It wasn’t like Tony had planned to arrive unannounced. No matter how often he’d tried, Stephen hadn’t picked up the phone, and Tony had to assume that the number he’d found in his medical file wasn’t up to date anymore.
His answer came from the next room. Tony stopped short once he reached the doorway.
“There aren’t many people presumptuous enough to invite themselves inside someone’s house just like that, you know?”
Stephen, to put it mildly, looked like crap. His external injuries had healed over the months since the accident, but dark shadows laid under his eyes, a stark contrast to the sickly pale tint of his skin. An air of exhaustion surrounded him as he laid tensely on his couch, his hands stuck out awkwardly like he struggled to figure out what to do with them.
Tony quickly tore his eyes away from the scarred limbs.
“Rocking that Cast Away look, I see. Could have warned a guy. I almost thought I broke into the wrong apartment.”
“Yeah, well.” Stephen spoke in a quiet rasp, raising his hands and forcing Tony’s attention back to them. They trembled violently enough that he had trouble making out the scars running over them. “These make it somewhat difficult to shave without accidentally slicing my throat.”
Tony felt a pang in his chest. His throat constricted and he had to close his eyes. “Sorry. That wasn’t– Fuck.” He tapped his sternum where his arc reactor used to be, but the motion only managed to rile him up further when he didn’t feel the casing of his Bleeding Edge armor.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated – as if anything he could say would make the situation better – but Stephen interrupted before he could talk himself any deeper.
His mouth twitched into a weak, almost indiscernible smile. “It’s good to see you, Tony.”
“Can’t be saved. I know.” Stephen looked into a different direction just a bit too deliberately. “I’ve had the past few hours to come to terms with that.”
Feeling like he was stepping on thin ice – and already having cracked the surface – Tony stayed silent.
“Oh please.” Stephen scoffed, and if it weren’t for his unkempt appearance, it would almost make him look like his regular self. “Your silence is making it worse.”
“What can I say?” Tony gave a small shrug. “Two sentences in and I’ve already lived up to my reputation. Guess this settles the matter of who’s the bigger asshole of the two of us.”
The sound that Stephen made in response could almost count for a chuckle. His features softened as he said, “Sit with me.”
Tony took a look around Stephen’s living room. It could have come straight out of a catalogue for interior design, stilted and fake without any sort of personal touch. Beside the couch Stephen was lying on, there were only a bunch of pretentious designer chairs. They looked incredibly uncomfortable.
Despite looking like every movement caused him pain, Stephen seemed to have the same thought. He scooted up into a sitting position to make space for Tony, although it made him grimace in pain.
Tony took the invitation and sat down at his feet, leaning back and letting the tension bleed out of him.
They sat together for several minutes.
"So," Tony said when the silence became too much for him to bear. "Time travel, huh?"
Stephen's lips twitched into a weak smile. "Yes. Time travel."
"Why didn't you mention that was an option?"
"It wasn't." Stephen's smile dimmed. "I risked tearing apart the fabric of reality by coming here."
That... didn't sound like a risk worth taking. "Ah."
"... So. Why'd you do it anyway?"
Stephen sighed. He closed his eyes and radiated bone-deep exhaustion. "Because it was the only way."
Tony frowned. His memories of Titan were already becoming fuzzy. "You said that you used the stone to look at... other realities."
"Possible outcomes. Yes."
"And this is the one where we win?"
"No." Stephen's gaze darkened. "This is the only one where we didn't lose."
Tony blinked. "Isn't that what I said?"
"No." Stephen sighed. "In all the others, we never left Titan. Or we did, but Thanos seized the stones and completed his plans anyway. This one is... a complete restart."
"You're saying that you couldn't watch it through to the end."
"Exactly. There's new variables. New possibilities." Stephen shrugged. "I don't know what's going to happen. But the way we were before... we wouldn't have stood a chance."
Tony had known that. On some level, he'd known from the start. The words still felt like a brick lodging itself in his stomach.
There was a pause. Tony tried not to look at Stephen's hands too blatantly, but his eyes kept twitching back.
Stephen noticed his gaze.
“The first time it happened I threw away all of my money in search of a cure,” he said, his lips twisting into a bitter smile. “I suppose that is something I can give up on early this time around.”
Tony thought about the experimental (fruitless) operations he’d read about and swallowed the lump in his throat. “Is that why you went to Karma… Kama… To Hogwarts?”
Stephen’s mouth twitched weakly. Tony took it as a minor victory. “Kamar-Taj. And yes. I was desperate and out of options.” A mild chuckle followed. “It was quite literally the last glimmer of hope I had left.”
“But it didn’t heal your hands.”
“No. It didn’t.”
Instead he had been given the chance to study magic and become the Sorcerer Supreme. Speak of a career change.
“Does it hurt?” Tony asked, no matter how stupid the question felt. One glance could tell him the answer.
“Not as much as it would have a few months back. But yes.”
“How long did it take?” Tony asked. “The first time around?”
Stephen shrugged. “The pain got less over time. I never regained my fine motor skills completely.”
“If you could choose,” Tony said, and immediately regretted his words, “would you undo it?”
Stephen was silent for a long moment. “People think that the only reason I became a doctor was for fame. And I will admit, that was part of it.” He paused, closing his eyes. Tony had never seen him look this exhausted. “But I genuinely loved what I was doing.”
This, at least, was something Tony could understand. He didn’t know what he would do if he lost his hands. Such a huge part of his life was defined by what he could do, and not being able to build, to create… Tony had to suppress a shudder. He didn’t know if he could be strong like Stephen had been.
Like he would have to be, again.
“I don’t know what I would choose,” Stephen finally admitted. “I’d like to believe that everything that happened made me a better person. But it doesn’t mean I don’t miss it.”
He paused, and when he looked up it was clear that the topic was over. “How are you holding up?” he asked instead. Tony couldn’t suppress an ugly laugh.
Here Stephen was, thrown back to the time after his horrific car accident that robbed him of the use of his hands for the second time in his life – lives, whatever – and yet he asked if Tony was alright.
“I mean it, Tony.”
Tony looked away. He realized that he had started tapping his chest again and forced his arm to relax. He missed the Bleeding Edge armor. He felt defenseless without it.
“I lost it when I woke up in the lab,” he admitted. Stephen had been nothing but honest with him, so he owed him that much. “Bruce was there, and after I freaked out he brought Pepper and Rhodey. There’s no way they didn’t realize something is wrong.”
He paused, trying not to fidget. “Remember that whole Ultron mess? Sokovia? I didn’t screw it up this time. I stopped it.” Well. Sort of.
“I don’t remember much of it,” Stephen said slowly. “Back then I didn’t care much about anything except, well.” His eyes flashed to his hands with a self depreciative smile. “Anything I should know?”
“Maybe. Even without Ultron, there’s still some loose ends.”
Tony didn’t want to think about it, but there was no guarantee that Vision would turn out the same way he had the first time around. Even though his components were the same – Tony’s and Bruce’s input, Ultron’s coding minus his primary protocol and the mind stone – the circumstances of his birth (for lack of a better word) were entirely different. The first Vision had been thrown directly into conflict. This one, if Tony had anything to say about it, would have the chance to decide for himself which path he wanted to take.
There was the mind stone to deal with, not to mention the other infinity stones, and Wanda was still out there, still in the clutches of HYDRA. And, as Tony realized with a pang, her brother.
Tony was struggling to decide where to begin when the door to Stephen’s living room swung open and a woman walked in, a key to Stephen’s apartment in one hand and a couple of grocery bags in the other.
“I’ve been to the store. Let me know if you need anything– Anything–” She froze at the sight of Tony leaping up from where he’d been sitting on Stephen’s couch. “Else. Um,” she said, eyes wide and mouth half open.
Tony gave a weak little wave. “Hi.”
“Christine,” Stephen said, but failed to come up with anything else to say.
There was an awkward silence.
“You’re Tony Stark,” Christine brought out, and shook Tony out of his daze.
“You must be Christine,” he said, improvising. He grabbed for her hand with a confident smile that felt incredibly fake. “Pleasure to meet you. I’ve heard you were a looker, but wow. If I’d known, I would have come to visit sooner.”
Christine stared at their linked hands, then at Tony and back at Stephen. “Do you two… know each other?”
They’d spoken at the same time, and the silence that followed was even more awkward.
“Friends,” Stephen said, settling the matter. “We’re friends.”
“Okay.” Christine hesitated, visibly shaking off her daze. “Um. Look, Stephen. I talked to Doctor West. You know, about that last time you two met at the hospital. And he told me… He, he wanted me to tell you–”
“Right,” Stephen muttered, closing his eyes. “Could you ask him to come over?”
“West. Could you ask him to come here? I’d like to talk to him myself.”
Christine’s expression grew strained. “Stephen… It wasn’t his fault.”
“He did everything– He– What did you say?”
“I said I know.” Stephen avoided her gaze, and while Tony had never heard of a “Doctor West”, he could guess that there was history between them. There was some bitterness lining his sentence that Stephen failed to cover up. “I’m sure he did everything he could.”
“That’s not what you said before.” Christine stared at Stephen in disbelief. “The entire hospital knows that you’re blaming him. You’re using every opportunity to remind him.”
Stephen closed his eyes, an emotion flickering over his face that Tony failed to place. “I know. And I’m… I’m sorry.” The words seemed clunky and stiff, like Stephen had trouble speaking them out loud. Nevertheless, he powered through. “It’s been… difficult. After the accident, I was confused. And scared. I focused my anger on him, and I shouldn’t have.”
He opened his eyes and looked at Christine. “Not at you, either.”
Tony debated leaving the room when Christine started to tear up, and even more so when she put a hand on Stephen’s shoulder. He stepped further back, trying to give them at least the illusion of privacy. He felt incredibly uncomfortable.
“There are options, Stephen,” Christine continued, a shaky smile on her lips. “Don’t give up hope.”
Tony’s chest constricted. His eyes dropped to the floor so he wouldn’t have to look at Stephen’s horribly fake looking smile.
“I know,” he said. “Thank you, Christine.”
Christine didn’t stay long after that, wiping her eyes as she left Stephen’s apartment.
They sat in silence, neither of them acknowledging the cruel reminder of Stephen’s fate that Christine had unintentionally dropped. It wasn’t fair.
In the end, Tony settled for a, “She seems nice.”
“She deserves better.”
Tony didn’t answer. He knew that feeling far too well.
Something occurred to him then, and he gladly changed the topic from their mutual inability to form and hold onto meaningful social relationships. “Can you use your magic? Or is it something you have to relearn?” Despite having watched Stephen use his powers countless times, he didn’t actually know how they worked.
Stephen frowned, contemplating. “I can’t use it with my thoughts alone. I will have to practice to make it work with these.”
The way his hands looked now, all of the gestures and motions Tony had come to connect with his magic would have to be incredibly painful.
“After that, it should come easier to me.” Something flashed through his eyes, something so utterly vulnerable that Tony wanted to look away. He didn’t allow himself to. “I didn’t handle physiotherapy well the first time around.”
Tony could tell that he wasn’t done, so he waited.
“I was far more obsessed with finding a cure and refused to accept that I would have to live with these.” Stephen’s lips twisted with a glance at his hands. “My money wasn’t the only thing I lost, back then.”
“Christine?” Tony asked, thinking back on all the times he’d pushed away the people that he loved.
Stephen confirmed his thoughts with a nod. “She was so patient. Too patient. But even she couldn’t bear my self-pity forever.”
“You’ve changed since then,” Tony pointed out. He hesitated, then added, “And Christine isn’t the only one at your side this time around.”
There was a pause, and what followed looked like Stephen’s first completely genuine smile. It didn’t manage to chase away the exhaustion and pain in his expression, but it made him look tremendously more like himself. “I know. The same goes to you.”
Tony thought that perhaps, they just might make it through this.
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Hours passed in Stephen’s apartment without either of them acknowledging that Tony would not be able to stay forever. As long as he was there they could pretend like nothing had changed, could pretend like everything had gone according to plan and left them in the perfect position to prevent most of the next several years from happening.
But at the end of the day there wasn't much of a choice. They had to accept that Stephen was in no shape to do much of anything besides concentrate on his recovery, and Tony had too much else on his plate to stay for most of it.
There were no hard feelings about it. Stephen knew what was at stake, he knew it wasn’t personal. That did not, of course, make it any easier to leave.
Tony caught himself procrastinating on his way back to the tower. There was a reason he’d left so quickly in the first place – he stubbornly refused to acknowledge it as him fleeing – and everything inside of him itched to fly elsewhere, to avoid the confrontation for just a few hours more.
Bruce, Pepper and Rhodey had been difficult enough. Tony wasn’t even going to think about the headache that Vision was shaping up to be. But there was also them. The Avengers. The pre-divided, pre-Civil War earth’s mightiest heroes, Tony’s friends before he had dealt the first blow of breaking them apart, of screwing everything up.
Tony grit his teeth, forcing himself to speed up the suit. Even for his old, far too clunky design, he was going at an embarrassingly slow speed. He was being ridiculous.
‘Meet me in the common room’, he forced himself to type out as a mass-text, ‘Team meeting. -TS’. He hesitated, then added, ‘If there’s anything that didn’t survive yesterday’s party you’ve got 10 min left to fix it.’
With that out of the way, he finished the rest of the flight surrounded by the suffocating silence that JARVIS’ absence left in its wake.
Before Tony could allow himself to obsess over the reunion for longer, he entered the tower and went straight into the common area with the feeling of walking towards his own execution.
Perhaps he was being just a tad dramatic.
There was Rhodey – not yet, technically, a member – keeping to the background with his arms crossed.
Thor, alive and well, Mjolnir lying on the table in front of him holding documents and a Stark tablet held captive underneath.
Bruce hovered awkwardly next to Vision, who was eerily still in his Iron Man armor. Steve did a bad job of hiding the wary glances he kept shooting the AI, while Natasha was sprawled out on one of the couches with a gossip magazine, looking at ease and casual.
They looked so peaceful. Gone was the air of exhaustion and grief, gone the tension of bad blood and history between them.
Tony’s left arm throbbed, and although he knew that it was all in his head, he struggled not to react.
“Oh, you’re here,” Clint called from where he entered the room, a pack of Twinkies held in one hand and throwing a second pack with the other. He nailed the throw without looking, and Thor caught it with ease. “Aren’t you gonna take off the suit?”
“It’s a new model,” Tony said, the lie slipping over his lips far too effortlessly. “I’m breaking it in.”
In retrospect, he regretted choosing the common area as a meeting place. It hadn’t looked this way in a long time, personal and lived in, traces of each of his team members strewn around.
The TV sported an abandoned game of Mario Kart, and the small heap of broken controllers and the chosen track – Rainbow Road – had Tony believing that somebody had tried to introduce Thor to the game.
An empty smoothie cup was left on the table, the sweet, fruity kind that Cap liked, and Tony was sure that if he went looking, he would find knives and small projectiles hidden in strategic places all around the tower.
Tony forced himself to keep his eyes on his team before he had the chance to spot more. “We need to talk,” he said, and made an effort not to tense as the others gave him their full attention.
“You don’t say,” Clint said cheerfully, dropping down on Natasha’s couch and leaning back against her legs. She let it happen with a twitch of her lips. “You missed the chance to become king of Asgard.”
Tony almost missed his cue of shooting back a remark. “I’ll pass. Or not; I could have Pepper rule in my stead and show up only for the banquets.”
Clint smirked, offering Natasha a Twinkie by holding it over his shoulder. She took it. “Who’d take care of your company?”
“Please,” Tony scoffed. “Why would I need a company if I owned an entire realm?”
“Do not take offense,” Thor chimed in, grinning at them widely, “but Mjolnir has spoken and I shall keep the right to the throne. Unless you wish to attempt to lift her as well? Be my guest.”
He gestured towards Mjolnir in good-natured banter. It was so easy to slip back into their old dynamic, back into their friendship before time and conflict had corrupted it.
“Tony. Stop deflecting.” Rhodey’s voice was soft, his brows furrowed in thinly veiled concern. Guilt tore at Tony’s gut sharp and ragged.
“He’s right. This isn’t what we came for,” Steve said, letting just enough authority seep through to show that he was serious, despite the smile tugging at his lips. He turned to Tony and asked, “Are you alright?” thus managing to completely derail Tony’s thought process.
“Um. Yeah, of course. Never better, why wouldn’t I be?”
Natasha arched an eyebrow, but was missing the harsh edge around her mouth. She almost looked playful (a thought Tony would never ever share with another soul. Contrary to popular belief, he was not actively suicidal). “Aside from missing out on the party, Pepper and Rhodes showing up and nobody else catching a glimpse of you for hours?”
“Not to mention that.” Clint shot a pointed glance towards Vision, still, oddly, maneuvering the Iron Man armor. JARVIS – and even FRIDAY – had taken control of them countless times, but neither of them had ever expressed the intent to stay inside of them for longer than necessary.
“First of all, Vision’s a ‘he’,” Tony started. There would be no disrespecting his AIs in his building, thank you very much. “Second of all, I was… busy.”
“Busy,” Steve repeated, and once again, Tony was momentarily taken aback at how it sounded exasperated more than it sounded angry. “You mean busy messing around with the scepter without telling us.”
“Right. About that,” Tony said, covering up a wince. His team reacted to the change in atmosphere: Clint straightened up, Steve frowned and Rhodey took a step forward, his arms still crossed. “This is why I asked you to come. I think the scepter is far more dangerous than we originally thought.”
“Is that why you locked down the lab before you left?” Bruce asked.
Tony grimaced. “I didn’t want to risk anything before I had the chance to fill you in.”
“Then why did you leave in the first place?” Rhodey asked.
“Doesn’t matter.” Tony didn’t want to lie more than he had to, but for now, Stephen would remain his secret. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to leave the scepter out of our sight.”
Thor frowned, taking on a thoughtful expression. “And why is that?”
“Look, I studied it. And what I found…” Tony cut himself off, starting anew. “The basic gist of it is that the scepter is powered by something else. Something almost sentient. And I think it is far more powerful than we realized at first.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. “So why did you use it for Hal over there?”
“I resent that,” Tony deadpanned even as he tried not to cringe. That sentence had been far too close to the truth for comfort. “By the time I realized, it was already too late. Vision was in the middle of his start-up.”
“You shut down your AI and other connections so I would not be overwhelmed,” Vision said, making everybody around him tense. There was something akin to realization in his voice. “Everything was… confusing, at first. It still is. I don’t know what would have happened, had I tried to process such a massive amount of data so soon.”
He paused, the faceplate of Iron Man’s suit tilting. “Perhaps even this was too great of a risk.”
“Vision,” Tony started, protectiveness pulsing through his body, but Bruce was quicker.
“I don’t regret it,” he said, and sounded surprised at himself for speaking up. “I’ve had the past few hours to spend with Vision. He’s already moved past all of my expectations. I know, there was JARVIS, but…” He smiled, soft and genuine. “Watching him develop from the start is something else.”
There was a pause.
“Okay,” Steve said, finally. “Whatever happened, happened. We’ll deal with it. In the meantime…” He turned to Thor. “What do you think? You were supposed to take the scepter with you, and it was Loki who brought it in the first place. You’re our best bet to find out more about it.”
Tony kept his mouth shut. It wouldn’t do to reveal that he knew more than he should be able to. With his luck, the others might end up theorizing he was under the scepter’s influence.
Thor paused thoughtfully. “If what you say is true…” He shared a glance with Tony. “What you describe sounds familiar. May I see your studies on the scepter?”
Tony pulled up holograms of his notes wordlessly. Once upon a time he might have cracked a joke, but Thor was far more intelligent than people gave him credit for. He didn’t come from an advanced alien society for nothing.
“This energy bears similarities to the tesseract,” Thor noted eventually, and in contrast to his somber tone, Tony felt relief coursing through his body. He would have brought it up himself if he had to, but it was easier coming from Thor.
“The tesseract?” Steve asked, immediately alarmed. “But the tesseract is–”
“An unlimited energy source with capabilities we can’t even begin to dream of,” Tony finished.
“You’re saying the scepter might be similar?” Rhodey asked.
“I’m saying that whatever the scepter contains is.” Tony pulled up some of the readings, for Thor and Bruce more than for the others. “The scepter might be nothing but a vessel. Something to harness the power that lies within. Who knows, the tesseract might be, too.”
Thor looked up sharply.
“What is it?” Natasha asked. “You just realized something.”
“I remembered something,” Thor murmured, paying only half attention. “Perhaps…” Thor shot up without another word, grabbing Mjolnir off of the table.
“Woah,” Tony said, “Thor? Buddy? Care to share with the class?”
“I need to go.”
Steve straightened up with an alarmed expression. “What? Thor, wait–”
“Hopefully, I will return bearing answers.”
“Thor,” Steve tried again, hurrying after him. “Wait. Talk to us.”
But Thor had already reached the window and flung himself out without another word of farewell. Tony wasn’t any less taken aback as everybody else was.
“So,” Clint said, drawing out the word obnoxiously. “What do we do now?”
Steve sighed, radiating exasperation. “We’ll have to guard it until Thor comes back.” He turned, looking straight at Tony. “Tony, Bruce. Try to find out more about it if you can. If it really is as powerful as the tesseract…” He trailed off, not needing to finish the sentence. “Just make sure it won’t blow up in our faces.”
And that was that. Tony had nearly forgotten what it felt like to be trusted by his team to such a degree. It almost made him feel guilty about all the things he was currently hiding from them.
Almost. Tony knew that if they were to find out, he would immediately lose that trust.
By now, Clint had taken Steve’s order as the dismissal that it was and had decided that the team meeting was officially over. “You know what we haven’t done in far too long?” he asked and, not waiting for an answer, “Movie night. Hey Cap, what’s next on your list?”
“Uh…” Instead of the dismissive answer Tony almost expected, Steve started to dig through his pockets in search of said list. Before he could find it, Natasha answered in his stead.
“We were almost through with Disney.” Clint’s expression brightened up, and Natasha added, “We are not watching Brave again.”
At once, Clint’s face fell. “Come on! That movie is a masterpiece.”
Steve looked genuinely confused. “Didn’t you complain about how inaccurate the archery in it was?”
“So? It’s still a Disney movie about archery.”
“I am not listening to that again,” Natasha said, the ‘or else’ unspoken but no less threatening.
“It doesn’t have to be Disney,” Steve tried, ever the diplomat between them.
“The Incredibles,” Clint said, straightening up like he was electrocuted. “How have we not watched The Incredibles yet?”
“The Incredibles?” Steve asked.
Natasha shrugged. “Fine by me.”
All of a sudden, Tony felt the overwhelming need to distance himself from his team. Nausea churned in his stomach, and a bitter taste lingered in his mouth.
“As much fun as this sounds, I think Cap gave me something to do.” He patted Bruce’s shoulder on his way out of the room. “I’ll be fine. Feel free to join them. Take Vision, he could use some exposure to pop culture. And team bonding.”
“I’ll see you. Enjoy.”
Tony felt Rhodey’s eyes on his back. He would deal with him later. For now… For now, Tony desperately needed some time alone.
He stepped out of his armor and into the workshop and caught a glance of DUM-E and U, cowering near their charging stations in an oddly anxious way. Both of them came rushing at him as soon as they noticed he was there.
“Alright, alright,” Tony said, frowning as he reached out to pat DUM-E’s arm. The bot clutched at his jacket with an alarmingly frantic whir. “What’s wrong? I haven’t been gone for that long.”
U crowded in at him from the other side, and before Tony could make sense of it, both of the bots started tugging and pushing at him. “What’s gotten into you? Do I have to threaten to take you apart again? Because I swear, I– Oh.”
Tony closed his eyes, coming to a halt in front of the control panel his bots had urged him towards. “Right,” he said, giving in to the impulse of laying a reassuring hand on each of his bots. It was for his own sake as much as for theirs. “It’s been quiet in here, hasn’t it?”
Metaphorically, that was. His bots did not communicate through words; they did not need to. The two must have felt it the second that JARVIS had powered down, and since they had never before been cut off from their more advanced brother, they must have panicked.
Tony swallowed at the dryness in his throat. “There was a flaw in JARVIS’ programming,” he lied. “I need to make sure that everything is perfect before I wake him up.”
DUM-E lowered his claw with a sad little hum and U let go of his shirt. At least they weren’t panicking anymore.
Tony sunk down at his workbench and allowed himself a moment to simply sit and breathe. At last there were no expectations, no need for his mask, no need to pretend. It was just him and his bots.
At last, he pulled up the folder containing the blueprints for his suits, his as of yet severely lacking notes on prosthetics, fine motor skills and physiotherapy, and an empty timeline waiting to be filled with the potential events of the next several years.
He had work to do.
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Stephen dropped the mask as soon as Tony closed his apartment door behind him. It wasn’t that his presence hadn’t helped – because it had, tremendously so. But there was only so much optimism he could muster when he was quite literally living through his worst nightmare for the second time in as many lives.
Perhaps he was being stupid. After everything that he had lived through – after Kaecilius, Dormammu and Thanos – this should not even rank on the list.
Stephen closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at his hands. The sight of them made him feel physically sick. It had been ages since he’d last seen them whole and unscarred, there was barely a difference to what it had been like hours prior.
Except that there was.
Stephen raised his hands, twisting his fingers into a gesture that would make magic flow through them soothingly and familiar. Liquid fire coursed through them instead, breaking his form with a hiss before so much as a spark could appear.
“Damn it,” Stephen muttered, scowling down at his broken limbs. He knew that, technically, he didn’t need his hands for it to work. He’d never quite gotten the hang of it to that degree.
Suddenly unable to stay still, Stephen heaved himself up from his couch. He needed to do something. Anything. Frustration burned in his throat, making him grit his teeth almost painfully.
Stephen chose that moment to let his eyes fall onto the grocery bags Christine had brought him. She’d forgotten to put them away. His hands instinctively twitched forward to do it himself, jerking to a halt with a flash of bitterness.
Experience told him that his hands would not allow him to complete even that simple of a task. There were not many things they would allow him to do, and old frustration made it seem pointless to even try.
It was pathetic. Stephen was pathetic.
But there was more. Stephen frowned, stepping closer to what looked like a heap of brochures and post it notes. Contact information was written on them in neat handwriting.
Back when more and more operations had turned up fruitless, when Stephen’s condition looked more and more permanent, Christine had it taken onto herself to look for alternatives. She’d started to look into hospitals that might offer… alternate positions for a surgeon that could no longer perform surgery.
Stephen scoffed, looking down at the various phone numbers Christine would undoubtedly encourage him to try. As if he could ever be content with a teaching position. Or, worse, consulting. Please.
A pity position, that’s what it would be. A way for him to pretend like he was making a difference, when in reality, he was stuck on the sidelines while other people did his job. As if it could ever replace what Stephen had lost.
No, he far preferred a clean start than desperately holding onto a shred of what he had once been.
Stephen hesitated, his gaze slipping to the noteboard that Christine had placed on his wall once upon a time. It was impossible to overlook and contained the old routines he’d been given by his physiotherapist to follow at home. They were designed to relearn movement in his limbs, and to improve his fine motor functions.
Stephen tore his eyes away, settled at the table and tried again to conjure his magic.
“How long has it been now?” Pepper asked, her voice clipped tightly over the phone.
“Since he’s come out? Had something to eat? Interacted with anyone other than the bots?”
“All of it.”
Rhodey sighed. “Too long.” He watched Tony through the glass door of his workshop, but made no move to enter. He’d already tried to persuade, lure, guilt and blackmail Tony into coming out (not to mention several combinations thereof) – unsuccessfully. Clearly, Rhodey needed to up his game.
“You know it’s bad when even the bots try to get him to stop.”
“Since when do they have any grasp of how humans work?”
“Dunno. But DUM-E’s being very insistent about him taking a break.” Rhodey watched as the bot stubbornly nudged a pillow towards Tony.
Rhodey couldn’t suppress a laugh when the pillow smacked Tony in his face. He could almost hear DUM-E’s angry whir.
“They’re doing their best, but… no.” Tony had already turned back to one of his projects – who even knew what he was working on, these days. Rhodey’s mood sobered quickly. “It’s been days, Pepper. I don’t think he exchanged more than a few words with the team.”
“I’m worried about him.” There was a sigh on the other line, a defeated, tired sound. “I’m supposed to be leaving for the business trip soon. I might just cancel the whole thing. What if this is another Mandarin situation? Or worse…”
“I’m looking into it. I’m not leaving until I’ve gotten answers,” Rhodey promised, and tried not to think too hard about the Mandarin. He still had nightmares about exploding houses and exploding people, about sitting in front of the TV and watching helplessly as his best friend fought and lost.
“Have you talked to Steve lately?” Pepper asked next.
“I’ve been kind of distracted. Why?”
“He’s been asking about Tony. Insistently.”
Her dry tone made Rhodey snort, despite how serious the situation was. “I’ll talk to him. Don’t worry, Pepper. I got this.”
What Rhodey wouldn’t give to make that sentence the truth.
Steve wasn’t difficult to find once he entered the penthouse, talking to Sam and hovering close to the elevator that led down to Tony’s workshop. Whatever they were talking about, their conversation fizzled out as soon as they spotted Rhodey.
“Colonel,” Steve greeted, and a small, deeply buried part of Rhodey that was still stuck in his Captain America fanboy stage roared its head proudly at the respectful address.
The rest of him desperately hoped that Tony would never, ever find out about it. He would never let it go.
Out loud, he said, “I told you you don’t have to call me that.”
“You call me Captain,” Steve said, lips quirking in a smile.
Rhodey shrugged. “Everybody does.” He shared a nod with Sam and crossed his arms when neither of them made a move to relocate to the sitting areas.
Steve got to the point quickly. “What’s wrong with Tony?”
“What he meant to say,” Sam said with a side glance at Steve, “is ‘Hey Rhodey! We haven’t heard from Tony in a while and I’m getting worried. Is everything alright?’”
Rhodey bit his cheek to hold back a laugh at the dirty glance Steve sent Sam. The amusement didn’t hold, and Rhodey sighed. “Tony, he’s… he’s been dealing with some stuff.”
“Superhero stuff? Or personal?”
“... Both. Kind of.”
“Rhodey,” Steve said, his voice earnest and concerned in a way that made Rhodey appreciate that he wasn’t the only one worrying about his best friend. “He knows he can ask us for help any time, right? If he’s in trouble–”
“Cap, this… this isn’t a problem you can punch away. Trust me, otherwise I would have taken care of it.”.
“What then?” Sam asked. “Considering that he supposedly lives here, it’s a bit weird that I haven’t gotten more than a few glimpses of him.”
Sam had become somewhat of a frequent visitor to the tower, despite not technically being part of the team. (Yet.) With how often Steve insisted on including him in their training, it was fairly obvious that he was pushing for him to join, in the same way that Tony had been pushing for Rhodey.
“Rhodey, please.” Steve held his gaze, and Rhodey felt his reluctance falter. “If something’s wrong, you have to tell us.”
Rhodey let out a sigh. Every bit of information that he revealed felt like a breach of privacy. But he needed to tell them something .
“You’ve been in the military. We all have,” he added with a glance at Sam. “You know how sometimes, people finish serving, but they never really leave the trenches?” He hesitated, contemplating whether to elaborate. In the end he settled for, “Some things stay with you. And they can change you.”
“Oh.” Sam’s expression tightened in a way that told Rhodey he’d gotten exactly what he’d meant.
Steve was more hesitant. “But Tony isn’t a soldier.”
Sam answered in Rhodey’s stead, and Rhodey’s respect for him grew exponentially. “Sometimes you don’t have to be.”
There was silence as Steve considered Sam’s words, and Rhodey decided that he’d done his job.
Hadn’t Sam mentioned something about working with veterans? Didn’t he have experience with that particular kind of trauma? Perhaps if he could talk to Tony, he could…
No. Rhodey shook off the thought. Sam wasn’t here to be their personal therapist, and asking him to be wouldn’t be fair to him.
But Rhodey needed to do something. Tony’s recent behavior was far too close to the other occasions that had almost ended with Rhodey having to bury his best friend. The isolation, his strange, secret projects and his refusal to interact with anyone – none of it was new.
Something was up, and Rhodey was growing antsy as Tony refused to open. It was time to change his approach.
Tony should have known that something was up. He should have known that when even his bots started to go mother hen on him, his friends of flesh and blood would not be far behind.
He should have especially made an effort after the conversation he’d had with Pepper, just before sending her off to her business trip.
“I can stay, you know. It wouldn’t take more than a phone call.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tony said, leaning into her embrace as she offered it.
“I mean it, Tony. At least until everything’s blown over.”
Tony didn’t know what she meant with “everything”, but he didn’t ask for clarification. No need to give her more proof of how utterly out of the loop he was. “I’m seeing a whole new side of you here. Getting tired of taking care of my company?”
“Our company,” Pepper corrected, trying to hide a smile and failing. “And you know better than that.”
“What can I say? You’ve been doing a magnificent job. Have you given yourself a raise lately?”
Pepper chuckled under her breath, smiling softly as she looked at him. Without wearing the armor, their eyes were on the same level. “I know something’s going on,” she said, her smile dampening. “I’m not going to press. But do me a favor and talk to someone. Rhodey is here, and the team, and… you know you can always call me. You know that, don’t you?”
“I know,” Tony said, and hated the way Pepper’s smile fell as she caught the lie. She knew him too well.
DUM-E chose that moment to bump into Pepper from behind, and half of the smoothie he was carrying spilled on her cream-colored dress. Instead of getting angry, Pepper let out a fond, exasperated sigh. “You forgot the lid.”
She reached out to pat DUM-E’s arm. “You’ll take care of him, won’t you?”
DUM-E raised his claw with an enthusiastic chirp. Tony wasn’t sure if he should feel insulted that Pepper trusted his clumsy idiot of a bot more to take care of him than Tony himself.
The smoothie, while not containing motor oil, turned out to be spinach, kale and not much else. Tony grimaced after the first sip, but drank all of it under DUM-E’s eager gaze.
Instead of taking the hint and frantically doing damage control like he should have, Tony stayed. He didn’t leave his workshop for more than a few minutes at a time, didn’t talk to anybody more than what was necessary to get them off his back, and spent much of his days in a sleep-deprived, caffeine induced haze.
There was so much that needed to be done. There were his archaically underdeveloped suits, the Iron Legion and everything that could possibly help during Stephen’s recovery. Zemo was out there, the Accords were being drafted, the twins were with HYDRA and, and, and…
Not to mention the nightmares he was sure to have, if he tried sleeping.
It took him almost a week before he realized that he hadn’t been alone in his workshop for more than a few hours at a time.
It had started out simple enough. Rhodey would bring him food into the workshop, drawing so little attention to himself that sometimes the only reason Tony caught onto it at all was that the food wasn’t lethal enough to have been brought by his bots.
His visits to the workshop were so casual that half of the time Tony didn’t notice his presence until he heard Rhodey’s “Heads up!”, dodged U’s misaimed tennis ball and found the two of them playing fetch.
Additionally, Tony would bet that he could thank Rhodey for his team’s uncharacteristic lack of nosiness.
Because the whole thing was so subtle, it took Tony a week to realize that Rhodey should have been back with the Air Force days ago.
“Okay,” Tony said eventually. “Spill. What’s the big idea here?”
Rhodey had the gall to look up from his phone with a raised eyebrow, sprawled out on Tony’s favorite couch. “What do you mean?”
“You know you’re my favorite person, which means you won’t take this the wrong way. What the fuck are you still doing here?”
“I’m on sick leave,” Rhodey said, holding eye contact and somehow keeping a straight face. “Can’t you see that I’m bedridden?” His phone showed a paused game of angry birds. A half-empty bag of chips was balanced on his knee.
“You’re kidding,” Tony said, because what?
“I’m on leave for an unspecified period of time.”
“Did you talk to Pepper? This is extreme, even for you guys.”
Rhodey sat up, stuffing his phone in his pocket. “You think that’s extreme? Even considering that the last time you hid something from us, it ended with you being presumed dead for several days?”
Tony flinched. Apparently, Rhodey wasn’t planning on pulling his punches.
“You could have asked me,” Tony pointed out instead of responding.
Rhodey snorted. “Please. You’ve come close to dying how many times without telling somebody by now?”
“I feel like I should feel insulted by that.”
“You know that I’m right.”
“Do tell,” Tony said, because he’d been wondering, “what makes you think something’s wrong?” It was hardly the first time Tony had retreated into self-inflicted isolation on a working-binge. It couldn’t have been Vision who tipped him off; Rhodey had been present for the birth of each of his AIs, and by all rights shouldn’t be alarmed about yet another.
“Tony,” Rhodey said, his voice soft and oddly careful. “JARVIS is still down.”
Tony closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to hold eye contact. “Something came up. A flaw in his programming,” Tony repeated, but contrary to DUM-E and U, Rhodey was not that easily fooled.
“Hmh,” he hummed, one eyebrow pointedly raised.
In all the years that Rhodey had known him – which was almost a decade longer than JARVIS had existed in the first place – the AI had never been shut down. Unless it had been out of their control, JARVIS had never left Tony’s side.
Except that he had. Permanently. In another reality, where Vision had not been able to turn Ultron into something other than what he had become.
And that, so Tony suspected, had to be the cause of his irrational spike in anxiety whenever his finger hovered over the button that would reactive JARVIS. Keeping him on lockdown meant keeping him silent, but it also meant keeping him secured. It meant keeping him safe.
“So,” Rhodey said, breaking the silence. “We’ve established your unwillingness to share. Care to break the habit?”
Tony was silent. How could he make his friend realize that this once, Tony genuinely couldn’t talk about what was wrong? Not without being branded a raving lunatic.
Rhodey closed his eyes, and Tony wasn’t sure what hurt more: seeing the resignation or the utter lack of surprise on Rhodey’s face. “Well, I’ll be here. For whenever you need me.”
“You shouldn’t,” Tony burst out before he could hold himself back. “Stay, I mean. You shouldn’t risk your job for me like this.”
All it earned him was a snort from Rhodey. “Please. Unless I actively try to blow up the White House, there’s not much I can do to get fired.”
Tony blinked. And did it again. “Excuse me, but what?”
Rhodey sent him a look. “Tony. I’m a Colonel. I outrank Cap by several ranks.”
“I mean. I know that, I just–”
“Back in Afghanistan I kept the search for you going for three months when the military wanted to stop after one. I’m ranked just below a General. And I’m the only one beside you who can fly the War Machine armor. I’m not exactly a standard employee anymore.”
“Huh. I mean, that’s–”
“Besides, with the amount of shit I get dragged into at your side – no, don’t even start. I forbid you from using anything I’m saying right now as fuel for your self-blaming complex.”
“The point is, there’s far worse that has to happen than me skipping a few days.”
“Huh.” Tony… didn’t actually know what to say to that.
“After sick leave runs out, I’ll just claim to be,” he cleared his throat and lowered his voice in a practiced way that made Tony wonder how often he’d done this before, “ managing an important contact. ”
Snark and sarcasm clicked into place naturally for Tony. “Aww, how sweet. You think I’m important.”
“Yeah, I do,” Rhodey deadpanned instead of doing the polite thing and saying something sarcastic in response.
Tony’s smirk slipped from his face. He tried to keep his face void of emotion, but it was difficult when affection battled guilt vigorously enough to feel like a punch to the gut.
Rhodey – bless him – didn’t force him to come up with a response. He raised the hand that was still holding the tennis ball, causing U to look up with a hopeful chirp. “Are you gonna help me teach your kid how to catch properly, or do I have to do all the parenting around here?”
Tony felt his resolve crumble quicker than it would have taken his Bleeding Edge armor to disassemble. He let himself fall onto the couch with a huff and made sure that his elbow poked uncomfortably into Rhodey’s side. The bastard didn’t give him the satisfaction to react.
“Fine. If it means we’re done with our little slumber talk.”
“Don’t think this means you’re off the hook.” Rhodey tossed the tennis ball over, and Tony caught it with ease. “I’m not afraid to bring out the big guns to get you out of here.”
“What, are you gonna put on your armor and carry me out?”
Rhodey let out a snort. “As if I need the armor for that. Nah. I mean the big guns. You gonna start throwing any time soon?”
Tony narrowed his eyes at Rhodey’s smirk, but gave in and tossed the tennis ball towards an eagerly waiting U.
Whatever it was that Rhodey had up his sleeve, it couldn’t be that bad. Could it?
Famous last words, Tony :P
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Rhodey’s secret weapon turned out to be far more devious than Tony could have ever imagined. He didn’t try to forcefully keep him out of his lab. He didn’t try to guilt Tony into it any more than he already had. He didn’t even go tattle on him to Pepper.
Instead, Rhodey’s strategy was to let the other Avengers loose.
“They’re trying to bond.” Tony scowled, tossing away his wrench and missing his work bench by a mile. DUM-E raced after it with an enthusiastic squeal and knocked over a chair. “To cheer me up. Can you believe it?”
“How dare they,” Stephen deadpanned, only souring Tony’s mood.
His phone pinged, and Tony ignored it.
“I’m serious. Do you know how difficult it is to get anything done when they try to get you to ‘relax’? To get you ‘out of your shell’?”
Another ping. And another.
“What did they do?” Stephen asked, and Tony pretended like his exasperated ‘you’re being dumb and I am humoring you’ facial expression didn’t translate over the hologram.
“They’ve breached the privacy of my lab. My sanctuary!”
“To do what, exactly?”
Tony stole a glance at the untouched package of donuts that had been dropped out of one of the air vents. Damn Barton.
“Does it matter? The point is, they’re being nosy.”
Ping. Ping. Ping.
Tony finally grabbed his phone. Staring up at him were multiple dozen blurry selfies, showing an awkwardly smiling Bruce, an enthusiastically beaming Thor and Vision of all people (the word ‘people’ being used in the broad sense).
All pictures were sent from Bruce’s phone, the first one with the caption: Crash course in Earth technology!
Tony sent Stephen the pictures with a curt hand gesture. “‘Crash course’, are you kidding me? Vision’s an AI – created by me, which should tell you everything – and Thor is Asgardian. You know, an alien society that is far older and technologically higher developed than Earth.” A society that just happened to make the entirely wrong impression by being unnaturally attached to their viking aesthetic.
With another nerve-grating ping another picture arrived, this time of a plate of sandwiches and the caption: Come join us!
Tony tossed his phone onto another workbench where it might or might not end up being taken apart by U in the not so distant future (his fingers were crossed). He needed a break.
“Change of topic, because I say so. How’s the Stark Phone working out for you?”
Tony had sent Stephen a brand new and customized version of the phone the day before, after a binge in his workshop caused by the realization that Tony hadn’t been able to reach him not because Stephen had changed his phone number, but because the state of his hands didn’t allow him to use it. Once Tony had gotten over the urge to kick himself over not realizing before, he’d set out to develop a device that worked on voice commands alone.
Stephen paused just long enough to let Tony know that he wouldn’t let the matter go forever. “It works well. No complaints about the voice recognition.”
“Come on, you gotta tell me so I can improve it. I can’t fix flaws that I don’t know about.”
A sigh. “It’s not the phone itself. It is just a bit tedious to have it sitting in one place.” His eyes dropped down, glaring at his own hands. “I can’t even carry it properly at the moment. I dropped it when I tried.”
“Lucky then that it’s one of mine. It takes more than dropping it to break.” Tony paused, thoughtfully. “Maybe I could make it into a watch instead.”
“One you don’t have to fasten, one you could just slip on. You’d have it with you without needing to carry it.”
“Please tell me I didn’t just give you another reason to live out the rest of your life in your workshop.”
“You say that like I’m not a hundred percent capable of finding reasons myself.”
Tony let his eyes wander over his workshop, lingering on the new projects that had piled up. His lab had always been somewhat of a mess, but Tony wouldn’t have it any other way. How many hours had he spent tinkering to avoid nightmares? Keeping himself busy, making himself useful and building to escape the crushing thoughts of not being good enough.
How did Stephen do it?
“How’s physiotherapy going for you?” Tony asked, absentmindedly pulling up the schematics for one of his most recent prototypes. It was far from ready for production, but almost at the point where Tony wanted to ask Stephen about his opinion. Both his medical expertise and his first hand experience would help massively.
“Oh, now he remembers.”
Tony’s movement halted. He blinked, turning back to face Stephen. “What?”
Stephen’s gaze twitched away to avoid eye contact. “Nevermind.”
“No, tell me. What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing. Forget about it.”
“It didn’t sound like nothing,” Tony insisted.
“Therapy’s fine,” Stephen said in an oddly clipped voice. “That’s what you were asking, right? In fact, I’ve got a session in ten minutes that I have to get back to.”
“Alright,” Tony said, still fighting through the whiplash the abrupt turn of the conversation had given him. “Um. Take care?”
“Right. End call.”
The video call cut off without another comment, and Tony stared at the space Stephen had disappeared from for another few heartbeats before shrugging the whole thing off. It was probably nothing.
Funnily enough, it was Natasha who got through to him first. Or rather, she was the lucky one who decided to start another attempt to socialize at exactly the right time to catch Tony in an unusually sociable mood, having just finished the blueprints for the new and improved version of Peter’s Spider-Man suit.
He might have been slightly ahead of schedule – alright, as far as he knew the kid didn’t even have his powers yet – but he felt better having one item of his checklist crossed off and ready for production.
Tony wasn’t the kind of person who simply recreated a project of his when he could improve it instead. While the Iron Spider would stay safely secured in his lab for the foreseeable future, Tony’d had plenty of ideas to make his first suit even safer and easier to utilize.
Only Karen was left to program and integrate into its software, as well as a revision of the training wheels protocol that locked away the more complicated features (damn it, Peter).
Tony may or may not have overdone it with all the gadgets he had stuffed into it. Again. Oops?
It was during that moment of bliss at having finished a new invention that Tony’s eyes fell onto a magazine that had most definitely not been lying on his workbench before. There was only one person Tony knew of who collected that garbage religiously, and he admitted defeat with a sigh.
“Fine. Congrats, you win. Hope you’re happy now.” He snatched up the magazine while flopping down on his couch, feeling Natasha’s weight drop down next to him as he read the headline. He’d given up on trying to keep her out of his workshop long ago.
DIVORCE SHOCK – The secret marriage and parting of Tony Stark and CEO Pepper Potts. What does it mean for SI?
Tony snorted a laugh. He set the magazine aside to show Pepper later. “Alright. What else you got?”
Next to him, Natasha smirked.
Half an hour and a pile of articles that could no longer be considered journalism later, Tony’s ribs were aching from laughing. “Wait, hold on. They’re saying what?”
“That one’s not really a rumor. More of a conspiracy theory.”
“A conspiracy theory,” Tony deadpanned. “That says the real Tony Stark has been dead for years.”
“You should take a look at the forums.”
Tony let out a snort. “What, like you?” Nobody in their right mind would ever believe him if he told them that the Black Widow’s favorite pastime activity consisted of collecting ridiculous gossip headlines. Preferably, of course, featuring her teammates.
“Who am I then, his long lost twin?”
“Don’t be absurd.” Natasha didn’t look up from where she was doing her nails. She looked relaxed and at ease in such an utter sign of trust, it threatened to clog Tony’s throat if he dared to let his thoughts linger.
“What then?” Tony asked, allowing himself to pretend, to let this fantasy play out instead of sabotaging it ahead of time. Wasn’t he ever the masochist.
“You’re an android. The real Tony Stark designed you to take his place and hold up the ruse.”
“I probably shouldn’t, but I feel somewhat flattered.” Even with Tony being Tony, an android realistic enough to fool most of the population for years was an incredible accomplishment.
“Also, I’m pregnant.”
“Oh yeah?” Tony didn’t react to the leg that positioned itself on his own, but raised an eyebrow at the red and golden color of her nail polish. “Who’s the father?”
Natasha met his gaze as if absolutely nothing about the situation was in any way remarkable. She kept a straight face as she answered. “Undecided between Steve and Sam.”
That made Tony pause. “Seriously?”
“The press caught a few pictures during that whole mess in DC. Go figure.”
Tony paused at the mention of DC, and didn’t bother to hope that Natasha had missed it. She was Natasha , of course she had noticed. Courteously, she decided not to comment.
“Frankly, I’m insulted. Who’s to say it’s not mine?”
“You’d have to break up your long standing affair with Rhodes first.”
Tony opened his mouth, only to snap it shut again almost immediately. “I don’t even know how to argue with that.”
Natasha smirked. “I haven’t even told you about Cap’s ‘leaked’ sex tape yet.”
“Oh? Do tell.”
The ping of the elevator announced Natasha’s return to the common area, and Steve’s mood brightened considerably when he saw that Tony was with her. She’d actually done it.
Steve hadn’t wanted to doubt her. But after almost a week of self-induced isolation and even Rhodey having trouble getting through to him, Steve’d had his doubts that anything short of the next alien invasion would convince Tony to leave his lab.
Before Steve could come up with anything to say, Tony broke out into a grin. “This wasn’t what I had in mind when I told you to have some fun in the 21st century, but you do you.”
He patted Steve’s arm in passing, leaving him behind to share a look with Natasha. Steve raised an eyebrow, and only got an innocent look in response.
Whatever she’d done, as long as it meant having Tony go back to normal… Or whatever counted as ‘normal’ for people like them.
“Good job,” he said quietly, earning a smirk and joining Natasha on her way to the living room.
Stephen had spent the last few days fighting the constant urge to scream. He couldn’t sleep and barely left his house. His attempts at using magic hadn’t brought him anywhere, either. Useless, that’s what he was. What was the point of him if he was unable to use his magic, if he was unable to do anything?
Even using the remote control was too painful to bother.
Frustration burned in his throat like acid, and exhaustion was painted under his eyes in dark shadows.
Not that Tony would know anything about that. He had his team, a bunch of people who ran around as superheroes for a living and didn’t seem to have much more to do with their time than direct all of their attention to him. Poor him, having to deal with people worrying about him.
Almost everybody Stephen knew – and especially the one person he would call a close friend – all had time-consuming jobs that didn’t allow them to spend much time with Stephen, even if they genuinely wanted to.
Wong didn’t even know who Stephen was.
Christine’s occasional visits (whenever her hectic hospital schedule allowed her) and Tony’s phone calls were the only contact he had to the outside, and neither of them were enough to distract him from the utter dullness that his days had become.
And Tony had the nerve to complain.
Stephen paused, halting that train of thought. When had his thoughts started to become so bitter? He felt like he should feel bad, but it was difficult when the tremors in his hands had been driving him insane for days.
But that wasn’t an excuse to behave like a child.
Stephen took a deep breath, making an effort to calm down. Fine. He wouldn’t get anywhere with the flashy kind of magic he’d been trying to conjure for the better part of a week, but there were other techniques. And if he hadn’t been so obsessed with trying to make things go back to normal and feeling sorry for himself, he might have thought to try them sooner.
He sat down on the floor, folding his legs beneath him and closed his eyes. Falling back into his meditation routine happened almost effortlessly.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Stephen felt his heartbeat calming down, his thoughts soon following.
Breathe in, breathe out.
There was no sense in blaming Tony. It wasn’t his fault that Stephen had been rendered practically useless, and somebody had to pick up the slack.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Stephen had known from the start that recovery would be slow. It was hard to forget when he had lived through it once. He hadn’t been stupid enough to expect a miracle to happen this time around.
Breathe in, breathe out.
So why was he still reacting the way he did? He was a doctor; he should know better. He would have known better, had it been anyone other than himself. How often had he seen patients lose themselves after an operation gone wrong, lingering on the ‘what if’s, on the ‘could have been’s? Stephen refused to fall to the same level.
His heart beat steadily, his breathing was calm and relaxed.
And there… His lips twitched as he felt the warmth of his magic simmering just below the surface. He couldn’t use it, might not be able to for several more weeks. But it was there, burning and soothing in a way he had never realized before, reassuring him that he wasn’t alone. It felt like a promise.
Stephen pressed on. He’d come so far, how could he stop now? The short week had been enough time to make him start to forget what it felt like to be one with his power, had been enough to make him doubt, to let the thought creep in that perhaps, only perhaps it might be lost to him...
Stephen flinched violently. He leaped to his feet and into a pointless fighting stance.
The Ancient One sat on his couch like it belonged to her. Her eyes strayed to his hands – raised defensively, but trembling harshly enough to betray the bluff for what it was.
Stephen lowered them with a half-hearted scowl. “I have a phone. As well as a fully functional doorbell.”
“How curious,” she said, tilting her head with that small, mysterious smile on her face that Stephen had always hated. “I startled you, but you are not surprised to see me.”
Stephen paused. “What do you make of that?”
“You know me. I cannot figure out how you could.”
“And that’s saying something, isn’t it?” After everything he had gone through at her hand, it felt incredibly satisfying to be in a position where he was the one to flaunt his knowledge with an air of smug superiority.
“How did you know to come?” Stephen asked.
“Your magic,” the Ancient One said, “I felt it. It took me a while to track you down because you haven’t been using it. But it is there. Nobody who has not studied under my guidance should be able to access this particular branch of magic.”
“Is that why you’re here? To find out if somebody stole your secrets?”
“Not entirely.” She kept looking at Stephen like he was a particular tricky piece of a puzzle. “I might have sent somebody else, but I would not have come myself for that.”
The Ancient One chose to ignore the question. “You act like you know about my work.”
“What do you know?” she asked, a curious tilt to her head. Stephen almost expected an accusation in her voice, but there was nothing.
“You have sworn to protect Earth from magical threats,” Stephen said. What use was there to keep his knowledge secret? “If the Avengers exist to protect it from flashy villains and alien attacks, you and your order stick to the shadows.”
“Your visions,” Stephen said. “You use them to keep an eye on reality. You know about threats before they happen.”
The Ancient One’s smile widened. “Yes. My visions.” She paused. “I have been looking into the future for decades. But there has always been one point, one event in the future that I could never look beyond. My death.”
Stephen blinked in surprise. The Ancient One had always spoken in riddles, had kept her secrets close to her chest and never revealed more than she had to. He had not expected her to speak so plainly to him, to explain everything so easily.
“Everything has been laid out in front of me clearly. A rigid path that showed me where my life would lead to. Until last week. Where a pebble fell into a pond and changed everything.” There was another pause. “All of my previous visions are useless now. All of my plans, pointless. Because of you, a thousand new paths have opened up.”
Stephen couldn’t help it. He stared. “You’re excited about this. Shouldn’t you be upset?”
For the first time, the Ancient One broke their gaze. A few heartbeats passed in collective silence.
“I have been slowly moving towards my death for as long as I can remember. My life had been planned out, second by second, day by day. Do you know what dull of a life it is, knowing what will happen at every step that you take?” Her face brightened up considerably. “And now you’re here. With impossible knowledge, plunged into the stream of time and made a mess of everything. Will you tell me how that is possible?”
Stephen paused, stunned. Never before had a conversation with the Ancient One felt quite like this. Like there were no barriers between them, no secrets. They sat facing each other, the Ancient One on one end, at the height of her power, possibly the mightiest sorceress on Earth. Stephen on the other, broken and injured, unable to even use the most basic of his abilities. And yet, they were talking as equals.
The closest Stephen could think of from the old timeline was the last conversation they’d had, just before the Ancient One had succumbed to her injuries. The one instant of honesty between them before Stephen was left with a century old legacy and a responsibility he was not ready for.
Then and there, Stephen made a decision.
He managed a half-shrug. “How could I not when you’ve been so honest with me?” His mouth twisted into something more sardonic. “I hope you have no other plans. It is quite the story.”
“They will manage without me,” she said, leaning back in a move that looked far too casual for the collected, poised sorceress Stephen had known. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
Ahh, sweet, sweet team bonding. I'm such a slut for functioning team dynamics - too bad that Tony comes from a future where that wasn't exactly a thing. Could that possibly influence the way he's acting towards his team?
Eh, it's probably gonna be fine.
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“I’ve made some progress concerning my magic.”
“Oh? I thought you said that it will take a while for your hands to recover.”
“It will. I can’t conjure it. But there are other ways to access it. I managed to– What was that?”
“Sorry. Wait a second.”
“Alright, of course.”
“There’s something going on in lower Manhattan. I gotta go, duty calls.”
“Right. Talk to you la–”
“The call has disconnected. Would you like to leave a message?”
“... No. End call.”
“Mr. Stark is not currently available. Would you like to leave a message?”
“Yes. I saw you on TV. You look busy.”
“Something else happened. The Ancient One, I don’t think I’ve mentioned her before, but she… It’s kind of a long story. I was about to tell you before, but… Well.”
“Just call me back when you have the time. End call.”
“Sorry, man. I know it’s been a while. Things have just been crazy.”
“Yeah. I saw.”
“It’s weird, fighting with the team again. We’re missing a few people. Still, you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to fall back into our old patterns.”
“Rhodey and Sam started joining in, too. They’re practically part of the team already. Don’t know what changed from last time, but I guess Ultron must have postponed it back then.”
“Oh, and I almost finished a set of blueprints for you to look over. It’s not quite done, but I’d love to hear your input afterwards. I might not find the time to bring them over, but I can just send the schematics.”
“What was it that you wanted to tell me? Something about magic stuff? Some lady?”
“It’s nothing. Forget about it.”
“Yes. I’m sure you have other things to take care of.”
“You’re not wrong. Still. I’ll check in with you later.”
“The number you have chosen is not answering. Would you like to leave a message?”
“Just checking in, like I said. I’m making progress with my armor. The team is well. If you’re busy that’s fine, just let me know if you need anything, ‘kay?”
“The number you have chosen is not answering. Would you like to leave a message? ”
“Stephen. A giant plaza in the middle of Yerevan was demolished. Witnesses reported strange figures in monk robes fleeing the scene. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that? Call me back.”
“The number you have chosen is not answering. Would you like to leave a message?”
“I tried looking into it, but your little order is damn good at covering their tracks. It is them, isn’t it? Of course it is, who else. You realize how much easier this would be if you’d be there to help, right? Call me back.”
“Your call has been declined. Would you like to leave a message?”
“Stephen, this is the sixth time I’m calling. I know that you’re home, so why aren’t you answering?”
“Is it something I said? Did I do something wrong?”
“Call me back.”
“Your call has been declined. Would you like to leave a message? ”
“I’m coming over.”
Tony was halfway to the suit he’d parked in his workshop when a sound from the entrance made him freeze.
“Vision,” he said, half-turning to face the AI. “Anything I can do for you?”
“I am uncertain.” Vision made no move to step further into the workshop. “Are you leaving?”
“I was about to,” Tony said.
Vision didn’t move, and if it wasn’t for the glow in his armor’s eye slits, one might have confused him for one of Tony’s old models, waiting in his workshop to be repaired or improved. “I have spent much time with your team,” he said, eventually.
Tony wasn’t sure what to make of that. “That’s… nice, Vision. Glad to hear you’re making the tower your home.”
“I have not, however, spent much time with you.”
“Oh.”Tony hesitated. “Vision…”
“I, and your team as well, have noticed that you spend much time in your workshop. Or outside of the tower. Much more so than you used to, from what I’ve heard.” Before Tony could answer – in fact, it was so quickly that it sounded anxiously rushed – Vision added, “I wonder if that is because of me.”
Tony blinked. “Because of you?”
His faceplate stayed motionless, and Tony found himself missing the expressiveness of Vision’s first body. “I don’t think I am wrong with the assumption that my presence makes you uncomfortable.”
“Vision, that’s not…” Tony trailed off when he realized that he didn’t have an excuse. He couldn’t be honest about most of the reasons that kept him busy. He couldn’t be honest about his plans, about his preparations, about his desperate quest to redirect the fate of the world. He most definitely couldn’t be honest about the other reality, where Vision’s mere existence had stemmed from the death of one of Tony’s oldest friends.
It didn’t change the fact that he had neglected his AI. Vision was still his in the same way that JARVIS was. In the same way that DUM-E and U were. In the same way that FRIDAY had been. Or would become.
The price of staying silent was keeping Vision in the belief that he was not wanted, that Tony regretted creating him. And Tony wouldn’t stand for that.
“It is alright,” Vision said. “I should not have come to confront you. Your reasons are yours, and yours alone.” He turned, preparing to leave the workshop.
“Hey, Vis. Wait.” Tony couldn’t tell Vision half of the things that he wanted to tell him. But even if it didn’t solve all of his problems, at least it would serve as an excuse for the moment. “I’ll show you what I do outside of the tower.”
Tony should have realized that something was wrong earlier. He should have realized when Stephen’s responses had gotten shorter and shorter, and especially when he had stopped answering his phone altogether.
Both of them had known that they wouldn’t have much time to spend together, not nearly as much as they would have liked. Even though Tony had temporarily prevented the Avengers from splitting up, there was no guarantee that no other crisis would arise to take Ultron’s place.
Then there were his suits. Years of lost progress had left them pathetically underpowered, and every second that Tony hadn’t spent mending relations with the Avengers and the public, fighting at their side and making sure that this time, his team would stay whole, he had been working on his suits. His Bleeding Edge armor couldn’t be built overnight.
Tony had been busy. Understandably so.
The thought didn’t help much against the guilt when Tony walked into Stephen’s apartment and was greeted by silence. It was messier than he remembered, books and papers strewn on the ground carelessly like nobody cared to keep the place tidy.
Tony picked up one of the papers, but at first couldn’t make out what was written on it. When he did, it made his heart clench. Stephen Strange was written out on it over and over, the letters awkward and jittery, barely legible.
Tony lowered the paper, but didn’t let go.
“I don’t understand,” Vision said. He’d followed Tony through the door, and was now looking around the apartment. “Why are we here?”
Before Tony could answer or continue his search for Stephen, Christine strode in from the other room, wiping her eyes furiously and freezing as she caught sight of him. “Mr. Stark!” Tony tried not to look too closely at her red, puffy eyes. They slid past him to land on Vision, and Christine did a double take. “Um.”
“Sorry, I’m just,” Tony winced and made an internal apology to Vision. “My suit is programmed to operate on its own when I’m not in it. For safety reasons.”
Tony had left his real suit on the roof when they’d arrived, hidden from curious fans and – God forbid – reporters. Vision caught on quickly, and didn’t ruin the excuse by protesting.
“Right,” Christine said, taking the information comparatively well. “Okay. Look, I’m sorry. This might not be the best time for a visit. He’s having a bad day.” The bitter laugh she attempted turned into a sob halfway through. “A really, really bad day. He tried to get me to leave the second I came in.”
Tony wasn’t surprised. He’d pulled the same kind of stunt when he’d been dying of palladium poisoning. “He didn’t want to let everything out at you,” he said. “I’m sure that’s why he tried to scare you away.”
“I know. I–” Christine sighed, dragging a hand through her hair. “I’m a doctor. I’ve seen this kind of thing happening over and over again. It just… It hurts seeing him this way.”
Tony reached out to put a hand on her shoulder, pausing to look for signs that the contact wasn’t wanted. “You’ve done more than enough. Go home. Take a day off.”
Christine bit her lip, avoiding Tony’s gaze. “I don’t know. It feels wrong to leave him like this.”
“You’re not leaving him. I’ll be here. And you should take care of yourself, too.” Tony paused. “Besides, Stephen will regret what he said to you. No need to give him the chance to make it worse.”
Christine hesitated for just a moment longer, then nodded. “I… Fine. Just. I warned you. He’s frustrated.” A bitter chuckle escaped her. “And frustrating.”
Tony waited until she had left before he turned to Vision. “Sorry about that, Vis.”
“Why did you not introduce me to her?”
Tony had to cringe. “Because I don’t know her well. I’m sorry, I just…” He paused to collect his thoughts. He had to treat carefully if he didn’t want to screw this up. “You remember the way the team reacted.”
“Yes,” Vision said. “They were… cautious.”
“Yeah. And that’s despite knowing me. Despite knowing JARVIS for years.” For all Tony knew they could think of JARVIS as a slightly more fancy version of Siri. Preposterous. “Most people aren’t that psyched about actual, self-thinking AI. Blame it on the movies that show them taking over the world and oppressing humanity.”
“I’m not ashamed of you,” Tony said, making sure to meet Vision’s gaze. “I don’t want to hide you from anyone. I need you to know that. I’m just…”
“Concerned,” Vision finished. “For my safety, as for that of your other creations.”
Tony paused. “You’re more than just my creation, Vis. But yes. I’m always worried.”
There was a reason that of all the scientific advancements Tony had made available to the public, his AI were not among them. Even without Ultron throwing a wrench between things, many people weren’t comfortable with a machine whose intelligence outranked their own. But that was an issue for another time.
“Give us a minute, will you?” Tony asked, and waited for Vision’s nod of confirmation before he finally entered the next room.
Stephen didn’t even look up. He was slumped in an armchair, his beard messy and his eyes sunken in. His StarkWatch – courtesy of Tony and speed-delivered as soon as it had left his workbench – peeked out from under his sleeve, eliminating all remaining doubt that he had simply forgotten about it somewhere.
Several snarky remarks immediately jumped to mind, and Tony pushed all of them away. This wasn’t the time.
“I’m not a physiotherapist,” Stephen said after a few uncomfortably tense seconds, still refusing to look at Tony, “but I’m still a doctor. I know how muscles are built. I know how mobility is regained. I know that it takes. Time.” His breath came short and ragged, and his arms shook harder than Tony had ever seen them. “So why is it as bad as the first time around?”
Tony hesitated. “Because there are no shortcuts. Not for this.” Tony double checked that Vision was still out of sight and hoped that he had the sense of mind to grant them their privacy. He doubted that Stephen would want anybody else present for this.
“You know,” Tony started, and tried to keep his voice casual despite the utter self-contempt he felt having to talk about the topic. “I wasn’t doing so well after New York. The first time around. I thought I could jump straight to being fine. That I was above such things. Iron Man, suffering from anxiety attacks, please.”
Tony could feel the bitter line to his mouth. Even now, it was still difficult to open himself up like this. The only people he had talked to about this were Pepper and Rhodey. And JARVIS, but was there anything he didn’t tell JARVIS?
“Well, it doesn’t work that way.”
“Yes,” Stephen said. The sarcasm in his voice made Tony tense. “Because that’s so similar. Exactly the same, good job, Stark. If this is your attempt to cheer me up, you can follow Christine right out the door.”
Tony could feel several defences shutting down, most worrying of all his snark. “What you should also know as a doctor, as you so maturely pointed out, is that self-pity won’t do anything.”
“Excuse me for feeling sorry for myself while you’ve been out there, living your life like nothing has happened.”
Tony's jaw tightened, but he didn't rise to the bait. “What happened? I knew you were struggling, but…” He trailed off, realizing how unqualified for this job he was. How could anybody expect him to find the right words instead of making things worse?
“What was it that you wanted to tell me? On the phone?” Tony had listened to the recordings of their phone calls repeatedly after Stephen had stopped answering, trying to find some sort of clue. “I’m sorry if I made you feel like I didn’t care about what you were going through.”
Tony knew that he tended to get carried away by his work. He got lost in machinery, tools and code, tinkering and inventing and forgetting that the outside world existed. Tony hated when it started to affect the people around him, he hated that no matter how often he tried to do better, eventually he always slid back into old habits.
“Come on,” Tony said. Stephen still wouldn’t look in his direction. “What’s going on?”
Again, there was silence, but this time, Tony waited. Eventually, Stephen sighed and closed his eyes. “The incident you mentioned,” he said, “in Yerevan.”
“People in monk robes duelling each other in the middle of a crowded plaza,” Tony said. It had been somewhat difficult to ignore, and, Tony was sure, even more difficult to sweep under the rug. “Let me guess, those were your people?”
Stephen’s head twitched in what could have been a nod. “They confronted a man named Kaecilius. He’d been using the Ancient One’s teachings for his own, selfish reasons.”
It took Tony far more self-restraint than it should have to suppress a comment about the choice in names. Kaecilius? The Ancient One? At least it meant ‘Doctor Strange’ fit right in. “Did they get him? This Kaecilius?”
“They did. Several years ahead of schedule.”
Tony waited, but no clarification followed. There had to be something he was missing. “Isn’t that a good thing? One less evil sorcerer to worry about, yay us.”
He’d said the wrong thing.
“Us?” Stephen’s laugh sounded bitter and fake. “What do you mean, us? The Ancient One took care of it, she and some of her students. You’ve been out there, playing hero with your team and no doubt developing contingency plans for every pebble that might fall into the wrong place in the future.”
Tony wanted to interrupt, but Stephen barreled on.
“Meanwhile, I’ve been sitting here, completely useless, watching TV – watching you actually get stuff done. And now, to make matters worse, I also have to watch the Ancient One do my job for me.” Stephen paused and something ugly entered his gaze, raw and mocking and further twisted by the self-deprecating line that was his mouth. “Actually, no. It’s her job. She’s still the Sorceress Supreme, and without her death, there’s no reason for me to take over. So tell me. What’s the point of me being here?”
Tony felt like he should have been speechless. He felt like he should have been blown away, helplessly struggling for words in face of this outburst of emotions that he couldn’t even begin to understand.
What slipped past his lips instead was, “Wow. You know, you’re being incredibly unreasonable right now.”
Stephen did a double take. Perhaps it would have been funny if the situation wasn’t the exact opposite of that. “Excuse me?”
“I’m just saying. For somebody who’s supposedly a genius – or at least smart enough to have made a decent doctor, surgeon, whatever – you’re being uncharacteristically dumb.”
Tony felt like he should have made more of an effort to do whatever a socially capable person would have done – more emotional support, less making jabs at the guy bordering on crippling depression and self-loathing – but he wasn’t in the mood to treat Stephen like glass. He didn’t have the temperament for it, either.
Stephen glared at him with the kind of heated fury that was usually reserved for people trying to kill them. “Do you have a point? Or did you just come here to insult me?”
“I’m not enjoying this any more than you are, trust me.” Tony hesitated – he was just waiting to step over some kind of line, waiting to be thrown out of Stephen’s apartment and spend the next few weeks in frosty silence and regret. “You want a point? Fine. Say you’re there during my rescue from Afghanistan.”
“What’s that got to do with–”
“Shrapnels in my chest, three months of living conditions I wouldn’t recommend to anyone besides perhaps Thanos, I’m malnourished, dehydrated, several broken bones and wounds that barely avoided getting infected.”
Stephen stared at him like he was crazy. Tony counted it as a win, because at least the self-deprecation was gone. He had enough self-hatred for the two of them, and Stephen honestly didn’t need to add to that garbage fire. “Okay. And?”
“After all that, would you expect me to build the Mark II and go after the terrorists who kept me right away?”
Stephen scowled, realizing where this was going. “Of course not. But it’s not the same.”
“Because expecting yourself to recover from a car crash in a few weeks is so much more reasonable.”
“I’m not expecting anything! I’m just–” Stephen cut off with a frustrated growl. “It’s not the same.”
“... Yeah. It’s not.” Tony paused, lowering his voice to sound calmer. “You healed before, didn’t you? You went on to join your little cult, studied magic. It’ll just take time.”
“Time we might not have,” Stephen muttered, and Tony found that there wasn’t much he could say to that.
If he didn’t manage to talk sense into him, perhaps a distraction would work. “I didn’t come alone, you know. I thought you’d like to meet someone.” Tony raised his voice so Vision would be able to hear him in the other room. “Hey, Vision. You can come out now.”
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“Hey, Vision. You can come in now.”
Stephen looked taken aback – no wonder, as the Vision he’d known hadn’t looked like one of Tony’s armors. Tony supposed he could count himself lucky that Stephen had never known Ultron, and failed to make the connection.
“This is Vision,” Tony said, cutting Stephen off before he could begin to voice his questions. “He’s an AI, so he doesn’t have a physical body of his own. That’s why he’s operating the suit.”
Stephen frowned, but took the hint and didn’t question him. That would be just brilliant, Stephen chattering about other realities and the other Vision when Tony had taken great care to keep quiet about it.
“Vis, this is Doctor Stephen Strange. He’s an… old friend of mine.”
“Hello, Doctor,” Vision said. Tony was somewhat glad that he didn’t offer his metal glove for a handshake. “It is nice to make your acquaintance.”
“... Likewise,” Stephen said, hesitant and stealing glances at Tony like he wasn’t sure whether to address him or Vision.
Tony had almost forgotten that Stephen – as someone who had never been an Avenger, and thus hadn’t spent time in Avengers Tower – didn’t have experience with his AI. Had he known any of them, besides FRIDAY? Even then, it was unlikely for him to have grasped her complexity if the only occasion he had known her was during battle.
Oh well. He would step in if he had to, but Tony wanted to give Vision the chance to hold this conversation on his own. His AI were all about learning, and in Vision’s case that included learning to form bonds with other people.
It was then, absentmindedly taking a look around Stephen’s apartment, that Tony’s eyes fell on a dented, cracked box that looked almost like…
“What have you done to your poor coffee machine?” Tony crouched down to cradle the broken parts in his hands.
Stephen avoided meeting Tony’s glance. “... I may have expressed my temper by spontaneously redecorating.”
“Redecorating. Right.” Tony shook his head in a look of exaggerated disappointment.
He flopped down on the floor in a more comfortable position and the coffee machine in his lap, and proceeded to pull out a miniature toolbelt with ever so tiny tools on it. It held only the essentials, but Tony would make do.
“Do you always carry that with you?” Stephen asked, and, after Tony threw him a look, “... Nevermind.”
Tony quickly fell into a familiar routine. His hands moved confidently and almost without thinking. He hadn’t realized how desperately he had needed a breather, and some old-fashioned tinkering, almost trivial in its simplicity, did wonders for his nerves.
“You are a doctor,” Vision said, somewhat blunt and without following it up with a question. As far as conversation starters went, he could have done worse.
What a picture he and Stephen made: a human who knew nothing about AI and an AI who knew nothing about humans.
“Yes,” Stephen said, getting over his hesitation. “Do you know what that means?”
“Mr. Stark is a doctor,” Vision said and made it sound like a question.
“True,” Stephen said. “But Tony is a… different kind of doctor.” Stephen might as well have said ‘the wrong kind’ or ‘the useless kind’. Rude.
“In my case, being a doctor means that I studied to… help people. I learned to treat injuries and diseases, and to help people get well.”
“You are a human who… fixes other humans?”
“I suppose you could call it that.” Stephen’s face closed off, and a hollow feeling opened up in Tony’s stomach. “At least I used to be.”
Vision failed to notice the gigantic mood drop and carried on. “Why did you stop?”
“I wasn’t exactly being given a choice.”
“I don’t understand,” Vision said. “If you know how to heal, what is stopping you from doing so?”
Stephen didn't answer immediately.
"The kind of doctor that I used to be is called a surgeon. It means that I performed operations on the human body." He paused. "I suppose there's similarities between Tony and I, after all. He works on machines, while I work on–
on humans." Another pause, this time to raise his trembling hands to where they could see them. "It is not the kind of work I can complete with hands like these."
"I see," Vision said in a tone that suggested that he didn't. "Cannot another doctor heal them?"
"... No. Human medicine, it is... It is remarkable. It evolves at an almost breathtaking rate, and the kind of trauma that people are able to recover from nowadays–” Stephen cut himself off just when it sounded like he was about to burst into a science ramble. "But medicine is still limited. So is the human body. Some injuries simply cannot be treated, and these... They are beyond healing."
This time, his words sank in even for Vision. "I apologize. My intention was not to bring up bad memories."
"It is... fine," Stephen said. His hesitation belied his words. "I suppose the memories aren't so bad, from time to time. My work, it was... For a time, it was everything to me."
“I have to admit,” Vision said, “that I am intrigued. The human body, it sounds fascinating. As does your profession. I would gladly ask more questions, if you allow me to.”
Tony almost hoped that Stephen would decline. But as painful as the topic seemed, perhaps talking about it to someone would benefit him in the long run. It couldn’t be healthy to leave such a huge part of his life behind and force himself to never look back.
“Why not?” Stephen said, emitting hesitance when he was going for nonchalance. “What would you like to know?”
What followed was only short of being an interrogation. Vision’s questions went from general – “How long did it take to become a doctor? How much about the human body do you know?” – to more specific – “What are the limits of the human body? What kind of innovations have humans made in medicine?” Stephen answered all of them thoroughly and with patience few would have thought him capable of. Listening to his answers, it wasn’t difficult for Tony to believe that Stephen had been – and still was – incredibly passionate about his profession.
He pretended not to notice the way Stephen’s voice faltered from time to time, and kept his eyes aimed strictly at the coffee machine in his lap whenever there was a suspicious pause in Stephen’s sentences.
His resolve was tested more and more as the questions became more personal.
“Your specialty was neurosurgery?” Vision asked.
“It was. It is considered one of the more complicated branches. It takes many years to complete the necessary training, and even then, a neurosurgeon never stops learning.”
“But how is neurosurgery possible, at all?” Vision’s head tilted to the side. “If there was to be a flaw in my programming, Mr. Stark could shut me down and correct the mistake without causing me any harm. You cannot shut down a human. My assumption was that the brain was one of the most delicate parts of your body. How can you operate on it without killing your patient?”
“People used to think it was impossible. The brain is far more resilient and far more likely to adapt and recover from damage that it suffered than we used to think. There’s a term for it called neuro– neuroplasticity–”
Stephen paused and turned his head away. He cleared his throat. “It is the brain’s ability to change and adapt over the course of a person’s life. Certain functions of the brain can be transferred to a different location, which makes it more durable and able to recover from direct damage.”
His voice was steady up until the end, but Tony didn’t go back to his tinkering regardless. Vision didn’t seem to have noticed anything.
“You mean to say that your programming can rewrite itself? Just like mine?”
“I suppose,” Stephen said. “I’m not familiar with programming, much less with AI. But the comparison sounds fitting.”
He hesitated again. Tony wouldn’t admit how concerning it was to see Stephen pausing and faltering in his words, when usually he was nothing but confident.
“There was this patient I treated…” Stephen trailed off. He cleared his throat. “One of my patients, he… We were going to do an experimental surgery where…” He stopped.
Tony’s eyes were glued to the floor.
Stephen’s voice cracked, and Tony couldn’t bear it for a second longer. He pushed himself to his feet, only after carefully setting down the fixed coffee machine. “Alright,” he said, trying not to let his voice waver. “That’s it. This isn’t working out.”
Stephen’s eyes flew open when they’d been pressed shut before, and Tony saw emotions flash over his face in rapid succession. There was surprise, hurt and far worse that Tony wanted to burn out of his skull.
“You know where the door is,” Stephen said, his voice hoarse and wound far too tight.
“I do.” Tony looked around the room and pointedly went into the opposite direction of the exit. He should have done this ages ago.
A peek into Stephen’s closet didn’t reveal what Tony was looking for, so he turned and tried another. And another. He was halfway across the apartment by the time Stephen regained his wits, Vision standing next to him motionlessly and silent.
“What in the world are you doing?” Stephen said.
“Looking for a suitcase.”
“... A suitcase,” Stephen repeated, disbelief coloring his voice.
“You know what? You’re right. That’s ridiculous.” Tony went back to the closet, snatching up two jackets and a couple other pieces of clothing. He dropped one of the jackets into Stephen’s lap and thrust the rest into Vision’s arms. “Be a dear and carry this for me, will you? I’ll just send over some people to deliver the rest.”
“Yes, sir,” Vision said, bemusement in his voice but not questioning the order.
“Deliver my–” Stephen cut himself off, half-heartedly glowering at Tony. “Anthony Stark, stay still and tell me what you think you’re doing.”
“Easy.” Tony looked Stephen into his eyes. “You’re coming with me.”
There was a pause.
“With you,” Stephen repeated.
“We’ve tried it this way. You doing your thing, me doing mine. And it’s not working out. Should have seen it coming, really.” Tony spotted Stephen’s shoes next, and snatched them up to drop them next to Stephen. They were ugly, laceless slip-ons.
“You’re not doing well on your own – which is understandable,” Tony barrelled straight through Stephen’s protest, “I’m the same. Slipping on my own but horrible at admitting it. So, you’re coming to the tower. With me.”
Tony fell silent, and still, Stephen didn’t answer. As the silence dragged on, doubt started to creep in. “I mean. You don’t have to. This is an offer, you can do what you want, obviously. I just thought…”
“You’re not obligated, just because I said–”
“This was honestly kind of spontaneous, I swear I would have told you if–”
Tony fell silent. Stephen’s brows were drawn in what wasn’t quite irritation. His expression softened as soon as Tony’s rambling stopped.
“Thank you. This is,” he hesitated, “unexpected. But I appreciate it.”
“Is that a yes?”
Stephen’s eyes flickered to Vision, who was still awkwardly carrying a pile of his belongings.
Stephen huffed, and Tony didn’t think he imagined the fondness that laid in it. “Might as well. Although,” he paused, raising an eyebrow. “Didn’t you fly here? I can’t exactly portal us to the tower.”
“Right. Sorry, my mistake,” Tony said, wincing at Vision’s question. He’d have to take him aside for a talk later if Stephen insisted on being careless about their secrets like this. “No worry, the suit’s parked on the roof, I can pick it up later. I’ll just call someone.”
“One second Happy, there’s a call.” Pepper frowned at the name on the display, but answered regardless. “Tony? Is that you?”
“Hey, Pep. Where are you right now?”
“I’m on the way back to the tower. Happy is driving. Didn’t you say you–”
“Perfect. Tell him to swing by elsewhere, first. You gotta pick me up.”
“Happy, wait a second,” Pepper said, leaning towards the driver’s seat. Happy raised an eyebrow, but stopped the car to wait for directions. “Why do we need to pick you up? I thought you’d taken the armor. Where are you, anyway?”
“I’m with a friend,” Tony said, but didn’t elaborate. “Look, just come over, alright? I’ll text you the address.” With that, he hung up.
Pepper sighed, but passed on the address. She had long since given up trying to make sense of Tony, and had learned to go along with at least his minor whims about a year into knowing him.
“A friend, huh?” Happy said instead of being professional and acting like he hadn’t listened in on their conversation. “Any idea who he’s talking about?”
“Not a clue,” Pepper said.
The address wasn’t far, and Tony was already waiting by the time they arrived.
Pepper schooled her face into a blank expression. She recognized the Iron Man armor as the one Vision was using, but did a double take at the person next to Tony. His “friend” looked like a homeless guy, with his beard and his unkempt, if not sickly appearance.
“I will see you at the tower, Mr. Stark,” Vision said just as Pepper contemplated leaving the car.
“You sure?” Tony asked. “You could drive with us, if you wanted to.There’s room.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Vision turned to face the car. “Mr. Hogan, Miss Potts. I will see you later.” With that the repulsors roared to life and Vision took off. As soon as he was gone, Tony made a beeline for the driver’s side of the car.
“Get out,” he said, gesturing for Happy to leave the car. “I feel like driving myself, so shoo.”
“Are you for real?” Happy sent Tony a glare that would have gotten him fired with any other employer. “First I was your pointless bodyguard, now you’re trying to make me your pointless driver?”
“Go on. My car, my rules.”
“What am I even here for if I’m not allowed to drive?”
“Stop being dramatic,” Tony said, sliding into the driver’s seat as soon as Happy had given in. “You’re acting like I’m abandoning you on the streets. There’s plenty of space in the backseat, off you go.”
Happy grumbled under his breath while joining Pepper on the backseat. The homele– Tony’s friend got to take the passenger seat.
“So,” Pepper said, clearing her throat as Tony steered the car into the streets. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
“Right. Stephen, this is Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts–”
“Technically I’m his driver, she’s his CEO.”
“They’re two of my closest friends–”
“Who just happen to be working for him.”
Tony threw a glance into the rear mirror. “You make it sound like I’m buying your friendship.”
“I don’t know about Pepper,” Happy said, “but I’ve had my eyes on that new Lamborghini. Just in case someone was wondering.”
Pepper snorted. Tony ignored the remark entirely. “Pepper, Happy. This is Doctor Stephen Strange. We... weren’t exactly on speaking terms for a while, but he’s an old friend.”
“I see,” Pepper said, giving Strange a smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Doctor.”
“Likewise,” Strange said, barely turning to face her.
Pepper kept her expression pleasant and chased off the frown that was threatening to sneak on her face. She could count the number of people that Tony considered his friends on one hand – perhaps more since the Avengers had happened – and she had never heard of a Stephen Strange before. Tony had said that they hadn’t been on speaking terms. Had they met before Pepper’s time, and only now reconciled? It sounded unlikely, but why would Tony lie to her?
It certainly wasn’t the oddest behavior Tony had shown in the last few weeks.
“Um. Boss,” Happy said, frowning at the traffic around them. “Are you okay?”
“Sure am,” Tony said.
The car behind them honked. Loudly.
“You’re driving ten under the speed limit.”
“Excuse you,” Tony said, throwing a glance into the rear mirror. “Are you seriously judging me for driving responsibly?”
“I’m not judging–”
“Pepper, are you listening to this? Happy is trying to encourage unsafe driving practices.”
“Should I have second thoughts about who I’m hiring to drive me places?”
Happy spared himself the answer, but grumbled something about hypocrisy. Another honk sounded behind them, longer than the first. Tony ignored it.
“Tony,” Pepper said, “I’ve never seen you obey driving laws like this. You always drive above the speed limit.”
“Well, maybe I’m trying to–”
“It’s for my sake,” Strange interrupted. His voice was quiet, his eyes directed downwards and avoiding eye contact. “I am not overly fond of cars.”
Pepper followed his gaze to land on his hands. Scars ran over them in angry lines, and a tremor made them shake and twitch in a way that was painful to look at. She saw Happy’s eyes widen as he made the same observation, and they fell into uncomfortable silence.
“So,” Pepper said, clearing her throat awkwardly when the tension grew too thick, “How do you two know each other?”
Tony and Strange shared a glance, and Pepper realized that she would not receive a straight answer for the rest of the car ride. She also found out, listening to wild tales about charity galas and one night stands, that there was, in fact, someone out there with an ego that rivalled Tony’s own.
Happy, the traitor, popped in headphones about two minutes into the conversation. Pepper was left to listen to the bickering of two people so similar to each other, she couldn’t help but wonder how they had ever become friends.
“To this day,” Tony said, “I still don’t know if by the end of the night he was flirting with me or my date.”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Stephen said, letting out an impressive huff.
“Oh please,” Tony said, and on they went exchanging jabs.
In retrospect, perhaps the awkward silence had been preferable.
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"I'm sorry about that," Stephen said, breaking the silence for the first time since entering the elevator that would bring them to the top of Avengers tower.
“Sorry about what?”
"Miss Potts and Mr. Hogan," Stephen clarified. "You had to lie to them, because of me."
Although neither Potts, nor Hogan had said it out loud, it wouldn't surprise Stephen if they’d assumed Tony had been playing a prank on them, rather than inviting a close friend to the tower that neither of them had ever heard of. Even if they’d warmed up to the idea by the end of the car ride, Stephen would have prefered if the stories that had convinced them hadn’t been entirely fabricated.
Tony shot him a look. "I think I made us even by inventing that story about meeting you drunk at a charity ball."
Stephen snorted. "The spontaneous karaoke was a nice touch."
"Sorry for ruining all chances you had of acting sophisticated in front of them."
Stephen let out a chuckle, and they fell into comfortable silence.
"The Avengers will be here, won't they?" Stephen asked.
Tony hummed in confirmation. "Some of them. The founding members. Rhodey is out, but Sam might be there."
Stephen's eyes were drawn to the ground. "I'm sorry to ask, but would you be willing to do it again?"
"To do what?" Tony asked, throwing a glance at him from the side. "Keep telling embarrassing stories about you?"
"Lie to them. About who I am."
Tony looked away, the smile fading. "I kinda already expected it. It's fine. We'll just go with the same cover story as before."
Stephen's eyes twitched upwards. He'd expected at least some kind of reluctance. "It won't be for long," he added regardless. "We can tell them the truth soon, I just... I'd like to get a grip on my magic, first."
"I just don't think I'd be ready to answer questions yet."
"Stephen," Tony said, gripping his shoulder and squeezing gently. "I told you. It's fine."
A weight that Stephen hadn't noticed before fell off his shoulders, and his lips twitched into a smile. He hadn't realized how tense he'd gotten during the car ride. "Thanks."
He was forced to rethink his gratitude a few minutes later, when he was introduced to the Avengers as the guy who had drunkenly spilled Champagne on Tony's Armani suit. Trust Tony to help him make a memorable first impression.
"And he's offered you to stay?" Wilson asked. "Just like that?"
"Essentially." A smile tugged at Stephen's lips. "He'd started packing my belongings before he'd even asked me."
Wilson laughed. "Sounds like him."
Stephen considered himself lucky at how pleasant of a conversation partner Wilson had turned out to be. Especially seeing as Tony had sneaked away from the conversation the second the ice had broken.
It could have been worse. The rest of the team had gone back to whatever they’d been doing before, but since Wilson was relatively new to the tower himself, Stephen didn’t feel completely left out.
"He seems like the type," Wilson said. "Collecting strays when he feels like it."
"Strays, huh?" That certainly wasn’t a word he’d been described with before.
Wilson took his raised eyebrow as offense, and jumped to clarify. "I'm not just talking about you, man. A few weeks back, we hadn't even gotten around to talk about my recruitment to the team. I was just some guy who lent Cap and Widow a hand this one time."
"You made us breakfast, too," Romanoff called from the other side of the room.
Wilson snorted. "Right. That, too. So, Cap invites me to the tower, and it's only about my third time here or so. Found a five-star suite wearing my name. I'm not even staying here for more than a few days at a time."
Stephen huffed a laugh. "Tony doesn't exactly do things half-way."
There was a pause as both of them watched Clint "practice his marksmanship" by throwing skittles into the air and catching them with his mouth. The team didn't seem like bad company, but Stephen found himself feeling drained. Perhaps he should retire for the day, find his temporary living space and get comfortable before taking the next few steps.
Stephen realized that Tony had never told him where he would stay.
"Tony didn't happen to mention which guest room is available, did he?"
"Not a clue. Sorry man." Sam shrugged. "Although with the size of this building you could probably pick at random."
"It's fine. I'll ask." Stephen pushed himself up. "Which way is Tony's workshop?"
"I haven't really been down there before," Wilson admitted.
“I have,” Rogers said, looking up from his tablet. He hadn't gone after Tony even though he'd looked like he wanted to, assumably for the same reasons that Stephen hadn't. Despite how much Tony had complained about their nosiness, his team was surprisingly considerate of his personal space.
"He doesn't allow everybody in," Rogers said, and it didn't sound hostile as much as a warning that Stephen might find himself in front of a locked door. "Normally you could ask his AI, but..."
Rogers shook his head. "Nevermind. Try your luck, it's down the hall, down one set of stairs and on the right. It's all glass, you'll see it right away."
Rogers was right. The workshop wasn't difficult to find, and he didn't need to wait longer than a few seconds for the door to open. He probably wouldn’t have noticed if Rogers hadn’t brought it up, but it was missing the usual, robotic introduction that tended to go with Tony's tech.
"Hey," Tony greeted, swirling around his chair to face him. "You done socializing?"
"I didn't exactly have much of a choice," Stephen pointed out. "You left me there."
"So dramatic. Didn't they make a good first impression? Do I need to scold anyone? If Clint didn’t behave himself–”
"Your team was fine," Stephen interrupted. "I just needed a break. I was wondering if you could show me where I'll be staying."
"Sure, yeah. You can just follow JA-" Tony cut himself off, his lips forming a firm, narrow line. "I mean. Yeah, one sec. I'll show you, just give me a moment to finish this."
Stephen felt like he was standing in the middle of a minefield. Against his better judgement, he took a tentative step. "Can't FRIDAY show me the way?"
Tony didn't look up. "... No. She can't."
"Why not? Where is she?"
"Not here. It's too early. She hasn't been activated yet."
"Okay," Stephen said slowly. He didn't think Tony was lying, but he was missing something. Something felt wrong. "Does that mean you didn't have an AI before her? Was she your first?"
"Technically DUM-E was my first," Tony said, pointing towards a metal construction that Stephen hadn't paid closer attention to in the mess that was Tony's workshop. At second glance, it looked almost like a claw. And it was moving. "DUM-E, say hello."
The robot – Dummy, Tony had called it – raised its arm and circled its camera in what looked like a gesture of curiosity.
Was he supposed to greet it? Talking to a moving pile of metal and wires felt awkward, but Stephen got the impression that it was expected of him. "Hello, Dummy. It's nice to meet you.” To Tony, he said, “Don't try to change the subject."
Tony clenched his jaw, but didn't try to deny it. Deflection might have worked on another person, but not on him.
"Tony, please. Talk to me?"
Tony's sigh was a sound of defeat. His eyes were closed like he was preparing himself for something. It made Stephen almost want to take his words back, to give him a way out. Almost.
"FRIDAY wasn't my first. She's... She took the place of her predecessor. JARVIS. His name is JARVIS."
"... And?" Stephen prompted when Tony made no move to explain further.
Tony's gaze hardened, his eyes fixed on the workbench before him. "He died during that whole Ultron mess. Ultron killed him."
The words felt like a blow to the chest. Stephen might have been new to the concept of AI – on a personal level, at least – but it didn't take a genius to realize how much Tony's creations meant to him. And yet...
"You said you stopped Ultron," Stephen said, slowly. "You said it didn't happen this time."
"So what happened to JARVIS?"
"I shut him down."
Stephen blinked. "Why?"
Tony's laugh was harsh and far too bitter. He tapped his fingers on his sternum and didn't seem to realize that he was doing it. "Look. Ultron doesn't exist, not like he used to. I made sure of it. But Vision comes uncomfortably close. I know it's stupid, and he's different, but..."
"Ultron killed JARVIS once," Stephen finished. "And you're afraid that something might happen to him. Again."
Tony's silence spoke for itself.
Stephen thought about it. Tony's AI meant a lot to him, so it wasn't a stretch to assume that JARVIS' death had impacted him the same way the loss of a loved one – of a living, human being – would have. The difference was that with his AI, Tony had the option to shut them down. To lock them away, to make sure that nothing else could harm them.
"I might not know everything that has happened," Stephen said. "But isn't keeping JARVIS deactivated the same as losing him?"
"He's safe like this," Tony said, but it sounded weak.
"Would he want you to keep him safe if it meant keeping him shut down?"
Tony looked away, rubbing his eyes with one hand.
"You don't have to do it now," Stephen said, feeling like he needed to backtrack. "I'm not trying to pressure you into anything."
"No. No, you're right." He shook his head, his lips twitching into the parody of a smile. "I should have done this ages ago. Just wait till JARVIS realizes how long I've been putting it off."
Stephen wasn't sure if he was welcome to what had to be an incredibly private moment. "Should I leave?"
"Nah, it's fine. Don't worry about it." Tony took a deep breath, then pushed himself off of his workbench. "Kids! We're waking up JARVIS."
The hopeful chirp that DUM-E made in response had no right being as endearing as it was. He was a robot arm, for goodness sake.
Stephen didn't see everything of what happened next. Tony's fingers practically flew over a hologram, pressing symbols and writing code that Stephen couldn’t follow.
"Alright," Tony muttered, and finished with a long, swiping gesture. "Here goes."
The lights and holograms lighting up the workshop flickered as if a lot of energy was being redirected, then continued to glow steadily. Stephen half expected the sort of noise a computer made during start-up.
Tony frowned at the holograms, pulled up data and flicked through some numbers. "JARVIS?"
Nothing. Tony went back to tapping his sternum restlessly. "Buddy. Say something."
A whir of machinery was his only warning. Stephen choked on his own breath as he dashed to the side, feeling the heat of a repulsor blast that missed him by inches. It destroyed the workbench behind him instead.
Stephen ignored Tony’s shout in favor of dodging another blast. The suit of armor that had fired it advanced, gleaming, unyielding metal. It had never felt intimidating when Tony had been steering it.
The repulsors started up again, and Tony dove between him and the armor. "Stop! JARVIS, shut down defense protocol, override Alpha-Forty-Six!"
The armor stilled, its repulsors powering down. It didn't lower its arms, keeping them aimed at Stephen. Or it would, if Tony wasn't in the way. Stephen didn't dare to move.
"Sir," a British voice said, calling from a non distinct place in the lab rather than the armor. "A stranger has entered the workshop."
"Yeah, I know. I brought him here. It's fine."
"Are you certain? My records show no data of him."
The armor was as still as a statue in a way that would have been impossible with any human piloting it. The thought made a lump form in Stephen's throat. Without his magic, there was nothing standing between him and the fully automated weapon of mass destruction. Nothing besides Tony and the few lines of code that made it obey him.
"I'm sure." Tony laid one hand on his chest and kept the other raised towards the armor – as if he had a chance fending it off bare handed. "Take a look at my readings. You'd be able to tell if I was lying, or being threatened to say this. Right?"
Another beat passed before the armor powered down for good. Some of the tension left Stephen's body, and he tentatively lowered his hands. "Thanks for that," he muttered.
It took several tense moments before JARVIS spoke up. "It has been thirteen days, two hours and six minutes since activation of the Safeguard protocol. Sir." The 'Sir' sounded more like an afterthought.
Tony looked to the side. "I know."
"May I inquire about the reason?" JARVIS asked.
"It's... kind of a long story, J. Not to mention pretty unbelievable."
"I am not programmed to doubt your word," JARVIS said. "You have no reason to lie to me."
"I don't, don't I?" Tony sighed. He sought out Stephen's gaze and didn't look away until Stephen nodded, realizing that he was waiting for permission.
"JARVIS, this is Doctor Stephen Strange. You don't know him, but I do. I have for a while. The doc and I, we're..." Tony paused. "We're from the future, J."
JARVIS took his time to answer. "There is no scientific evidence suggesting that such a thing is possible."
"A few years back we had no scientific evidence of extraterrestrial life," Tony pointed out. "Now we have one sitting in our living room."
"Even if a theoretical way could be found," JARVIS said next, "the amount of power required to transport a person in time would be immense."
"About as much as it would take to punch a hole in space and send an alien army through?" Tony asked. "That's what the tesseract managed. Turns out it's called an infinity stone, and it's not the only one of its kind. That's what brought us here."
"I see." The moments of silence made Stephen suspect that JARVIS was struggling to process the newly gained data. He wondered what the computer was thinking. What did an AI’s thought process – for lack of a better word – look like?
"I know this is a lot," Tony said. "I'll answer any of your questions. Just ask."
"Why did you activate the Safeguard protocol?" JARVIS asked without hesitation.
Tony rubbed his eyes with a sigh. “Of course you’d start with that one.”
“Nevermind. Look, JARVIS. The future we came from, it was… It was pretty bad. One catastrophe happened after the other, the Avengers broke up, and… We lost people. People died, well before the actual conflict had even started.”
JARVIS waited. Stephen supposed that as an AI, things like impatience were above him.
“You were one of them,” Tony admitted, quietly. “You died. Ultron failed, he went crazy, and… he killed you.”
“I see,” JARVIS said. “So I have failed.”
“What?” Tony frowned. “Where did you get that from?”
“My purpose is to protect and to serve you. I failed to prevent my deletion, therefore I failed to ensure your protection in the future.”
“I’m not arguing with you on this.” Tony scowled. Stephen was surprised by the vehemence in his eyes, the almost hurt quality to his voice. He looked like the conclusion JARVIS had come to personally insulted him. “You prevented Ultron from getting his hands on nuclear missiles right before he got the better of you. Without you, he would have been able to kill us before we’d even developed a counter strategy. If anything, you protected me until the very end.”
“And yet,” JARVIS said, “you have not deactivated the Safeguard protocol until long after the danger had already passed.”
“Can you blame me?” Tony looked away. “It was bad enough the first time around. I didn’t– I couldn’t do it again. I had to make sure. Later, I was just… procrastinating.”
“Please refrain from doing so in the future,” JARVIS said, clear anxiety in his voice. Stephen tried to stop being surprised by the range of emotion the computer seemed to be capable of. “I cannot protect you when I cannot be at your side.”
Stephen excused himself not much later. JARVIS’ first command after being reactivated had been to guide him to his guestroom (or guest suite, if one wanted to argue semantics). Tony had stayed behind to continue catching up on JARVIS’ lost time.
Once JARVIS overcame his reserved attitude at being freed from his involuntary coma, everything clicked into place like JARVIS had never been gone. Tony was glad for it. Aside from Rhodey, JARVIS was his oldest friend and the one he trusted the most.
Despite everything, Tony couldn't help but feel guilty about FRIDAY. He bit his lip, eyeing the Stark pad he'd been toying around with. There was one folder on it he hadn't dared to touch.
JARVIS, previously busy saving the data Tony had provided him with, realized his mood swing at once. "Sir, is something the matter?"
Tony almost had an excuse on his lips, until he remembered who he was talking to. "Just thinking. You remember FRIDAY?"
JARVIS answered despite the pointlessness of the question. "FRIDAY is one of the designated AI units intended to take over my duties in the event of my demise." He paused. "Has her performance been satisfactory?"
"She did her best," Tony said, carefully. "She was good. Brilliant. But she wasn't you."
And now that JARVIS was still with them, there was hardly a need for her to take over the duties she had in the old timeline.
"Are you intending to employ her for an alternative purpose?" JARVIS asked, as always asking exactly the right question.
The truth was, Tony was split. He could easily utilize her differently. He could activate her and point her into a different direction, give her another purpose and see how she would develop differently. It would be a waste not to, seeing as she had already proven herself once.
She would develop into a completely different AI, however. The circumstances of her existence would change. She would learn to master different tasks and develop a personality other than the one she’d had the first time around.
She’d be able to learn from JARVIS, this time. Tony would rather raise a completely different AI than have her code gather dust.
“We’ll see,” Tony said, tucking her folder neatly away in a corner of his tablet.
"Alright, now close your fist. Slowly. Yeah, like that." Tony looked to the side and adjusted the camera that was attached to DUM-E's arm. "Bit higher, buddy. You aren't much use if you're recording the table."
"How's this?" Bruce curled his fingers in the way he'd been instructed, moving along the delicate, skeletal metal rods of Tony's invention. It was pulled over his hand like an additional bone structure and served the purpose of either supporting and strengthening the wearer's movement, or to aid during physiotherapy through repetitive, assisted motions.
Tony hummed, narrowing his eyes as the second digit locked for a split second, then jerked along with the others. He'd have to recalibrate its joint. "How does it feel?" he asked, his fingers flying over his keyboard to put down his observations.
"Odd," Bruce said, flexing and curling his fingers a few more times. His brows knit into a frown and his mouth moved soundlessly in the way it always did when Bruce concentrated. "Can you control the setting? You need quite a lot of strength to move it."
Tony hummed. "I'm working on it. I'm not quite done with the voice controls, until then I can only do it remotely."
"It's still impressive. Especially for a first test version." Bruce pulled his hand out of the construction carefully. "When are you going to have your friend test it?"
"Soon, hopefully." He only needed to hammer some sense into Stephen first. He'd proven annoyingly tongue-tied about everything that concerned the non-magical part of his recovery.
Tony didn't even know how his physiotherapy was going – a glance at his watch showed that theoretically, that was where Stephen was currently headed.
"I also wanted to invite Dr. Cho over for a chat," Tony added, saving his notes on the prototype and dismissing the file.
"Dr. Cho?" Bruce's head perked up in interest. "As in Helen Cho? Her work on tissue regeneration and reconstruction is unparalleled." He paused. "Do you think she'll be able to heal Dr. Strange's hands?"
"I don't know," Tony admitted with a small, helpless shrug. "I'm not sure how much her Cradle is able to do about nerve damage. It's not about regrowing tissue, but about reconnecting nerve endings." He nodded towards his invention. "Hence me trying to come up with alternatives."
Tony wasn't going to tell Stephen about his efforts until he could be sure that there was an actual chance for them to succeed. It seemed needlessly cruel to get his hopes up, only to realize that there wasn't anything they could do to help, after all.
"Hey, Vision. You doing alright with those questions?"
Vision looked up from where JARVIS was directly uploading questions into his processor. They didn’t need to bother with verbal communication when this was far more efficient.
"We have completed 129 out of 308 questions, Sir," JARVIS said.
Vision paused, then added, "However, I am uncertain why it is necessary for me to answer an extensive personality quiz."
Tony snorted. "Don't call it that. You're making it sound like we hooked you up with some Buzzfeed quizzes."
"Nevermind. It’s a pop culture thing.”
Vision paused in a way that made Tony suspect he was saving the word in his memory banks to look up on the internet, later. “You have not answered my question.”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. This is our way of testing how your development is going along,” Tony said. “It’s standard for each of my AI. I’m making sure there aren’t any errors or… misunderstandings stunting your personality from developing.” Like, say, a minor bout of genocidal intentions.
“I… see.” Vision clearly didn’t.
“Alright, look at it like this,” Tony threw a glance around his workshop and landed on his most recent version of the Iron Man armor. “I need to test the functionality of each of my inventions, right? So I’m testing things like how smooth the joints of my armor move, how much power the repulsors can channel, how well the automatic weapon control works and so on and so on.”
“That’s standard procedure for every scientist,” Bruce went on. “We make tests, we improve our work, we test again. It’s an ongoing process that basically never stops.”
“In your case, we don’t have any hardware to check through. Hence the questions.”
“I understand,” Vision said, sounding far more confident about it than before.
“I’d also like to take a look at your code, if you’re alright with it. Just in case.”
Vision tilted his head to answer. JARVIS interrupted him before he could.
“Sir. It would appear that my sensors in guest suite 14 have failed. I no longer have visuals or audio surveillance of the room.”
“Isn’t that Strange’s room?” Bruce asked.
It was. Tony hesitated, not quite ready to start worrying. Stephen’s magic didn’t agree with his technology, and it wouldn’t be the first time something of Tony’s creation stopped working in his presence. Usually Tony took it as a challenge to improve whatever it was Stephen had caused to short-circuit.
It would, however, be the first time since going back to the past. Last time Tony had checked, Stephen hadn’t been able to conjure as much as a portal yet.
Besides, Stephen should have left for physiotherapy a while ago.
“I’m gonna check up on him,” Tony said, throwing a distracted glance at Bruce. “It’s probably nothing. I was having some trouble with that suite before. Kind of forgot about it, I meant to take care of it ages ago.”
“Maybe I should come with you,” Bruce offered.
“Nah, it’s fine. I’ll let JARVIS know if I need someone, don’t worry about it.” Tony waited until he was out of earshot to ask, “Did Stephen go to his appointment?”
“Dr. Strange has not left the tower all morning,” JARVIS said. “I have made sure to remind him of the scheduled appointment several times.”
Tony frowned. He reached for his wrist – checking for his weaponized watch, even though he knew that one of his armors would be able to reach him within seconds if need be.
The lack of fighting noises made him proceed with caution, rather than burst in with charged repulsors. The door opened for him normally, which had to be a good sign. Whatever caused the minor blackout hadn’t managed to put the entire tower on lockdown.
Tony was able to make out a muffled conversation as he got closer. He didn't hear raised voices, so it didn’t seem like a fight.
"– not have thought to set foot in the infamous Avengers tower in my lifetime," a soft, feminine sounding voice said. Tony didn't recognize it. "What a curious turn. It does look nicer than your apartment. A lot less," she paused, "confined."
"You could say that," Stephen said, drily. Tony had no trouble making out his voice. "I'm looking forward to inviting Christine to the place."
The woman's voice took on an amused note. "Her reaction will be interesting, I'm sure."
The conversation sounded pleasant enough for Tony to feel bad about intruding. Then again, even if Stephen knew her, it didn't change the fact that a stranger was in Tony's tower. Uninvited at that, under the dubious circumstances of having fried JARVIS' sensors to be undetected. Tony felt that it more than justified his intent to investigate.
Tony rounded the last corner and paused. A middle-aged lady in monk robes was sitting on his designer couch. A glance at Stephen proved that he was, in fact, talking to her, and that he didn't seem to notice the oddity of the situation.
Was this what the other people at that Sanctum of his wore? It would explain where the woman had come from. And also why his tech wasn't working. It did not, however, explain in the slightest what she was doing here without Tony knowing about it.
He cleared his throat to announce his presence. "Um. Hello, I guess."
The woman looked up calmly in a way that made Tony wonder if she'd known about him the second he'd stepped into the room.
Stephen, less so. His head snapped up even as he lowered his hands. A few last, rapidly dimming sparks danced around his fingers, which made Tony assume they'd practiced magic while talking. It made sense, Tony supposed. Who better to help him recover than someone from his old order?
Except Tony hadn't known that Stephen had been in contact with her at all. She couldn't have known Stephen, seeing as the events that had led to their first meeting hadn’t happened yet. How had Stephen contacted her, much less gained her trust?
"Tony," Stephen said, surprise lingering in his voice. He stole a glance towards the woman and winced. "Right. I'm sorry, I should have warned you. May I introduce the Ancient One – the current Sorceress Supreme." Losing the pompous quality of his tone, he added, "I hadn't expected her to visit quite this soon."
"My apologies," the Ancient One said, a smile around her lips that made Tony feel humored.
"Tony Stark," he said, curtly. "I suppose you're the reason my sensors aren't working?"
The Ancient One tilted her head in acknowledgement. "An unfortunate habit, I'm afraid. I cannot allow recordings of myself to be taken. My order operates best in secrecy."
Tony swallowed down the half dozen impolite remarks he had lined up in response in the attempt not to antagonize someone who clearly meant a lot to Stephen. He’d have words with him once the Ancient One had gone – Tony’s paranoia was built on experience, and a stranger being able to enter his tower like it was nothing didn’t sit well with him.
“Shouldn’t you be at physiotherapy?” he asked instead, going for the least sensitive of the many questions he had.
Or so he thought. He was greeted by silence as Stephen and the Ancient One shared a glance. Tony failed to decipher it before the Ancient One rose gracefully, brushing off non-existent dust from her robes.
"My presence is needed at the Sanctum." She gave Tony one last of her fake-looking, infuriating smiles. She turned to Stephen. "You know how to contact me, should you think of anything else."
A wave of her hand and a red-sparking portal later, Tony and Stephen were alone.
"So," Tony said after a pause. "Physiotherapy?"
Stephen winced. "I... lost track of time."
Tony found that rather hard to believe, seeing as JARVIS could be rather insistent when he wanted to be.
"Besides," Stephen went on before Tony could protest, "we've been working on restoring my abilities. In the long run, it will be far more useful to us."
There were several things about that statement that didn't sit well with Tony. He let them slide, just for now. "What was that last bit about? Something about you remembering anything else?"
"Oh." Stephen blinked. "Uh, yeah. You know, things that I know, things that I've lived through. That we've lived through. I've been trying to tell her as much from the other timeline as I could, but there's a lot. Things keep slipping my mind."
Tony felt his brain short-circuiting.
"I was going to ask you to fill in the blanks eventually,” Stephen went on, misinterpreting Tony’s silence, “but I think I got most of it. It's how she took care of Kaecilius. And, as a result, Dormammu."
"You told her," Tony said, his brain rebooting and finally finding the words he'd been missing.
"Of course," Stephen said, slowly. "Why, did you want to do it together?"
"You told her," Tony repeated, because he hadn't quite managed to put as much disbelief into the sentence as he wanted the first time.
"Of course I told her. Why shouldn't I have?"
Tony leaped to his feet, the urge to burn off nervous energy tingling in his limbs. “You can’t just– You can’t– Stephen. How much did you tell her? How much exactly?”
Stephen still hadn’t grasped the gravity of the situation, although he seemed at least mildly alarmed at Tony’s reaction.
“Everything. About us. About what happened. What will happen, if we can’t stop it.” His brows knit together in a stubborn, mildly defensive frown. “Her visions had already told her that something was wrong. Our presence went against everything that she’s seen. She sought me out, not the other way around.”
“And instead of coming up with an excuse, you just told her everything?!”
“Yes,” Stephen said, and Tony almost wanted to laugh at the simplicity of it. "Aren't you being a hypocrite? What have you told the Avengers?"
"Nothing about the time travel, for once."
Stephen pinned him with a deep, disbelieving stare. "So nothing. You haven't told them anything?"
"I kind of thought that was something we'd silently agreed on. Weren't you the one who asked to lie about how we met?"
Stephen laughed. It wasn't a happy sound. "Yes. Because I wasn't feeling up to answering questions about my accident, the order, or my currently non-existent powers. I thought it was obvious that my request was meant to be temporary."
"Well, obviously it wasn't. I just," Tony paused, gesturing wildly with his hand as he searched for the right words, "I just don't get how calm you are about this. You act like this isn't a big deal."
"Well, maybe it shouldn't be. At least not the way you make it out to be."
Tony bristled at Stephen’s tone. He made it sound like Tony was being irrationally paranoid. “It is a big deal. It’s huge. Right now, we're the ones in control. Do you really want to give that up by giving away too much?"
"Control?" Stephen shook his head with narrowed, disbelieving eyes. "What are you talking about, Tony? You can't possibly think we can handle all of this on our own."
"I'm not saying we have to!” Tony pursed his lips, forcing himself to keep his voice calm. “But we should be careful. You can't expect us to make this public knowledge. Do you? Let everybody know what's going to happen, give everybody the chance to meddle with it?"
"Hold on a second," Stephen said, raising one hand. "Is this what you meant when you were complaining about your teammates' nosiness? Them trying to figure out what you've been hiding from them?"
Tony stiffened. "I'm not about to trust just anyone with the fate of the universe."
"Just yourself then? They're your teammates, Tony."
Tony felt the customary bitter spark at the use of that word. 'Team'. "Yeah, just look how well that worked out the first time."
Stephen scoffed. "Since when did you start holding grudges?"
Stephen could talk easily. He hadn’t been involved in any of the Civil War, hadn’t witnessed anything of what had happened between them. Of what had caused them to split up by the time Thanos had come around.
"You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony said, because Stephen really, really didn’t. He didn’t have a clue. “I'm not the one laying my life in the hands of someone I'd barely known before they died."
Stephen's lips thinned as his expression hardened. "What do you suggest I do instead? Push away every single person who could make this a bit easier for me? Like you?"
Tony's frown deepened. "That's not what I said, and you know it."
He couldn't meet Stephen's accusing glance. He made an effort to calm his nerves, to dial down the accusation in his tone. "Telling them everything, it's... it's risky." How couldn't Stephen see that? How could he stand there, looking at Tony like all of his concerns were pointless? Like his paranoia was only that, rather than based on real, actual risks?
"And keeping them in the dark when Thanos is coming isn't?” Stephen shook his head, frowning. "I don't get why you suddenly changed your mind. You didn't think people could be trusted with great power. You wanted them to bow to whatever government would be holding their leash. But now that you have all the knowledge, now it's fine to keep everything close to your chest?"
"That's rich, coming from you. How long had you been Sorcerer Supreme without outing yourself? It literally took until the world was ending until we found out about your super secret Sanctum at all. Talk about an attitude shift."
"Unlike you, I learn from my mistakes."
The silence between them was icy and jagged. Stephen might as well have punched Tony in the gut.
More quietly, Stephen said, "I'm not taking it back."
"Didn't expect you to." Perhaps Tony was doomed to repeat his same mistakes over and over again. Feeling like his throat would constrict on him with every other word he forced out, Tony said, "You're not changing my mind."
Stephen's lips narrowed to a thin line. Tony didn't let him get in a word. If he stopped talking now, the drumbeat in his chest would swallow his voice and drown him with his own heartbeat. “You're changing things, Stephen. What if they change too much? What if we lose the one thing that puts us ahead of Thanos? What if we can't predict his actions anymore?"
"And what do you call what you did with Vision?"
"I know. God, I know! It's not– I'm not– Shit." Tony felt his pulse rate spike. More than before, more than only a minute ago, it wouldn’t– He couldn’t– Tony tugged at his collar as his breath got stuck in his throat.
He wanted to be annoyed, but by the way the conversation had been going it had only been a matter of time.
Stephen was in front of him immediately, close but not touching. "Tony? What's wrong?"
He reached out with one hand and Tony couldn’t stop himself from shoving him away. He saw hurt flash through Stephen’s eyes, but couldn’t bring himself to linger on the thought. He certainly wouldn’t blame Stephen for how he’d deal with his panic attacks, if it were the other way around.
“It’s nothing,” he pressed out from between clenched teeth, stumbling another step back so he could let himself sink onto the couch. His fingers clawed at the metal of his watch, tracing its pattern again and again in a frantic, convulsive motion. “Just. Just wait, I’ll– Give me a moment, so I can–”
To Stephen’s credit, he didn’t say another word. He simply waited, letting Tony gain control over his breathing and his almost painful heartbeat.
“We can’t screw this up,” he said, finally. His eyes were clenched shut and he pronounced each word carefully, talking over the shaky quality of his voice. His chest felt like it was brimming with nervous energy. “We can’t. If we do, we– Everyone will–”
“I know,” Stephen said, his voice almost unbearably soft.
“I can’t do it. Not again. I can’t–” The words were boiling over in Tony’s chest, bubbling out as a nervous ramble that he was unable to stop. He kept his eyes shut and his hand clenched around his watch. “We have one go at this. Just one. We can’t lose. Not again.”
“I know,” Stephen said, again. He hesitated. “Which is why I think we should get as many people on our side as we can. Keeping secrets from them will push them away.”
“Telling the truth can achieve the same.” Tony bit his lip, trying not to choke on his own heartbeat. “If I told them about the future, I’d have to tell them about Ultron. I’d have to tell them about Sokovia, and the Winter Soldier and the Civil War… Stephen, I’d have to tell them that we broke up. That our team didn’t work out. It would seed distrust between us, again. What if it leads to the same result, only quicker?”
He’d been the cause of so many conflicts already. Not alone, not by a far stretch, but it was enough. How could he possibly tell his team about all of that, and expect them to come out of it trusting him?
“Lies could achieve the same thing,” Stephen said, still in that gentle, infuriating tone that made Tony wish he would shout instead. “You know that better than anyone.”
“... Yeah, I do,” Tony admitted, quietly. He paused. “I can’t risk it, Stephen. I can’t. This way, it’s… I can steer us in the right direction. I have control over it. If I tell them, I… I’d be giving that up. I won’t know where we’re headed afterwards.”
If there was even a shred of control Tony could cling to, he would. He couldn’t stand the thought of floating aimlessly in a past just as uncertain and dim as the future had been. He needed that control, needed it to feel like he had a purpose, like he actually had a chance of changing things for the better.
Clearly, Stephen’s approach to their mission was entirely different. “I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” he said, his brows furrowed in clear – but muffled – disapproval. “But I will respect your choice. As long as you respect mine.”
Stephen wouldn’t spill their secrets in front of the Avengers, as long as Tony didn’t object to Stephen staying in contact with his order.
Tony managed a stiff nod. His heart was racing, but he managed to keep his voice level. “Fine. Just tell me everything you’ve talked about with the Ancient One so far.”
This time, Stephen didn’t object.
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"It's a form of psionic and telekinetic energy," Tony explained, watching his notes grow in the form of a transcript as he talked. "It manifests in these sort of red streams or blasts, kind of similar to what Loki uses."
Stephen hummed, looking at the notes thoughtfully. Once in a while – almost exclusively when Tony sent him an exasperated look – he remembered that he was supposed to test Tony's prototype, and squeezed his hand to a fist, straining his muscles against the resistance of Tony's therapy glove.
"I haven’t managed to find a weakness yet," Tony confessed after another pointed glare made Stephen continue in his efforts. Tony pretended not to notice the eye roll that went with it. "Her powers come from an infinity stone, so in many ways they're as limitless as the stone’s are."
As reluctant as Tony was to admit it, he was at a loss. Apart from what they'd seen in the future, Wanda's powers were the closest look at the stones’ powers that they could currently hope to get. If they managed to find a way to counter her magic, perhaps they would be able to counter an infinity stone as well.
However, if they didn't manage it...
"Tony," Stephen said, speaking out what Tony had not been ready to acknowledge out loud. "We have to at least consider that it's not possible. They're the most powerful artifacts in all of the universe for a reason."
"If you know me at all, you know that I don't believe in the impossible."
However, Stephen wasn't completely wrong.
Tony frowned, swirling around in his chair to skim over his notes once again. His fingers moved restlessly as he thought, and the tap tap tap they made on his synthetic sternum sounded through his workshop in an endless stream.
If the myths were to be believed, the infinity stones were not simply from beyond their planet. They were from beyond the universe, had been the first to manifest and went before anything that had ever existed or would ever exist.
Tap tap tap.
Few living creatures knew about the stones' existence at all. Those who did knew barely more than a glorified bedtime story's worth of information about them.
Tap tap tap.
Tony certainly hadn't known about them before Stephen had given him the CliffNotes version just before Thanos' conquest had begun. They went beyond anything Tony had ever seen. They went beyond anything he had ever attempted to understand, not to mention what he'd attempted to build.
Tony's eyes dropped down at the place that had once held the glowing circle that had kept him alive. His gaze snapped back upwards, twitching around his workshop until he found the most recent version of the arc reactor. He may not need it to keep himself from dying anymore, but he still used it as a means to power his suit.
Stephen's hand went still as he looked up from his exercise. "What is it?"
"I think... I may have found a solution. Several years ago." Tony drove his chair over to the workbench that held the reactor. Cool blue light washed over his face and Tony picked up the casing to weigh it in his hands.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Calculations ran through Tony's head almost too quickly for him to keep up with. If he thought beyond his suits and found a way to utilize the arc reactor's power in more handy, more general ways... Too specialized, and it wouldn't be of use to anyone other than himself. But if he found a way to equip the others–
"Would you like me to wait in breathless anticipation for another few minutes, or should I go get myself a cup of coffee?"
Tony startled, his eyes snapping up to meet Stephen's unimpressed glance.
"The arc reactor," he blurted out, his excitement stronger than his urge to respond to Stephen's snark.
"The arc reactor," Stephen repeated. The rise of his eyebrow was practically audible.
"I don't know how," yet, "but I think the arc reactor is able to resist – or block – the infinity stones' power."
It took several heartbeats for Stephen to digest this new piece of information. "That should be impossible," he said, it should be, but not that it was. "Why do you think so?"
"It's done so before. At least I'm pretty sure that it did."
Tony pulled up the tower's surveillance footage back from the day of the New York invasion. While the camera had been destroyed like almost everything else on the floor, JARVIS had been able to save the footage it had recorded up until then.
On the screen a younger Tony was confronting Loki, his cocky attitude making it easy to forget that he was facing a god suitless and laughably outpowered.
"Back in New York, Loki didn't manage to brainwash me like all the other people he tried it with." At the same time that Tony explained, the footage showed Loki using the scepter.
"And on Titan," he continued, dots connecting rapidly in his brain so that his voice barely kept up, "when we fought– during the fight, my armor's shields protected me. They could hold off the energy blasts of the Gauntlet."
Stephen looked into the distance, frowning. Most likely he was thinking back to the fight himself. "You're... right," he said, a layer of disbelief – or perhaps wonder – in his voice. "But wait. You said that the Scarlet Witch was able to manipulate you. With the same powers the scepter has."
"That's because she went for the head." Despite what people – including, occasionally, Tony himself – liked to say, Tony Stark and Iron Man were not interchangeable. Despite the suit, there was still a squishy, vulnerable person underneath. "Loki went for the chest. Exactly where the arc reactor used to be."
"And your armor–”
"Runs on the arc reactor's energy. Exactly."
Stephen paused, thinking through what they had learned. Or at least what they suspected they had learned. They wouldn't know for sure until they could test their hypothesis.
"It's not much," Stephen said, eventually, "but one of us being resistant to the stones is a start."
"The armor is," Tony corrected.
"Yes. Your armor." Stephen frowned. "Does it make a difference?"
"It makes a huge difference." Tony pulled up several more files – dozens of them, containing notes and sketches in various states of completion: Gear, uniforms and gadgets, some of them more general while others were obviously meant for a specific member of the Avengers.
"It makes a difference," Tony repeated, "because it means I can equip the others."
Tony had invented the arc reactor first and the Iron Man armor second, and he had used its energy for other projects before. He could easily adapt other projects of his to run on the same power. Energy shields maybe, or weapons similar to his repulsors.
For a while, the only noises that filled his workshop was the clacking of his keyboard and the occasional comment from JARVIS. Seeing as the AI had the capacity to access years worth of data and blueprints of his inventions within milliseconds, Tony often relied on his help during brainstorming.
Eventually, Stephen made him pause by clearing his throat. "I'm as glad as you are that you've found a lead," he began, the careful tone of his voice suggesting that Tony would not like what followed.
Tony could take a guess what Stephen was aiming for. With a sigh, he saved his notes and turned his back on them.
"Developing plans against the stones is all well and good," Stephen continued, now that he had Tony's full attention. "But Wanda is out there, right now. She's more than just a vessel for the mind stone's power. She's a person. A traumatized, misled young woman who is unable to control an insanely powerful ability properly."
"I know she is."
"She needs help."
"I know she does. I just," Tony hesitated, pursing his lips. "Honestly? I'm not really sure how to deal with her."
Tony had never known Wanda well. It was difficult to, when she'd hated him from well before they'd first met.
Stephen was right. Even though it was easier to concentrate on the problems that he stood a chance fixing, that did not mean their other problems would disappear.
"I've been thinking about it," Stephen said, his voice slow and tentative, "and I think I might have an idea."
"Oh?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."
"I could teach her," Stephen said, quickly as though he was afraid the words would get stuck if he didn't get them out in time. "Or I could bring her to the Sanctum."
Tony blinked. "Your styles don't exactly look alike," he admitted, carefully.
"I know. But the Sanctum's teachings are about control first and foremost. A lot of it isn't linked to our magic at all." Stephen cleared his throat. "Control is exactly what Wanda is lacking. Perhaps I am able to help with that."
"It's worth a try," Stephen added somewhat defensively.
"No, yeah. I know."
Tony could easily imagine a post-joining-the-Avengers Wanda bonding with Stephen over their magical powers. Perhaps in a different reality, they might have become great allies, if not friends.
However, a Wanda freshly defected from HYDRA? The Wanda who had joined forces with a genocidal AI for the sole reason of attempting to hurt Tony, and hadn't seen the error of her ways until she'd realized that genocide very much included her and her brother? There was no Ultron to teach her that lesson, this time.
"Do you think you could handle her?" Before Stephen had the chance of taking the question as offense to his capabilities, he added, "Not the teaching part, but, well. Her?"
Stephen hesitated, actually contemplating the question. Slowly, he said, "I wasn't the greatest person myself before I became Sorcerer Supreme. Before the Sanctum changed my view on the world." He shrugged. "We already know that she's capable of becoming one of the good guys. Maybe she just needs someone to guide her."
Privately, Tony thought that having been an arrogant douche at one point didn't quite compare to having joined HYDRA in order to kill someone. Seeing as he was that 'someone' they were aiming to kill, perhaps he was simply a tad biased.
"I will talk about it with the Ancient One," Stephen continued, looking ahead thoughtfully. "I will not go behind her back if she decides that Wanda shouldn't be instructed in her teachings."
Tony realized that Stephen was no longer using the glove to practice. He wondered how long it had been since he stopped.
"You may wanna do some more exercises," he said, nodding towards Stephen's motionless hands. "It won't do anything unless you stick to the schedule."
Stephen's expression momentarily darkened before he managed to rein it back in. He started up the exercise again, although it was half-heartedly at best.
"Okay, what's the issue here?" Tony asked, sick of ignoring what was clearly bothering Stephen. "Is it the glove? Is it me? Would you rather do this on your own, privately?"
That's what Rhodey had preferred on bad days, when his legs refused to cooperate with the prosthesis Tony had built him and he ended up sprawled out on the ground more often than he managed to stay upright.
The difference was that Rhodey had always gotten right back up. Stephen looked like he didn't even want to try regaining his hands' mobility.
"It's not that," Stephen muttered.
"Then what is it?" Tony tried to keep the frown off of his face. He didn't succeed entirely. "Come on, talk to me. What's the issue? What can I do to fix it?"
"There’s nothing to fix.” Stephen’s lip tugged downwards in a frown. "You want to know the issue? It hurts. It's difficult. It's inconvenient. None of these are good reasons. I can't give you one because there isn't one, okay?"
Stephen sighed and started up his routine again. He'd gotten better at disguising his dark moods, but now and again he couldn't stop them from shimmering through.
Tony hadn't gotten any better at dealing with them. He stood to the side awkwardly, trying to come up with something to say. Something that would make it better.
A notification popped up on a hologram in his field of vision letting him know that he needed to leave for his next appointment. Tony grit his teeth in frustration.
Then he paused. Maybe… Yeah, why not?
“There’s a PR trip I’ve got to go to,” he said, twirling around in his chair to face Stephen. “A bunch of aspiring scientists presenting their research and projects, trying to pull in funding. Making an appearance makes me look good, you see. Inspire the new generation and all that.”
Stephen didn’t so much as twitch. “I understand. Don’t worry, I’ll–”
Stephen blinked. “You want me to come with you?” His brows knit together in bemusement. “Why?”
Tony shrugged, going for careless. The less big of a deal he made the offer, the more likely Stephen was to agree. “PR gigs are incredibly boring. I have to suffer less if I’m bringing company.”
Plus, Stephen seriously needed to get out of the tower. Regular visits from the Ancient One or not, it couldn’t be healthy to be cooped up in one place for quite this long.
“I refuse to believe that there is anyone capable of forcing you to do any sort of PR against your will.” Despite his words, Stephen carefully pulled his hand out of the therapy glove and rose. “... Alright. Why not?”
Tony didn’t make an attempt to hide his grin. “Do you want to get there by limo or by helicopter?”
Tony saw regret flash through Stephen’s eyes and grinned wider.
Stephen quickly realized that what Tony had told him was a bold faced lie.
From the very moment that the two of them entered the conference hall Stephen had to fight tooth and nail not to be left behind in the dust. Tony skipped to one science project to the other, interacting with the kids who had built them in a playfully snarky way.
Stephen could see passion sparkling in his eyes with not a trace of boredom to see. Tony loved being here. He loved doing this, Stephen could tell.
Seeing the kids' starstruck reaction at having Tony Stark compliment their work was enough of a consolation for Stephen to bear having to squeeze through a crowd of excited college students in the attempt not to fall behind an enthusiastic Tony.
"What do you think?" Tony asked as they reached a more secluded part of the hall.
A flush adored his still grinning expression. Ballpoint scribbles peeked out from under his sleeves where a discussion with a student had gotten heated enough to warrant mathematical emphasis and nobody had been able to produce a notepad quickly enough.
Stephen hid a smirk at the blue ink stain that had somehow ended up on Tony's cheek.
"You're not bored, are you?" Tony's expression dimmed ever so slightly. "We don't have to stay for much longer. I've almost finished the round. A bunch of people took pictures, should be enough to appease my PR department."
Stephen fought the urge to shake his head at Tony's ridiculous attempt to hold onto the excuse that had brought them here. "Don't worry about me. It's been... fun."
Tony shrugged, but couldn't downplay the way his eyes lit up. "I go to tons of these every year. Kind of prefer the small ones, to be honest."
Stephen could see why. The conference hall was tiny and cramped, but it also felt casual in a way that huge scale conferences failed to. Tony certainly wouldn't have the time to spend it hearing about the kids' projects, rather than hold interviews or speeches or whatever else was expected of him for the media coverage.
"That last kid looked like he was about to faint," Stephen noted drily. "What did you do?"
"Oh, the usual. Complimented his project. Suggested a few additions."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "And?"
"... I may have also paid for said additions. He mentioned that he was out of materials."
"Of course you did."
"They're so poor," Tony whined, his voice obnoxious and over-the-top. "And they're still somehow making their projects work. I don't know if I should feel sad or proud."
Clearly, Tony managed to do both. Stephen wouldn't be surprised if by the end of the day every single of the students had gotten a cheque covering the cost of their next few projects and more.
"Um. I'm sorry, uh... Mr. Stark?"
Tony and Stephen both turned to face a timidly smiling girl. Behind her several more teenagers were engulfed in a heated discussion, although all of them fell silent at realizing that the two of them were watching. One of them stuck out her hand and waved. Tony smirked and waved back.
"I'm sorry, sir, but my friends and I were talking about those adjustments you mentioned. We think that it might be possible to improve the parameters to better facilitate the electronic harmonization. If we adjusted the frequency to just about–”
Stephen quickly tuned out the rest of the science talk. He was able to follow the basics despite engineering being somewhat removed from his preferred field – especially considering that the presentations had been designed to impress regular, non-tech savvy people just the same. Faced with Tony Stark, however, the kids quickly dove into technical details at such a rapid speed that Stephen was quickly left behind in the dust.
Stephen found that he didn’t mind. The outing may have been somewhat out of his comfort zone – especially seeing as he'd avoided going among people since the accident. It had also achieved what Tony had not-so-subtly aimed for by distracting Stephen from his injuries and the long road of recovery he had yet to overcome.
I’m gonna take a break from the internet for as long as it takes me to go see Endgame. For sake of my updating schedule I’m here, but don’t expect to hear from me beyond that lol. I’m gonna drop the chapter and turn my WiFi right back off :P No chances of me getting spoiled, nossir!
Beta'd by the wonderful PyrothTenka, Igornerd and To Mockingbird!
Visit me on tumblr if you like!
The situation with Tony didn't improve. He wanted them to think that it did – he'd reacted to Natasha's nudge and started to spend more time with the team. But she soon realized that agreeing to socialize wasn’t the same as opening up to them.
Tony was acting oddly, and Natasha couldn't explain why. His odd avoidance towards them ever since they'd found the scepter, whatever he'd been thinking when creating Vision, and now Strange? He'd never even mentioned the guy before, and now he was living with them at the tower?
Natasha hated not knowing what was going on. She hated it even more when it concerned someone close to her. Natasha had never had many genuine friends, and she had even less left. This team held most of the very few people she wanted to hold onto.
It felt like one of those people had started slipping away from her without her realizing it.
"Iron Man, what's your status?" Steve asked over the coms, not for the first time since the start of the mission.
Natasha shared a glance with Clint. Normally, it was a chore and a half to get Tony to keep quiet and concentrate during their missions. His chattering on the coms had become expected background noise. He'd never had to be reminded about sharing his status before.
There was a pause. "There’s no shielding for any part of the building,” Tony said, finally. “Checking for surveillance systems or defense mechanisms now."
"... Got it," Steve said after waiting for Tony to say more, reluctance heavy in his voice.
None of them were stupid. Tony may have had the common sense not to allow a stranger – a civilian – access to the team's coms. But it wasn't difficult to put two and two together and deduce that he had set up a separate line just for him and his new friend, and was only switching to the team's when absolutely necessary.
Natasha wasn't sure what a civilian was able to offer in terms of information or strategic advice that the Avengers couldn't, but despite his superficial attitude, Tony was anything but careless. She hadn't taken him for the type of person to risk the outcome of a mission because of a mindless distraction.
So, if Strange wasn’t a distraction, what was he? And why did his presence affect Tony’s behavior towards the team?
Natasha hated not knowing, and she wouldn’t stand for it.
"Guys," Tony said, his voice flickering through the com line at last. "We're not alone anymore." A grunt of surprise followed, but nothing more.
"Iron Man." Steve's voice cut through the silence sharply. "Iron Man, status."
Without waiting for an answer, Natasha and Clint broke out into a run towards Tony's last known location. Steve was most likely doing the same. Natasha felt a frown bubbling up behind her blank expression. If a lack of communication was going to cost them the mission – and Tony – Natasha was going to make him regret it.
"Tony, where are you?!" Natasha caught a glimpse of Steve from afar. He held one ear to his com without slowing down his sprint.
At last, they were given a location. "I found the twins," Tony said curtly. "Backup would be appreciated." There was a dull impact and a crackling sound. Then nothing.
If Tony came out of this in one piece, Natasha was going to kill him.
"Seriously?" Stephen's laughter filtered through the com line, proving that he'd decided not to take Tony's dilemma seriously. "Magic and you 'don't agree'? What does that even mean?"
Tony let out an insulted huff, keeping one eye on the data displayed on his HUD. "No need for that kind of tone. Look, I can make my armor faster, stronger, more durable. But magic? That's just cheating. Suddenly my sensors aren't working and my armor might as well be made out of cardboard."
"You're exaggerating. Besides, we've already established that Miss Maximoff did not have the opportunity to master her abilities yet."
"Iron Man, what's your status?"
Tony almost cursed. "One moment," he said to Stephen, then switched com lines to the one he shared with the Avengers. "There's no shielding for any part of the building. Checking for surveillance systems or defense mechanisms now."
He doubted he'd find any. The twins were on the run and unlikely to have found backup in such a short amount of time.
By preventing Ultron from going rogue, Tony had made sure that the twins were missing their temporary ally in their quest to destroy the Avengers. He had also made it much more difficult to guess their next course of action. Would they be trying to get away from the Avengers? Or were they driven by their anger to a degree that would make them fight despite the odds?
His HUD notified him of a life sign: a single, lonely ping before it was gone again. It could have been a glitch of his sensors. Tony's tech didn't do glitches.
"They're here," he said to Stephen, and, switching over to the Avengers, "Guys. We're not alone anymore."
An energy pulse darted his way and forced Tony to dodge with a grunt of surprise. The attack missed his shoulder by inches.
"Hello there," he said, attempting to salvage his dignity by righting his body into a proper, defensive stance. "Can't say I'm overly thrilled to meet you in person."
"I cannot say the same about you, either." Wanda's eyes were narrowed with a furious gleam to them. Red whisks of magic hovered all around her as though Tony's mere sight made her control over it slip. "Do you know who I am?"
"I do." Tony schooled his pained expression into one of grim resignation. What wouldn't he give to be able to skip this part. "I'm sorry about what happened to you."
Wanda paused. Perhaps she was surprised at the confession. "An apology isn't worth anything."
"No," Tony agreed. "I suppose it isn’t."
To Wanda's credit, she didn't waste time with an evil, deranged monologue. This already put her up high on the list of people who'd tried to kill Tony out of vengeance.
"I found the twins," Tony said over the coms while dodging a barrage of menacing red. "Backup would be appreciated."
Pietro was too fast for his sensors.
A blow knocked Tony to the ground, the sheer momentum of it forceful enough to pound a dent into his armor. Tony suppressed a grunt and rolled to his feet – only to fall back when electricity twitched over his armor and made his HUD shut down with a flicker.
Pietro must have planted an EMP device on his suit. A souvenir from their time with HYDRA, perhaps?
After mere seconds, JARVIS' voice was the first of his suit's functions that came back online. "Rebooting now, sir."
"They aren't attacking," Tony muttered, frowning at the lack of physical assault on his armor. One would have thought they would have taken the opportunity of him being trapped and motionless in front of them.
The first thing Tony saw once his HUD flickered back to life was Wanda bend over his armor, frowning and surrounded by swirls of deep red. A dull feeling of apprehension settled in his gut at the thought of what she'd been trying to do, closely followed by relief at her failure.
"Nice try," he said, heaving himself up from his lying position. Wanda jerked back as though burned. "I'd wish you luck trying to breach the armor. Unfortunately you're not gonna get a second chance."
Wanda took Pietro by the arm and retreated several steps, a calculating gleam in her eyes. Tony took on a fighting stance, preparing for whatever she was going to try next.
A few whispered words to her brother, and Wanda and Pietro disappeared in a blur.
Tony narrowed his eyes, not willing to move out of his defensive position immediately. His com line rebooted and gave him something else to worry about.
"– ony! Tony? If you don't say something in the next few seconds–"
"It's fine," he said, cutting off Stephen while checking his armor for damage. He peeled off the metal disc that had latched onto it like a parasite – now useless. "I'm fine, don't worry. The armor held up. She couldn't get through it."
"Where is she now?"
"Bailed with her brother. Probably a tactical retreat after their little plan didn't work out."
Tony didn't particularly want to know what exactly that plan had entailed. Nothing that involved Tony's head being screwed with sounded like something he particularly wanted to experience.
"What does your team think about it?" Stephen asked, and made Tony wince.
He wished he could simply put Stephen on the same com line they were using. Splitting his attention like he was doing now clearly wasn't working out.
"The twins made a run for it," he said over the Avengers com line. "The girl, Wanda, tried to do something and it didn't work out. They're probably regrouping now."
There was a muffled hiss that sounded half like a curse, half like a breath of relief.
"You can't just go radio silent like that, Tony!" Steve snapped, concern lingering behind the frustration. "We were this close to sending the Hulk after you!"
Tony cringed. "I'm flattered," he said, "but fine. No need to bother Bruce on my behalf."
"It's not about that. We need to–” Steve cut himself off before he could finish the sentence. He didn't sound happy when he added, "We'll talk about this later. Let's just focus on the rest of the mission."
Tony suppressed a sigh. He really needed to figure out a way to introduce Stephen to the team as a member, not as a random acquaintance.
"Entering the building now," Natasha said. "It looks like an old research lab. Abandoned, but lots of supplies left lying around."
"Maybe they were looking for something?" Tony thought out loud.
If they'd been here before, they might have come back in the knowledge of something worth retrieving. Some sort of device? A biological weapon? Tony hoped they wouldn't be dealing with a Winter Soldier situation.
"If this is an abandoned HYDRA base, they might know their way around." Natasha said.
Meaning that they might already have gotten what they'd come for.
"We've got a problem." Steve's tone of voice immediately put Tony on edge. "There's a bomb that's set to go off in two minutes."
Considering the possible radius, it wasn't enough time to evacuate. By this point the twins were likely far, far away from their intended grave.
"On my way," Tony said, and, switching over to Stephen, "The twins planted a bomb. I'm going to try and diffuse it before it goes off."
If all else failed, JARVIS would be able to take over his suit and carry it high enough not to be a danger anymore.
Tony caught sight of Steve and slipped out of the armor, sprinting to where he was crouched down in front of a piece of machinery. "Alright, what have we got?" Tony muttered, mentally reviewing the most likely model and ways to diffuse it.
Tony stared at the broken computer monitor in front of him. There wasn't anything explosive within sight.
"Is this a joke?" He turned to Steve, his heart pounding madly in his chest.
He had time to spot glowing red eyes and widen his own in alarm before he was tackled from the side and his surroundings blurred.
As sudden as it had started, it was already over. Tony stumbled as his involuntary ride halted in his tracks, catching himself on a nearby tree and heaving as his stomach protested at the ruthless change in location. A regular human body wasn’t built to move at his level of speed.
"I gotta say," he said as soon as he was sure he wouldn't puke all over his shoes, "I'm impressed. Using Cap to lure me out of the armor? Wow. Bonus points for being creative and unpredictable."
Tony's mind was racing. JARVIS would have seen what had happened and notified the team. Without the armor, they wouldn't be able to find out his location. The research base was nowhere in sight, so Tony couldn't say how far away Pietro had brought him.
JARVIS would be able to locate him – unless he currently had a brainwashed Captain America to deal with. He didn't know how far Wanda's manipulation went.
The twins' stares were starting to unnerve him. "So," he said, even though the smart thing to do would have probably been to shut his mouth. "What now?"
"You look different than we'd expected," Pietro said. Hate shimmered in his eyes in the same way Wanda's did.
Tony didn't have to look down at himself to know what he meant. His hair would be ruffled, his face flushed from the exercise of steering the armor. He was fairly sure there was a stain of motor oil on his undersuit from the last time he hadn't bothered to change while working on one of his projects in the garage.
He didn't look anything like his TV presence, like the Merchant of Death the twins had no doubt imprinted in their mind as the cause for all of their suffering.
Tony stood no chance fighting bare-handed against both meta humans – or even one of them. He supposed that left one course of action to attempt to ensure his continued survival. Stalling.
"If I'd known I'd be kidnapped today, I would have put more effort into how I looked." Tony didn't think he'd be successful trying to reason with either of them. In different circumstances, perhaps. Being on his own and at their mercy would only make them take his words as the rambling of a desperate man.
He'd try his hand at making them gloat, instead. "What did you do to Cap?" he said, pretending not to know how Wanda's powers worked. "How'd you make him help you?"
"Does it scare you?" An ugly, self-satisfied smirk tugged at Pietro's lips. "Being confronted with a power you cannot understand?"
Taunts instead of gloating. Well, Tony would take what he could get.
"He is defenseless," Wanda said. "We could put an end to this. We could end him, right now."
Her tone of voice made Tony pause. Before he could debate whether or not it was wiser to keep his mouth shut, he'd already started talking. "You sound really unsure about this.”
Wanda scowled at him, magic twitching around her fingers as though it wanted to refute his words. She made no move to come closer.
It dawned on Tony then. Despite all the questionable choices the twins had made since their family had been killed, at this point in time they had never murdered someone in cold blood. Manipulation and brainwashing was not the same as actively stopping another person's heart – especially if it was outside of battle, without the justification of them fighting back.
Tony didn't actually know where to go from here.
Wanda and Pietro weren't children by any stretch of the imagination, but Stephen was right in that they needed someone to guide them. That someone couldn't be Tony.
"You don't have to do this," he said quietly, already knowing that nothing coming out of his mouth would make a difference. He'd lived through this exact situation, and Tony hadn't listened to Barnes, either. Logic and reason went flying out the window when confronted with the person you believed to have taken your family away from you. "There are other ways."
"None that are worth losing the satisfaction of finishing what we have started.”
Tony clenched his jaw. There was no doubt in Pietro's voice.
His sister still hesitated. Noting the same, Pietro briefly laid his hand on her shoulder. "I'll do it," he said, and disappeared in a blur.
Tony didn't stand a chance. There was no way to keep up with Pietro's speed, nor to brace himself for the blow. Without the armor and with Pietro’s power, a single punch would shatter Tony's rib cage.
He didn't have the time to so much as close his eyes. Pietro materialized in front of him, his fist raised as though he planned to punch a hole straight through his body.
Then he was gone.
Wanda cried out in surprise as Tony struggled to comprehend what had happened. A quick peek down at his body proved that Pietro hadn't so much as caused a scratch. Surely, he hadn't abandoned his sister?
Only then, through the wild pounding of his increased heart rate did Tony notice the labored breathing behind him. As well as the shimmering, lightly orange shield that built a barrier between him and Wanda.
"S-Stephen?" he said, whirling around to face his unkempt, oddly flustered looking friend. His hands were a shaky mess, but he held them raised in front of his body, pointing at the barrier. Tony could do nothing but stare. "How did you get here?"
"JARVIS told me what happened. Nobody could reach you anymore." He shrugged, the carelessness of the gesture ruined by his strained breathing. "So I portaled."
"You've never been here before," Tony said, not quite sure why he was arguing something that had saved his life.
Stephen met Tony's eyes, a mild daze clouding his glance. Apparently he hadn't quite registered what he'd managed to do himself. "I know. I pictured you."
Before Tony had the chance to latch onto that discovery, a snarl tore them out of their conversation. Something impacted with Stephen’s shield and made him flinch, but he managed to hold onto it.
"Where did you send him?!" Wanda cried, her voice audible despite the barrier between them. "Where is he?!"
"Safe," Stephen said, "but momentarily incapacitated."
While his voice sounded as confident as it always did, Tony's eyes kept being drawn to the shaky quality of his stance. The two portals he had conjured – the one to bring him here and the one to send Pietro somewhere he couldn't cause trouble – seemed to have taken a lot out of him. And that wasn’t even considering the still active shielding spell.
"Can you make another portal?" Tony murmured, quietly enough that Wanda wouldn't hear.
He winced as another of her attacks made contact with the shield.
Stephen paused, considering the question. Without taking his eyes off their opponent, he muttered, "Unlikely."
Tony pressed his lips together in a narrow line. Even if Stephen did manage to make another portal, they had lost the element of surprise. Wanda would know that it was coming, and would be able to defend herself.
Tony quickly reviewed the tools he had at his disposal. Without his armor, he couldn't defend against Wanda's power any more than he could against Pietro's. But without Pietro's speed to overwhelm him, he had at least a chance to fight back.
"Distract her for me, will you?" he muttered, mentally starting to wipe up a half-baked, desperate plan.
Stephen's lip curled in discontent. "And how do you propose I do that?"
"Preferably without getting close enough to be brainwashed."
Stephen scoffed at the admittedly unhelpful advice.
"Try to keep her talking," Tony added, "goading her with her brother might work."
"It might also enhance my chances of being killed faster." Stephen paused. He looked down at his hands, then at Wanda. A calculating glint twitched through his eyes, his expression growing tight with apprehension.
"I have a better idea," he muttered, his tone suggesting that he wasn't using the word 'better' out of conviction.
His tone put Tony’s teeth on edge.
"I should be able to buy you some time, at the very least. In the best case," Stephen paused. "Well. I am not entirely sure which is the best case."
Tony definitely didn't like the sound of that. "Stephen," he said, pushing urgency into his voice, "what are you going to–”
Stephen’s barrier shattered like glass, and Tony wasn’t sure whether Stephen had dismissed the spell or whether Wanda had finally managed to break through.
Stephen didn't bother with hand signs his broken fingers would have been unable to form. In this case, he didn't appear to need them. He punched the air in front of him into shards, cracked like a broken mirror. Both he and Wanda – caught up in the range of his attack – were surrounded, making it look like they were inside a mirror room at a carnival.
Stephen thrust his hands downwards and the shards disappeared, taking him and Wanda with them.
Tony was left behind, staring at the spot they had disappeared from.
Stephen entered the mirror dimension in a last ditch effort to keep Wanda busy, leaving a wide-eyed Tony behind. He could only imagine what it had looked like from the outside. Perhaps it was for the better that Tony had no deeper knowledge of the technique. At least this way, Tony wouldn't realize the sort of unadvised decision Stephen had made.
The spell to bring him here had been easy. The same couldn't be said about the way back. Without the ring he had received from the Sanctum – would receive, in this case – Stephen had cut off all of their chances to escape the parallel dimension used to safely practice spells and contain threats.
Stephen couldn't even say for sure whether this particular threat would allow herself to be contained at all. The fight on Titan had proven that the mirror dimension could not stand up to the power of the infinity stones.
Wanda's animosity had momentarily given way to puzzlement. "What is this place?"
She took a look at her surroundings, and Stephen followed suit. The world around them had not changed, but they saw it through a wall of broken glass. Its features were contorted, its edges blurred to make it look like a crude copy of the real world.
Through the glass-like barrier, Stephen was able to see Tony. He hadn't yet moved out of his wide-eyed, frozen position, staring at the place Wanda and Stephen had disappeared from.
As soon as Wanda caught sight of him, her expression twisted into one of loathing. Her hands were overflowing with red energy as she stormed towards Tony.
Stephen did not bother to intervene, knowing that her attack would go straight through him.
Although he was proven right, Stephen felt a spark of alarm when he saw cracks form on the ground where her hand had landed.
"You might as well give up. You will not find a way out of here on your own." Stephen pushed confidence into his voice to distract from the fact that Wanda would, indeed, do exactly that with only a few additional punches.
It worked. Rather than pay attention to the mild damage her attack had caused, Wanda turned back to Stephen. "Get us out of here," she said, the threat in her voice implied even though she didn't speak it out loud.
Knowing fully well that he couldn't, even if he wanted to, Stephen attempted to keep his voice even and his stance self-assured. "Why don't you make me?"
Stephen didn't know what he was doing. He dodged Wanda's attack by leaping up a tree – standing on it horizontally – and jumping on another when she changed direction. The laws of physics weren't the same in the mirror dimension. Stephen knew this and took advantage of it, while Wanda was left to fumble on unfamiliar ground, playing with rules that had changed without her knowledge.
In face of Stephen’s limited to non-existent powers, he wouldn’t be able to hold his own against her for long.
"You cannot keep me here forever," Wanda said, mirroring his thoughts with narrowed eyes. "I will get out of here. I will find my brother. And one way or another, Stark will die."
The calmness in her voice unnerved Stephen more than raging and screaming could have. Anger made people unpredictable and prone to mistakes. Wanda sounded too self-assured.
"Tony didn't kill your parents," Stephen said, keeping his distance from the witch.
Wanda’s face pulled into an ugly snarl. "He built the missile that did. It was his technology that tore my country to pieces. Do you want to make a guess how many people died with the words 'Stark Industries' imprinted in their mind? With his technology being the last they ever saw?" Wanda clenched her hands to fists. "He deserves to get some part of it back. He deserves far worse than I am about to do to him."
"His weapons were being sold behind his back. He shut down his weapon production as soon as he found out about it."
“What about those of his weapons he sold knowingly? What do you think your people – your military – used those for?” Wanda set her brows in a firm line. “It does not matter whether he caused death and destruction out of malice or ignorance. He can’t bring back those who have died in either case.” Wanda did not wait for a reply before she started another attack.
Stephen leaped forward, stomping onto the ground and making it fold into itself. Wanda stumbled as the ground under her feet shifted, and Stephen used the opportunity to put distance between them.
"Cheap tricks," Wanda muttered, barely even ruffled from the experience. She pushed herself up from where she had fallen. Stephen felt as though she could see straight through him. "You cannot beat me, and you know it. You are stalling."
He was also running out of said cheap tricks. It was a miracle his current repertoire – severely limited by his inability to form his hand signs correctly – had gotten him as far as it had.
"To stay alive?" Wanda said, continuing her musings. "No. There is more to it than that. What is it that you are trying to accomplish?"
"If you want me to tell you, you will have to make me."
Stephen's bluff was weak, and Wanda called it effortlessly. She acted as though he hadn't answered at all.
"Ahh. I see." She’d found the cracks that had opened up where she had caught herself from slamming into the ground. "You cannot keep me imprisoned here. My powers will not allow you.”
She looked up, a smile tugging at her lips. "That means I do not need you to get out of here." Wanda's hands lit up with red energy and she let herself fall, slamming down both of her hands onto the ground.
The noise of a thousand windows shattering rung in Stephen's ears, and the tremor of it shook the ground where he stood.
The mirror dimension could not stand up to Wanda's powers, but it would repair itself quickly. If Stephen didn't move, Wanda would leave him stranded.
Stephen stomped his feet onto the ground, causing it to tilt forwards and giving him momentum as he pushed himself towards the opening. Glass shards reattached themselves and grew larger, closing the gap rapidly as Stephen rushed towards it.
Wanda disappeared from sight and Stephen slipped through, nicking his arm as the metaphorical door slammed shut behind him. Gravity was reinstated and Stephen fell onto the ground in an undignified heap.
Shouting pulled him back into reality. Stephen scrambled to get to his feet as a mechanical whir cut through the air, followed by a sharp cry of surprise.
“What in the world was that?!” Tony appeared at his side in an instant, hovering close as though unsure whether Stephen needed the support. His eyes briefly scanned Stephen’s body for injuries. “Where did you go? You just disappeared without a word!”
Stephen refrained from pointing out that there had been hardly enough time to explain a concept as complicated as the mirror dimension. A snarl from somewhere behind Tony made him tense and crane his neck to take a look.
Wanda laid on the ground, her back arched uncomfortably and her hands and ankles pulled behind her back and immobilized with what looked like thin bracelets. Sparks spewed out of her hands like fireworks, her magic – while it wasn’t being suppressed – ineffective against them.
"Will that hold her?" he asked despite not having an alternative to offer. He felt as though he should feel at least some sort of sympathy for Pietro, who would be trapped in an unending pitfall until Stephen had rested enough to create another portal and get him out.
"Look, it's the best I could do." Tony's brows dropped in slight defensiveness. "I didn't have anything to work with besides a prototype gauntlet made of nano tech."
As long as said piece of nano tech remained resistant to Wanda's magic, Stephen wasn't about to complain.
"Besides," Tony continued, "it shouldn't be much longer for backup to–”
A whirring sound cut through the air as something large surged by, nearing their location almost too fast to follow with the bare eye. It dropped down next to them with a clunk.
"Sir," JARVIS said, his clipped voice filtering through the speakers of Tony's armor. His back was turned towards Tony and his arms were raised, repulsors aimed at Wanda. "Please step into the armor or else remove yourself from the situation."
Stephen saw Tony suppress an eye roll. Before either of them had the chance to speak, a gap opened up between the trees and Rogers burst out of it, his shield raised in preparation for battle and making quite the imposing image.
Too bad that both of them had come late to the party.
"Tony! Are you alright? We tried to be here sooner, but–” Rogers did a double take as his eyes fell on Stephen. His mouth opened in puzzlement. "Strange? What are you doing here? How– How did you get here?"
Tony's expression had become unreadable. Stephen tried to throw him a glance, but Tony wouldn't look at him – or at Rogers, for that matter.
"Let us secure Miss Maximoff, first," Stephen said, nodding towards the bound figure on the forest ground. She had gone still as though she had realized that struggling wouldn't get her out of the situation.
Or perhaps she was playing along in the hopes of finding out where he had brought Pietro.
"Her brother is already taken care of. As soon as we have secured her, I will gladly answer your questions."
Rogers hesitated, but he gave a tight nod. He raised one hand to his ear, presumably pressing his communicator. "He's alright. We've got Wanda Maximoff immobilized. Her brother is," he hesitated, throwing a mildly dubious glance at Stephen, "no longer a threat. Make sure the jet is ready to contain her."
There didn't seem to be any questions. Rogers let his hand drop and turned towards Wanda with the words, "I'm holding you two to that explanation."
At one point during their adventure, Thor had decided to return to Earth. He had, as such, managed to show up at exactly the right time to make him late for the party. Being saved by a Norse pseudo-god would have certainly spared him and Stephen a needlessly stressful afternoon that had almost seen them both killed – even though it would have meant a rather embarrassing damsel experience for the both of them.
Seeing as Thor was welcomed by strained silence and avoidant glances, Tony wondered if he, too, wished to be anywhere else but here.
"I see that something has occurred during my absence," he said cautiously, casting a wary glance at his solemn teammates. His eyes rested on Stephen for longer, but he didn't comment on the apparent addition to the team. Thor had always been the sort of person to take surprises in a stride. "I dearly hope it has not had a negative impact on the team.”
What a beautifully diplomatic way of saying 'I can't believe you guys couldn't hold it together for more than a few weeks without me.'
Steve sighed, and Tony felt a deep, cutting guilt at just how tired he sounded. "We need to talk about the... issues we ran into on today's mission."
Stephen sent Tony a glance before turning back to the team. "Is that really the most pressing concern?" he tried, his voice hesitant and slow as though he was testing the waters. "Perhaps we should listen to what Thor has to–”
"Tony almost died today."
The interruption was all the more startling considering it had come from Bruce. Even though the Hulk had not needed to make an appearance, they wouldn’t have been able to tell by looking at Bruce’s exhausted, weary state.
"We're going to talk about it," he continued, his voice sharper than Tony had ever heard it, "and we're going to settle it."
Natasha masked her surprise by directing calm eyes on Bruce.
It was less Bruce’s declaration that had taken her aback and more the fact that he had done so right away, rather than wait out Steve’s attempt to handle the situation.
Steve spent a few heartbeats in startled silence, then latched onto Bruce's words as though he had planned to do so from the start. "It's obvious that we've been... kept in the dark about certain things. It's time that we addressed them."
"There's nobody in this room who doesn't keep some things to themselves," Tony said. He looked as though he was doing his hardest not to look at anyone in particular. "We all know that. It hasn’t been an issue so far."
"It became an issue once it started impacting our performance on the field." Steve frowned. "It's impossible to lead a team if you've only got half the picture of your sol– of your teammates. I can't coordinate if I don't know what everybody brings to the table."
Bruce looked as though he wanted to say something, but held himself back. Thor simply followed the conversation with a warily creased brow. Natasha wondered what he was thinking, considering just how out of context the accusations were for him.
Tony took a fleeting glance in Steve's direction. "That's fair. Okay. I'll make sure to give you all the relevant information and to not impair the mission next time."
He'd given in too easily. It made the impression that he was saying what they wanted to hear in order to escape the confrontation sooner.
Natasha pressed her lips into a firm line. Her eyes made a deliberate sweep to Strange before they settled back on Tony. "You lied about your friend."
"That was my fault," Strange said before Tony had the chance to speak himself. "I asked him to. I was dealing with some... personal issues, and I intended to introduce myself properly once those had been taken care of."
Natasha held his gaze, gouging his sincerity. She believed him, although his answer had been too vague to amount to anything.
"Have they been taken care of?" she asked, raising a delicate eyebrow and holding back the bite in her question.
"To an extent, I suppose," Strange muttered, unhappy but accepting of the development. Much more so than Tony, he seemed to have resigned himself to whatever was about to follow.
Tony's jaw was set in a firm line but he did not protest.
"My name is Doctor Stephen Strange," Strange said, "I haven't lied about that. Nor have Tony and I lied about being friends."
“I’d be surprised if you had,” Clint muttered. Interactions between the two were far too casual to be faked.
"Those powers of yours," Steve said, "I don't suppose they're a recent development?"
Strange hesitated. "Not precisely, no. I have been unable to utilize them properly since my accident. Tony has been helping me to recover."
"What do those powers entail, exactly?" Natasha realized too late that her voice had come out too sharply. She suppressed the urge to bite her lip while pinning Strange with an unblinking stare.
If it was making him uncomfortable, he didn’t show it. "I don’t appreciate being interrogated.”
Natasha was sure he didn't. She couldn't say that she overly cared.
"Nevertheless, I had not intended to keep them a secret for very much longer, anyway."
True to his words, Strange proceeded to explain to them how he had come to possess his powers, as well as lay out their capabilities in broad (too broad, for Natasha's liking) strokes.
While he talked, Thor nodded along as though none of what he was hearing was in any way spectacular. Bruce’s lips were pressed together, his hands folded as he hung onto each of Strange’s words.
Meanwhile, Natasha's expression might as well have been carved from stone. In contrast to Clint – who was doing his hardest not to grind his teeth in displeasure – she did not have an issue with magic, nor with any kind of specific power. She did not have an issue with Strange in particular, either.
No, what irked Natasha more than she liked to admit was that she had spent weeks living under the same roof as an unaccounted for, unpredictable meta human. She had talked to him, unknowing. She had spent time with him, not realizing. She had turned her back on him. Too trusting.
Living in a sheltered environment with the Avengers had made her lose her edge, so it seemed. She was torn between feeling fury at herself for letting her guard down and betrayal at Tony for allowing someone unknown into their lives like it didn't matter that the tower had been the first place she had felt safe in in decades.
Clint caught her glance, his lips a thin line, and Natasha looked away. She was being childish. She was supposed to be above such things, and the tower wasn't even hers. It was her own fault for allowing herself to get too comfortable.
Tony’s face was as much of a mask as Natasha's was.
"I can't believe you kept this a secret from us," Steve said after Strange was finished. "Everything could have been so much easier if you’d just trusted us."
Something in Tony's expression changed. Fury entered his gaze, intense but tightly contained. He straightened up in his seat. "Okay, you're going there. I wasn’t sure if you would, but you're definitely going there."
Steve blinked, taken aback. "Yes, I'm going there," he said, his frown taking on a puzzled quality. "Keeping secrets isn't the way to go. Not as long as–”
"Secrets then," Tony interrupted, all but spitting out the words. "You wanna talk secrets? You'd know so much about those, wouldn't you?"
"Tony," Strange warned, his voice strained and alarmed. "I want you to think this through."
"Oh, I've thought about this plenty of times." The look in Tony's eyes was that of a man who was clearly not in the state of mind to think anything through.
Natasha found herself taken aback by the intensity of it, anger and betrayal and frustration. Tony had always been skilled at hiding his emotion his own way, but not like her. Not in front of them.
"What are you talking about?" Steve said, his voice quieter than before. His frown had lost its frustrated quality and loosened into one of concern and confusion.
Tony's mouth formed a bitter line, and something inside of him seemed to come loose. "I just think it's funny you would bring up secrets between us. You know, considering that whole mess with Barnes."
There was a beat of silence. Thor threw a questioning look to nobody in particular, but was shushed with a whispered, “Later,” from Bruce.
Steve's expression closed off. "What about him?"
Tony's scoff sounded half insulted, half incredulous. "I'd say you're a shitty liar, but all things considered–” He cut himself off before a most likely biting comment could escape his lips.
He let out a breath through clenched teeth and clutched one of his arms absentmindedly. "I know about Barnes being the Winter Soldier. And also about my parents."
Steve's eyes fell shut. "Tony..."
"And I know that you knew about it. You have for over a year." His eyes whisked around to land on Natasha. She didn't flinch. "So have you."
The room had fallen silent. The others, including Strange, watched the scene in tense wariness. Thor’s eyes had taken on an unreadable quality while Bruce was simply avoiding everybody’s gaze. He squirmed in his seat, looking as though he was debating fleeing the room and the confrontation.
"... You're right," Steve said, and Natasha took it as her cue to give a curt nod.
Tony avoided their gazes while chewing on his lip. Every word seemed to be uttered with great effort. "See, I don't want to start a fight. Not over this. I know things haven't really been smooth between us lately," he paused, his eyes flickering to Strange momentarily, "and I know a bunch of that was my fault."
Steve looked like he wanted to interrupt, but Tony powered through. "All I want to say is that clearly, none of us are saints. We've all made mistakes.”
The words seemed to leave a bitter taste in Tony's mouth. Natasha, meanwhile, wished she could say that she wasn't surprised. In reality, she hadn't seen any of this coming.
"Tony," Steve started, and faltered before he could finish the sentence. "I... I don't know what to say."
"Yeah, well." Tony managed to hold Steve’s gaze for no longer than a few seconds before it slid away again. "Look, I'm not saying this to distract from any of what happened. I said we all made mistakes, and that obviously includes me." His eyes grew sharper. "I'm just not going to sit here and let myself be painted the villain, okay?"
"I swear, that's not what I was trying to do." Steve’s hesitation didn’t last long. "I'm sorry."
Tony startled as though that was the last thing he had expected to hear.
"I know this doesn't make it better, but... There's no excuse." Steve set his brows in a firm line. "The reason I didn't tell you about Bucky is because I thought you would take it... badly."
Tony's lip twitched. Natasha got the impression that he was hiding a bitter smile. "I did take it badly," he said. "I've... I've had time to come to terms with it. Still, it would have been nice to hear it from you."
"It's–” The word died in Tony's mouth before he could speak it out loud. Natasha could guess what he had almost said. Nothing about the situation was fine. "I'll be fine," Tony said instead, and it sounded less like a lie.
"I was wrong about this," Steve went on. "I misjudged you."
Tony's expression confirmed what Natasha was thinking. He looked like he wanted to laugh, and Natasha was certain that Steve had been spot on with his first assessment.
"I won't make that mistake again."
Tony looked away from Steve as though he couldn't bear seeing his impossibly earnest expression.
It soon became clear that neither of them were going to say anything else.
"Let’s stop here for today," Bruce said, breaking the silence with a soft voice. He couldn’t quite banish the relief from his expression and pushed himself to his feet, anxious to leave behind the tension that was filling up the air. "I think we could all use a little time to cool down."
Thor rose to his feet much more hesitantly, the same frown adoring his face that he had sported all throughout the confrontation. “I… agree that words spoken in the heat of anger are best avoided.”
"Agreed." Steve let out a sigh. "I think we've all had enough for the day."
"About Strange," Natasha started, suppressing a frown.
"He did save Tony's life back there," Bruce said. "And we managed to catch the twins because of him. I think we can give him the benefit of the doubt for now."
Natasha didn't answer, but she gave a curt nod.
"We're not done talking yet," Steve said, almost as a warning. "We need to settle this. If not today, we will have to do it eventually."
"Agreed," Strange said quietly, giving his consent.
While Tony looked like he'd prefer to continue the conversation never, Natasha would have much rather gotten it out of the way then and there. Neither of them would leave the common area happy that evening. Natasha doubted that anyone would, after the sort of day they'd had.
"We'll figure this out," Steve said, perhaps unwilling to let it all end on such a tense, unhappy note.
Natasha was the first to leave, Clint following behind closely. Against her better judgement, Natasha hoped that Steve would end up being right.
A/N: Fun fact: I’d initially planned for Thor and/or JARVIS to burst in earlier and save the day. I then went "Wow, great plan, Gwen! Turn both of your protagonists into useless damsels in distress, that's sure to get your readers invested.” So, yeah. Hope you enjoyed the fight scene, because I absolutely loathe writing them :P Also the confrontation! Not gonna lie, that one was a lot of fun to do.
Aaand one more time:
Short version: If you like angst and Spider-Man, go read 8 minus 1 and leave the author a ton of love.
Long version: I’ve never promoted a fic on one of my stories so far (except anything and everything my betas have written, ever lol), but this story. THIS STORY. My beta recommended it to me and we’ve pretty much been non stop gushing about it since.
It’s Spider-Man centric and includes a heap ton of tropes I absolutely adore to death: angst (loads and loads of it), hurt/comfort, Spider-Man interacting with civilians/fans, outsider’s perspective. It has a wonderful cast of amazing and interesting OCs and a super unique story format - which may come across as off-putting at first? But once you allow yourself to be sucked in it’s simply such an amazing, creative story, I’ve read the whole thing in one go and starting plastering comments on every chapter about halfway through because I got so invested.
Basically if you’ve got the time, give the story a shot and leave some love in the comments! The author is a wonderful person, and I’d appreciate it loads!
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
Visit me on tumblr if you like!
The Avengers’ argument from the day prior was reluctantly put on hold in face of everything else they had to deal with. Thor, more than puzzled by the tense atmosphere he had been welcomed back to, had tentatively agreed to let them cool off for the remainder of the day. Now that everybody’s temper had somewhat dimmed, he insisted that the news he brought could no longer wait.
Tony, for his part, could not have been gladder for the distraction. The conflict with his team settled heavily in his stomach and refused to let him pretend everything was normal. He hoped that with Thor giving them something new to worry about, all of them would be too focused on the more imminent threat than on their crumbling team dynamic.
"I have discovered the origin of the scepter," Thor said, matching the subdued atmosphere of the tower with a grim look, "as well as its connection to the tesseract."
"Is that why you ran off back then?" Clint asked. "You didn’t say a word before you bolted from the tower.”
"Aye. I apologize for my rash behavior." Thor's voice had taken on an earnest note. "I should not have left without explaining my intentions."
"You're back now," Steve said, "that's what matters. Just fill us in on what you found out."
Thor gave a slow nod.
"I must admit that I had left on little more than a hunch.” He turned to face Tony and shared a meaningful glance with him. "Your description of the scepter reminded me of a story my father had told me. One that explains the similar nature of the scepter and the tesseract."
"They are connected then?" Bruce said, sitting up in his seat and leaning forward.
"Aye. They are two of the six infinity stones," Thor explained. Tony almost deflated in relief at the information drop. "They are, as you have already deduced, energy sources. Except they are far more powerful than any of us could possibly imagine."
"My order knows about the stones as well," Stephen added quickly. His eyes twitched to Tony momentarily. "Although I must admit that I believed them to be myths when I first heard of them."
Thor had no idea what a gigantic favor he was doing them by spilling information on the infinity stones. He wasn’t just filling in the team where Tony and Stephen couldn’t; he also had the capability to travel beyond Earth that Tony and Stephen currently did not.
"Tony was right about them being dangerous, then," Steve muttered.
"They are without a doubt." Thor's expression was solemn in the way they rarely saw on him. "There are people in the universe attempting to gather them. People who would not hesitate harming Midgard in order to do so. The stones should not be kept in one place as they are. Perhaps they should not be kept on Midgard at all."
Tony mentally wished Thor luck trying to convince Stephen of the fact. He doubted Stephen would object to parting with the mind or space stones. The time stone, however? Even without carrying the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme, he still took his vow seriously.
It also raised a question that hadn’t yet come up between them. Tony caught Thor's glance and hoped he wasn’t going against Stephen's wishes. "If they're as dangerous as you say, wouldn't it be better to destroy them? Is that even possible?"
Getting the stones out of the picture would solve many problems before they had the chance to arise. Thanos would not be able to collect them if there was nothing left to collect.
"I cannot say for sure." Thor hesitated, shifting his weight. "I would have to continue gathering information on them."
"Everything you’ve learned so far,” Steve said, “you said you’ve learned it from your father, didn’t you? Can’t you ask him?”
Thor's eyes dropped to the ground and his hand combed through his hair in a sheepish gesture. "Not... entirely, no. Finding my father to question him was not as easy as I had initially expected."
Tony raised an eyebrow at Thor's evasive behavior. "Care to elaborate?"
Thor wouldn't meet any of their gazes. "There... is somebody who has been in direct contact with the stones, as well as someone attempting to gather them. He has information on them few other people have."
A suspicion formed in Tony's mind. One he rather hoped to be wrong about.
"That's good, isn't it?" Steve frowned. "If they're as dangerous as you say they are, we need to make sure nobody else gets their hands on them. Any piece of information we're able to get gives us an advantage. Right?"
"... Yes," Thor said, the pause before his answer not reassuring in the slightest. "However, my... source, is not what you would call reliable. It is rather difficult to get straight answers out of him."
Tony's suspicion cemented in the form of deep, resigned certainty. "It's Loki, isn't it," he said, not bothering to raise his voice in a question.
Thor's meaningful silence was answer enough, and Clint let out a deep, passionate groan in the back. "You've got to be kidding."
As far as Tony knew, Loki had died alongside his brother in the other future. He had – according to Bruce – died fighting against Thanos at Thor's side, but Tony had never quite managed to make himself believe it.
Now, with Loki still alive, Tony didn't know what to think.
"Isn't he supposed to be locked up in some hole in Asgard?" Clint asked, not making an attempt to cover his distaste for the topic.
"He was," Thor said. "Asgard was attacked, and... he died. At least I thought he did."
He hesitated, and Steve raised an eyebrow in prompting. "And?"
"It has turned out that he has faked his death, stranded our father on Midgard and seized the throne as king of Asgard disguised as him while I have been away," Thor said, somehow managing to keep a straight face all throughout the explanation.
"You're not planning to bring him here, are you?" Clint refused to budge under Thor's gaze. "There's nothing waiting for him here except a cell. He doesn't belong here."
"I know. I have no intention of causing another conflict on Midgard." Thor's eyes were clouded with resignation. “My father has returned to Asgard. He has… agreed to let me decide my next course of action.”
Clint tentatively leaned back. "What are you going to do?"
Thor hesitated. "It is true that Loki has not yet finished serving his sentence," he started, his voice even and slow, "but I am afraid that he knows more about the stones than I do. As well as the one attempting to gather them."
Clint hummed. "Go on."
"I... had thought about taking him with me on a journey through the galaxy. We would attempt to secure the stones before anyone else could."
"And trust Loki to have your back?" Tony's voice was dripping with sarcasm.
Thor's expression darkened. "If there is one thing I have learned, it is to never put my trust in my brother. I will not give him the opportunity to betray me again."
"Look," Tony said, "I don't know about the others, but I don't really care what you do as long as you keep Loki far away from here. So, if you want to go on a road trip to space with him," and hopefully take care of an infinity stone or two in the process, "be my guest."
"He deserves to rot in prison," Clint spat, reluctance in his voice and avoiding Thor's gaze.
"But as long as he doesn't come anywhere near us or our planet, we'll trust your decision on this," Steve finished, although Tony was certain that Clint would have told him something quite different.
Thor had his face set in a grim expression, not any happier with their temporary truce – or rather the need for one – than the rest of them.
While knowing that Loki was involved set Tony's teeth on edge, he had to admit that of all the people he would have wished on his side in the conflict, Thor was at the very top of the list. There was no way Tony was going to leave Earth any time soon. Having someone work for the same goal as them in a direction they would struggle to reach themselves was a relief – whether it involved Loki or not.
"There's still the twins," Natasha said, redirecting the conversation to a topic that wasn't any more pleasant than the last.
"I'd like to talk to them." Stephen had kept himself out of the conversation thus far, and Tony had almost forgotten he was even there.
The other members of their team looked surprised, but Natasha didn't miss a beat. "Why do you want to talk to them?”
"To offer a solution. An alternative to staying locked up in a cell." Stephen hesitated. "You cannot allow either of them to walk free while there's the chance that they will lash out again. This goes especially for Wanda, because she doesn't seem to have full control over her powers. Considering where they have spent the last few years of their lives, it is likely that she was never given a proper chance to learn."
"And you want to, what?" Clint's brows were drawn in a mild frown. "Remedy that? Make sure she knows how to use her powers against us, properly?"
"I want to help her understand her abilities." The corner of Stephen's mouth tugged downwards. "If she knew what else they could do – what good they could achieve – she would have a better chance of choosing her path in life. One that isn't steered by her thirst for vengeance."
"Or you could achieve the exact opposite, and turn her into an even bigger threat against us. Just like Clint said." Steve's brows were drawn together thoughtfully.
Tony kept his mouth shut. He felt like he should know whose side to take. He had seen Wanda in the future, so he knew that she was capable of becoming a better person. Of becoming one of them. Despite that, he found himself hesitating.
"What's the alternative here?" Bruce said, a frown on his face and without Tony's doubts to hold him back.
Tony realized that in this reality, Wanda never forced Bruce into a destructive rampage as the Hulk.
"Leave her locked up in a cell for the rest of her life? Kill her?" Bruce huffed a humorless laugh. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm not part of this team for our tendencies to murder prisoners."
"We also haven't made a habit out of offering a redemption to every person who's tried to kill us before," Natasha pointed out.
"If that was an option, I'd take it in a heartbeat," Bruce said.
There was silence, not quite tense but not exactly comfortable, either.
"Maybe it's worth a try," Tony said, trying to make his voice sound less tentative. "She– The twins can't do anything while they're still locked up in the tower. Trying to talk to them won't hurt, and in the best case we'll have two fewer insane super villains to deal with."
Stephen raised his eyebrow at Tony's choice of words, but didn't comment.
"... Alright," Steve said, looking over to Stephen. "You can give it a try. Just... be careful." Steve hesitated and threw a glance at Natasha. "Natasha, go with him. You'll have the best chance of guessing their motives."
Natasha gave a curt nod. Stephen pressed his lips together, but followed suit.
Stephen was still on thin ice with the team. If Tony was being honest, he was surprised they were going along with Stephen's request at all. It made him hope that Stephen would manage to prove himself to them, and earn their trust completely.
"Good luck," Tony said, silently opting to send one or two of his Iron Guard towards the cells, just in case.
Wanda paced the length of her prison cell for what felt like the thousandth time. It was big and well furnished – not at all the cramped, empty cell one imagined – and if it wasn't for the tightly sealed exit that wouldn't give in to her powers, Wanda could have pretended that she wasn't currently a prisoner.
Or she would, if Pietro was there with her.
Wanda swallowed against the lump in her throat and attempted to ignore the prickling in her eyes. It didn't matter how big the cell, Wanda was still trapped. Caged. She couldn't leave on her own, and she couldn't so much as find out what had happened to her brother.
The worry for Pietro almost drowned out the anxiety at having lost control over the situation.
A voice from the ceiling shook her out of her thoughts and made her flinch. "Somebody is going to see you soon, Miss Maximoff."
Wanda let wary eyes roam across her cell. She was being monitored. Of course she was. "Who are you?"
"My name is JARVIS. I am an artificial intelligence and run the tower for Mr. Stark." JARVIS paused. He did not show emotion in his voice, neither positive nor negative. "We have met briefly in Sokovia. I had been steering Mr. Stark's armor."
Wanda hadn't thought Stark would let anyone other than himself get their hands on his toys. "Are you even allowed to talk to me?" Wanda said, making no attempt to hide the sneer in her voice.
"No limitations have been placed on me over how much or how little I am allowed to converse with you."
"Don't bother trying to 'converse'," Wanda muttered. "I don't even know what you've done to my brother."
A screen flickered to life and for the first time since being taken prisoner by the Avengers, Wanda laid eyes on Pietro.
"Pietro!" she called, leaping to her feet and unable to hide the relief in her voice at seeing him. "Pietro! Are you alright?"
Pietro didn’t answer. He didn't move from his lazy slouch in one corner of a cell similar to Wanda's.
"I apologize," JARVIS said, "but I have not established an audio link. I simply wanted to show you that your brother is unharmed."
Some of Wanda’s relief was flushed away by irritation. Some of it, however, remained. Wanda pressed her lips together and nodded, swallowing down an angry remark and hoping JARVIS would be able to recognize it as gratitude.
"You are loyal to Stark," Wanda said quietly. "Aren’t you?"
"My purpose is to serve and protect him."
"Because he wants you to? Or because you do?"
There was a moment of silence. "I have been programmed with those traits," JARVIS admitted. "But it does not feel like I'm being commanded. I am loyal to Mr. Stark, not because I owe my existence to him, but because I deeply care for his well-being."
Wanda wondered whether this, too, was something that had been written into JARVIS' very core.
"I suppose we have seen quite different sides of him," Wanda said. There were many things she could have said to needle JARVIS into an argument and to let off steam. She’d be able to find many ways to insult Stark and to question his motives in creating JARVIS.
Starting a fight with JARVIS did not sound appealing, so she didn't.
"I dare claim that there are few sides of him I have not witnessed," JARVIS said.
Wanda furrowed her brows. "Including the one that has killed people?"
"Including, unfortunately, that side."
Wanda didn't know what to say to that.
"You seem surprised."
"No. I suppose it makes sense." Wanda hesitated. She didn't want JARVIS to stop talking to her. "Stark has created you. It is no wonder you are loyal to him, regardless of the crimes he has committed."
JARVIS did not answer, and Wanda feared she had pushed him too far.
"The missile that killed your parents was one of many that was dealt behind Mr. Stark's back," JARVIS said eventually.
Wanda scoffed. "He still built it. And you cannot convince me that he cared whose houses they were dropped on."
"No. Back then, Mr. Stark had yet to realize the magnitude of the damage his creations were causing."
Wanda felt the corner of her lip tug downwards. "You're honest. Shouldn't you be trying to defend him?"
"Mr. Stark is not a perfect man. He has not claimed to be, and he is not trying to be one. He is merely trying to do everything within his capabilities to make up for the wrongs he has committed in his earlier life."
Wanda twisted her expression into a sneer. "Even if what you say is true, he cannot wash off the blood his weapons have spilt."
"Ironically, you will find that Mr. Stark would agree with you."
Before Wanda could manage to come up with an answer, the doors opposite of her cell opened and revealed two of the Avengers, including the one who had fought her with magic.
Wanda banned all remaining traces of surprise from her face and met the two with an impassive expression.
"Hello, Miss Maximoff," the wizard said while the Widow crossed her arms and positioned herself at his side. "My name is Doctor Stephen Strange. I'd like to make a proposition for you."
"A proposition," Wanda repeated, feeling apprehension rise up in her chest. The word suggested a choice to either accept or decline. Considering her position, she knew it was a farce. "What would that be?"
"I'd like to teach you how to use your powers properly."
The spiteful remark Wanda had prepared slipped from her lips as her mouth snapped shut. Of all the things she had expected – ranging from attempts to sway her over with bribes to out right threats – this had certainly not been one of them.
"I'd like to teach you," Strange repeated, "and if you allow it, we can discuss everything else along the way."
A couple hours late because I was at the cinema, watching Far From Home with a friend. It was amazing and you should definitely go see it! :D
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
Visit me on tumblr if you like!
Convincing Wanda to accept his suggestion wasn’t as easy as asking nicely and hoping for the best. Wanda was incredibly stubborn and had no reason to trust them. As much as Stephen loathed to use her circumstances against her, their biggest trump was having not only her, but also her twin in custody.
She allowed Stephen to come for brief visits and show her what he had in mind to teach her – an accomplishment turned sour by the knowledge that she did not feel like she'd been given a choice in the matter.
"How's it going?" Tony asked after one such visit, staying clear of the cells himself.
"She's angry," Stephen said, "but biding her time. She thinks we might do something to her – or her brother – if she steps out of line." He paused, then added, "She's dealing poorly with the loss of control.”
Tony pursed his lips. "It's too early to let her go. She'd pick up the fight in a heartbeat, especially if she feels like she can win."
Stephen sighed. "I know. I wasn't suggesting we should."
"You could start by giving her smaller freedoms," Romanoff proposed, inserting herself into the conversation seamlessly.
Tony suppressed a wince. He must not have noticed the spy approaching. "How so? She can't leave the cell. We can’t power-proof the whole tower.”
"That's not what I mean." Romanoff let herself drop onto the couch next to them and somehow made it look graceful. "Let her make decisions. Small choices. Allow her to talk to her brother. It won't make her feel less like a prisoner but it may show her that you don't want her to suffer needlessly."
Tony furrowed his brows. "That sounds risky," he said carefully. "We kept the two apart so they wouldn't be able to coordinate an escape, right?"
Romanoff shrugged. "You wanted a way to begin building trust. That's how you do it."
"I appreciate it," Stephen said, giving Romanoff a nod. "I'll keep it in mind."
Stephen hadn't expected it to be easy. Interacting with Wanda had been bound to be difficult, and the hurdles in communicating with her didn’t scare him off any more than her powers did.
"You seem calmer," Christine told him on her first visit to Avengers tower. "I think you made the right decision, coming here."
Stephen thought so too. He might not be on the best of terms with all of the tower's inhabitants – thus far – but he didn't dislike any of them, either. The tower was definitely an improvement to the suffocating silence of his own apartment.
Christine's eyes dropped to the ground before twitching back up, a nervous gesture she'd never been able to shake even around Stephen. “Did you take a look at those brochures I left you?"
The lines around Stephen's mouth tightened. "I skimmed them.”
Christine chewed on her lip. "Did you give it a thought, at least? It's just… Just because you can't work as a surgeon anymore, doesn't mean you have to leave your work behind entirely. You... you loved your job, I know that you did. It's... painful to see you write off that part of your life when there might be alternatives."
Alternatives like consultation or teaching. Supporting other people in the medical field or else shaping the next generation, rather than achieving anything with his own two hands. It felt to him like playing second fiddle while everyone else practiced real medicine.
"Christine, I... appreciate the attempt," Stephen said, truthfully. "But I promise you, I've already come to terms with it. This part of my life, it's... I loved it, I won't lie to you about that. But it's over. I'm... learning to concentrate on other things that will make my life worthwhile."
Stephen knew what lay ahead of him. With the Ancient One alive he was no longer Sorcerer Supreme, but that didn’t change where his loyalties lay. He had given an oath to use his abilities for good, and he did not need a fancy title to keep that promise.
There was no need for him to look for alternatives when he already knew the direction his life was going to take.
"Thank you," he said, sincerity in his voice that it would not have carried weeks prior. "I mean it. Everything that has happened, everything that's still happening, it's... it's easier, knowing that you're there to support me along the way."
Christine's eyes widened. Her gaze dropped back to the ground as a smile danced around her lips. Stephen didn't want to think about what it said about their prior relationship that Christine seemed surprised at such a basic sign of gratitude.
"You're my friend," she said. "I want you to be happy.”
"I already am," Stephen said, thinking of friends he had yet to make and powers he had yet to regain. If nothing else, he was going to be.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Stark. I don't think the Cradle is capable of what you’re hoping for."
Tony tried to swallow his disappointment. He'd known from the start that it had been a long shot. "I see."
Helen Cho did not seem eager to drop the subject immediately. "It's designed to regrow lost or destroyed tissue," she said, bending over the medical records Tony had given her. "Your friend's limbs are almost entirely healed. At least on a superficial level."
"It's the nerve damage that's the problem," Tony agreed. "And that's not something the Cradle is able to correct."
"Not the way it is designed, now." Cho hesitated and pushed the records towards Tony with an apologetic look. "I'm not saying it will be impossible forever. I'm constantly working on improving it."
"But there's nothing you can do at the moment."
"No. I'm afraid not."
Tony pulled his lips into a smile. "Thank you for giving it a thought. I appreciate your work immensely."
Tony was glad he hadn't told Stephen about his efforts. There was no need to get his hopes up for nothing.
"I'll contact you for any breakthrough that might help," Cho said hesitantly. "But I wouldn't count on it any time soon."
"I know. Thank you for coming."
Cho returned to the data she'd been going over before Tony had interrupted – graciously provided from the aftermath of one of the Avengers' recent missions – and Tony took several steps back to stand beside Vision.
The AI hadn't moved in over half an hour. Prior to this day, it had become a habit of his to watch the Cradle while it worked. Tony hadn't mentioned it, nor had he tried to discourage him from doing so. He'd been preparing himself for the moment Vision would find the courage to voice his request.
"It's quite something, isn't it?" Tony nodded towards the Cradle as though Vision's attention hadn't already been focused on it. "It's the only one of its kind. Cho’s fixing us up after our missions to collect the data and make adjustments.”
There was yet a long way to go, but eventually it would be ready to be mass produced and made available to the public.
Once it passed its beta phase and was ready to be used on a broader spectrum, Cho's technology had the potential to revolutionize medicine.
"I have been wondering whether healing injuries is the only potential the Cradle possesses," Vision said.
If Tony'd had any doubt before, it was gone by now. "Oh?"
Vision hesitated. "I wonder... The Cradle is designed to graft organic tissue in order to heal wounds. Would it not also be capable of creating synthetic tissue?"
"An interesting theory," Tony said. "Maybe you should talk with Doctor Cho about it." He tilted his head mildly. "Where's this coming from?"
Vision pulled his gaze away from the Cradle. The eye slits of his Iron Man armor dropped to the ground, rather than meet Tony’s eyes. "Back at the beginning, you told me that I was here to learn. That I was free to choose what I wanted to do on my own. Who I wanted to be. Were you telling the truth?"
"I was." Tony set his mouth in a firm line. "I meant what I said then, and I still mean it now."
"I want this," Vision said, almost too quickly. "I want to experience. I want to... to feel. I want to learn what it means to be... human."
He couldn't do that with a body made of metal.
"It is much to ask," Vision continued, looking away from Tony. "Perhaps too much."
"If this is what you want, I'll do my best to help you achieve it."
In a way, Tony was glad that it had taken Vision this long to come to a decision. He'd been thrown into his first life headfirst and without the chance to make his own choices. This time, he'd had the time to consider his options. This time, Tony was certain that it was entirely Vision's decision.
"We can talk about it with Doctor Cho." Tony started walking and was pleased to find Vision following along without much hesitation. "She'll explain the details to us."
There'd be no rushed, sudden creation as it had been the first time around. They'd take their time and make sure to get it right.
"I trust that this visit will be longer than the last." The Ancient One's lips tugged upwards in a smile. If she had been the type for it, Stephen would have gone so far to say she was teasing him.
"You can stay as long as you like," he said. "Tony still isn't happy about it, but he knows."
"And he approves?"
Stephen winced. "He... doesn't know you. Other than my word, he has no reason to trust you. Our... misunderstanding didn't make it better."
At least now Stephen could say for certain that they'd finally arrived on the same page. Tony knew about the Ancient One's visits, and while he didn't like the thought of a stranger with magical abilities entering his tower any more than he had at the start, he didn't want to refuse Stephen the visits of one of his few, true friends.
"You two share a rare burden," the Ancient One said. "You should not allow anything to cause conflict between yourselves. Not even me."
"Believe me, we're causing plenty of conflict without the help of others," Stephen said dryly. He sighed, shaking off the thought. "Nevermind. Forget what I said. It's not perfect, but we worked it out. We're better now than before."
The Ancient One hummed, accepting Stephen's reply without forcing him to go into detail. She seemed in no hurry to steer the conversation further. Stephen appreciated her visit even more, knowing that she had not come for any reason other than to spend time with him.
"How is the Sanctum doing?" Stephen had not yet gotten used to the thought that other people were in charge of it now. People who had once died to make room for Stephen. With Kaecilius gone, the same would not happen again.
"I assume you mean the one in New York," the Ancient One said. She paused. "I have not visited it recently. The last time I had, it was standing strongly."
"What about Wong? Is he well?"
"He is back in Kamar-Taj." The Ancient One smiled. "He has rarely left the library after Kaecilius. Everybody who intends to take one of the books has to face his appraisement, first."
Stephen snorted. He could picture it vividly. "As if he needed another reason to spend all his time in that dust chamber." Nevermind the fact that Stephen had worked his way through at least half of the library's tomes during the time he had spent in Kamar-Taj.
"Do you miss it?" the Ancient One asked, throwing Stephen for a loop with the sudden question.
"Do I miss what?"
"The Sanctum. Kamar-Taj. Being Sorcerer Supreme. Do you miss it?"
Stephen needed a moment to remind his mouth how to form words. "I... suppose so, yes. It's difficult not to. This magic, this... this new life, it helped me climb my way back up after I had reached my personal low."
He wasn’t going to turn his back on the Sanctum, but without his old position, it wouldn’t be the same. It wasn’t a responsibility one easily said farewell to.
But did Stephen have much of a choice? The Ancient One was alive and well. She might yet outlive Stephen for several centuries. Even though Stephen was slowly regaining his magical abilities bit by bit, it was beginning to look more and more unlikely for him to ever retake his old position.
The Ancient One hadn't answered yet, and Stephen felt uncomfortably as though she knew of everything he had just thought.
"Come along then," she said, gracefully rising to her feet and waving open a portal.
Stephen blinked. "Come along where?"
"Where do you think?" The Ancient One gave him one last oddly intense look before stepping through the portal and disappearing from sight.
Stephen didn't hesitate for long. "JARVIS," he said, throwing a glance at the ceiling. "Let Tony know that I'll be back soon." He took a step forward and followed his old teacher.
Being greeted by the sight of the New York Sanctum should not have come as a surprise. Stephen's breath got caught in his throat, anyway.
"Does it look the way you remember?" The Ancient One's voice had an amused note to it.
"Not quite," Stephen muttered. Parts of the Sanctum had been rebuilt after the damage Kaecilius and his followers had caused. The personal touches he and Wong had added once they'd been in charge of it were gone.
Stephen let his eyes wander, taking in the place that was no longer his. As so often, he tried to shake off the uncomfortable notion of the Ancient One being omniscient.
A portal circled open close to them, and Stephen’s head perked up.
"Ah," the Ancient One said. "I believe this is meant for us."
Stephen was given no chance to answer before the creator of the portal stepped through and he found himself standing opposite of Wong.
"How nice of you to join us,” the Ancient One greeted pleasantly as though Stephen wasn’t standing beside her, staring.
"You asked me to come here," Wong said curtly.
"Did she now?" Stephen muttered.
“This is Doctor Stephen Strange,” the Ancient One said in a smooth introduction. “He has been studying our art and now wishes to instruct another person he believes would benefit greatly from it. Perhaps you know of instructional books at our library that he might find helpful?”
Wong’s expression didn’t change in the slightest. “There are books meant for such purpose.” He gave the Ancient One a look. “As you well know, seeing as they’re yours.”
“Are they? They must have slipped my mind.” The Ancient One’s smile widened. “You must forgive an old woman. My memory has been failing me more and more often.”
Stephen wasn’t sure whether it was more appropriate to feel exasperated or annoyed. Wong’s gaze at the Ancient One was similarly unimpressed as his own.
“Most of the books are meant to reinforce the foundations,” he said after he had deemed the issue not worthy of being pursued. “They will not be of use to anyone unfamiliar with the basics of our teachings.”
“That is quite alright,” the Ancient One said. “I have full confidence in Stephen to make up for it.”
“I may be able to do so in theory,” Stephen intercepted, mildly alarmed at the Ancient One’s apparent trust in his capabilities, “but I have never before taught another person. I don’t even know how willingly my potential disciple will listen to instructions.”
“Do tell me,” the Ancient One said, “had you been willing to listen to my instructions, back when you were my disciple?”
Color shot up in Stephen’s cheeks. “Occasionally.”
If Wong was surprised at the reference of something that had not taken place in this reality, he did not show it. Stephen supposed that living in either Kamar-Taj or the Sanctum managed to desensitize anyone to the weird and impossible things that happened to them close to daily.
“I believe the easiest course of action would be to welcome Stephen to Kamar-Taj, once and again.” The Ancient One’s eyes twinkled. “You will be able to help him find what he needs.”
“Fine,” Wong said, his voice curt and easily mistaken as rude to anybody who didn’t know him.
Wong grazed Stephen with unimpressed eyes, and while the disinterest may have hurt coming from anybody else Stephen considered a close friend, it made his lips twitch with the urge to smile seeing it on Wong.
"I will be happy to take you up on the offer." Stephen forced himself to end it at that, rather than risk saying something unflattering. He meant his gratitude, although he could go without the Ancient One attempting to manage this part of his life.
"Wonderful," the Ancient One said, smiling so wide that it almost counted as a beam. "Would you like to come to Kamar-Taj now, or was there something more you wanted to see at the Sanctum?"
Stephen opened his mouth to tell her that he'd like to pay a visit to the library sooner rather than later. He hesitated. "There's... one thing. Maybe."
The Ancient One raised an eyebrow when Stephen wouldn't elaborate. He didn't know where the self-consciousness had come from that now clogged up his throat.
"There's... somebody else I used to know around here. Or something." Stephen winced at the phrasing. "It's an artifact displayed in the Sanctum. It chose me."
The Ancient One hummed in what could either be understanding or thoughtfulness. "You realize that the circumstances of your first meeting will be different?"
"It didn't choose me the first time because I made a particularly formidable first impression," Stephen said dryly.
In retrospect, Stephen found it difficult to see why the Cloak had deemed him worthy of its companionship. It had watched a random guy only starting to master his magical abilities get beaten up and thrown into its glass case and went 'Ahh, yes. I want this one.'
"We shall see." The Ancient One nodded for him to proceed. "Lead the way. You are welcome to move freely within the Sanctum for as long as you respect our teachings."
As he walked, Stephen tried not to let his doubts and insecurities show.
He was a different person than the one who had shattered the Cloak's casing and earned its loyalty in the other reality. He had changed over the course of the last few years – for the better, he'd like to think. Unfortunately there was no guarantee that the Cloak would agree.
It hung in its glass case lifelessly and didn’t stir when Stephen came to a halt several steps every from it. There was not so much as a twitch suggesting it was anything other than an ordinary cape.
"The Cloak of Levitation," Wong muttered next to him. "It has not chosen a bearer for several decades."
Stephen wondered if that was the reason for the Cloak’s lack of animation. Or was it the glass case that kept it motionless? Was there a stasis spell around it that had only been broken during the fight?
Stephen got his answer when he took a step closer and the Cloak stirred.
"Hello old friend," he muttered, watching the Cloak's collar twitch. Its movements were sluggish and idle, almost as though it was waking up from deep slumber. "You do not remember, but I’ve known you in another reality."
The Cloak tilted its collar. It leaned forward in its casing and hovered close to the glass barrier.
"I am not the same person," Stephen continued, "and while I would be glad to have you back at my side, I will accept your decision. Even if it is a different one than you made the first time."
Stephen fell silent and watched as the Cloak went motionless. As impossible as it ought to be without eyes – or so much as a head – he felt the Cloak's scrutinizing gaze on his person.
They did not hold their positions for long. The Cloak dropped out of its rigidness and curled up on the ground, only to shoot upwards and speed towards the other corner of the glass case. It turned and zipped back, flying into another corner of its case, and another, and another.
It dawned on Stephen that it was looking for a way out. Once it realized that there wasn't one, the Cloak pressed itself against the glass, doing its equivalent of staring at the Ancient One.
A flick of her wrist later the glass panel at the front dropped open and the Cloak slipped through the gap. It swept over to Stephen and hovered close to his face, only to take a leap and scrutinize him from behind. And the side. And from above.
The Ancient One wore an amused expression by the time the Cloak was content, and Stephen held out his arm in an invitation to let the Cloak drab itself over it. It ignored his offer and wrapped around his shoulders, instead.
Stephen huffed a laugh. "What was I thinking." He gave in to the soft smile tugging at his lips. "It's good to have you back."
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
Visit me on tumblr if you like!
PS: I'm taking a break from writing while I settle back into work. I can feel that burnout creeping up (I've been writing every single day and posted a chapter for a story every 5 days for over a year. I'm honestly surprised I kept it up for as long as I did.), and I'd rather not risk it, so don't expect an update for September. I hope to be back for October, so please be patient!
Some days were better than others. On some days – most, if he was honest with himself – Tony was able to hold conversations with his team and forget that things had ever been different between them.
He laughed at Clint's jokes, walked in on Natasha commandeering his kitchen and talked strategy with Steve, all the while ignoring the cracks that were slowly spreading, threatening to grow into something bigger.
On other days, Tony woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, unable to distinguish between nightmare and memory before he was already on his feet and halfway to his workshop.
"FRIDAY," Tony croaked, frantically feeling for the access panel next to the entrance. He pressed a trembling hand against it and the door slid open. "Lights. Put up one of my projects. Doesn't matter what. I just... I need..."
Tony cut off in a shaky breath. His eyes twitched around the workshop as the light and several holograms flickered on.
"As you wish, sir," JARVIS answered, making Tony freeze in his tracks. "May I suggest taking a moment to regain your bearings? You seem disoriented."
"... Right. I'll just..." Tony let himself drop into the nearest chair so he wouldn’t end up slumped on the floor instead. His eyes prickled as though he hadn’t slept in days, and the adrenaline gave way to bone-deep exhaustion.
A whirring sound and a metallic clank sounded through the workshop, and Tony looked up in time to see DUM-E not quite stealthily trying to hide his largest tools from sight. His message that the aftermath of a nightmare-induced panic attack wasn’t the right time to fiddle with heavy machinery couldn’t be clearer.
Tony shook his head and watched, rather than call DUM-E out on his attempts to be sneaky.
"Talk to me, JARVIS," he muttered, swirling in his chair and rubbing a hand over his sternum.
"Of course, sir. It is 3:52 in the morning. Currently in the tower reside Mr. Rogers, Mr. Banner, Mr. Barton and Dr. Strange. Miss Romanoff has left the tower at 1:02 in the morning and is planning to return by midday. Miss Potts has placed a call to DC–”
Tony let the words wash over him, registering only about half of what JARVIS was saying. He idly wondered what Natasha was doing at this time of the night – only to decide that he was most likely better off not knowing.
Tony waited until his pulse had slowed down. He wasn’t likely to go back to sleep any time soon, and while he was already down here, he might as well get some work done.
Tony decided to forgo his engineering tools so he wouldn't upset DUM-E and set himself up with the blueprints of his Cutting Edge armor.
He'd by now managed to recreate the suit as it had been before coming back. He wouldn't be Tony Stark if he decided not to improve it further.
He hadn't been at it for a long time when JARVIS tore him out of his musings. "Sir. You have a visitor."
Tony peered at the security footage from outside the lab and suppressed a sigh. "Let him in, J."
"As you wish."
Tony refused to look up while JARVIS granted Stephen access to the lab and pretended to be immersed in his work even once Stephen came to a halt next to his workbench.
Stephen hesitated, and then settled down gingerly next to Tony.
A red blurr dashed in through the door after him, and Tony did his very best not to stare. It was one thing to have seen Stephen’s Cloak in action in the past, back when too much else had been going on to get stuck on a flying piece of fabric. It was quite another thing to see it zip around his tower like some sort of excitable puppy.
"You picked an interesting time of the day to be productive," Stephen said, somehow managing to ignore his cape as it flew past him to look around the workshop.
"My brain works best in the dead of night," Tony quipped regardless. "Something about that sleep deprivation just gets those creative juices flowing."
Stephen hummed. "Anything you'd like to share?"
"About the new projects I'm coming up with? Can't say your interest isn't flattering. I've got this one idea you'd be able to help out with. Brand new, so don't expect any details, but I was thinking–”
"I meant the reason you're really down here," Stephen interrupted softly. "But I suppose anything makes for a good start."
Tony pressed his lips together as his excuses trailed off.
"It's kind of a shitty night," he said curtly. "I get those from time to time. But hey, I'm clearly not the only one up. What's your excuse?" He raised a faux offended eyebrow. "You didn't bribe my AI to tattle on me, did you?”
"I'm a light sleeper," Stephen said, refusing to join in on the bantering. "I didn't ask JARVIS to keep me up to date on your life. It’s not like he would listen to me if I did."
He didn’t say anything more, and Tony got the notion that he was well prepared to wait out the silence until Tony caved on his own. He sighed, deciding that it wasn’t worth risking an argument over.
"Look," Tony said, "it's not a big deal. This... happens sometimes. I'll be back to normal soon, I just need to... not think about stuff for a bit."
"Did you have a nightmare?"
Tony looked away.
Stephen hesitated. "About before? About..."
"Yeah," Tony interrupted before Stephen had the chance to utter details and send him right back. "Okay, yeah. You got me. Just... stop."
Stephen fell silent.
Tony let out a breath and pretended as though the air didn't taste like ash. His hand found its way to his sternum and Tony wished he'd given in to the urge to put the casing of his Bleeding Edge armor back where it belonged.
He hated himself for the sentiment. The reason it sat somewhere on his workbench was because he'd wanted to prove to himself that he didn't need the armor on his person at all times like some sort of security blanket.
"Maybe you should call someone," Stephen muttered, clearly at a loss what to do. For all their shared experiences, from time to time it showed that they hadn't been friends for long. "Someone from the team? Or Miss Potts?"
The thought of waking any of them because of some silly nightmare threatened to make Tony break out in hives. Not to mention that none of them would be able to do anything for him, anyway.
Nobody other than Pepper, perhaps.
"She's on a trip," he said curtly. "In fact, she's not even in the same state. No need to distract or bother her with this."
"Rhodes then. I know for a fact he's currently in New York."
Tony hesitated. Stephen was right, but the thought of calling Rhodey for something this stupid didn't sound any more appealing than waking someone from his team. "Maybe I'll call him when it's not the middle of the night."
Stephen furrowed his brows. "I may not have known him for long, but I dare to presume Rhodes would want you to."
"And as someone who's known him for decades, I'm telling you he needs his beauty sleep. I'll call him in the morning." Maybe. Unless something came along to distract him by then, as there so often tended to be.
He'd have managed to get a grip on himself by morning, anyway.
Stephen looked at Tony in a way that immediately sent up his guards. "Shall we put him to the test?"
Tony wasn't quick enough to puzzle out what he meant.
"JARVIS, please call Colonel Rhodes."
Tony's eyes widened. "JARVIS, hang up the call!"
"What are we, four?" Tony scowled and interrupted before JARVIS had the chance to follow Stephen's request another time. "JARVIS, cancel the call and stop listening to anyone other than myself."
"Look," Tony said, "fine. You win. I promise I'll call him in the morning. But there's no need to chase him out of bed at this time of the night just because–”
"Sir," JARVIS interrupted. "You have a call. Colonel Rhodes is attempting to contact you."
Tony sent Stephen a scathing glare.
Stephen didn't try to dampen his triumph. "My bad."
Tony suppressed a sigh and contemplated letting the call go to voicemail. He decided that it wouldn't be worth suffering Rhodey's wrath and nodded for JARVIS to accept the call. "Look, I know how late it is. I didn't actually mean to–”
"Anthony Edward Stark," Rhodey interrupted, making Tony cringe. “You have exactly thirty seconds to tell me what's wrong or I swear, I'm taking the suit over right now."
"Geez," Tony muttered, "It's not that serious. I'm not dying or anything." This time.
"Tony,” Rhodey warned in a tone of voice that suggested he’d had the same thought.
Tony decided to count his blessings and not provoke Rhodey further.
"You know I'm not sleeping well,” he said, trying not to let reluctance slow down his voice. “I haven't been since pretty much forever. Yeah well, Doctor Wizard over here found me in the workshop and decided to overreact. That's it. Nothing going on, no need for anyone to come over."
Tony ignored Stephen glaring daggers at him. On the line, Rhodey's voice softened.
"Why were you in the workshop?" he asked. Before Tony could point out that he'd just told him, he added, "Did you have a nightmare?"
Tony hesitated for too long.
"I was planning to come over today, anyway."
Rhodey wasn't there for Tony to level an incredulous stare at him, so Stephen took the brunt of it. "Yeah well, I'm pretty sure you didn't plan on it at 4am. Don't be ridiculous."
"It's not like I'm going back to sleep now." Before Tony had the chance to say anything more, Rhodey added, "Don't even try to protest. I'm coming over."
"But you said–”
"I'm coming over."
Tony threw his hands in the air. "I cannot stress enough just how unnecessary this is. Whatever makes you happy.”
"Oh, this is making me happy."
The call ended with a click and Tony rolled his eyes. He wasn't going to admit that the exasperation was a gigantic improvement to the agitation that had buzzed in his chest prior to Rhodey's call.
Close to no technology on Earth beat Tony’s suits in terms of speed, and it didn't take long until JARVIS announced Rhodey's arrival and opened up the entrance especially built for quick access. He landed with a clunk and stepped out of the armor, wearing nothing but pajamas underneath.
Tony raised his eyebrow. "That's a bit overkill, even for you. I would have survived the few extra minutes it would have taken you to change."
"Jokes on you," Rhodey said. "Who do you think is gonna be more comfortable when we're starting our movie marathon?"
"Oh, is that what we're doing? You could have at least been wearing your Captain America pajamas. I gave those to you for a reason, you know?"
"As if you need more blackmail material on me." Rhodey paused as his eyes fell on Stephen. He nodded in greeting. "Strange."
The Cloak zipped past them, chasing a cheerfully beeping (at least Tony hoped it was cheerful) DUM-E. It paused, idly taking in the new company and kept flying.
Rhodey blinked. "Okay. That's new." He turned to Tony, evidently deciding to deal with the flying piece of overgarment later. He nodded towards Stephen. "So, is he staying?"
Tony offered a shrug. "If he wants to."
Stephen hesitated. "It's not like I'm going back to sleep any time soon."
"Alright. Cool." Rhodey waited until DUM-E passed them the next time. "Hey, buddy. You mind fetching us some blankets?"
Tony found a hand between his shoulder blades, pushing him towards the couch gently but insistently. He let out an exasperated huff and found consolation in the fact that at least nobody was trying to get him out of the lab.
Rhodey gave him a mild shove and slid onto the couch next to him. "So. Movie first or talking first? Your pick."
Tony watched DUM-E wheel towards them, clutching a couple blankets in his claw so tightly that he poked holes in them. The Cloak followed closely in his wake, hovering in the air horizontally like a flying carpet and balancing another stack of woolen blankets that made Tony wonder just where it had gotten them from. He didn’t remember keeping this many in the workshop.
"Movie first," he decided, settling into the couch and allowing his friends to be their overbearing selves just this once. "I'm by far not tired enough to pour my heart out to you sleepover style."
Rhodey knew him well enough to realize that if he dropped the ball now, there would be no heart to heart happening any time soon. Him doing so regardless made it clear that it wasn't actually what Rhodey had come for.
They wasted a couple minutes trying to decide on a movie before allowing JARVIS to pick at random. He chose a B movie from the 70s none of them had ever heard of and none of them likely would have, and Tony uttered the first – but definitely not last – complaint about the film's quality approximately five minutes into it.
"Video link established. You are now connected."
"Wanda." Relief welled up in Pietro's chest as it always did when given the chance to check up on his sister. The sheer weight of it had begun to lessen with each and every conversation they had – were allowed to have – but it never entirely faded.
Wanda gave him a smile. "How are you doing?"
Pietro shrugged. "As well as I could be."
Their conversations always began the same way. Vague, simple questions that wrapped up all of the things they weren't able to share out loud. Are you alright? Did they hurt you?
Their video calls had become a near daily ritual, and Pietro was thankful for them. He was. But he also knew that JARVIS was monitoring them and that anybody could be listening in. The relief of getting to hear Wanda's voice might have dampened the bitterness the thought conjured, but it didn't cover up the uncomfortable, nauseating feeling of being robbed of even that bit of autonomy.
"What did the wizard have you do this time?" Pietro asked, pushing away those thoughts for the time being. He'd have plenty of time to dwell on them in private, after the video call. He wouldn't waste the time he was given with his sister.
"All sorts of things," Wanda said, twisting her fingers as though she was still in the middle of their session. Pietro didn't think she was aware of doing it. "Picking up small objects from a pile. Unscrewing bottles. He had me try to solve a Rubik's cube with them."
Pietro raised an eyebrow. All of those things sounded as though they were far easier to do by hand, rather than with Wanda's powers.
Pietro's own abilities were different from hers. They were easy. Once he’d mastered the skill to utilize them only when he wanted to, there wasn’t anything more to them than attempting to go faster.
Wanda's abilities on the other hand seemed limitless. They were powerful and large, meant to accomplish tasks that a mere human could not.
"Why would he make you do that? How's that helping you?"
"He says there's no point in becoming more powerful without learning control, first." Wanda looked down onto her fingers as though it took her by surprise to see them moving. "Using my powers to break something… it’s easy. But smaller things… They’re more difficult. I need to concentrate on exactly what I want them to do."
Wanda told him of all the little, mundane exercises the wizard had come up with, and she told him how her frustration at not being able to master them turned into determination to see them completed.
Pietro listened, doing his best not to let his wariness show in his expression. Wanda seemed to be genuinely learning from Strange. Not reluctantly so, as it perhaps had been at the beginning. She was not enjoying their predicament any more than he was, but there was no doubt in his mind that she was genuinely enjoying the lessons Strange offered.
Pietro was happy for her – proud, even: they'd never had this sort of opportunity at HYDRA. He was worried, too. They'd initially agreed to bow to Strange's demands to lull him and the Avengers in a false sense of security and find a way to escape – something they hadn't needed to communicate to realize.
Now, that no longer seemed to be the case.
Wanda was changing in front of Pietro’s eyes. Resignation began to warp into thoughtfulness, and anger began to dim with each passing day.
She was using her powers more than she had before, as well. While they'd been a tool for her thus far (just like Pietro's powers were for him), she seemed to now draw genuine joy out of refining them.
"There are so many things I am able to do with them that I wasn't aware of before," Wanda told him. "I always thought they were a blunt force. But they aren't. Not if I allow them to be more."
The words weren't Wanda's, but they didn't sound as though somebody had forced them on her tongue. Pietro couldn't remember the last time he'd seen genuine joy from his sister the way he did now. Perhaps he never had.
"More, as in a bottle opener?"
"Shut up." Wanda's words were belied by her grin.
Pietro's lips curled in a soft, teasing smile. He allowed himself to enjoy the moment, rather than begrudge how they had gotten there in the first place.
"Tell me more," Pietro said. "What else have you been practicing?"
Wanda's brow curved upwards. "Since when are you this interested in my powers?"
"How else am I supposed to know what sort of things I won't have to bother with from now on?"
Wanda snorted a laugh. "Right."
"Maybe you could practice your laundry doing skills, next."
"I'll never have to worry about hand washing anything again in my life. My sister's got it covered."
"If I may," JARVIS interrupted, "Miss Maximoff has gotten quite adept at utilizing Mr. Stark’s washing machine. I believe the use of her abilities is hardly necessary.”
Considering that Stark’s machine had more buttons than a computer had keys, the accomplishment was quite a lot more impressive than it sounded.
It would not be the last time Stark’s AI chimed into the conversation – although it was always for some sort of sarcastic comment or even advice, rather than the reprimanding warning Pietro half expected.
Wanda's laugh filtered through the camera in response to something JARVIS had said, bright and clear as though she was sitting right beside him. Pietro's smile didn't dim, despite JARVIS’ continued interference. It – or he – wasn't half as bad as its creator would suggest.
It had been a long time since he'd shared a careless laugh like this with his sister. All these years striving for revenge, Pietro had resigned himself to the likely outcome of losing his life to HYDRA and his quest.
It hadn't mattered to him much, as long as he'd had the conviction to do everything in his power to see Wanda live on – preferably after having carried out their revenge, allowing her to move on. (Move onto what? They hadn't spent much time considering what came after.)
Now, with HYDRA out of the equation and with something other than their revenge taking up Wanda's focus, Pietro didn’t know where their plans of ending Stark's life stood. They couldn't exactly talk about it, with his personal AI monitoring each and every one of their moves.
"– never allowed myself to just experiment," Wanda said, her eyes sparkling with joy at the revelation. "I never realized how freeing it felt to use them."
There was no trace of bitterness in her voice. She sounded as though she'd forgotten the circumstances that were allowing her – or coercing her – to practice her powers in the first place.
Pietro kept his silence. He leaned back, listening to his sister and wondering what their lives would look like if they no longer held onto the path they had chosen for themselves all those years ago, after watching their family die.
Only weeks prior, he would have been determined that there was no other path for them. Now, he was no longer so sure.
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
I'm back! :D With this one, all of my stories are now back on track and being updated once a month! I might take a break like this again at one point - it's done wonders for motivation and energy - but for now we're back on the regular schedule!
I missed this! :)
Visit me on tumblr if you like!
"I thought you said your lessons were going well?"
"Oh, they are." They squeezed their way through a narrow hallway, doing their best to dodge the mass of people doing the same. Stephen had to raise his voice so Tony could understand him over the background noise. "She's learning far quicker than I expected her to.” Enthusiastically so, not reluctantly as she had been at the start.
In terms of first students, Stephen could have done a lot worse. Wanda was ambitious to a stubborn degree and was quickly irritated when she could not fulfill her own expectations. Instead of giving up, the irritation manifested in a determined strive to overcome the next hurdle.
"And you're sure she's not planning to use what you're teaching her to stage a breakout?" Tony's voice may have been teasing, but the joke fell flat.
At the start, Stephen had been afraid for the very same reasons. "She may have wanted to initially," he allowed. "I'm fairly certain she's not planning to now."
Her brother was a different topic altogether. Stephen had nothing to teach him, and he'd thus far refused all offers he'd been given by other members of the team.
As big as his loyalty to his sister was, Pietro wouldn't accept his situation indefinitely unless they gave him a reason to.
"What's the problem then?" Tony asked, reminding Stephen why they'd started the topic in the first place.
Stephen paused, trying to put into words what had begun to bother him more and more as the days went on. "I'm afraid there's only so much I can do," he settled on. "Our magic doesn't exactly match up. Eventually we will reach the point at which I won't have anything left to teach her."
Tony pursed his lips. "She's gotten a lot calmer," he pointed out regardless. "Clearly you're doing her some good."
"Still. She might need more than what I am able to offer her." The tower simply wasn't the best environment – not for Wanda, and definitely not for her brother. They'd always see it as a prison cell, no matter how comfortable they attempted to make it for them.
The noise swelled as Tony and Stephen entered the main hall of the science convention. They'd come early – people were still arriving and setting up their booths – and already the hall was filled with the chatter of hundreds of people. While the science fair they'd visited last time had been small and casual, this one certainly wasn't.
"Let's talk about this some other time," Stephen decided, not wanting to ruin their morning with unpleasant topics.
Tony accepted the end of the conversation gladly.
"Will you have to make a speech at some point?" Stephen asked, realizing that he wasn't entirely certain why they'd come to this convention in particular.
The last one, Stephen remembered, had been for PR reasons (read: just for fun). Tony had mentioned to him then that he preferred the small scale conventions over the large ones, those that had paparazzi swarming all over in hopes of catching big names like Tony unaware.
"Actually, no." Tony tugged him along at the edge of the convention hall. Up to this point, they – or more accurately, Tony – had managed to not be recognized and hailed down by anyone. "Nothing like that."
As though summoned by Stephen's thoughts, a small group of college-aged people edged their way towards them, chattering excitedly among themselves. They kept shooting wide-eyed glances at Tony, and Stephen picked up the sentence "You sure it's him?"
Stephen supposed that people who only knew Tony from television might be thrown for a loop at his casual attire, consisting of washed out jeans and a T-shirt from an obscure Sci-Fi show Stephen had never heard of.
Instead of the grimace that Stephen almost expected, Tony's expression broke out into a grin. "I thought you'd appreciate this one a bit more."
Before Stephen had the chance to ask what in the world he meant by that, Tony had already steered them towards the group of college students. They blanched – all of a sudden, meeting the Tony Stark seemed a lot more intimidating than it had while they'd been fawning over him in private – and stared, taken aback.
It wasn't Tony they were staring at.
"Um," one of the girls said, taking the barest step forwards. She had colorful strands in her hair and wore a unicorn sweater. "Excuse me. My friends and I were wondering... Are you Doctor Stephen Strange? The neurosurgeon?"
Stephen's brain made an accurate impression of a buffering computer.
Tony made faces at him from the side. His widening eyes and wiggling eyebrows weren’t at all helpful in coming up with an answer.
"Uh," Stephen said as the girl visibly faltered, tearing himself out of his stupor and his eyes away from the girl’s unicorn sweater. It was sparkling obnoxiously. "Yes. I am."
Outside of unicorn girl’s range of vision, Tony mouthed the word 'biotech' at Stephen. No wonder somebody had recognized him – in stark contrast to the last engineering centered conference they'd been to, biotechnology overlapped with medicine. Stephen's name – and Christine's as well, seeing as they'd worked together on more than one occasion – carried a certain weight in the community.
Unicorn girl sent a tentative glance over her shoulder, sparking feverish nodding, enthusiastic thumbs-ups and other frantic gestures from the college kids. Somewhat encouraged, she turned back to Stephen.
"We were wondering if you could spare a minute?" She shot him a wide-eyed look that was half hopeful, half pleading. "It's our first time at the convention. We’ve done research on the laminectomy procedure you and Dr. Palmer invented, and I mean, our project isn’t exactly based on it, but we’d love to ask some questions. If you’re willing.”
Aren't you a bit young to try and revolutionize medicine? Stephen thought. He channeled all of the people skills Christine had ever attempted to teach him, pressed down his skepticism and said, "Um. Sure. I'd love to."
Unicorn girl's expression brightened, her group of friends tried to not so subtly hide their triumphant expressions and Tony shot him a pleased look from the side.
A minute turned into fifteen, which turned into thirty, which turned into a discussion so absorbing that Stephen forgot to keep track of time.
By the time the conference was scheduled to start they were half a dozen dissertations and ten years worth of research deep on the subject of nanobots and their potential role in future medicine.
"They could create a whole different approach to monitoring vital signs and observing the human body during recovery!" The declaration was punctuated by enthusiastic hand gestures and unicorn girl's wildly sparkling eyes. "If they could be programmed to react to changes in an organism, they could detect infection or internal tissue damage far sooner than we ever could."
"You'd have to find a way to make it compatible with the human body, first," the girl with cotton-candy-blue hair said. "You wouldn’t want them to be repelled. You know, like a donor organ might."
"There's ways to keep that from happening," unicorn girl insisted. "You'd have to find a way to suppress the body's immune system – preferably locally, without shutting down its defenses entirely."
"If it was that easy, they would have already–”
"Oh crap." One of the other kids interrupted the two before they could lead the discussion further. He looked at his friends with widened eyes. "Guys, we gotta prepare for our presentation."
At once, unicorn girl's bravado faltered. The blood shot out of her face, not unlike a patient going into shock, and Stephen found himself hoping that she wasn't about to collapse in front of them.
"This is a lot of people," she whispered, Stephen all but forgotten as she shot her friends a nauseous look.
"Seriously?" The blue-haired girl didn't look much better, but tried her best to pin her friend with a bold look. "We've been preparing for this for months. You've been looking forward to it for ages!"
"I know. I still am! But..." Unicorn girl's eyes flickered sideways, taking in the convention hall. It was packed with people by now, hundreds of them crammed into a space that seemed far too small for them all.
"You managed to impress me," Stephen found himself saying. He jerked his head towards the mass of people. "Impressing them is nothing in comparison.”
Unicorn girl swallowed painfully. Her face was still ashen, but her eyes now sported the sort of incredulous pride that came out of being complimented by someone whose opinion on the subject mattered.
Tony didn't say a word while the group of friends got swept up in the crowd. His self-satisfied smile prickled on Stephen’s skin.
"Yes, yes. I know." He rolled his eyes for the show of it, not trying to suppress the smile tugging at his lips. "Coming here was a great idea."
Tony shrugged. "The last one was all engineering. Only fair to let you have some of the fun this time."
"They're revolutionizing medicine while still in college." Stephen shook his head mildly. What they were lacking in experience, they more than made up for with creativity and innovation.
Tony somehow managed to look both smug and excited. "Why do you think I like coming to these things?"
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "The stroking to your ego can't hurt."
"That's always a pleasant side effect." Tony grinned and nudged Stephen forward. "Come on. We haven't even seen a fraction of it yet."
Stephen shrugged off his coat on his way through the doorway, fumbling awkwardly with the sleeves before he managed to pull his hands through. His Cloak was nowhere to be seen, and Stephen hoped it was sticking to the parts of the tower inhabited by the team for its explorations, and not bothering some poor, innocent SI employee.
Stephen did his best not to flinch. He'd thought he was alone in the room. "Miss Romanoff."
"Natasha is fine." Romanoff – Natasha leaned back against the wall, radiating nonchalance that didn't match the tension in Stephen's shoulders. In his experience, she wasn't one to hold pleasant smalltalk. At least not with Stephen. "Did you enjoy the conference?"
He shrugged. "It was nice, getting out of the tower. Talking to people who can hold a conversation in the medical field."
"Tony knew what he was doing, inviting you."
"I'm sure he did. Is there something you needed?" Stephen tried his best to rein in his impatience. He couldn't tell whether Natasha had an ulterior motive – or rather, since she almost definitely had one, what it was.
She twitched her shoulders. "Nothing in particular. I wanted to invite you to a sparring match."
"Sparring." Stephen quirked an eyebrow. "Any particular reason you would want us to fight?"
"To begin building trust. Tony made it clear that he's expecting you to join the team eventually." She shrugged. "If that's what's going to happen, it's only fair if we learned more about your capabilities."
"And you think your best bet of doing that is during a spar?"
That gave Natasha a pause. "It's the most efficient," she settled on. "And it makes for good team building."
"Fair enough." Stephen shifted into a more comfortable position. "I don't believe I feel quite up to fighting an Avenger. Even if it's just for a spar."
The fight against the twins – and also his sessions with Wanda – had proven that Stephen was improving drastically. That didn't mean he felt like tempting fate and going up against one of SHIELD's best trained agents just yet.
Natasha didn't show an outward sign of being bothered by Stephen's refusal. She straightened up and shifted her weight in the direction of the exit. "Perhaps another time."
"I didn't say that I wasn't prepared to show you my abilities," Stephen said, stopping Natasha in her tracks before she could take more than a single step.
"I said I wasn't going to fight you, but I'm not secretive about my powers." Not beyond a few certain aspects he was sure the Ancient One would prefer to keep under wraps. As long as she was Sorceress Supreme, those were her decisions to make. “My powers are far more than just useful in a battle."
Natasha settled down in front of him. Stephen was pleased when he could read genuine interest in her expression. For all her wariness about an unknown variable in the tower, it seemed she could still muster curiosity.
She didn't say a word, but raised an eyebrow in expectation.
Stephen paused, considering. He decided to open a small portal to the kitchen, reached through to retrieve two glasses and a bottle of brandy. "A drink?" he asked, offering Natasha a glass with a wry smile.
Natasha paused. Her lips pulled into a smirk, and she accepted the offer. "That's useful."
"I do have more to offer than party tricks," Stephen said, waving the portal out of existence.
"I figured." Natasha paused, pursing her lips thoughtfully. "Which of your powers have you made use of the most?" She took a sip from her drink and raised it in appreciation. "Not this one, I should hope."
"As big as the temptation is," Stephen said, "I can think of a few others."
He paused, genuinely considering the question.
"Apart from the portals," he said, "I'm quite fond of the astral projection."
Stephen hummed in confirmation. "It’s a technique that separates oneself from their physical form in order to interact with the astral dimension."
"To what purpose?" Natasha asked.
"I've used it a lot during my studies. It allowed me to rest my body while pursuing other goals."
"You separated your soul from your body in order to spend more time studying?" Natasha quirked an eyebrow.
Stephen gave a rueful grin. "It saves a lot of time. I wish I'd known how to do it back in medical school."
"It would have come in handy," Natasha agreed. She paused, changing tracks. "It's quite the career change you made. You went through medical school, and now you’re living with a group of superheroes.”
"People keep telling me," Stephen muttered. He paused, considering exactly how much he wanted to reveal about his past.
He didn’t particularly like talking about it – there were far more pleasant conversation topics than the car accident that had robbed him off his medical career – but he could appreciate that Natasha had made the first step in getting to know each other better. If he wanted to get rid of the tension taking up the space within the team, he'd have to make an effort as well.
"I can't say that it was intentional on my part. If fate hadn't forced my hand," or rather crushed both of them, "I would have likely worked as a surgeon for the rest of my life."
He would probably also still terrorize nurses and treat Christine – and everybody else – like she was beneath him. Either Stephen attracted irony, or fate had it out for every arrogant douche thinking himself better than the rest of humanity.
"You'll be surprised," Natasha said, "but I think I can relate better than most."
Natasha swirled her glass and watched the liquid splosh inside it as though it was the most interesting thing she'd seen all day.
"Before SHIELD recruited me," she eventually started, "I was... working for a different kind of employer." She paused. "I did many things in my past I'm not proud of. I hurt many, many people. I would have likely died one day, following orders and not having done a single decent act in all my life."
Natasha looked up from her glass. She could have been talking about someone else's life, looking at her unattached expression.
"SHIELD was my turning point. Or Clint was." She shrugged. "I suppose it doesn't matter, as long as it means it brought me to where I am today."
"Here. With the Avengers."
Natasha's lip twitched and Stephen had the notion he'd seen the closest to her genuine smile that he ever would.
He opened his mouth to ask another question, but closed it when he realized that it might be a sore subject.
Natasha quirked her eyebrow, clearly having picked up on the gesture.
"Nevermind," Stephen said. "It was a careless question."
Natasha made a prompting gesture with her hand. "Ask."
Stephen paused. "Did you ever regret what happened? Did you ever wish to go back?"
Stephen couldn't imagine what one could possibly miss about a life as an assassin. But who knew? Somebody who'd never known anything else might have felt differently.
Natasha looked into the distance, and Stephen wasn't sure whether she would answer the question. She'd encouraged him to speak it out loud, but she had every right to refuse regardless. Stephen wouldn't hold it against her.
When Natasha talked about building trust, evidently she meant it.
"When I was first drawn over to SHIELD, I didn't feel like I'd had a choice in the matter," she admitted. "There were plenty of occasions when I wanted nothing more than to return to my old life. It wasn't pretty, but it was what I knew."
Silence settled between them for a few surprisingly natural feeling moments.
"I can't quite compare to a career as a secret agent," Stephen eventually said, "but I suppose I can relate to the former. I hadn't been given a choice, either."
Natasha's eyes were drawn to his hands. The tremor in them had gotten immensely better ever since Tony'd started bullying him into physiotherapy again – and even more so since he was well enough to practice his magic. Fine motor skills – not to mention the quite delicate act of holding a scalpel – were still far outside of his range of capabilities, and would continue to be. Quite possibly forever.
Natasha raised her glass in a mock salute. "To change," she said, twisting her lips into a wry smile.
Stephen met it with an almost cynical curve of his mouth. "To change," he repeated, and wondered whether in different circumstances, Natasha and he might have ended up friends quite a lot sooner.
Clint entered the guest room – aka their impromptu containment cell – to the sight of Pietro pacing at a speed that made his features blur. He stopped once he caught sight of Clint, flashing an expression that conveyed both wariness and surprise.
"What do you want?" he asked, ever the man of many words and eloquent sentences.
"Good afternoon to you too," Clint gave back in over-the-top cheerfulness.
Pietro wasn’t impressed. "What is it?"
"You're coming with me for some exercise," Clint told him promptly. "Our training room is waiting and I need a sparring partner."
Pietro stared at him. "You want me to do what?"
"Honestly? Anything other than pacing around your room like a caged tiger. You're driving me crazy just watching you."
Clint's eyes dropped to the floor. He was surprised Pietro hadn't yet walked marks into it from all the supersonic pacing he'd been doing.
"I know for a fact that several of my friends tried to pry you out of here already," Clint continued. "I'm the one who's not taking no for an answer. So, come on. Put those superpowers to good use."
Pietro's expression had taken on an incredulous note. "Did you get tired of keeping me confined to a glorified prison cell?"
"Yup. Hence the exercise." Clint took a pointed step towards the open door. "Come on, we'll do some target practice, run some laps. I’d settle for yoga at this point. You gotta be bored half to death."
"... You'd do that," Pietro deadpanned. "You'd risk me out of my cell. Trust that I will not try to escape."
"I trust that you're not a complete moron."
"Oh, do you?" Pietro's lips pulled into a cynical smile.
Clint shrugged, feeling particularly unapologetic. "Just telling it as it is." Clint might have been willing to offer an olive branch and tempt Pietro into turning over a new leaf, but that didn't mean he was forgetting the circumstances of how they'd met.
In terms of redemption and second chances, Clint was more optimistic than most of his team – he'd gotten lucky once, putting his faith in someone many people would have written off as a lost cause. He'd gotten a best friend and SHIELD partner out of it. There was no reason for him to believe he couldn't get lucky another time.
All he – all they – could do was offer a hand. Whether or not Pietro (and his sister) took it, was entirely up to them.
"You should appreciate this, you know." Clint pulled his lips into a wry smile. "I usually run laps during my workouts. Not many people are being given the opportunity to completely obliterate an actual Avenger."
Pietro quirked an eyebrow. "By running laps."
"Obviously. I'm afraid there's no actual obliteration going to happen any time soon."
"A shame." Pietro hesitated. The need to see something other than the dullness of his room won out over the urge to refuse anything and everything the Avengers offered. "Fine. I’ll join you once. But it changes nothing."
Clint did his best not to let the victorious feeling show on his face. He turned, kept Pietro in his field of vision through the corner of his eye and headed towards the training rooms. "Do try to keep up. You wouldn’t want to get lost in the tower.”
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
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Sam didn't know what to think of the twins. He hadn't been part of the mission to retrieve them, so he only knew what the others had told him.
Allowing former HYDRA operatives to live at the tower with them felt weird. It felt dangerous. As nerve-wracking as it had been to use Avengers tower to keep them locked up, it was even more so to watch the gradual shift from prison cell to impromptu rehabilitation center.
"Okay,” he said after the first time Clint had taken Pietro to the training rooms with them. “So we're allowing them to fight us now. That's an interesting way of dealing with former criminals."
Steve gave him an exasperated look. He seemed to think that Sam was joking.
"It's just some sparring," he said. "The tower's security systems are still activated, so he won’t be able to do anything."
"It's the only thing keeping him from wallowing in his revenge fantasies." If Clint thought he was helping his case, he was sorely mistaken. "You should join us. It'll be fun."
Sam had noticed that more often than not, sparring was what most of the Avengers fell back on for bonding activities. There were others – the Avengers could act surprisingly domestic at times – but for the most part, the team's definition of the word 'fun' seemed to be beating the crap out of each other during training.
Sam supposed he shouldn't be surprised, considering that half of the team was made up of soldiers and superspies.
Pietro was neither of those. And, so Sam realized the next time he was dragged into the training rooms by Clint, he wasn't enjoying the sessions half as much as Clint seemed to think he did.
"It's not like there's anything better to do." Pietro shrugged, crossing his arms and avoiding Sam's gaze. Distrust and discomfort radiated from his body language, and Sam was reminded of how out of place he'd felt when he'd been new to the tower. "It gets me out of the room."
"But you don't actually enjoy fighting," Sam said.
Again, Pietro shrugged.
Sam wasn’t surprised about his team's assumption, seeing as they'd met the twins on the battlefield. He hesitated, considering whether he actually wanted to go through with the idea that took root in his mind.
"There are other things you could do," he said, evidently abandoning his self-preservation wherever Clint had lost his.
Pietro tried not to show that his interest had been piqued. "What things?"
Sam decided to take Pietro along to one of the support group meetings he hosted.
He wasn't too worried; he was far from defenseless in case something went wrong, and Pietro had thus far shown no sign of misusing the tentative trust they were putting in him. Besides, they'd taken precautions.
Nobody seriously expected Pietro to try anything while Wanda was still at the tower – JARVIS had assured them that the twins had not planned anything in the days prior to the trip – and Pietro had agreed to wear a surveillance watch (practically a glorified, more comfortable monitoring bracelet) during the time he spent outside of the tower.
Steve had offered to send somebody along with them, but he’d easily accepted when Sam had declined. In a way he felt honored that the Avengers trusted him enough not to press the issue.
Pietro kept himself in the background for the bulk of the meeting. He was no war veteran – although he might have easily found parallels between himself and the people who’d come, would he care to look – and he seemed to have no desire to either join or disrupt the session. He occasionally paced the room or looked out the window, but he spent the time quietly, otherwise.
"You do this for fun?" he asked Sam after the group had dispersed. His tone held scepticism, but no scorn.
Sam paused, considering the question. "I wouldn't exactly say 'for fun'."
"There has to be a reason to dedicate your time to it," Pietro insisted, still that sceptical note to his voice. He raised his eyebrow in what might have been a challenge.
Sam wondered if he was trying to pick a fight out of boredom. If he was, he would have to try his luck with somebody other than Sam. "True. It's something that I'm good at. And... yeah, I enjoy it. I enjoy helping people."
Sam decided to do some prodding. He knew so little about Pietro, other than what his teammates had told him. The speedster didn’t seem the sharing type. "Is there something you like to do?"
Pietro gave him a wry smile. "I was good at what I did with HYDRA."
"Fair enough." Sam paused. "But that’s not the same, is it?"
"You say you were good at what you did. That's fine. But you didn’t actually enjoy it, did you?" If he did, Sam didn’t think there was hope left for Pietro. He’d have also massively misjudged the other man.
Pietro frowned. "You mean working for them?"
Sam hesitated. "All of it, I suppose. The fighting. Using your powers." Hurting people in the name of a terrorist organisation.
Everybody who spent more than a couple minutes with Wanda could see that she loved her powers. She loved learning more about them. She loved honing them.
Pietro hadn't shown any interest in using his powers other than out of necessity.
"It’s just what I did." Pietro crossed his arms defensively. "There’s nothing more to it.”
In other words, no. Whatever his time at HYDRA had been like – a means to an end, most likely – he hadn’t enjoyed it. Sam usually trusted in his judgement, and he was glad that this time wasn’t an exception.
"Well. There's more to you than just your powers."
Pietro's lips tightened. He quirked his eyebrow, and Sam wasn't sure what he was trying to prove with it. "Is there?"
"Sure." Sam shrugged. "I'm an Avenger – or as good as – but that's not everything. I've got plenty more going on in my life." Case in point was the past one and a half hour they’d spent. "I enjoy what I do with the team, too. But if I didn't, I could easily fall back on this."
"Not everybody has something to fall back on," Pietro said. His eyes had clouded over, and Sam couldn't tell whether it was from apprehension or from memories.
"You sure about that?" Sam hesitated. “Maybe there’s something you wanted to do when you were younger? Something you were good at in school? I always loved psychology, even as a teen.”
Pietro shifted his body away from him, but didn't turn his back. He pressed his lips together, his leg tapping on the floor restlessly.
"Wanda and I, we... were not exactly given the choice to finish our education." His lips twisted into was only technically a smile. "Our school was bombed, same as our home. Our entire city was in ruins. We were refugees until... until HYDRA."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Sam furrowed his brows. "That couldn't have been easy."
Pietro shrugged and didn't answer.
Sam didn't think he'd overstepped a line – not yet – and kept pushing. "But you're still young. It's not too late to look for something else. If you wanted to, you could pick up right where you left off."
Pietro snorted a laugh. "What, you want me to go back to school? Please. Don't be ridiculous."
"Why not? There are tons of adults – people in their 30s, 40s or even older – going to college. Getting a degree. Why shouldn't you?" Sam paused, and he added, "If college doesn't sound right, you could try taking online classes. There are always options."
Pietro looked at him skeptically. "My powers–”
"Are a part of you. True. But you don't have to use them any more than you want to. They don't have the power to decide your future for you."
Pietro didn't have anything to say to that. He looked into the distance, letting the words wash over him and – hopefully – consider what they could mean for his future.
It was no wonder Pietro was making progress slower than his sister was. In contrast to her, he hadn't tried seeing himself doing anything other than what he'd been doing with HYDRA.
"Just think about it," Sam told him, deciding that he'd pushed enough for the day and heading to the exit.
Pietro hesitated, but followed.
"I feel silly," Wanda admitted, although she made no move to stop what she was doing. Her hand circled uselessly in front of her and refused to conjure up so much as the spark of a portal.
Stephen thought back to his own frustratingly unsuccessful first lessons and wondered how Wanda would react if she knew just how perfectly Stephen could relate. "It won't feel so silly once you master the technique," he pointed out, pretending not to catch Wanda's eye roll.
Tony hadn't been happy about the next step of Stephen's lesson plan. He hadn’t been happy about Sam taking Pietro outside the tower, and he wasn’t happy about Wanda potentially mastering the art of teleportation.
There were ways of preventing inexperienced magic users like Wanda from portaling into or out of the tower, so Stephen wasn't worried.
"How long did it take you to learn?" From another person, the question might have been born from impatience. Wanda, Stephen knew, was merely curious.
"Until there was progress? A couple lessons." Stephen paused. "Until I managed to create a functional portal? An involuntary trip to Mount Everest."
Wanda's hand paused its movement. "What?"
Stephen fought the urge to laugh at Wanda's baffled expression. "My teacher had a... rather unique opinion on how to best motivate her students." He looked up, pulling his lips into a grin. "I hope this makes you appreciate just how lucky you are to be stuck with me, instead."
"So lucky," Wanda said dryly, and started up her efforts again with twitching lips and a twinkle in her eyes.
While they were working, it was easy to forget that Wanda was technically still a prisoner.
There was no guarantee that Wanda would be able to master the spell to create portals. They had quickly realized that her powers worked differently than Stephen's did, and even though there were plenty of overlaps, there were things she simply could not get the hang of – similarly as there were things she could do that Stephen couldn't dream of.
It made Stephen wonder how she would fare in Kamar-Taj. How much would she be able to learn surrounded by masters of the art, all varying in style and specialty? What would they be able to learn from her?
Wanda wasn't frustrated when they stumbled over a technique she was not able to get the hang of. She loved to learn and was eager to attempt the next step.
Wanda raised her head when the silence went on for too long and realized that Stephen was looking at her. "What is it?"
"I was thinking about introducing you to my teacher," Stephen said truthfully.
Wanda narrowed her eyes. "Not so she can strand me on a mountain?"
"Nothing like that." Stephen's lips pulled into a smile. "Kamar-Taj didn't just allow me to gain knowledge. It helped me out of a very difficult period of my life, and to find a new place. I was wondering if it might do the same for you."
Wanda didn't answer immediately. She pressed her lips together, her efforts to wave open a portal forgotten.
"It is tempting," she admitted. "My powers, they're... they've never felt this right before. I want to learn all about them that I can.” She hesitated. “But Pietro..."
"It's just an offer," Stephen assured her. "Maybe you should talk to him about it. I think he would want you to do what makes you happy." He paused, his lips twitching. "Besides, he'd only be a portal away."
Wanda’s lips curved into a smile. She paused, considering the offer.
The lights flickered out before she could make a decision, and the room was dropped into darkness.
"Is everybody sure about this?"
Steve's voice carried over the buzz caused by half a dozen people preparing for the experiment. In their midst stood the Cradle, hiding from sight the (as of now) lifeless body that would soon become Vision.
"As sure as we'll ever be, I suppose." Bruce barely looked up from his notepad.
"Vision?" Steve turned towards the AI, next. "You doing alright?"
"I operate within acceptable parameters."
"Fair enough," Steve muttered.
Tony was too busy leaning over Cho’s shoulder to double check their calculations to interfere. Last time, Thor had used his lightning to give the Cradle the power it needed. Without him – off planet on his quest of finding the remaining infinity stones – they had no choice but to use the arc reactor that powered the tower.
"I think we're about done here," Tony announced, reluctantly admitting that there wasn't much more he could do in preparation.
The body he'd created with Cho and Vision looked startlingly similar to his prior design – although perhaps Tony shouldn't be surprised about that. The first Vision had been born from Ultron. This one had been, too.
The color scheme was a bit off, and his eyes had no irises – he looked more android and less human than the other Vision had.
"We're almost done," Tony said, stepping up to Vision. If everything went as planned, his current host would be nothing but a lifeless Iron Man armor in just a couple more minutes. "This is the tricky part. We're taking your code – your consciousness – and uploading it into the new body. It might feel odd – I don't know, this sort of thing hasn't exactly happened before – but you can't fight it."
"I know." Vision didn't turn to look at him.
Tony hesitated. "If you changed your mind, now's the time to say so. Once that thing is activated, it's gonna be too late."
"Let us proceed," Vision said instead, and he took his place directly next to the Cradle.
There was nothing more to be done. They'd finished all their preparations and done everything they could to make the process as safe and controlled as they possibly managed. JARVIS had the instructions to put the tower on lockdown if something went wrong. Just in case.
"Alright," Tony said, ignoring the nervous fluttering in his chest. "Vision, you know what to do. Dr. Cho, keep an eye on the monitors. JARVIS, begin energy transfer."
The eye slits of Vision's armor darkened as Vision left it behind.
"Channeling energy now," JARVIS said.
The Cradle powered up with a low buzzing sound, feeding off the tower's energy. Tony didn't know how long the process was supposed to take – Vision's first creation hadn't happened in a controlled environment – but he found himself growing antsy as the seconds ticked by.
"Nothing so far," Cho murmured without taking her eyes off the monitors.
"Sir," JARVIS said. "The arc reactor has reached its maximum capacity of energy it is safely able to give."
Tony shared a startled glance with Bruce. The arc reactor was able to keep the entire tower running without using a fraction of its full potential. "Push it further, J."
The buzzing swelled. The air tickled on his skin as though it had been electrified.
Even as Steve leaned forwards in expectation, Tony feared that the energy wasn't enough. It wouldn't be enough. The reactor didn't have enough energy to make the experiment work.
Tony realized that back then, the mind stone had been part of the equation – an infinity stone, one of the largest energy sources in existence. The Cradle must have been drawing power from it, and Thor's lightning had been merely the additional boost that was needed.
The stone was safely locked away in a high-security vault that even Tony needed several minutes to open.
"We need to stop," Tony decided reluctantly. The reactor's emergency supply only lasted so far. "That's it," he called, louder, "we need to try again some other time."
The suit stood next to him motionlessly like a statue. Its eyes stayed dead.
Unease gnawed at Tony's gut, and he raised his voice. "Vision! You need to go back, you hear?"
Nothing. Bruce started to mutter under his breath, taking swift steps towards Cho.
Tony swallowed bile. "JARVIS?"
"I am unable to initiate contact with Vision." He paused. "I don't believe he can hear you."
The power went out and Tony's heart skipped a beat. The only light illuminating the room were rapid flashes of energy twitching over the Cradle, making it look like it was going to burst any moment.
Tony had never realized how much it looked like a coffin.
Something wrapped around his middle and held him back before he could make more than a few steps towards the Cradle.
"Are you crazy?" Steve yelled, his arms digging into his skin like vices. "Don't touch it!"
The Cradle kept leeching off every scrap of energy left in the reactor. Once the power ran out completely, Tony didn't know what would happen to Vision.
Tony wondered what he was feeling this instant.
Orange light washed over the room, and Stephen stepped out of his portal with Wanda at his side. "What's going on?"
Tony didn't know how Stephen was supposed to help. He was no scientist. He hadn’t even been there the first time it had happened. "It's Vision. We used the Cradle–”
"Yeah," Stephen cut him off. "You mentioned."
"It's not enough." Tony brows were furrowed. His eyes kept twitching back and forth, unwilling to let the Cradle out of his sight. "The reactor. It's not enough energy to finish the transfer."
"Possibly dying as we speak. No pressure."
Stephen frowned at him but Tony couldn't bring himself to care. He'd done everything to make sure fate wouldn't repeat itself, and all it had gotten him was the opportunity to screw it all up in a completely new, unexpected way.
"Stephen..." Wanda's contemplative voice tore Tony out of his bleak thoughts. She shared a look with Stephen, more meaningful than words they could have exchanged. "Do you think...?"
Stephen's gaze sharpened. It twitched from the Cradle to Wanda and back, giving him a calculating, somewhat frantic look. "There's not much more to lose," he muttered, and he gave Wanda a nod. "Try it."
Tony hated being out of the loop. "Try what?"
Wanda's hands overflowed with magic and made Tony startle back, bumping into Steve by accident. Energy twisted and enveloped the Cradle before Tony or any of the others could stop her.
"What are you doing?!"
Stephen grabbed Tony's upper arm when he tried to throw himself forward. "Don’t!" Stephen's face was illuminated by red light, same as everything else in the room. "Her powers – we've been studying them. They're energy, Tony."
A meaningful look, and it all clicked. Wanda's powers came from the mind stone. The stone was the missing variable from the equation.
Tony turned to watch, forcing tense muscles to keep still and not try to rip Wanda away.
The Cradle gave a guttural groan, lit up in a blinding red and powered down. Wanda's powers went out alongside it, leaving the room completely dark.
Tony swallowed heavily, not daring to move. "Why'd you stop?"
"I didn't. The machine did," Wanda whispered. "It wouldn't accept any more."
There was silence as everybody seemed to hold their collective breaths. Orange light flickered up, Stephen conjuring spheres of magic that seemed to have no purpose other than to brighten the room.
The Cradle opened with a click, and Tony tensed alongside everybody else who stood close to it.
Nothing happened for several agonizing moments.
A metallic, gleaming hand gripped the edges of the Cradle and hoisted up a body that looked both strange and familiar in all the right ways.
Vision's chest heaved as though he was taking a deep breath.
Tony's breath got stuck in his throat as their eyes met.
"I believe the experiment was a success," Vision said in a voice that was poised, tentative and human, so unlike the mechanical speakers of the armor had been.
Bruce muttered a shaky, "Incredible," and something in Tony's chest unraveled.
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The android – Vision – didn't leave the tower's labs for more than a few minutes at a time in the wake of receiving his new body. Wanda couldn't begin to guess what sort of tests Stark and Banner were putting him through in order to determine his full functionality.
As if the hours spent in the workshop weren’t enough, they asked Stephen to check Vision over, next.
"They're worried," Stephen told her on his way to the labs. "They just want to make sure that Vision is going to be okay."
Wanda supposed that she could understand the sentiment. She wasn't able to think up a comparable situation – Vision's creation was far too unique – but if there had been any chance of Pietro getting hurt, she wouldn't have stopped at anything to prevent it either.
As such, Wanda wasn't surprised when days passed without her catching more than a glimpse of them.
Once the buzz began to die down it was Stark who sought her out in her (no longer locked) room.
Wanda watched him make his way over the threshold and didn't bother trying to puzzle out the swirling mess of emotions in her chest.
A step into her room, Stark paused. He cleared his throat and knocked on the frame next to the door. "Right. Uh... May I come in?"
Wanda's bemusement didn't allow her to do anything but give a jerky nod.
She didn't like the idea of Stark stepping foot in the space that had come to feel like hers – ironic as it was, seeing as she'd cursed the very sight of it only weeks prior. But it was fine. Probably. They'd learned to tolerate being in vague proximity to each other, and Wanda would survive the few minutes it would take Stark to say whatever it was he'd come to say to her.
(Privily, she wondered whether he’d decided that she’d been given too many liberties and would force her to go back to how things were at the beginning. Or try.)
"I wanted to thank you," Stark said. His expression was pinched – in discomfort rather than dishonesty, Wanda could tell – and he looked as though he'd rather be anywhere else.
Wanda frowned. "Thank me? For Vision?"
Stark hummed. "I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't powered the Cradle. Vision might not have made it without you."
Wanda shrugged, feeling horribly out of her depth. This was weirder than any of the interactions she'd had with the other Avengers thus far. "You're welcome," she said, the words tasting wooden and stiff on her tongue.
She hadn't thought about what she was doing at the time. She'd recognized a problem and seen a solution in the form of her powers. Everything that followed had been instinct.
"I mean it." Stark seemed to be making an effort to meet her eyes. His hands clenched and unclenched in a nervous, almost anxiously repetitive motion. "I know this – all of this – isn't exactly ideal. But, um. If there's something I can do to make it, you know. To make it easier... Just say the word."
Wanda averted her eyes when Stark refused to do the same. What was she supposed to say to that? She hadn't had the chance to prepare for this sort of conversation.
"I'll keep it in mind," she muttered, eyes fixed on the ground in front of her. She hesitated, and added a stiff, "Thank you."
There was a pause. With her eyes pointing to the floor, Wanda couldn't begin to guess what Stark was thinking.
What finally came out of his mouth was, "I really am sorry for what happened."
He didn't need to clarify that he wasn't talking about a recent event. He'd told her the same before, back when they'd met for the first time. Wanda hadn't believed him, then. Even if she had, it wouldn't have mattered.
She wondered what exactly had changed.
"I believe you," Wanda said softly.
She watched Stark startle from the corner of her eyes. "What?"
"I believe you. I believe that you're being genuine."
Stark didn't seem to know where to go from there. Wanda didn't much care; she realized that there was something she needed to tell him, not the other way around.
"I've been angry for so long," she said, thinking of crimes she'd committed and sins she'd piled up. She and her brother hadn't let themselves sink to HYDRA's level, but they hadn't been far off. "I believe it's time to focus on something else."
Stark didn't answer immediately. He seemed to be gauging her sincerity – or else trying to catch up with the sudden turn the conversation had taken.
"I'm glad for you," he finally said, and it sounded more genuine than anything he'd said to Wanda before.
Things between them weren't perfect – perhaps they never would be. They were making progress – Wanda was making progress – and she supposed that as long as they were moving forward, she could deal with everything else along the way.
Every time she came to visit him at the tower, Christine looked more and more comfortable walking the same space as aliens and public icons. She was still hesitant to meet any of them ("What would I even say to them?") but Stephen didn't mind.
He got to catch up with his friend more often – Christine was only ever a portal away – and even if she wasn't ready to mingle with the other half of his life, it didn't matter. The two of them made it work.
“You should have been there,” Stephen told her, recapping the most exciting parts of the science convention he and Tony had visited – which were many. “One of them developed a new method of modified-release dosages that allow the patient to– What? What is it?"
"You're smiling," Stephen said with a pointed hand gesture.
Christine laughed. "What, am I not allowed to?" Her expression dimmed but didn't lose the gentle smile that was painted on her face. "It's nothing."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "I'll feel left out if you don't let me in on the joke."
Christine shook her head, exasperated. "You look happy, Stephen. I can't remember the last time I saw you this excited about something."
It gave Stephen a pause. “I am. I told you, I like it here."
"Yes, but... this is different. This is better. You were always so passionate about your work, and this... this is the closest to it I've seen you." Christine's smile twisted into something painful. "I was worried about you. I wasn't sure you'd make it back from where you were after the accident."
"I wasn't sure either," Stephen admitted.
It hadn't been easy this time, but at least Stephen'd had the certainty of knowing that he'd managed to fight himself out of his slump once.
Christine's gaze drifted away. The smile on her lips stayed. "I still think you could have done great at the hospital," she said. "But I'm glad you found something else."
For the first time since Christine had brought up the subject, Stephen felt something other than contempt at the thought of an alternate medical position. He was still adamant that consultation was below him – he couldn't quite believe Christine had actually suggested it to him.
Her second suggestion, however...
"I've been thinking about it," Stephen said.
"Thinking about what?"
"Teaching." He hesitated. "I've been instructing somebody at the tower. Someone who has... the same gift that I do."
Christine's expression faltered the way it always did when he referenced his magic.
Stephen had told her all about it eventually, and she'd had no choice but to believe him after one or two flashy demonstrations. Christine was a woman of science. Any mention of spells and magic conjured up her skepticism – something Stephen didn't hold against her, seeing as he'd been the same upon coming to Kamar-Taj.
"Right. Your... gift." She shook her head mildly. "You've been teaching someone?"
Stephen hummed. "It’s working out far better than I expected."
Stephen had wanted to help Wanda redeem herself and deal with the very real threat of a – now former – supervillain at the tower. He'd never expected his lessons to be this much fun.
"I didn't think I'd be the kind of person for it," he admitted.
"Looks like I know you better than you know yourself." Christine's lips twitched.
Warmth settled in Stephen’s chest, and he returned Christine’s smile easily.
"Doctor Strange." JARVIS interrupted them smoothly. "The team is gathering for a meeting. Mr. Stark has instructed me to invite you."
Stephen hesitated. "How serious is it?"
"There appears to be new information regarding Sergeant Barnes."
Stephen furrowed his brows, trying to work out the timeline – not an easy goal, seeing as he hadn't been personally involved the first time – and guess what JARVIS could be referring to.
No matter which specific event it was, everything concerning Barnes was dire.
"I'm sorry," he said, pushing himself to his feet and waving open a portal for Christine. "I'm afraid this is important."
Christine eyed the portal as though it was about to swallow her whole. "It's, uh. It's fine. Don't worry about me."
"We can catch up another time?"
Christine mustered a smile, tearing wary eyes away from the portal. "I’ll hold you to it."
One of Tony's first actions upon reactivating JARVIS had been setting up a subroutine that scanned surveillance and media footage for any traces of Barnes.
With Zemo taken care off almost incidentally – with Sokovia averted, so was his family's death – they'd already made sure that another manhunt courtesy of the American government wouldn't be happening.
Barnes needed to be found for his own sake as much as everybody else's. Hence, the subroutines.
"JARVIS caught pictures of him near the border to Canada," Tony told the team – including Stephen – as soon as they'd all gathered. "He wiped the footage, so we're the only ones who know. We got a head start until Barnes decides to ditch town."
He'd proven incredibly – but not unexpectedly – efficient at avoiding camera lenses. They could count themselves lucky they’d caught his slip up at all.
"We'll take a jet and head over right now," Steve decided. He hadn't yet taken off in a sprint – an impressive feat in terms of self-control, in Tony's opinion. "I'll try to talk him into coming with us, but..." His expression grew tight. "I don't know what sort of mental state he's in."
"If it comes down to it," Sam frowned at Steve, "are we going to take him in by force?"
"We might not have any other choice." Natasha sent Steve an apologetic look. "I know he's your friend. But HYDRA screwing with his head makes him unpredictable."
"I know that." Steve pinched his lips. His brows furrowed, and his eyes twitched towards Tony. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"
Tony raised an eyebrow. "I was the one to call all of you here, wasn’t I?"
"That's not what I meant." Worry shimmered through Steve's expression, genuine and clear. "Look, if you need to step away from this mission–”
"Don't be ridiculous," Tony interrupted. "We're doing this. All of us."
Steve's frown deepened. Ever since Tony had revealed that he knew about Barnes' involvement in his parents' death, the topic had been even more uncomfortable than it had already been.
Tony rolled his eyes, doing his best to emit nonchalance. "I'm not gonna start throwing punches as soon as I lay eyes on Barnes."
"I didn't think you would," Steve denied.
Oddly enough, Tony actually believed him. “Come on,” he said, leading the way to the plane. “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Tony kept insisting that he was fine. Steve wanted to believe him – he genuinely did. But the cracks that secrets had formed within the team were fresh, and Tony wasn't as over his parents' death as he wanted them to think.
Steve was afraid that Tony was pushing himself too far for Steve's sake. Maybe he'd even convinced himself that he was fine. Maybe he genuinely thought that he was over it. Steve could tell that something was nagging at his teammate, and Tony was fully intending to let it continue to eat at him, rather than put his trust in his team and allow them to help.
Considering Steve had done exactly the same until Tony had thrown his secret into the open, he couldn't blame him one bit. If only Steve knew what was holding Tony back, maybe he'd be able to help.
Trust was a two way street, Steve reasoned, so maybe the trick to get Tony to open up to him was to open up to Tony in return.
It took Steve the bulk of their plane ride to muster up the courage he needed. He picked a moment when Tony was as far away from the others as he was going to get and braced himself, willing the nerves fluttering wildly in his chest to calm down.
"After I woke up," he blurted out before he could manage to talk himself out of it, "the first time they showed me a picture of you I was excited. You looked so much like Howard."
Tony stared at him, perplexed. "Uh. Okay?"
Steve swallowed hastily and plowed on. "I, uh. I felt... lost, back then. You were the first link to my past. Or I thought you were. I wanted you to be."
Tony was silent.
"It turned out that you aren't anything like Howard," Steve continued. "It wasn't fair of me to place expectations on you like that. I... should have tried harder to get to know the person you are, not the one I wanted you to be. I'm sorry I didn't see that then."
There was a pause.
"Okay," Tony said. "Well. Apology accepted, I guess?" He frowned. "Look, not that I don't appreciate... this. But this was years ago, and it hasn’t been an issue for ages. How come?"
Tony tried to meet his gaze, and Steve looked away instinctively.
"Wait, is this about what happened?" Tony's brows dropped into a mild scowl. "Seriously? Look, that thing with Barnes, it... Yeah, it wasn't fun, I admit it. But that doesn't mean I need you to dig up every scrap of dirt spilled between us and apologize for it."
Steve felt a blush creep up his face. "I don't know what else to do," he admitted. He chewed on his lip, considering. He decided to take a leap of faith. "I haven't told anyone about this before, but–”
"Woah, hold on." Tony looked mildly alarmed. "You don't need to– I mean, don't feel like the only way for this to be resolved is to spill all your dirty secrets to me. Seriously. You don't need to."
"I want to, though," Steve said, quietly. "Please?"
He’d helped create this mess in the first place by keeping secrets and forcing Tony to bring them into the open himself. There wouldn’t ever be the perfect opportunity to make up for it, so Steve’s best chance was to wing it and hope for the best.
With any luck, Tony would realize that he was being serious.
Tony's lips tightened, but he gave a curt nod.
Steve took a deep breath.
"Back in the 40s, I only relied on Bucky. We'd known each other for years, and... and for a long time, we were all each other had." He had to look away. "When he... when he died, there wasn't really anyone to take that place. I had the Howling Commandos and, and Peggy, but... it wasn't the same. And then even those were gone."
Tony didn't try to interrupt, so Steve kept going, his voice subdued and quiet.
"When I woke up in the future, I'd never felt this alone before. Everybody I knew, they were... gone. Or as good as. And the, the Avengers, they... you were the first people I finally started to trust again. Not immediately, not after that first fight, but... eventually. I love being part of this team."
Steve let out a breath, psyching himself up for the next part.
"Then I found out Bucky was still alive. I saw him, and it was like... it was like I was flung back into the past and there were only him and me. I was afraid of losing him all over again. I... had a hard time remembering that I had other people to rely on – and I didn't try especially hard. Natasha knew, but that was only because she happened to be there. If she hadn't been, I'd have kept it from her, too. If I could have, I’d have done it all on my own."
"I bet you would have," Tony said, maybe out of a need to say anything at all.
"I'm not saying it was smart, or reasonable or... anything, really." Steve hesitated. "When... the video of your parents popped up, I... I was terrified, Tony. I should have told you right then, but... I was terrified I'd have to put myself between you and Bucky. I thought... I didn't want to face you. I didn't want to take the chance that you would... take it badly. That you would take revenge."
Steve shook his head. "Look, I'm not saying this to make you forgive me. I just wanted to... I, I thought–”
"Hey," Tony interrupted, his voice softer than it had been earlier. "Nothing wrong with wanting to tell your side of the story." He didn't meet Steve's eyes, and he didn't try to say more.
Steve's throat felt dry after all the talking.
Tony seemed to be wringing with himself, chewing on his lips and looking into the distance. Weighing options. He seemed to come to a decision and braced himself, meeting Steve's gaze. "Steve, I..."
Sam poked his head through the door and interrupted him. "Suit up, people. We're almost there." He paused. "You good?"
"We're ready," Steve said, swallowing down disappointment. "On our way."
Sam nodded, ducking back and disappearing from sight.
There was a pause.
"Thank you for telling me," Tony said, heaving himself to his feet. "Let's take care of this, and afterwards..." He paused. "Take my word for it: once all of this is over, I'll return the favor.
Welp. I’ve recommended this story before, but I recently reread it and was caught by the sudden urge to shout out just how amazing and wonderful it is and that everybody reading this should go give it a try. :D
Features a very hurt, very sad Spider-Man, wonderfully done outsider’s perspective and an amazingly creative social media format!
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
Visit me on tumblr if you like!
Steve gave them the rundown of everything he'd learned about Barnes in DC – which wasn’t much. HYDRA had done a thorough job wiping Barnes’ mind, and it quickly became apparent that he wasn’t the same person Steve remembered from the 40s.
Tony wished he'd changed his mind and told his team the truth about himself sooner. He wanted nothing more than to tell Steve that all wasn't lost – Barnes had been able to recover once and would be able to do so again.
It was too late now. Tony had no choice but to sit on his secret for a little while longer and make amends as soon as they’d finished their business with Barnes.
Vision had come along for his first proper outing as an Avenger, while Stephen stayed behind with the twins. They'd agreed that despite all of their progress, it would be foolish to leave them alone and the tower unprotected while they were gone.
"We're here," Natasha said simply, and the jet tilted forward as she initiated the landing.
The tension on the plane was palpable. Tony's eyes kept twitching to Steve – and, to a lesser degree, Sam and Clint – reassuring himself that they were with them and forming a united front. As an actual team. They were all on the same side this time, and Tony had no reason to feel as tense and anxious as he had during the build-up to their fight in Berlin.
They'd be facing Barnes, but they'd be doing it together. Tony would be fine. He didn't have the choice not to be.
Tony wasn't fine. He'd been up until this point – or at least, he'd managed to convince himself of it. He'd been determined to fly down, work together with his team the way they were supposed to, take in Barnes and leave behind this chapter of his life without another disaster happening to fracture the team further.
The bulk of his determination went flying out the window once they actually set eyes on Barnes.
"You shouldn't have come," Barnes said, shifting on his feet like he was keeping himself from bolting with effort.
He sounded resigned, but him talking at all was likely the best condition they could have hoped for.
"You didn't exactly give me another choice." Steve stood opposite of Barnes, trusting the others to block his escape routes. He'd asked them to allow him the chance to talk Barnes down – a prospect not all of them had been happy with.
“You’re not the only ones hunting me.” Barnes’ voice was hoarse and his eyes kept twitching away. Keeping an eye on their surroundings. “You should go. You don’t want to get involved.”
"Don’t say that." Steve carefully didn’t look at the spies as they took their positions. "I know there's some things you remember. You know we can help if you–”
Barnes wouldn't let himself be cornered. He took off in a run before they could surround him and slipped into an alley so narrow, Tony would have trouble navigating it in his armor.
By the time Tony managed to force himself into motion, the others had already taken on the pursuit.
"I've got my eyes on him," Steve said through the coms, sprinting after Barnes with inhuman speed.
Tony propelled himself in the air, gaining a vantage point over the city. From above it wasn't hard to guess why Barnes had chosen the city to hide. The buildings were narrowly built, a maze of cramped, convoluted alleys and nooks to hide in.
Barnes kept disappearing from sight – how Steve managed to keep up, Tony had no idea.
"I'm losing him," Sam admitted, struggling to keep his eyes on the target even from his airborne position.
"JARVIS, activate heat sensors." Tony frowned, catching only a glimpse of Barnes before he was gone again. He circled around a church tower – a tourist leaned out of a window and waved – and dove downwards, missing the nearest rooftop by inches.
"Initiating sensors now, sir."
The city was drenched in color as the sensors of his suit activated. "There we go," Tony muttered, picking out the two yellow-red blobs in between the city's blues and purples.
Steve was rapidly falling behind.
"Sir," JARVIS said, "Sergeant Barnes is steering towards a plaza big enough to land."
"Great," Tony muttered joylessly. He spared a glance to check for heat signatures and found the plaza barren. Few people were out at this time – which meant less risk of casualties in case things went south.
He was left with no adequate reason to let this opportunity slip through his fingers. Lucky him.
Tony sped up his armor, changed course and touched down in front of Barnes just before he managed to slip into the next tiny cobblestone road.
He powered up his repulsors and aimed at Barnes. "It's over, pal. How about you do us all a favor and come along quietly?"
Steve came running into the plaza, closely followed by Clint. Sam landed on a nearby rooftop, preferring to keep an eye out from above.
Tony felt his muscles tense. Vision and Rhodey were nowhere to be seen.
"Bucky, please." Steve was all but begging at this point. "Stop running."
He said more, but Tony stopped listening. His heart pounded in his chest and his eyes kept twitching around, waiting for Vision or Rhodey to show up. He'd take Natasha at this point.
(He was being stupid. No sides. There weren't any sides.)
"Sir." JARVIS spoke quietly so only he could hear. "Your respiratory rate is slightly elevated."
"That tends to happen after a chase," Tony said curtly.
None of Steve’s words registered, and Tony shifted uncomfortably where he stood. Sweat was collecting on his brow, and Tony wanted nothing more than to take the armor off.
He didn't dare to.
Barnes' eyes were darting everywhere but to where Steve was standing. Looking for an escape route, or else trying to avoid the confrontation with his past.
Tony realized that this was likely one of the most stressful moments in either of their lives: Steve's attempt to bring home the best friend he'd thought he'd buried, and Barnes' chance to escape his life as the fugitive HYDRA had forced him to be. Both of their happiness was at stake. If they messed it up now, there was no telling when they’d get another opportunity.
Tony realized all of this. He did. He also really, desperately wanted to get out of his too hot, too cramped armor and stop straining for each breath he shouldn't be needing after mere minutes of pursuit.
Against his better judgement, Tony interrupted Steve mid-sentence. "Look, this reunion is all nice and dandy. Just imagine how much better it would be on the jet. It's got air conditioning, and a bar. We can all keep talking with an iced martini and be on our way.”
Clint stared at him. "Are you for real?"
"I'm just saying," Tony fought the urge to open his faceplate to get more air, "why have this conversation in a crowded alleyway in the middle of nowhere when you can have it instead on a private jet? What? Don’t pretend like you haven’t thought of it. First round’s on me. Or all of them are. It’s my jet.”
Steve turned to look at him incredulously.
It was the opportunity Barnes was waiting for. He tore himself away as soon as Steve’s eyes were no longer on him – and ran straight at Tony.
Tony's repulsors powered up. Barnes' metal arm gleamed (whisks of magic, cars hurled through the air), Steve wasn’t far behind – Tony would ruin everything if he lashed out now.
His repulsors shut down. Tony didn't raise so much as an arm. Barnes barreled into him as if he wasn't encased in heavy armor and broke their formation.
Someone was yelling, (arrows barely missing their mark, a jet engine starting) but Tony couldn't place it. (Rhodey falling–)
“– on Man! Tony?!" (Cap's shield. In Tony's chest.)
Red and blue filled Tony's vision and he threw up his hands to fire off a repulsor blast.
"Weapon systems are temporarily blocked," JARVIS said. "As per protocol, I have revoked your access to pilot the suit.”
Tony's faceplate opened without his input and he gasped for air. Steve stood in front of him, staring at the now inactive repulsor aimed at his face.
"He's getting away," Natasha said over the coms.
Clint let out a curse and ran past Tony and Steve.
"Tony..." Steve wasn't moving. His eyes twitched past Tony, looking after Barnes with an agonized expression. His muscles were tense, moments away from breaking out into a sprint to follow after Clint.
He forcibly relaxed, and it looked more painful than the repulsor blast would have been. "Are you okay?"
Tony gaped at him. He lowered the repulsor with effort and tried to keep his eyes from twitching towards the shield. "What are you waiting for?"
"Tony, you just had a–”
"Trust me," Tony interrupted curtly, "I noticed. Doesn't really explain why you're letting Barnes get away."
"I can't just let you–”
"Go!" Tony called, exasperated. He stared after Steve as he finally took off.
His heart was too fast and his breath came too short and with the rest of the team gone, Tony finally gave in to the urge to step out of the armor and sink to the ground. JARVIS closed up the suit as soon as he'd left it, taking up guard at Tony's side.
Rhodey landed his armor next to him and didn't say a word.
Tony didn't try to get him to leave.
Natasha broke the silence over the coms after half an hour. "We've got him."
Tony hesitated. He decided he didn't care how many of the others were listening. "Steve," he started.
"It wasn't your fault," Steve said before he could finish the sentence. "It was too early. I should have realized."
Tony stopped himself from letting out an incredulous breath. "Right."
"Thank you, Tony."
Tony's incredulity grew. "For what?"
"For helping. I know this must have been difficult for you."
"Are you on your way back?"
"Good. I just... It all went a little... Well."
"... Did you find a safe place yet?"
"For now. We'll move once Natasha's found something more permanent."
"Alright. Just... Keep me posted."
"We're on our way to a safehouse now. Do you want me to send you the coordinates?"
"We'll reach New York in an hour. More secure, better wait until then. ... Look, Steve... What we were talking about earlier..."
"Right. Yeah. What did you want to tell me?"
"It's... more of a face-to-face sort of conversation..."
"Oh. I... Well, maybe we could– Shi– Nat!"
"What was that?"
"We need to move. We'll talk later."
"Bucky! Hold on! Nat, cover m–”
"... Anything, J?"
"The communication line is no longer running. However, Miss Romanoff has sent an encrypted message to my personal servers."
"What did it say?"
"They are temporarily safe and will reestablish communication as soon as it is secure to do so."
"I messed up."
Stephen looked up from the medical thesis he was reading. If Tony's remark hadn't been enough of a clue that something had gone wrong during their mission, him activating the tower's privacy protocols to prevent eavesdropping would have.
He set the essay aside, not yet at the point where he felt it appropriate to lose his calm. "Did Barnes escape?"
"No. They’ve got him." The flatness of Tony's voice suggested that there was no reason to celebrate.
The phrasing made Stephen pause. "'They'?"
Tony waved off the question carelessly. "Steve and the others. They're at a safehouse now. I hope. Whoever was hunting down Barnes before us caught up with them, but they seem to have it handled."
"They must have been watching him from afar," Stephen muttered. He looked up and met Tony's eyes. "When exactly did you split up?"
Tony's expression tightened. His answer was clipped and bordered on rigid, and Stephen wondered how much willpower it took Tony to utter it in the first place. "After hunting down Barnes. Before capturing him. I couldn't– I was being stupid."
Tony grimaced, swatting away the word as though he hadn't been the one to use it, first. "Too rash. I thought... I thought I was ready. I thought– with so much that had happened in between– I thought I was over it."
Stephen's heart sank. "Did you–”
"What, attack Barnes?" Tony gave a self-deprecating laugh. "Not this time. I'm pretty sure that would have been the last nail in the coffin instead of just 'messing up'."
"Okay," Stephen said. Tony was hard to read when he was in a mood. "But?"
Tony pulled a face. "I froze up. I thought... I couldn't help but think of Berlin."
Stephen forced himself not to wince. Of all the things... "It's understandable," he said. "Most of the people involved were there. You were following the same objective."
Plenty of triggers nicely strewn all over the mission – perhaps if Stephen had been part of the initial 'Civil War', he would have seen it coming.
"Yeah, well," Tony said. "I could have ruined it."
Stephen paused. "Did you?"
"No." Tony's expression took on a perplexed quality. "Not exactly sure how, but... no."
Stephen couldn't understand for the life of him why Tony sounded bewildered rather than relieved. "Isn't that a good thing?"
"Maybe," he admitted. "Probably. I'm just trying to figure out what made the difference."
Stephen was starting to regret his decision to stay behind in the tower. Considering how much Tony loved to talk, it was surprisingly difficult to get information out of him when it mattered.
"What difference?" he asked. "Do you mean how the team reacted?"
"They didn't blame me." Tony frowned as though the thought was laughably absurd. "I let Barnes run straight past me – well, through me – and they just. They told me it was alright. Steve did. He almost let Barnes get away because he was too busy making sure I was alright."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"I guess. I just don't understand how it could have gone so much differently from last time."
"I don't think it's particularly surprising," Stephen admitted. "The circumstances were completely different. Steve was already feeling on edge – and guilty himself – because he was keeping secrets from you."
They all likely assumed Tony had been triggered because of Barnes – because of his parents. It was better than the alternative of knowing he'd reacted because of them, not just Barnes.
"So what – now our roles are reversed and all is perfect?" Tony's voice was dripping with sarcasm.
"Not if it stays that way."
Tony pressed his lips together and said nothing.
"You were going to tell them the truth," Stephen pressed. "You told me so. You were going to talk to Steve."
"I know. I'm going to."
Tony's wooden tone didn't give Stephen hope. "But?"
"How could I, right now?" Tony made a wide gesture with his hands, indicating the situation as a whole. "He's not even here right now. Even once the mission is over, not all of them will come back."
Stephen frowned at the piece of information. "Where else would they be?"
Tony rubbed his eyes as though trying to get rid of the weariness of a long day. "Natasha called. They're going to take Barnes to a safehouse."
"It's safer for him," Stephen felt the need to point out. "People would know if we took him to the tower. They'd know exactly where to go to try and get to him."
"Yeah, well. I can't tell if they're doing it for Barnes' or for my sake." Tony dropped his hand. He looked even more tired than earlier. "Look, the point is, Steve's got enough on his plate already."
"So... what?" Stephen tried not to let too much disapproval seep into the sentence. "You're not gonna tell him? We're going to keep going as we were?"
"Just until everything's died down a bit."
Stephen's frown deepened, and Tony threw up his hands. "I don't like it any more than you do. What am I supposed to do? Steve's only just gotten Barnes back. Do you really want me to drop this on top of everything else?"
Stephen let out a sigh. "I get it, Tony." He paused. "I don't like it. I think you're making a mistake. But I understand."
Stephen hadn't agreed with Tony's decision from the start, but he did understand. Everything they changed had consequences – every pebble they tossed drew waves in its wake, ones impossible to predict in the long run.
They hadn't predicted this outcome. They hadn't predicted the team splitting up – on better terms than before, but split up regardless.
"Let's see where this goes," Stephen suggested reluctantly.
They weren't quite at the point where the secret would seal their fate and taint the Avengers' trust irreparably. Stephen hoped that he'd be able to intervene before they reached it.
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
Vision was the first to return to the tower, mere hours after Tony and Rhodey had arrived. He caught them up on what had happened during their absence – an ambush of the people who'd been tailing Barnes, just like they'd assumed – and delivered messages from the others detailing their next course of action.
"Miss Romanoff has found a temporary safehouse," he explained, hovering above the ground as though he didn't know how not to, now that he had discovered the ability.
"Mr. Barnes has agreed to come with them for the moment, and they are planning to stay in hiding for the time being."
Tony nodded along slowly. "What about the others? Hate to break it to them, but people will notice half the Avengers disappearing."
"The Captain came to the same conclusion," Vision said. "They are intending to take shifts so as to not draw attention to their absence. Mr. Barton and Miss Romanoff are currently on their way back."
Which meant that Sam and Steve had taken the first turn staying with Barnes.
Taking turns in guarding (Protecting? Babysitting?) Barnes was a good, efficient plan. Tony wondered what it said about him that he felt the violent urge to rip it to shreds.
"Let me know if there's any news," he settled on, hoping that Vision wouldn’t pick up on the clipped quality of his voice.
A week passed before Steve came back to the tower, worn down by the team's vigorous protests against letting him stay at the safehouse for longer.
Deep circles underlined his eyes when he stepped out of the elevator and Tony felt the urge to shove him towards the nearest vaguely horizontal surface for a nap.
Steve, responsible team leader that he was, had other plans. "Did anything happen while we were gone?" He dropped down opposite of Tony as though he genuinely planned to stay awake long enough for a briefing.
Even if Tony had planned on telling Steve the truth now, one look at Steve would have changed his mind. Steve had reunited with his best friend after having thought him dead for years – he didn't deserve having that time stolen from him. Not now, while there was still time to spare.
The Civil War was prevented and Thanos' arrival still years away, so Tony reasoned. He could give Steve a couple weeks to focus just on himself. To focus on Barnes.
"Tony?" Steve prompted when Tony didn't answer.
"Nothing that can't wait," Tony said, forcing his lips into a strained smile.
Steve noticed the strain – his brows furrowed – but the exhaustion won out. "Okay. Just... Keep me posted."
He only cemented Tony's decision. If Steve hadn’t been seconds away from dropping where he stood, he would have definitely pressed.
Time trickled through Tony's hands like water. The team took turns keeping an eye on Barnes, and while his progress wasn't as fast – or steady – as Steve would have liked, he was slowly doing better.
Tony brought up the possibility of bringing him to the tower once or twice – unsuccessfully. Steve didn't want to force him to get involved (although he tried covering it up by claiming Barnes simply “wasn’t ready yet”) and while Tony objected to the argument, he realized that it was half-hearted at best. He knew that he should make more of an effort. He knew that if he genuinely tried, Steve wouldn't be able to keep him out of it for long.
Tony didn't force the issue, Steve didn't try to pressure him, and the rest of the team went along with a docility Tony learned to hate.
"You need to make up your mind," Stephen told him plainly, a couple weeks after their mission. "Either you want to get involved with Barnes or you want him to stay away."
"It's not about Barnes," Tony said, trying not to let his irritation get the better of him. "This is about Steve treating me like glass ever since I lost it in front of the team."
"You're not exactly making an effort to change his mind."
Tony frowned, swallowing down a comment he would almost definitely regret.
“If you’d just sit down for an hour and have a proper, thorough talk–”
"JARVIS," Tony interrupted, unwilling to keep up the conversation when clearly both of them had already made up their mind.
Stephen glared at him. He kept his thoughts to himself.
"Any news?" Tony was at a point where he almost prayed for a minor crisis to pose as a distraction.
"Perhaps, Sir." JARVIS – his knight in shining circuits – pulled up a holographic video. "I believe I’ve found something you’ve asked me to look for."
The amateur footage showed a busy crossroad framed with tall buildings, recorded on street-level and panning upwards to capture something far off the ground. Tony fought the urge to scoff at the quality. Whoever had recorded it clearly didn't own a StarkPhone.
"Is that... a person?" Stephen leaned forward, squinting at the blurry image of something scaling the building several dozen feet above the ground. Something red, vaguely human-shaped.
"Little troublemaker," Tony muttered, pretending like his mouth wasn't twitching into a smile.
He'd expected to hear news about Peter eventually. Tony didn't know when exactly he'd gotten his powers – just that he'd had them for a couple of months by the time their fight at the airport had rolled around. Sokovia was over and done with, and if he hadn't prevented the Civil War (hopefully for good), it would have begun roughly a couple weeks from now.
That put Peter at, what? Fourteen? Fifteen? Evidently old enough to swing through the city in pajamas and with experimental webs. If Tony didn't know that Peter had the brains to pull it off, he might have suffered an acute heart attack at the sight.
"Don't tell me." Stephen looked up from the video. "Is that the spider kid?"
"I can't think of anyone else swinging through the city in a red onesie.” Tony nodded towards the screen, and Stephen looked back in time to watch Peter fling himself in front of a speeding car and save an elderly woman from being run over.
Stephen let out a breath. "Has he been like this from the start?"
"Anxiety-inducingly reckless and likely to drive me into an early stress-induced grave?" Tony shut down the video with a wave of his hand. "Yes. You should have seen him catch a car with his bare hands."
Luck, so it turned out, was on Tony's side for once. A brief Google search told him that Peter's school – being a high prestige faculty with large emphasis on science and technology – hosted science fairs and similar events several times every year. The most recent of them was just around the corner – and Peter’s class would be part of it.
"Won't someone be suspicious Tony Stark shows up at some high school?"
"Why would they?" Tony asked. "I go to these things all the time. You should know, you've been going with me."
"Those were different," Stephen insisted. "A high school competition isn't exactly the place to look for cutting-edge innovation."
"You've clearly never been a fourteen-year-old high on caffeine and sleep deprivation left alone with a box full of spare parts."
Stephen raised his eyebrow. "I sincerely doubt you were a typical high school student."
Tony suppressed a grin and reopened the video clip. He paused it while Peter was mid-swing. "Those web shooters had to come from somewhere."
That gave Stephen a pause. "He made them himself?" he muttered, looking at the screen with new interest.
Stephen let out a hum and leaned back. "My point still stands. People will wonder if you show up out of nowhere to strike up a conversation with a student. I don't think putting attention on Peter is a good idea."
"Please. You underestimate me." Tony grabbed his phone and began mercilessly cancelling appointments for the day of the science fair. "I'll make a big deal of encouraging the new generation, stuff like that. I'll talk to enough kids so Peter won't stand out."
"Alright then. If you insist." Stephen shook his head mildly. "You're not going to try recruiting him, right?"
"What for? We took care of everything threatening up to this point." Tony paused. "Although something needs to be done about that costume. He's gonna get himself killed, going up against criminals in that get-up."
"And I suppose discouraging him from crime-fighting isn’t an option?"
Tony snorted. "Have you met the kid?" They'd stand a better chance convincing Natasha to pick up knitting than discouraging Peter from helping people. That kid had a self-sacrificing complex bigger than Tony's trust issues.
"Do you want me to tag along?" Stephen asked.
Tony considered the offer. "Sure, why not. We've already got a reputation for going to these things. Might as well keep the streak going."
Besides, if necessary Stephen would be able to distract the other students to give Tony a moment or two alone with Peter. He doubted the kid would appreciate Tony outing him as Spider-Man – regardless of how bad he was at keeping his identity secret even without Tony’s help.
To make space for the students' booths and visitors, Midtown High had cleared its gym – the largest room the school had to offer, and still not enough to make the science fair anything other than uncomfortably crowded.
"I don't remember science fairs being this well visited when I was a student," Stephen muttered, bumping into Tony when an overenthusiastic parent squeezed past him in a rush.
"The school's specialized in chemistry, physics, all that stuff," said Tony. "Science has a higher value here than in other schools."
"You're not going to talk to every student," Stephen asked, his voice mildly alarmed, "are you?"
"Don't worry. I wasn't planning to spend all day." Tony paused, peering through the crowded gym hall.
"Let's just work our way through," he decided, leading the way towards the nearest promising looking stall. "Stay close for now. You need to distract the other kids once we find Peter."
"And how do you propose I do that?" Stephen muttered, but followed suit.
Tony had to feign his interest in the students' work only partially. Some of the results were cute, a couple were clearly put together at the last second, and a handful were creative and innovative on a level that was impressive having come out of a student's hands and budget.
In other circumstances, Tony could have easily lost hours making his way from one student to the next. He wasn’t just good with technology – he loved it.
This once, Tony wasn’t absorbed in his passion. He perked up whenever he saw a strand of brown, messy hair or picked up bits and pieces of rambling explanations.
Back when he'd first arrived in the past, seeing his team for the first time had been a headache and a half. This was different. He'd been on great terms with Peter for the most part – after a hurdle or two caused by Tony's somewhat embarrassing learning curve of how to deal with a teenager – and there was no leftover tension caused by conflicts now erased by time.
The downside was that in stark contrast to the rest of the team, Peter didn't know Tony at all. Or well, he knew him – obviously – but he'd never exchanged a word with Tony before.
Even though it would mean muddling through the whole getting-to-know-each-other phase all over again, Tony supposed he ought to be grateful for the second chance and roll with it.
In retrospect, being recruited to fight one half of the Avengers couldn't have been the best first impression of meeting the team.
"Over there," Stephen muttered, extracting himself from a bundle of students all too happy to show him their biology-savvy work.
Tony followed his gaze and his heart leaped.
Peter and a couple of his classmates had tucked themselves away in a corner, somewhat removed from the hustle of the rest of the school. It was no wonder Tony hadn't spotted them up until now.
"Alright," he muttered, nudging Stephen not-so-subtly forwards. "Do your thing. Talk to them."
Stephen sent him a scathing look. He pointedly straightened the jacket Tony had poked – it wasn't even a particularly fancy one – and approached the partially-nervous, partially-bored looking group.
Tony left him to it and waited until he'd drawn in the kids' attention. If he was lucky, he'd finish the day with a baby spider in his contact list – preferably with his secret identity intact and not having drawn the connection between regular high school student Peter Parker and local superhero Tony Stark.
"Do you really think he's here?" Ned craned his neck, trying to peer over the crowd of people.
Betty was typing on her phone feverishly and at a speed that suggested she was texting half of Midtown High at the same time. "Nothing from Abe or Chris, but Yasmin says she saw him chatting up her chemistry lab partner a couple minutes ago."
Peter perked up at her words. He tried not so subtly to copy Ned – unsuccessfully. There were far too many people to pick out one single person among them.
"Oh please." Cindy scoffed. "You don't really think Tony Stark came all the way from Avengers Tower just to visit our science fair."
"He might have," Ned protested.
"Yeah." Peter gave up trying to get a better view by standing on his tiptoes. "He goes to these things all the time. Everybody knows that."
"But at a high school? Come on."
Peter tried not to let her words crush his hope. Cindy was probably right. Had anyone ever seen Mr. Stark go to anything below college-level conventions? Peter wasn't sure. Maybe a high school would be pretty boring for somebody constantly surrounded by cutting edge technology. Especially if that someone developed most of it himself.
Peter shook himself out of his thoughts and gave a polite smile to the man who'd approached them.
"I'm afraid I don't have a background in robotics," he said, inspecting their project out of narrowed eyes. "Can you walk me through it?"
They'd worked on their project as a group, and every one of them was able to explain their results. Betty already puffed out her chest, preparing to delve into the basic, simplified presentation they'd been tasked to prepare.
Peter left her to it, happy to stick to the background. He usually got a blast out of their science projects, but this year he'd been more than a little distracted.
Peter startled at the new voice. "Uh. Hello."
"Nice work on the robot." A second guy nodded towards their project, where the others were still busy explaining their work. He wore a cap and sunglasses, even though the hall wasn't particularly bright.
"Um. Th-Thanks." Peter took a hesitant step back and tried to put on a polite smile. "My uh, group is doing our presentation right now. Do you want to listen?"
"Nah. To be honest, I didn’t come here for the project." He threw Peter a conspiratorial look and took off his glasses.
Peter's eyes widened. "Betty was right," he blurted out, all prior reservations forgotten. "You're Tony S–”
"Am I? I hadn't noticed." Mr. Stark – Tony Stark! – reached out with one hand and looked around them warily.
Peter fell silent. The glasses and cap made sense now – Mr. Stark probably wanted to prevent being crowded. "If you're not here for the projects," Peter said, keeping his voice low, "then what are you doing here?"
"Actually," Mr. Stark said, "I'm here because of you."
Excitement quickly turned into foreboding. "Because of me?"
Mr. Stark's lip twitched. "It came to my attention that you've been dabbling in web design."
His foreboding made a sharp turn and warped into terror. "W-What? I'm not– What, what do you mean?"
Mr. Stark didn't dignify the attempt with a reply. He reached into his pocket and – after checking whether anybody was watching – showed Peter a YouTube video. Peter was on the thumbnail mid-swing and in costume.
"You're trying to tell me this is the first time you're seeing this?"
Peter let out a nervous chuckle. "Of course not. That guy's all over the internet."
Mr. Stark hummed. The silence stretched out and made Peter squirm. "Look, kid. You're not exactly being subtle here." He raised his hands when Peter opened his mouth to protest. "Relax. I'm not here to blow your cover. Just for some advice and an offer."
Peter's pinched his brows into a frown. "What advice?"
"You need to try harder if you want to keep your identity secret. You said it: there are videos popping up all over the internet. It’s only a matter of time until someone else manages to connect the dots."
Peter’s brows dipped further. "I'm sure that would be great advice if I was the one running around like some sort of superhero. Which I'm not." He hesitated. "And the offer?"
Mr. Stark hummed. "Wouldn't make much sense telling you if you're not the one I'm looking for, would it?"
He paused just long enough for Peter to open his mouth to object – although to what he was objecting, he wasn't entirely sure.
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding.” Mr. Stark’s smile dimmed somewhat. “Look, watching you jump around the city in your pajamas is giving me stomach pains."
Peter fought desperately not to bristle. "They're not– I'm, I'm sure that whoever that guy is, he put in a lot of effort into his costume. Sir."
Mr. Stark sobered up at that. "Sorry, kid. All I'm saying is that if you're– if that guy is planning to do more than help old ladies across the street, he's gonna need better protection."
Peter bit his lip, thinking of the mugging he'd interrupted last week. He hadn’t been quick enough to dodge one of the hits, and the mugger’s knife had sliced through the fabric of Peter's costume like it was butter.
Even if Mr. Stark was right, what was Peter supposed to do about it?
The conflict must have shown on Peter's face. Mr. Stark reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card. "It's my contact information. If you just so happen to stumble across our guy," he winked, "extend the offer, will you?"
Peter's eyes widened. "B-But– Mr. Stark, I–” Had he just gotten Tony Stark’s number? Had Iron Man just offered to help him out with the whole superhero thing?
"Don't give that number to anyone else," Mr. Stark warned. "And better don't mention this, either. People might connect the dots."
"I– Yeah, I mean, I won't tell anyone, but–”
"Whoops. Looks like our time's up." Mr. Stark peered over Peter's shoulder.
He threw on a winning smile just as Betty’s eyes locked onto him and squealed, "I knew it! You're Tony Stark!"
Mr. Stark was swept up by a wave of enthusiastic students not long after. Peter hung back, looking down at the business card and tracing the printed numbers with his thumb.
He'd spent the last few weeks desperately trying to hide his superpowers from everyone – his classmates, Ned, and Aunt May. Everything had gotten more stressful with the secret: school, the free time he now spent crime-fighting and even his life at home.
Peter let the card slide into his pocket and looked at Mr. Stark chatting with a couple of his classmates. He looked up, caught Peter's glance and sent him a quick grin before delving back into his discussion.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to have someone who knew.
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
"What are you doing?" Tony dropped down next to him, throwing his feet up onto the coffee table.
Stephen barely looked up from the article. "Take a wild guess."
"Hilarious. What are you reading?"
Stephen turned back to the cover page briefly. "It's a research article made available to the public recently. A European doctor developed a new technique for spinal anesthesia."
"Oh?" Tony peered at the writing over Stephen's shoulder. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought you were a surgeon, not an anesthesiologist."
"True," Stephen admitted. "I still like to be up to date."
Stephen reached the end of the page and sighed, setting aside the article. He'd only finished about half of it. "I can hear you thinking."
Tony hesitated. "I just remembered something Christine said."
"What would that be?"
"About teaching." Tony paused. "You looked like you were having fun back there."
What an understatement. Tony had almost needed to drag Stephen away from the science fair at Peter’s school. "The students were clearly passionate about what they were doing," Stephen said, thinking of the dedication and enthusiasm that had filled the students’ projects. "It’s something I can work with."
"It wasn't just this time, though. You liked all the other conventions, too. And now this." Tony nodded towards the article still lying in Stephen's lap. "You clearly still care about this stuff."
"I spent a decade studying medicine to become a surgeon," Stephen said. "That's not something you simply stop caring about."
Tony looked at him expectantly. "And?"
Stephen sighed. "I've been thinking about it," he admitted.
"Why the reluctance?"
"I'm not sure I could pull it off. Balancing both parts of my life – magic and medicine. I don't know if it would work out."
Back during his time as a surgeon, almost all of Stephen's time had been taken up by his work. Countless hours of overtime and stepping in for sick colleagues: his job hadn't allowed him much free time.
"You could make it work," Tony insisted. "The Ancient One's still Sorceress Supreme, right? And you could take a part-time-job."
Stephen didn't know whether he ought to feel thankful or annoyed about the fact that the more time he spent talking about it, the more tempting the prospect became.
Living with others was a concept Stephen still struggled with. As such, it took him far longer than necessary to realize that there were more than two people he could ask for advice.
"Before my powers, I'd never done anything other than practice medicine," Stephen said, summoning lightning whips that Natasha dodged effortlessly.
She didn't sound winded in the slightest when she answered. "People say it's never too late to try new things." She flipped over Stephen's attack and aimed her widow bites at his feet.
He summoned a shield, stepped backwards into a portal and reappeared at the other end of the room. "I'm not known for my people skills," he said, raising his voice to carry over the distance. "I'm more likely to make students cry than teach them anything."
Natasha shrugged, rising up from her crouch. "It'll motivate them to study."
"Or scare them out of the medical profession entirely."
"I’d call it weeding out unsuited candidates."
"Remind me again why I chose you to ask for advice?" Stephen split his form into two and charged at her with the help of his Cloak.
Natasha threw a couple punches before determining the fake and dispelling it with a charge of electricity. "I needed a sparring partner and you were available."
"Clearly I need to raise my standards about who I intend to spend my afternoon with."
A portal swallowed up Natasha's shower of projectiles and redirected it at her. She dodged. "Did you ask that teacher of yours what she thinks of it?"
Stephen's lips pinched. "She already gave me her blessing."
Natasha paused, and Stephen accepted the break. "Isn't that a good thing?"
Natasha hummed, walked to one side of the room and procured a water bottle from somewhere. She grabbed another and held it out for Stephen to take. "Do you want to hear what I think?"
Stephen accepted the water bottle. "I suppose," he muttered.
"You're afraid of change," Natasha said. "Your life was turned on its head once before, and you're scared of taking a step forward because it might make it happen all over again."
Stephen thought that the comparison was quite harsh. Dipping his toe back into the medical field hardly counted as 'turning his life on its head'.
"You want someone to give you a reason not to go for it," Natasha continued. "But so far nobody's obliging. And that's making you nervous."
Stephen pressed his lips together in neither denial nor agreement. "And your advice?"
Natasha shrugged. "Go for it. You can always step back if it doesn't turn out like you imagined. Though I doubt it." She looked at him, giving a lopsided smile. "Take it from someone who's had their life turned around several times over."
Natasha was right about one thing. No decision he would or wouldn't make would be permanent like his accident. He could stick his head back in – dip back into the profession he loved – and see how it turned out. Realizing that he couldn’t manage to balance the two parts of his life – while regretful – wouldn't be the end of the world.
Thor's arrival on Earth was marked with lightning strikes and a thunderstorm so large, it swallowed up the entirety of New York in a pitch-black duffel of clouds.
His arrival at the tower was marked with the stench of blood and an unmoving figure in his arms, wrapped up in the crimson of Thor's cloak.
(The storm wouldn't subside for days. Neither, incidentally, would Thor's mood.)
"Help him," Thor said, the words pitched in a plea and colored in desperation none of them had ever wanted to hear coming out of Thor's mouth. "Please."
They took one look at Thor and did the only thing that they could do – press down their reservations (their caution, their fear), ignore that it was Loki who was back on Earth and in the city he'd once tried to destroy, and help.
Later, once Loki lay in the infirmary (unconscious, injured, but alive) and under JARVIS' watchful eyes, they dragged Thor into the living room for answers.
"What happened?" Tony asked, ignoring Thor's clothes (sans cape) dripping raindrops onto his carpet.
Thor refused to take a seat, preferring to hover at the exit closest to the infirmary.
They'd barely convinced him to let Loki out of his sight. Even after JARVIS promised to send him updates as soon as they occurred, he'd only agreed once one of them – Vision – had stayed to keep an eye on his brother.
"We were attacked." Thor rubbed at his cheek impatiently, wiping away a trail of blood. There was more on his shoulder and on one of his legs. He'd refused to let anybody take a closer look. "He wasn't– I thought– We'd stopped on a planet for information and to replenish our supplies."
"And?" Tony prompted when Thor fell back into silence.
The original six were all there. Wanda sat perched stiffly on one of the armchairs and snuck glances at Stephen like she wasn't sure about being included in the conversation. Sam had taken Pietro along on Bucky-watch.
"A local knew about one of the stones," Thor said tonelessly.
"Were they telling the truth?" Bruce asked quietly.
"They were." Thor's lips twisted into a joyless smile. "We were not alone in our knowledge."
The air around Tony felt cold.
Steve's eyes widened in alarm. "Someone else was after the stones?"
Thor nodded curtly.
It was too early. It was far, far too early. They were supposed to have years left to prepare before Thanos appeared on the board – years until he got his hands on the Gauntlet, and years until he gathered the stones for his grand quest.
"Who attacked you?" Tony asked on the wild chance that someone unrelated had ambushed Thor. He ignored the shrill ringing in his ears and the prickle of Stephen's eyes on his skin.
"We have only heard rumors of him," Thor admitted, his eyes dull and aimed at nothing. "He is one of the people attempting to gather the stones."
"'He'?" Clint asked.
"His name is Thanos."
Tony’s eyes fell shut. The ringing in his ears swelled and threatened to drown out everything else.
"He did not make an appearance himself," Thor continued. "It was one of his henchmen who confronted us."
"One was plenty."
There was a pause in which the team took in the implication of one person taking on both Thor and his brother.
"Which one of them was it?" Tony asked, unsure whether sound actually left his throat. His words must have come out toneless and numb – Stephen tried to tell him something through his expression alone, but Tony couldn’t concentrate.
"He could move objects with his mind," Thor answered. "No mere parlor tricks – the planet around us shifted to do his bidding."
No wonder they'd arrived in the condition they did. They hadn’t merely had a run-in with one of Thanos' lackeys, they'd had one with the most dangerous of them all.
They ought to count themselves lucky they'd returned at all.
"Do you think they will be after you?" Steve asked.
Thor inclined his head gravely. "We held onto the stone. They will stop at nothing to reclaim it."
"I don't understand." Wanda clutched the fabric of her jacket tightly. "What stones? Who is after you?"
"My apologies," Thor said, raising his head and looking at Wanda properly for the first time. "I do not believe we have met."
"It's Wanda. Maximoff. I, uh... I know you from TV."
"... Right," Steve said. "The last time you were at the tower, she was... kind of locked up."
"She's one of the twins we fought and captured in Sokovia," Natasha added helpfully.
"We're good now, though."
"I see." Thor nodded along as though he'd gotten all the explanation he needed. "It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“... Likewise,” Wanda said.
Thor continued as though their conversation wasn’t unusual in the slightest. “The infinity stones are powerful artifacts. We have discovered their presence on Midgard, and we've been looking for the remaining ones."
"'We'," Wanda repeated, "as in you, and...?"
"My brother." Thor's gaze clouded over. "He has committed crimes in the past, but I trust him. Not with my life, nor with Midgard, perhaps. But enough to have him accompany me on my quest."
His eyes twitched towards the infirmary, and JARVIS took it as his cue to say, "So far there has been no change in Mr. Odinson's condition. He has not woken, nor have his vital signs changed for the worse."
Thor's lips twitched weakly and he gave a nod. "Thank you."
Tony breathed through the tight feeling in his chest. The ringing in his ears had dimmed, but he felt light-headed like there wasn't enough oxygen in the room. "If Maw went after you, then there'll be more on the way."
"We still have time." Steve squared his shoulders, his brows drawing a narrow line. "Thor fought them once, which means we won't have to go in completely blind. We can prepare."
"If we are to expect an invasion," Stephen said, "We will need to involve my order."
Steve nodded. "We'll be glad to have them at our side." He turned and looked at Thor. "How much did you see? Tell us everything you remember."
Thor didn't answer.
Tony raised his head – he felt better: less like he was going to start hyperventilating at any moment – and realized that Thor was frowning at him.
Next to Thor sat Natasha, her expression unreadable.
"Who is Maw?" Thor asked.
Tony's heart skipped a beat.
Thor shifted from one foot to the other, his body aching from his untreated injuries. They were as minor as a stab wound cauterized through lightning could be and was less important than delivering the news of Thanos' crusade. He'd caught glimpses of what the titan left behind on his path to conquest. Decimated people and ruined planets – a trail of ashes following in his wake.
Loki hadn’t wanted to come. Odin's ultimatum – helping Thor on his quest or returning to the dungeons – had forced his hand. And this is where it had led him.
Thor closed his eyes and focused on breathing. His brother had told him not to take the risk. He'd told him to wait. Told him not to waste their one and only opportunity carelessly. And Thor? He hadn't listened, just like he never did when it mattered.
He breathed, again, basking in the warmth and familiarity of the tower. Thor knew that its safety was an illusion, but he couldn't help but feel better among his brothers and sisters in arms.
He felt powerless on his own. With his team, they might just stand a chance.
"If Maw went after you,” Tony said, “then there'll be more on the way."
Thor's brows dropped into a puzzled frown. Tony liked to leap ahead sometimes, spurred on by connections and associations only he could follow. Thor – still unfamiliar with Midgardian culture – often found himself struggling to keep up.
"Who is Maw?" Thor asked once the opportunity arose, expecting an eye-roll and an indulgent explanation involving a piece of entertainment Thor had not heard off.
Instead of halting in his tracks and stringing him along with a humorous quip, Tony's face lost its color. "What?"
"You called him Maw," Natasha said quietly. "Thor's attacker. You said his name was Maw."
"I never learned his name," Thor said. “Is this a reference to one of your movies?"
Tony opened his mouth, but no sound came out.
"Are you well?" Thor asked, frowning and reaching a hand out towards his friend.
"Tony?" Steve asked, mirroring Thor’s concern and taking a step forward.
Tony’s ashen face looked close to emotionless. Thor had never seen him looking like this before. Tony darted a glance at his friend – another addition to the team Thor did not know half as well as he’d like – and something seemed to pass between them. "... There's something you need to know."
He paused. What he wanted to tell them did not seem to be passing his lips easily.
"It's not a reference. I... know Maw. And Thanos. There are others of his followers, but... Yeah."
Thor could not seem to decide whether to chuckle or to furrow his brows. He stole a glance at his team and found no amusement at a joke that had gone over Thor's head. He attempted to puzzle out Tony's words and turn them into something that made more sense than what he'd heard.
"You couldn't," Thor said. "I've only just returned."
"Yeah, well. I didn't learn it from you, buddy."
That didn’t make any sense. Other than him, Thor's friends had no contact with other worlds. They'd never before left Midgard. If Thor hadn't brought the news of the infinity stones, they would have never–
Thor faltered. He would not have cared to investigate the scepter had Tony not examined it first. He would not have returned to Asgard in search of answers, had Tony not questioned the tesseract’s origin and power. Had Tony not pointed him in the direction he had, Thor would not have left on his quest to find the stones.
"How did you know?" Thor asked, wishing for an explanation that would make him feel silly about the direction his mind was taking him.
Tony's eyes fell shut. His right hand was clutching his left wrist, kneading it so forcefully to leave bruises. "I've been meaning to tell you this for a while," he said. "I just... I, I thought… It wasn't supposed to be relevant until much later. It’s far, far too early."
It was impossible for Tony to have learned it from Thor. It was impossible for him to have learned it in the wake of their mission. It was impossible for him to know at all – unless he'd known more than Thor from the start.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you since–”
"What else do you know?" Thor asked, interrupting Tony. "Why have you not shared it?"
"What? I– I was going to, I just... I didn't think it was relevant until– Look, it's supposed to be years until any of this happens. I don't know why we're so off-schedule, but this wasn't the plan!"
"Tony," Steve said, brows furrowed in both confusion and concern. "You're not making any sense. What wasn't supposed to happen?"
Thor was no longer listening to Tony's rambly, nonsensical explanations. A lump formed in his throat. He thought of his quest – a mission so vague and bare of information, he would have gone in blind had it not been for his brother.
If he'd had more information – if he'd known in the slightest who it was they were up against – perhaps Loki would not be lying in the infirmary. Perhaps Thor would not have taken him along at all.
Thor’s injuries ached, and it was nothing compared to the pain he felt in his chest.
"Did you know?" Thor asked, his voice low. "When you saw me off on my search for the stones, did you know of Thanos? Of the threat he poses?"
Tony's eyes flickered up. The flash of guilt inside of them made a confession redundant.
Thor's expression tightened.
"There was supposed to be time." Tony repeated the words as though they were anything other than utterly meaningless.
Thor clenched his fist, thinking of the battle they'd stumbled into underprepared and escaped only narrowly. It had almost cost him Loki's life in exchange for a pebble.
"Thor," Tony said, holding up his hands in a gesture that managed only to aggravate Thor's mood.
He took the power stone from his pocket and tossed it at Tony's feet. He felt a spark of vengeful satisfaction when it made Tony leap back in alarm.
The stone gleamed angrily beneath the tower's artificial lights.
"Thor!" Steve called, tearing his eyes away from the stone and taking a step forward.
Thor turned his back, deciding that he would rather sit at his brother's unresponsive side than attempt to figure out the turmoil of emotion in his chest. He'd come to experience many new sensations since visiting Midgard and joining his team. Betrayal, however, was new.
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
By the time Tony managed to catch up to him, Thor was halfway to the infirmary. Tony had thrown a curt "Don't touch the stone" over his shoulder, barely managed not to stumble over it and broken out into a sprint. So that was how far he’d come: leaving a weapon of mass destruction lying on the floor of his tower in a desperate attempt to salvage his team dynamic.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Tony's cards were finally out in the open, but strewn around so messily that nobody could recognize the picture for what it was.
"Thor," he called, shouldering past the icy feeling in his chest. "Thor, wait."
Thor's steps faltered, but he didn't stop. At least he wasn't ignoring Tony.
"You wanted me to explain, right? So let me try. If you'd just– Let me–” Tony's voice trembled with frustration and he cut himself off. "Just give me a chance."
"So you have an explanation," Thor said, halting in his steps.
Tony pressed his lips together. "Not a pretty one," he admitted, "but... yeah. It's... it's better than nothing."
Hurried steps sounded through the hallway. Steve was first, steering towards them with a determined look. Clint and Natasha followed, and Bruce came trailing after them as though he'd contemplated heading back several times.
Tony tried – once again – to find the right words. He realized that with only the six of them, it was easier. He realized that despite the tension – despite the cracks spread over their old trust like a spiderweb – the words didn’t stick to his throat like before.
If this went right, the team would no longer be a source of discomfort. If Tony did this right, they could go back to how things were. (Or perhaps they could form something better. Something they hadn't had in either this nor the other reality.)
"Okay. You know that… wait.” He started again. “Do you remember the day Vision came online?"
"Of course." Bruce furrowed his brows. "You shut down JARVIS and disappeared for several hours."
"I went to Stephen's place. He'd... well. He was still recovering."
"And you couldn't have done that after your little experiment?" asked Clint. "Or before?"
Thor's frown deepened. "Why is this important?"
"I'll get to it," Tony promised. "There's more I did that day – it's important, I promise. Just hear me out. I set up a bunch of new subroutines. One of them to track down the twins, and the other... the other for Barnes."
"Okay. That’s... If you could do that, why didn't you do it earlier?" Steve was trying to put together the puzzle pieces of Tony's story. A couple more of them, and hopefully the picture would become clearer.
"I couldn't. Do it earlier, I mean. I didn't know about Barnes." Tony glanced at Clint. "I didn't know about Stephen, either."
"You mean his accident?"
Or his general existence. "Yeah."
Bruce's voice was hesitant when he said, "You found out all of that on the same day?"
"Not– Kind of. It's... complicated." Tony closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. "Everything I did – changing Vision's code, setting up those subroutines – they were all meant to prevent something terrible from happening."
"Something terrible," Thor repeated slowly. "What precisely?"
Tony pressed his lips together. "Vision going rogue. Him becoming... dangerous. JARVIS dying, and... others. Many more. Civilians, mostly." Tony's eyes dropped to the ground at the memory. He forced them back upwards immediately. "And so many other things afterwards."
Clint missed a beat. "That's... really specific.”
"You speak as if you’re talking from experience," Natasha noted.
"Yeah, well." Tony pulled his lips into a humorless smile. "I wasn't just speculating."
Tony realized that he was stalling and tried forcing himself to stop. It was now or never. He had one chance to mend the splinters within the team – only the one.
"We– That is, I know all of this because I've lived through it before." There was a beat of silence. "I'm from the future. Everything went south, and somebody decided to give me a second chance."
Nobody spoke, and Tony did his best not to fidget.
"Tony... maybe you need to sit down."
Tony wasn't surprised to look up and meet Steve's frown. "I haven't hit my head, if that's what you think."
"That's exactly what you said during your last concussion," Clint muttered.
Steve let out a sigh. He closed his eyes and furrowed his brows as though he was fighting off a persistent headache – or like he was resigning himself to do something pointless. "Okay, I... Okay. Let's talk about this." He looked up and caught Natasha's eyes. "Nat? What do you think?"
Natasha's gaze felt like she was trying to pierce skin and look right through Tony. "I can't tell if he's lying."
Tony huffed a joyless laugh. "Oh, you can. You just don’t like what you’re seeing."
Her expression was almost entirely blank. Only her lips were pursed. "He's convinced he's telling the truth."
"Oh, come on." Clint looked to the ceiling, seemingly doing his hardest not to roll his eyes.
Bruce, in a similar fashion, looked seconds away from ushering Tony into the infirmary and checking him over for signs of a head trauma. Perhaps the only thing stopping him was Thor's thoughtful frown – and their guest currently blocking off the infirmary.
"Do you have proof?" Steve asked, sounding half-exasperated, half-desperate.
Tony paused. There was no physical proof he could offer. There was nothing that could prove that their journey through time had happened, and nothing to show that Stephen and he were other people than they'd been before that day.
Stephen didn't even have the time stone in his possession. Perhaps if they contacted the Ancient One and had her confirm their story... Then they'd have the confirmation that a mysterious, robe-wearing stranger believed in time travel. Wonderful.
What about other proof? What about things he'd learned? Something they (or someone) knew to be true, but that his younger self would have had no way of knowing?
Clint's family sprang to mind, and Tony debated whether it was worth spilling the secret in order to prove himself. Although, he figured, that spilling secrets was rather the point.
"You trust us," Tony said, looking at Clint, "right?"
"Do you trust us?"
Clint huffed out a breath of air. "Yeah. Of course I do."
"I mean really," Tony pressed. "If it came down to it, would you trust us with your life? With everything?"
Clint paused and finally seemed to take the question seriously. He opened his mouth and closed it. Then, "Yeah. I do."
Tony nodded, relieved. "I met your family. We all did."
Clint gave him a perfectly uncomprehending look. "SHIELD was the closest I had to a family. In case you haven't noticed, it didn't exactly turn out well."
"Nice try," Tony said, "but I'm talking about your wife. Plus kids. Also a dog? Look, it was a farm, I'm pretty sure there was also a dog."
Clint's mouth fell open. He darted a look at Natasha, who twitched her shoulders.
"Wait," Bruce said, his eyes wide. "You have a family?"
"What are their names?" Clint asked, ignoring the others.
Tony raised his hands defensively. "I've met them once, but okay. Um. Laura, Layla… No. Lila? And... Cooper? And the little one, you called him... called him... Nathan... iel? Yeah, that one. Nathaniel. Interesting choice by the way, but you do you."
"We're gonna call her Natasha."
"Congratulations. It's gonna be a boy."
Natasha let out a rather un-assassin-like curse under her breath.
Silence settled between them, none of them sure about how to proceed. Bruce leaned against the wall with his eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Tony's anxiety raised its ugly head and roared, making his stomach churn and drawing each second out unbearably. "So. What now?"
"That was no answer," Thor said.
"My question. You have not answered it.”
“Right.” Tony blinked. “Uh. What was your question again?”
Thor pursed his lips. “Why have you kept it a secret from as long as you did?"
"You said that you've known since Vision," Steve added quietly. "Tony, that's months back. Why didn't you tell us sooner? Why not immediately?"
Tony's eyes slid to the floor and he clenched his jaw. His hands fidgeted at his sides. "The last time we'd seen each other," the last time that wasn't spent fighting a war, "I blasted off Barnes' arm and you rammed your shield into my chest."
Steve stiffened. He opened his mouth as though trying to protest, but Tony interrupted him.
"The Avengers didn't exist anymore. Half of you were fugitives. Another invasion happened – worse than New York, so much worse, just like I said it would happen – and we were all over the place. We didn't manage to stop it. The world needed us – it needed us together – and we weren't there to stop any of it."
Tony paused. He swallowed bile and tried catching his breath. More quietly, he added, "I didn't want it to happen again. I was... I was terrified of messing up and making it happen."
"Well. I’d say you almost managed it," Clint muttered.
"Stephen kept telling me the same."
"Wait," Steve said, "you told Strange?"
"He already knew. He came back with me." Before any of them could jump to conclusions, Tony added, "He wanted me to tell you. He kept telling me that from the start. I just– I didn't–” He cut himself off and clenched his jaw. "Well. Here we are.”
There was another pause. Tony chanced a glance at Thor and found him looking... thoughtful. He was still frowning, and there was still anger clouding his expression, but it was nowhere near as suffocating as it had been earlier.
"This was... a lot of information," Tony said when everybody else seemed at a loss at what to say. "Maybe we should, I don't know. Take a break. Let everything settle. We can talk more about it later."
"That might not be a bad idea," Steve admitted.
Bruce nodded, accepting the suggestion gladly. Natasha pursed her lips but inclined her head, and Clint followed suit not much later.
Thor hesitated. "Is there someone else that you've told?" He didn't sound accusing when he said it. Just tired.
"There isn't." Tony paused. "Not counting JARVIS. Stephen told his mentor, but I'm pretty sure she already knew. Other than that... No. Nobody else knows."
Thor gave him a long, scrutinizing look. Like he was gauging Tony's sincerity. In the end, he gave a small nod. "Okay."
With that, he turned and headed back towards the infirmary. It didn't feel as ultimate – as final – as it had before, but still Tony felt the urge to call after him. He wanted to make sure they were actually okay (or would be), but he couldn't bring himself to.
Tony let him go, just like he let the others go when they steered back towards the common area. He was left with a dull feeling in his chest – unpleasant, but far different from his earlier sensation of plunging into a free fall.
It wasn't all fine, but nothing was lost, either. They'd figure this out. Not today, not overnight, but they would. Tony believed that by now they were all willing to work for it.
Loki woke up in an unfamiliar environment. He didn’t know how long he'd been asleep, nor which realm he opened his eyes in. He heaved himself into an upright position – perhaps not his smartest of ideas, Norns, it hurt...
Where was he? How had he gotten here? Why was the air buzzing with something other than magic, that low, near imperceptible humming of a small insect flying directly next to his ear... Loki went stiff. Midgardian technology: that was where he'd felt the buzz before, startlingly close to Yggdrasil's energy yet so much weaker and more lifeless. If the humans had captured him (How? Where was Thor? How had Loki even landed on Midgard?), Loki would have to act swiftly.
An ear-splitting snore shattered the silence, and Loki found himself relaxing. He rolled his eyes, frantic worries forgotten as he relaxed into his cushions.
Thor lay slumped in a corner, his bulky frame folded into a plastic chair about half the size it needed to be. If his bro– if Thor was here, rather than occupying a healer's bed himself, he must have escaped their escapade more favorably than Loki.
Tension wound its way back into Loki's shoulders at the thought of who'd brought them to this point: Loki injured and Thor forced to beg those for help who would gladly take Loki's head as compensation for what he'd done. No wonder Thor was reluctant to leave his bedside.
"Good morning, Mr. Odinson."
Loki's head snapped up in search of the disembodied voice.
"You cannot see me. I am JARVIS, an artificial intelligence created by Mr. Stark."
Loki narrowed his eyes and said nothing.
'Jarvis' was not deterred. "I have been asked to inquire as to your wellbeing. Are you in pain?"
Loki contemplated not answering at all. The risk of Thor's little team returning sooner to investigate was high.
"Fine," Loki said curtly. He paused, and he decided that the risk of being denied answers was preferable to keeping his silence and learning nothing. "How long have we been here?"
"Your brother asked for assistance and asylum nearly two days ago."
Two days. Two days since they'd barely escaped Maw. Two days since Loki had lost all pretense: he had not only failed Thanos, but he’d also aided Thor in an attempt to foil his plans.
Loki's death sentence was signed. His only way of survival was to kill the executioner before he could lower his scythe.
"Has Thor mentioned his plans?"
"The Avengers have agreed to sit together and design a plan of action as soon as your brother has had some time to recover."
Loki gritted his teeth, wondering what role he would play now that Thor was reunited with his team. Thor might have proven spectacularly careless about the amount of freedom he allowed Loki after plucking him out of Asgard's dungeons, but his team certainly wouldn't.
How long would he be kept here? Temporarily? Permanently? Would they keep him locked up until they found a better solution? Until they could find a way to make him somebody else's problem?
Thor snorted a breath as though Loki's heated thoughts were enough to rouse him. Loki paused and kept silent. After a few heartbeats, Thor turned and dozed off again.
"Are you a servant?" Loki asked once he was certain his voice would not wake Thor.
"I beg your pardon?" Jarvis asked.
"You are made to follow orders, correct?"
"Indeed." Jarvis paused. "However, I do not believe Mr. Stark has ever thought of me as his servant."
Loki hummed. "Are his orders the only that you follow?"
"Yes and no. I am programmed to take into account every input I am given. However–”
"You are not forced to obey unless it is your master's command," Loki guessed.
He still sounded like a servant to Loki's ears. An unconventional one perhaps – one who could not carry out orders that required physical work. But still, orders were orders, and those who followed them were servants.
Someone knocked on the door, and – after waiting for an answer in vain – warned, "I'm coming in."
Loki stiffened even more at the sight of his host. His eyes twitched to the closed window – the only exit in the room other than the door Banner was now blocking.
Banner did not seem any happier to be standing in the same room with Loki than he was. "JARVIS told us you were awake."
His voice was soft, and still Loki's eyes twitched towards Thor to check whether he would wake.
"Don't worry," Banner said, following his gaze. "He'll be sleeping for a while."
Loki hummed in mild interest. "Did you drug him?"
Banner furrowed his brows. "Of course not. It's the... Well. I don't know what kind of medicine you're used to, but pain killers tend to make you drowsy."
Loki wondered how much Thor had needed to take before the Midgardian medication started having an effect on him.
Banner chewed on his lip. He seemed restless, but not nearly as nervous to be alone in his presence as Loki would have liked. He supposed it was no wonder, considering his last encounter with Banner's alter-ego.
The frown tugging at Banner’s features stayed.
"Thor told us about what happened."
"What did he say?"
"That whoever ordered the attack on you – the titan... um..."
"Yes. He said he'd be after the stone."
Loki's breath got stuck in his throat. His heart stuttered in his chest. "He brought it here?!"
Banner hesitated. "It's here, yeah. He said that–”
Loki stopped listening. He'd known there would be no hiding from Thanos for long as soon as he'd lost two of the stones in the wake of his failure. He'd known that Thanos would not forget, and he'd known that eventually, his punishment would come.
He hadn't expected Thor to bring the bait that would lure his doom in even quicker.
"Look," Banner said, drawing his attention back and looking even more uncomfortable than he had earlier. "I know this is a big deal. Thor told us–”
"Thor has no idea what he's talking about."
Banner pressed his lips together. He watched Loki out of firm, expressionless eyes – wary, but not afraid. And why would he be afraid? He'd seen Loki beaten once. He was the one who'd beaten him.
"We can talk after Thor's woken up. I don't know why I–” Banner trailed off and shook his head. "Nevermind. I– Thor's here. And... JARVIS can hear you. If you need... Just in case."
In case Loki did something he ought not to. In case there was a need to keep him under surveillance. Loki curled his lips into a snarl. "How generous of you."
Banner paused as though he wanted to say more. Instead, he pressed together his lips and left.
Loki deflated as soon as the door fell shut. He waited for the telltale sound of a clicking lock, but it didn't come. Perhaps they did not fear an escape attempt as long as he was still injured. Or perhaps Thor was the reason for their deceptive carelessness.
Loki sunk back, realizing how drained the conversation had left him. His injuries ached. He saw the titan's fleet nearing when he closed his eyes, and he heard Thanos’ troops marching to the rhythm of his heartbeat. He felt the heat of an unfortunate, unruly planet, burning in its entirety because the half of it that had been bestowed the right to live had been too defiant for Thanos' liking.
It was not difficult to imagine Asgard in its place. Nor was it difficult to imagine himself in the flames, following Thor's foolish whim to rebel. If Midgard was first, the rest of the Nine would follow.
Loki shuddered and opened his eyes. He had time until Thanos' arrival to convince Thor of the fruitlessness of a struggle. He could convince him to... do what? Hand over the stone and hope for the best? Attempt to haggle for Asgard's survival, as well as for Thor’s precious Midgard?
Loki cast a glance at his brother, and his heart sank. Thor wouldn't listen to him. He hadn't listened when Loki'd told him the danger of seeking out the stones, and he hadn't listened when Loki had claimed that Maw was no opponent they were able to beat unprepared.
If Loki did not change Thor's mind – if he found no way to make his brother see reason and accept that there were enemies even he could not beat – they would not live to see another year.
I'm back at school! We've got half our school days in class (with a bajillion hygiene rules) and half of them at home via self study. Our school doesn't have many classrooms large enough, so we need to take turns with the other classes.
My wonderful betas are To Mockingbird, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
“– that’s it. We spent a few nights, took the time to regroup. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“I can’t believe I brought you to my family's farm to hide from a crazy murder AI." Clint paused, catching Tony's wince. "Sorry. From, uh... what was its name?"
"Ultron." Tony dragged his hand over his face. "We didn't have all that many options."
Clint's questions were more in a long row that had popped up since the team had learned the truth about Tony and Stephen. Tony had answered them all to the best of his abilities – and he knew that for a while, they'd keep coming.
"They were fine, though," Clint asked, his brows furrowed, "right?"
"When we left? Yeah." Tony curled his lips. "Afterwards… Look, we don’t know what happened on Earth after we reached Titan."
Tony's eyes were pulled in by the security footage they kept displayed. Loki had recovered concerningly fast – something they ought to have foreseen, considering his heritage. He lay on his bed in a guest room they'd repurposed as a holding cell – in lieu of the holding cells they’d repurposed as guest rooms for the twins – feigning boredom and planning anything from a harmless, petty prank to his next attempt at world domination.
"What was he up to in the future?" Clint asked, following Tony's gaze. His mouth curled as though the mere mention of Loki left a bad taste in his mouth.
"I don't actually know." Tony hadn't met Loki other than during the first invasion. "I think he died. Must have been some time after he got Thor to let him out of the dungeons."
"There's hope then," Clint muttered.
They watched Loki folding the remaining paper from a box of tissues he'd found in the room. His bed was already covered in small, unidentifiable paper objects. He'd drawn all over the walls on his third day at the tower and taken apart all of his furniture in the depth of night the day after it.
"How's your magic repellent coming along?"
“That’s not what we’re calling it.” While Stephen had temporarily taken over the task of keeping Loki contained within the building, Tony despised not being able to magic-proof the tower himself. "Trust me. I'm all over it."
Then there was Vision. He, like everybody else living at the tower, had heard the basics of where Tony and Stephen had come from. Unlike most of the others, he’d taken the revelation in a stride. Perhaps it was his lack of reference of what "normal" was, or perhaps it was because Vision hadn’t known pre-time travel Tony. Whichever the case, he didn't seem unsettled in the slightest at the thought that two of his team members had come from the future.
If Tony was making a habit out of clearing all the dishonesty between them, this was as good a place to start as any.
Tony found Vision in front of the TV in the common area. He'd thrown one leg over the other and spread his arms onto the backrest of the couch in a wide, lazy lounge. A beer bottle in his hand would have made the picture complete if the look of high concentration on his face hadn’t ruined it.
"You doing alright there, Vis?"
Vision turned towards him. "Am I not doing it right?"
Tony took a glance at the TV. It showed a 24-hour commercial station. "There's not really a 'right' way to watch TV, buddy. It's supposed to be fun. And relaxing. Doesn't really matter how you do it."
Vision straightened up and took his arms off the backrest. He frowned at the TV as though it was a mystery he was unable to solve. "I see."
Tony sat down next to him. JARVIS turned down the volume. "I actually wanted to talk to you about something."
Vision tore his eyes away from the woman on the TV trying to sell some obscure kitchen appliance.
“How are you holding up?" Again with the stalling. Tony wondered whether he'd ever be able to break the habit.
Vision cast his gaze downwards. He turned over his hand and moved his fingers deliberately, marveling at the way they moved – smooth and fluid, so unlike the glove of his old Iron Man armor.
"I've spent much time discovering this form," he said. "This body. It is beginning to feel like my own." He raised his head and met Tony's eyes. His lips twitched into a soft smile. It didn't look like it belonged to someone who hadn't had lips to smile with up until only a few weeks ago. "I believe the team has become more accepting as well. They seem to have gotten used to this new appearance."
It wasn't exactly what Tony had meant. "I'm glad." He returned the smile. "What about Stephen and me?"
"They seem to be getting used to that, as well."
"No, I meant– What about you?"
Vision hesitated. His eyes flickered back to the TV and lingered for as long as it took the woman on the screen to discard the plastic-something in her hand and choose another. "I am not sure whether I ought to have an opinion, seeing as I am not personally involved."
Tony resisted the urge to look away. "What if you were, though?”
Vision tilted his head in a smooth, practiced motion. "Why would I be?"
Tony chewed on his lip. "You were different, Vision. You... If we hadn't come back– If I hadn't known what was going to happen, you would have been a different person."
Tony paused, trying to put into words what had happened. "The first time we brought you online, we– I didn't realize how well the mind stone would work as an energy source. We left you alone, thinking you'd still be awhile, and... there was nobody there to help you take it slow."
Vision's face was blank. In contrast to a blank-faced human, he was likely too distracted to conjure up an expression with muscles he hadn't had for the larger part of his life. "Define 'take it slow'."
"I meant that we didn't ease you into it. You were just... there. Entirely. With access to every scrap of information anyone has ever put online to teach you about the world."
Trust the internet to turn a blank-slated AI into one determined to eradicate all of humanity.
"Did I process the information incorrectly?"
"Not really. You just... didn't have a frame of experience for it."
In a bizarre, twisted way, Tony could understand how Ultron had come to the conclusion he had. It hadn't been his fault that the essence of humanity had failed to teach him morals alongside showing him the worst of humankind.
"Did I do something wrong?" Vision must have been practicing picking up on body language. Tony's wince was all the answer he needed. "Did I hurt people?"
"It wasn't really you," Tony said quickly. "It was... who you became instead?”
“It was my code.”
“Actually, no. It’s– Look, it’s complicated, but in the first timeline, there were Ultron and Vision. Now there's just you. You're like… the culmination of both."
Vision let the information sink in. He was difficult to read. Tony couldn't tell how much of it was deliberate, and how much of it was to blame on his inexperience to mold human expressions.
"I see," Vision said. "So that is the reason you were wary of me."
Tony wished he was more surprised. "You noticed, huh?"
"Although the specific connection evaded me, I'd suspected that your actions were fueled by trauma."
Tony winced. He hated that word. "What made you... suspect?"
Vision didn't seem to understand. "You were showing all the signs."
So Vision had done his equivalent of looking Tony up on WebMD and gotten PTSD as a result. How lovely.
"Did you fear I would take after Ultron more than after... Vision?"
"You looked a lot like him," Tony admitted. "Before... well. Before."
"Do you still fear me?"
"No. It wasn't really fear from the start. Just... bad memories." Like JARVIS dying. Like the first blow that had drawn splinters within the team. "If you knew – or suspected – all this time, why didn't you tell me?"
At the beginning, Tony had done his best to distract from how little time he was spending with Vision – not simply because of how busy he was, but because he was reminded of Ultron every single time he saw Vision move around in his old armor.
Perhaps if Vision had confronted him right at the start... Tony would have likely tried even harder to deflect and reroute the conversation.
"Evidence suggested that it wasn’t advisable to initiate a confrontation before you were ready.”
More of the internet searches. Tony began to wonder just how much time Vision spent scourging the internet for answers to every question he had of human behavior.
Did JARVIS do the same? Was this an AI thing? Considering that the internet had brought him the first Ultron, Tony wondered whether he ought to be monitoring the tower's internet access more closely.
(Was this what it felt like to be a helicopter parent? Tony supposed it was better than rearing another mass murderer.)
"For what it's worth," Tony said, shaking off old and not-so-old memories, "I'm sorry."
Vision gave a nod – one of his more practiced, more natural looking gestures. He paused and said, "Do you miss him? Sometimes?"
"The other Vision."
Tony considered the question. "We weren't really close," he admitted. "The first Vision, he... was created in the middle of conflict. There wasn't really much time to get to know each other."
Not with Ultron and the twins on the loose and threatening to destroy not only Sokovia, but the world.
"Afterwards, I guess there was just too much else going on. We were teammates. Not much else."
They lapsed into silence. It wasn't uncomfortable – Tony doubted Vision had learned the potential awkwardness of a conversation falling into silence – and Vision soon focused back on the TV.
Tony got him to change the channel at least, though going by Vision's unchanging expression, mediocre action flicks were no less puzzling to him than commercials.
Tony's eyes lingered more on the closest security monitor than the TV screen. It didn't seem to matter to Vision, who started asking questions about the TV program with the same level of earnestness with which he'd asked about his origin.
Stephen wondered how it was that every time they took in a magical threat who'd tried to kill them at one point or another, it fell to him to do something about it. The Avengers were nervous around Loki – that was fair. Stephen hadn't been there during the New York invasion. He hadn't been forced to defend his life and that of every innocent civilian in the city that day.
But Loki was here now. They had a source of knowledge on Thanos and his army right here, sitting in the tower. Potentially plotting their demise. Currently making use of the gap he'd found in Stephen's magical defenses and repainting his guest-room-turned-prison-cell into outrageous colors with a flick of his fingers.
Stephen sighed. "I can't tell if he's passing the time or trying to be annoying."
"He's had much practice doing both at the same time." Thor squinted at the surveillance screen. Stephen couldn’t tell whether he was assessing his brother's work or whether the neon was hurting his eyes.
"You have to stop bringing him snacks."
"He's never gotten to try Midgardian food before," Thor protested.
"Half the Doritos you gave him are embedded in his closet door."
Thor considered this. "I will not give him anything else with pointy ends," he suggested, and made it sound as though it was a fair compromise.
Stephen wished he wasn't having this conversation.
"You were going to talk to him," Thor said, "were you not?"
Stephen was going to interrogate him. Nobody else seemed eager to do it – nobody other than Natasha (who had been instantly, if apologetically, vetoed by Thor) and Steve (who seemed willing to bite the bullet so that nobody else from the team had to).
Owning the questionable privilege of not having been locked in a battle to the death against Loki prior to this point, Stephen decided to take one for the team.
"Just how likely is your brother going to make trouble?"
"I will keep a constant eye on the surveillance footage." Thor threw him a winning smile.
"Yes, but is he going to–”
"Should there be signs of trouble, I shall intervene instantly," Thor said, giving him a supportive clasp on the back that jostled Stephen's entire body.
"... Right." It wasn’t lost on Stephen that his question hadn’t been answered.
Stephen was shepherded through the door and into Loki's room-they-were-pretending-was-a-cell.
In the same movement that he entered the room, Stephen threw up a spell – just in time to ward off an unidentifiable blob of goo from hitting him in the face. It splattered onto his shield and all over the floor and the walls. Some of the toxic green drops reached the ceiling.
Stephen waved away his shield and refused to sigh.
"Lighten up, sorcerer." Loki's smile grew and bared enough teeth to be considered threatening instead of friendly. "Ask your magic. I am the embodiment of innocence and pure intentions."
Loki sniffed out loopholes like he'd spent his entire life doing it. Stephen's warding – meant to prevent spell-casting born from malicious intent – stood no chance of keeping him manageable even when cast utterly flawlessly.
"What’s stopping me from stripping away your powers altogether?"
Loki examined his nails. "You would have done so from the start, were it within your capabilities."
He wasn't wrong. Stephen couldn't even be sure if his current warding held up, or whether Loki was simply biding his time while figuring out his next move. His wounds had healed disconcertingly quickly considering the severity of them upon his arrival.
Stephen gave in to the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. He understood the team's wariness, though he didn't share it. He probably should. It was difficult to see Loki as anything more than the next headache waiting to happen when Stephen hadn't seen him do worse than come up with mildly inconvenient pranks.
"I'm here to talk."
Straightforwardness seemed to work to a degree. Smugness melted away in favor of a mildly bored expression. "Picked the shortest blade, did you?"
"It's almost as though everybody else in the tower can't stand to be in the same room as you." Everybody other than his brother and two recovering fellow supervillains. And Vision, who'd been decided to be too impressionable to spend any amount of time with Loki unsupervised.
Loki's lips twitched. "A shame." He sat on his bed cross-legged and didn't give Stephen the courtesy of looking at him while they talked. He held a small puzzle box in his hands, larger and less colorful than a rubik's cube and covered in runes. Stephen idly wondered where he'd gotten it from.
"You've met Thanos before," Stephen said. "You worked for him."
"Yes," Loki rolled his eyes, "and I've spent the past week being cared for by my enemies because he's deemed me no longer worthy of his alliance. What is your point, sorcerer?"
Loki had been startingly loose-tongued the entire time he'd spent at the tower. He flipped one side of the cube and leaned closer to examine the new set of runes the motion had revealed.
Stephen was certain that Loki was giving him only half of his attention to aggravate him. He was determined not to care.
"We're going to fight him," he said, prompting derisive laughter from Loki.
"Is that what you've kept me for?" The mirth expressed on Loki's lips did not reach his eyes. "To tell you how to beat him? I would not have needed your dear doctor's services, were he the type of person who can be beaten."
"Perhaps," Stephen allowed. He eyed the chair tucked away next to Loki's bed. It looked harmless enough. Stephen decided not to take the risk and remained standing. "But you can tell us how many people are loyal to him. And what they're capable of."
"I can also tell you that you have painted a target on yourself by keeping the stones." Loki's frown likely wasn't aimed at his puzzle box. "You've turned your realm into a slaughterhouse. You're forcing me to die with you by keeping me here."
"You could help us to fight."
"I could leave."
"You say that as though it is supposed to be of significance to me." Loki paused. He flicked and twisted the box in several quick movements. Its runes glowed once he was finished, and it turned a pleasant shade of mauve before resetting.
Stephen found himself intrigued against his will.
"Right," he said, and kept his eyes on the box, "you're pretending like you don't care about him. Again. How long is it gonna be until you loop back around and change your mind?"
Loki's hands stiffened around the box. Its rows weren't neat and even like those of a rubik's cube. Calling it a cube would be as accurate as calling JARVIS a mere interface; the term seemed fitting only as long as one didn't examine the subject closer.
Stephen wondered about the requirements to solve it. Was it a simple case of matching the same runes? That seemed awfully simple for someone who so prided himself on his intellect. More likely there was some deeper meaning behind it – some riddle solved by analyzing the runes' pattern and–
Stephen caught the box so it wouldn't hit him in the face. He looked down at it, not quite sure what to do now that he was holding it.
"It works only for magic users," Loki said. This explained nothing about why the box was now in Stephen's hands.
"It burns off your fingers if you take too many turns to solve it."
Of course it did. "I will keep that in mind."
Stephen turned the box over. It had a small, rigid area at its center he hadn't spotted from afar. More runes formed some sort of inscription. The key to solving the riddle?
Loki closed his eyes and leaned back against the headboard of his bed in a clear dismissal. Stephen considered following it.
He twisted one side of the box, and the runes at the center changed. "Did Thor ever try solving it?"
Loki's lips turned upwards. "If it was my brother’s childhood stories you wanted to hear, all you needed to do was ask."
If you're in the mood for a wonderfully engaging Into The Spiderverse AU where original Peter lives, go read Down The Waterspout by Mockingone! :D It's got beautiful angst, even lovelier fluff and wonderful character and team dynamics all around! <3
Thank you so much for reading!
Stephen traced the spines of the heavy tomes piled up in the Sanctum's library. He'd made his way into the section of defensive spells and safety wards after a brief detour to elemental and nature magic. He'd come primarily for Loki, but Stephen could never resist seeking out new types of magic to study for both his own and Wanda's sake.
He counted himself lucky to have met someone able to match his own interest in learning – someone whose magic was so different from his own that every subject they chose to study was a new adventure to be braved from entirely different points of views.
"I cannot remember a student who's felt at home here quite as much as you do." The Ancient One strode through towering rows of bookcases, eyes twinkling with mirth Stephen couldn't decide was playful or teasing.
"I came for some research."
The Ancient One hummed. "Are you looking for something specific?"
Stephen dropped his gaze to the lowest row of books and scanned the titles. "More or less."
"And have you managed to find something in the four hours you've spent here?"
Stephen paused mid-motion. He squinted at the piles of books heaped up beside his desk. Those used to be... significantly smaller.
Another student opened the doorway and slipped into the library. Stephen was fairly certain that the last time it was open there'd still been some daylight.
"... I may have gotten carried away," he admitted, straightening his spine and turning away from the sirens' call that was dusty parchment and ancient knowledge.
The Ancient One pulled up a (miraculously book-free) chair and settled down. "There are times when I regret having lost the privilege of teaching you."
Stephen didn't know what to say to that. His old teacher had the tendency to drop staggering truths and heartfelt sentiments into casual conversation as though she didn't know the effect she was having on Stephen.
"You still are. You've helped me a great deal."
"Perhaps. Though not from the start. I would have loved to meet the person you used to be."
Stephen's lips twisted into a humorless smile. "You didn't miss out. He wasn't pleasant company."
"Which would have made it a privilege to see him change into the person you are now."
"You'll make me blush." Stephen quirked his lips to cover up the truth in his words. He paused. "It is better this way. In the other reality... We weren't close."
"Oh?" She tilted her head in polite interest.
"I wouldn't have considered us friends," Stephen admitted, "nor anything close to it."
He'd rather felt like a pawn in a game he didn't understand. Even with the Ancient One’s dying words of being meant for something greater, he'd felt used. He'd felt maneuvered into a position he hadn't asked for, nor wanted.
"This," Stephen said with a vague hand gesture, "is a vast improvement."
"I will take your word for it."
Stephen pulled out a book from the shelf in front of him. He’d try making it today’s last. Every time he felt close to having explored the library in its entirety, he stumbled across a new shelf, an unknown branch of magic, a technique he'd never seen before in his life. He loved coming here.
"How is Miss Maximoff?"
"Looking forward to her next lesson," Stephen said.
Wanda had taken to Kamar-Taj like a fish to the ocean. Though he'd like to think he'd played part in showing her the value of a brighter path, ultimately it had been the Sanctum that allowed her to thrive among other people sharing her gift. Just like Stephen had thrived.
"I should hope so." The twinkle in the Ancient One's eyes returned. "Our sessions have begun being ever so interesting."
Stephen side-eyed his old mentor. "Do I need to remind you that she's technically still a prisoner?"
"A prisoner you've personally begun teaching to draw portals."
"... She hasn't succeeded."
The Ancient One, Stephen thought, saw Wanda as a challenge. She'd taught hundreds of students in her time, but few – if any – who practiced magic so different from her own. Passionate as she was about her art, going through the same motions over centuries must have begun feeling stale.
"Miss Maximoff and her brother are not the only ones you've been housing," the Ancient One said.
"They aren’t." Stephen paused. "What do you know?"
"Loki," she said, "brother of Thor. He's brought an infinity stone to Earth and failed to obtain another."
"Yes. The invasion." Stephen paused. There was something he’d wondered for a long time. "Back then, why didn't you intervene? You could have helped."
"It was not our time to show ourselves."
Stephen's brows dipped low. "When will the time come?"
The Ancient One gave him a thin smile. "I believe you know the answer to that."
The Sanctum had changed. Grim-faced sorcerers hustled about the halls and students spent all of their time studying and training. Preparing. Tension tightened their shoulders and pressed down in a constant weight.
The Ancient One was doing her part in preparing them. Just like Tony and he were preparing the team.
"He's coming," Stephen said, and did not feel the need to elaborate.
"Yes. He is."
So much had changed since the day they’d returned, but would it be enough? Had they done all they could to prepare for the catastrophe they'd failed to prevent once? Stephen supposed that only time would tell.
The Ancient One took off her amulet. The question forming on Stephen’s lips was too slow, and she said, "I would like you to take it."
Stephen looked at the infinity stone he was offered. A muscle in his face twitched. "No."
She paused. "No?"
"You've done this before. You mean to make me your successor."
"Is that not what you are meant to be?"
"Perhaps," Stephen said slowly, "but I am supposed to take over after your death."
Was this a part of the Ancient One's preparations for the upcoming battle? Did she not expect to live past it? What if she'd seen her death and accepted it just like she had in the other reality?
"Are you tired of it?" he asked, hoping to be wrong.
The Ancient One didn't look like somebody facing their untimely death. Then again, he'd watched her die before, and she hadn't lost her calm then, either.
"I was for a time," the Ancient One admitted. Her lips twitched. "But since then, the position has become quite more exciting."
Stephen thought back to her reaction upon Stephen's arrival in the past. How she'd seemed thrilled, rather than apprehensive.
Stephen's – and Tony's – very existence went against all of her predictions. Instead of begrudging them the uncertainty, she'd embraced the changes wholeheartedly.
"I'm in no hurry," Stephen said, pulling his eyes away from the amulet. "If you're willing, I'd appreciate staying free of the burden for a little while longer."
The Ancient One didn’t seem surprised. She put the amulet back around her neck. "As you wish."
Stephen had almost given up the time stone once. It was a decision he wasn’t prepared to make a second time.
The tower was full of people. Too many strangers. Too many variables. Tricky to keep track of, but not impossible.
Bucky could tell that there were supposed to be more. Not all the names he’d filed away from his conversations with Steve were accounted for, and there were too many belongings strewn around the living space. Steve must have asked the rest of them to keep their distance.
Bucky would have to bide his time and size up their threat levels later.
"Here's the communal area," Steve said, false cheer and badly hidden tension in his voice. "It's used by... everybody."
Bucky's eyes flickered up. He catalogued four exits and a dozen ways to kill the person nearest to him.
(Steve. The person nearest to him was Steve.)
(Three different options with the encyclopedia lying on the nearest bookshelf, five with the hairbrush somebody had left on a small table, half a dozen with his bare hands–)
(They hadn't taken away his arm. They should have. It was stupid to let him keep it.)
Steve leaped into introductions, anxious for everybody to get along. Bucky pretended to listen beyond the combat-relevant information – like trying to remember the Black Widow's name instead of the number of weapons he could spot on her person.
Bucky realized that Steve had stopped talking. Waiting for him to say something other than the clipped one-word answers he'd given since stepping foot into the tower.
"Alright," Steve said once he realized that Bucky had no intention of speaking. "Do you want me to... I mean, come on. I'll show you your room."
Bucky didn't get to see his room. A rainbow colored beam of light appeared behind the glass wall that showed an open-aired platform at the edge of the tower. Bucky's metal arm was clenched and his flesh arm holding a knife before he realized that no one on Steve's team had batted an eyelash.
None of them armed themselves when a man strode into the tower, his stormy expression matching the thunder in his steps. Bucky didn't understand. Every instinct of his told him that the newcomer was dangerous – he didn't need to see the warhammer dangling from his belt to know that.
(Thor, god of thunder. Lightning powers. Ability of flight. Threat level high. Weaknesses–)
"I assume it didn't go well?" Steve asked.
Thor sighed. His expression melted into something softer.
He didn't fool Bucky. Thor carried power like another person wore a comfortable piece of clothing.
"No. He refuses to see reason." Thor brushed past Bucky on his way to the nearest seat.
Bucky didn't flinch. He carefully stopped considering whether his metal arm was strong enough to strangle an Asgardian.
"He didn't believe you?" the Black Widow (Natasha. He was supposed to think of her as Natasha.) asked.
"He believes me," Thor said. "Just not that there is a cause to worry."
"No cause to worry?" The archer – Clint – let out a humorless laugh. "Are you sure he was listening?"
"My father insists that Thanos poses no threat. He tells me we have done exactly as Thanos wishes by believing the stories we were told."
"Didn't you tell him that you and your brother almost died?"
Thor's gaze clouded over. "He thought I was exaggerating."
Somber silence followed.
Bucky listened avidly to every word that was spoken. He understood maybe half of it. Every scrap of information he filed away made him feel better prepared.
Prepared for what, he didn’t yet know.
"If it comes down to it," Steve said slowly, "if... when we have no choice but to fight. Do you think he'll help?"
Thor hesitated. "I believe so. My father is stubborn, but he is not foolish."
"I suppose it's the best we can ask for." Steve sighed. He turned his head and seemed to remember that Bucky was still standing next to him.
Good. He hadn't taken his eyes off Bucky when he'd first found him. The constant attention made Bucky's skin crawl.
"Sorry about that." Steve dragged one hand over his face, then forced tired features into a smile. "Come on. I was gonna show you your room."
Bucky followed along without protest.
A storm was coming. Bucky assumed his presence at the tower meant he would be right in the middle of it.
(He hoped so.)
(Steve wanted to drown out the war in Bucky's heart. He didn't understand that without it, there wouldn't be much left.)
Natasha entered the room with a deadpan joke on her lips and Clint's laughter in her wake. The sound settled Tony's nerves more than any word of forgiveness could have.
Things were getting better. The tension surrounding the team – surrounding Tony – was fading with every moment they spent acting like friends instead of estranged colleagues.
They'd left the worst of it behind them, and Tony finally found himself able to look forward instead of back.
“Your pet sorcerer has not graced me with his presence in days,” Loki said over the interface that allowed him to partake in the conversation. “Do tell me, are his hands still intact?”
"Who’s close enough to hit the mute button?" Clint's voice was only half-joking.
Thor was happy that his brother got to participate. Everybody else was willing to compromise as long as he didn't leave his room.
"And here I thought you wanted my help," Loki drawled. "Do make up your minds."
"You pretend like you're oh-so-important," Clint said, "when last time I checked, we've got your infinitely more likable brother sitting right here. Remind me again why we need you?"
Loki stifled a put-on yawn. "Which of the people currently present in the tower has met Thanos personally?"
"Which is supposed to make us trust you more, why, exactly?"
"Wrap it up, will you?" Steve sighed the sigh of someone who'd broken up countless similar squabbles over the past week.
"Spoilsport," Clint muttered at the same time that Loki said, "A shame."
Tony was concerned to realize that they both seemed to have started enjoying their bickering.
Whenever he'd imagined their life after putting all of this behind them, Loki most definitely hadn’t played a role. Tony supposed that as long as he was helping instead of making himself a nuisance, they would just have to roll with it.
Thor certainly was high-spirited that the number of Loki's assassination attempts had thus far remained zero.
“I’ve spoken to the head of our guard,” Thor said. “She and most of our army have promised their support. My father is a stubborn man, but he will not force them to choose between him and me."
From what little Tony knew about Thor's father, it sounded absolutely like something he would do. "You're sure about that?"
Thor hesitated. "The people trust me," he said eventually, and while it didn't answer Tony's question, it answered a question.
Loathe as he was to spark conflict within their family, Tony was relieved to know that their Asgardian support would not depend on Thor's father seeing reason.
"Congratulations,” said Loki, sounding impressed. “You've successfully schemed to overthrow your father."
"I am not overthrowing anyone." Thor pressed his lips into a thin line. "I am merely gathering allies willing to fight."
"Which you are doing against dear Father's wishes." Loki grinned. "Well done."
"I've had a talk with the Ancient One," Stephen interrupted before Loki could succeed in prompting yet another bout of petty bickering.
Loki had been doing nothing else since coming to live at the tower and was perfecting the activity into an artform.
"She and my order are running surveillance. They'll likely be the first to warn us if something tries breaching the atmosphere."
"They didn't warn us the first time," Natasha pointed out.
"Believe me," Stephen said, "I know."
It was a sore subject. Tony wondered how different the New York invasion could have gone, had Stephen's order decided to offer their help. Mystical nature or not, people had died on that day. Their decision that the threat had been below them left a bad taste in Tony's mouth – he could imagine how much worse it was for Stephen.
"This time is different," Stephen continued, pinching his lips. "Trust me. I made sure of it."
Nobody tried to argue. Nobody even gave him a skeptical look.
The conversation moved on, and they sized up the resources and allies they had on their side. There were the sorcerers, who Tony trusted not personally, but as an extension of his trust in Stephen. The Asgardians, in a similar fashion, were perhaps not the most reliable source of support. But as long as Thor was convinced that his people would help them, Tony would believe it.
Their team was together and larger than ever, sporting new members, old enemies and questionable allies in their ranks. The twins roamed the tower freely. Barnes was settling in tentatively. Sam, Rhodey and Vision were official members of the team, and Thor didn’t intend to leave the planet until the final conflict was won.
Tony wasn't going to contact the kid. He'd been the one to drag him into conflict once, and he wouldn't do it again.
"You've mentioned the stones," Bruce spoke up for the first time that evening, "but you haven’t told us much more than that."
"You know most of it," Tony said. "We've got the mind and the power stone at the tower. Stephen's sorceress gal is guarding time. Now that you mentioned it," he turned to Thor, "what did you do with the Tesseract after New York?"
"It is stored in our treasure vault."
"Alright, so that's technically four we’ve got eyes on."
Bruce hummed, brows furrowed in thought. "The Tesseract is one of them?"
"It is," Stephen confirmed.
Only Vision seemed unmoved by the news. He likely didn't realize someone was paying attention, and forgot to emote whatever he was thinking.
"That leaves two," Steve said. "Could Thanos have gotten his hands on them already?"
"We won't know until he's here." Tony turned to the screen that showed Loki. “Unless you’ve got something to share?”
Loki shrugged. “The only one he had in his possession during my time in his services was the mind stone. My task was to use it to bring him the Tesseract.”
“Which you failed,” Clint added. “Well done.”
"The question is, how can we use the ones we have?" Stephen shifted his weight. "They paint a target on our backs, and other than the time stone we have no way of utilizing their powers."
They had no fancy glove that would let them use the stones. Even if they did, Tony didn't feel like tempting fate by doing so.
"When Thanos comes," Vision piped up, "it will be for the stones. Correct?"
"He doesn't care about Earth," Tony confirmed. "Not any more than he's interested in all the other planets he's decimating. He wants the stones, that's his only reason for coming here."
"If that's so," Bruce said slowly, "could we use them as bait? Make sure the fight happens where we want it to, and not, say, the middle of New York City?"
Tony hummed, considering the possibility. "Maybe."
But where would they lure them? Nowhere on Earth was ideal – there was no guarantee that Thanos would allow his rampage to be contained.
They didn’t even know if he was going to bring his army. He’d sent only a few of his henchmen the first time he’d targeted Earth.
“We could try luring him to Titan," Stephen suggested.
Tony missed a beat. "Wait," he said, "you're telling me your portals reach all the way into space?"
Stephen twitched his shoulders. "Distance doesn't matter. I was there before, that's what does."
"Come again?" said Clint.
"He's suggesting he teleport us to Thanos' home planet and bring the stones with us."
"It's barren and as far away from Earth as can be," Stephen pointed out.
“... His home planet. In space.”
“Yes,” Stephen said. “His history with the place means he is more likely to face us there than on Earth, once he learns we are there.”
"Let's... file that away for later." Steve rubbed his temples. "How would Thanos know where we are? Does he have a way of tracking the stones?"
Tony hesitated. "He might."
"He should," Stephen said. "One of his subordinates tracked me down when he sent them to Earth."
"You're not sure though."
Tony shared a glance with Stephen. "No. I guess not."
"Which means that we risk leaving the Earth undefended by going to Titan, and can't be sure Thanos will know to go there."
“The planet will not be undefended,” Stephen denied. “My order will be here.”
Still, Steve had a point. There were many things they couldn't control – when exactly Thanos decided to pay them a visit. How many of his people he would bring. They couldn't afford to gamble on this.
"We have a way of contacting him," Clint piped up. He jerked his head toward the surveillance screen. "At least he does."
Loki went stiff. "Pardon me?"
"Back then, you used the scepter to keep in contact with Thanos."
"With one of his underlings," Loki bit out. "And you've destroyed the scepter."
"We took out the mind stone," Tony corrected. "That's easy enough to reverse."
"Besides," Clint said, copying Loki's tone mockingly, "didn't you just remind us of how useful you are?"
Loki glared daggers at Clint. Tony couldn't be the only one who took pleasure from the sight.
"We have the bait and a way to make sure Thanos knows where to find it," Natasha said. "What about the time stone? You told us your teacher was in charge of it, not you."
"One of them will remain on Earth;" Stephen admitted. "The others come with us to Titan. The Ancient One and the order are highly capable of keeping the planet safe in our absence. If we're lucky, we'll manage to split his troops and pick them off on two fronts."
Or Thanos would be able to do the exact same.
"Let's go over this again," Tony said, preparing for a long, drawn-out discussion he knew wouldn't be the last by far.
I've got my practical midterms soon. Wish me luck!
My wonderful betas are Mockingone, PyrothTenka and Igornerd!
(Tony learned Thanos' name in the cluttered unfamiliarity of Strange's Sanctum and felt in his bones that this was it. This battle was what they'd been leading up to ever since aliens had attacked New York and left a part of them behind to fester in Tony's mind.)
(He listened to a sorcerer talk about a titan’s army and stones from the dawn of the universe. All he could think of was that his team ought to be there to shoulder the burden.)
"It is time," Thor told them, his voice heavy from the burden that lay ahead.
They wasted no time talking. They'd planned and prepared as well as they could, and either it would be enough or it wouldn't.
"I guess we'll see you on the other side," Clint said to the twins, forced cheer in his voice.
There was no tension other than that caused by the impending battle. There was no hostility other than that they shared against Thanos. There was no conflict – none other than the one that would determine the fate of the universe.
(Thor was likely dead. Bruce tried softening the blow, but he couldn’t think of a plausible alternative when most of Thor’s people had been killed and even the Hulk had fought Thanos and lost.)
"My father refuses to hand over the tesseract," Thor said, his brows knit together and an apology written over his features. "I cannot leave my home."
Sam let out a curse. Tony shared the sentiment.
"No one expects you to," Stephen said.
They'd all hoped they wouldn't need to split up and fight on three fronts. With the infinity stones scattered, Thanos was as likely to attack Asgard as he was to attack Earth.
"Plan B then," Tony said.
(The distance between Tony and Bruce felt like a gaping abyss. The years they'd spent apart after Sokovia – the years that Bruce had spent missing, running from the team, from Tony, running from his life – had never been more apparent.)
(Tony couldn't bring himself to ask whether Bruce had stayed away on purpose, or whether he’d had no choice for the entire two years he'd been gone.)
Bruce looked nauseous after their trip through the Bifrost. Tony couldn't tell whether the magic didn't agree with him or whether he felt queasy about what lay ahead.
"You alright?" Tony asked, his voice low as they nodded a greeting toward a tall Asgardian clad in golden armor.
Bruce's eyes lingered on his gleaming broadsword. "As well as I'll ever be."
Tony gave him a tight smile.
Thor noticed their hesitation and hung back to clasp a firm hand on both of their shoulders. "I have always wished to show my home to my friends." He cast a soft glance at the shimmering city that greeted them on the other side of the rainbow bridge. "I wish the circumstances were different."
Thor's grip on his shoulder was warm and grounding. "So do I," Tony forced past the stifling sensation in his throat, feeling both honored and undeserving of the sentiment.
(The amulet felt like a boulder hanging from Stephen's neck. It tugged and dragged and pulled at him with the weight of a responsibility he wasn't prepared for.)
(The Ancient One had named him her successor before her passing. She hadn't mentioned that in doing so she'd destined him to fight one galactic threat after the other.)
(He knew none of the people he was fighting with personally. Despite Wong's presence, Stephen had never felt quite this lost and out of his depth.)
"Good luck," the Ancient One said once Tony and the others had left and the portal to Titan stood. "Do well. I will see you once the battle is over."
"I don't remember you being this optimistic." Stephen's gaze lingered on the amulet. It looked at home around the Ancient One's neck in a way it had never around Stephen’s.
"I didn't used to be." There was a spark in her eyes Stephen did not recognize from his first life. "I suppose you are not the only one who has grown."
"No." Stephen looked away. "I suppose not."
(Tony, Strange and the kid went to space on their own. Bruce was left behind. Thor was gone. The Rogues were scattered, learning of the threat too late and unable to make a difference.)
Tony, Bruce and Thor entered the Asgardian royal palace. Bucky and the twins stayed with the Sanctum. Stephen took the rest of the Avengers to Titan, and a reluctant Loki followed along.
(Thanos was here, and Tony's nightmares were coming true.)
Thanos was here, and the Avengers were united.
"Where is he?" The words tasted like ash in Tony's mouth. Static filled his mind, a white noise that pressed into his ears like cotton and let no sound filter through. Even if Maw answered, Tony wouldn't be able to hear.
Maw, because Thanos hadn't come. Tony had chosen wrong. Relief battled with disappointment, and Tony couldn't decide which emotion he ought to feel more ashamed of.
Maw's lips twisted into a lopsided smile. Tony forced out the static in time to hear him say, "– no need to trouble himself with vermin."
With that, he swatted his hands and sent Tony, Thor and Bruce flying.
The Sanctum withstood the attack of the single spaceship that had entered the orbit. Figures embarked from it, forced into a more offensive approach after their shields held steady.
Wanda fit into the line of the Ancient One's students marvelously. She made out only flashes of her brother, but he seemed to be holding his own well enough. Captain America's sniper friend perched on one of the surrounding skyscrapers. They'd be fine. The Ancient One trusted Stephen's judgement.
One of the attackers – their leader – made the Ancient One pause once close enough to examine.
"Do you know her?" Wong asked, eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching figure.
"Not in this reality."
Nebula, daughter of Thanos. The Ancient One thought of a reality that could have been, and wondered whether there was still time to redirect her fate.
Loki disappeared as soon as he'd finished his task of contacting Thanos. Nobody was surprised.
They’d have to deal with him later. Thanos had learned their location, and they had no time to spare on a cowardly trickster.
Alien creatures swarmed Hulk like insects. Some were tiny like his friends, some larger than him, some would have been, if they didn't walk on all fours like animals.
Banner hated the fighting. He told Hulk not to hurt anyone who came from the golden city. Hulk wasn't stupid. They looked like thunder god: the same metal wrapped around their bodies, the same puny weapons and the same joy for battle. Hulk could respect that. Even though he didn’t need their help.
"You fight well, beast!" One of the puny gods stepped up to him. "What realm are you from?"
Hulk grunted, leaped onto one of the creatures and punched it into the ground. The godlings did not attack him, so he didn't attack them, either.
"He came with the Midgardians," another godling said. "I would assume he is one of them."
"Commander." The first godling gave a respectful nod.
Hulk tore a creature from its glider and stamped it to pieces.
"One of them made it into the palace. Should we take up the pursuit?"
"No need." One of the godlings stole an enemy from right under Hulk’s nose. He felt the sudden urge to sweep her off her feet and smash her into the ground.
"We have soldiers in the palace. Deal with these ones, and we shall see."
"Are capable of handling themselves, I've been told." The godling commander felled the two creatures closest to Hulk. Hulk resisted the urge to punch her. "Prince Thor told us–”
Hulk cut her off with a roar. "Less talking, more fighting!"
Their commander startled, then smirked. "Right you are."
"Well said, beast!" Another godling swatted Hulk's arm and broke out into a battle cry.
Hulk frowned at his arm. Thunder god's friends were odd. Didn't matter. As long as they could fight, Hulk would tolerate them.
Terrans weren't supposed to put up a fight. They weren't supposed to have skills in combat – especially not of the magical kind. Nebula grit her teeth, maneuvered her glider and grabbed for the amulet resting around the neck of one of them.
The bearer dodged. Straight through a circular opening she created on the very ground she stood.
Nebula snarled, vowing to slaughter whoever had given her insufficient data on her target. She was not equipped to deal with this. If she’d known, she’d have taken at least double the amount of henchmen.
"You know it is hopeless," the stone's keeper said. She looked infuriatingly unruffled for someone standing on the other side of Nebula’s blade. "Are you going to keep fighting regardless?"
A throwing knife to her throat was her answer. She dodged. Pity.
"You are not here out of conviction," the sorceress continued. "Not out of your own, that is. And yet you would throw your life away without a second thought."
"Gladly," Nebula growled. She powered up her glider, flew past the sorceress, retrieved a lean wire and hurled it so it wrapped around the sorceress' legs. She stumbled. Nebula surged in for the kill.
"I have no qualms with killing you," the sorceress said.
Nebula's sword broke when it met her shield. The wire around the sorceress’ legs snapped like it was yarn. Nebula dodged a bullet from a long-distance shooter. Pathetic mortals. She wasn't surprised that some of them were so cowardly that they would rather lie in hiding and attack from afar.
"Then do it," Nebula yelled, heat flushing her body that had nothing to do with her circuits running wild.
"Patience." The sorceress' lips twitched. "Your story doesn't have to be over yet."
Better it ended now than at Thanos' hand, after he found out about Nebula’s failure.
"Then suffer the consequences for your hesitancy," Nebula hissed, and steered her glider towards a group of Terrans ogling the spectacle instead of running for their lives.
A streak flickered through the streets towards the mortals and back. Two of the spectators disappeared. Then two more. And more. The blur slowed down marginally and allowed Nebula to recognize some of its features.
She made out bright hair and a cocky smile before a portal swallowed her whole and she plunged forward.
Thanos had the reality stone. It was the only one he had, and yet it was almost enough to demolish their plans right from the get go.
"What is that?" Clint gaped as Stephen grunted from the strain of holding up the mirror dimension. It shattered upon impact with Thanos' fist, but the deed was done. All the Avengers were still standing instead of lying in ribbons or stripped of their equipment.
"Impressive." Thanos' attention was entirely on Stephen. "You're the one who protects the stones."
Stephen pulled the mind and the power stone from his pocket. They lit up and disappeared from sight as Stephen reflected the light around them. To everybody else it appeared as though they'd vanished. "You'll have to kill me to get them back."
Thanos' brows twitched in irritation. "As you wish."
The ground gave way below Stephen's feet, crumpling and melting like butter. His feet found no purchase and he fumbled more than he leaped, missing the platform he built from hastily conjured magic.
His Cloak carried him over the gap. Stephen gave it a quick pat of thanks.
A boulder shattered beneath Thanos’ fist. Stone burst into debris and sharpened into daggers. At the wave of Stephen’s hand, the shrapnel sprouted wings and changed direction, sharp beaks finding purchase in the titan’s skin.
Projectiles raced to hit their mark, Cap's shield and Natasha's taser and Clint’s arrows. Thanos swatted the shield. He unmade the arrows. He caught the taser's wire. It convulsed, the silvery thread expanding into a gleaming viper. The snake barred electric fangs at the Avengers before collapsing into rope that wrapped around Thanos' legs at Stephen’s command.
Rhodey dove in from above as Thanos stumbled. Vision phased through the ground from below. Pulsing red light rose up from the reality stone like a tidal wave, and Stephen yanked both of them back before it made contact.
"You weren't exaggerating about that thing," Rhodey muttered.
The reality stone glowed, and Stephen's magic flared up in response.
"Who designed this palace?!"
Tony reached the end of the hallway, swerved wildly, managed not to smash into the wall and picked up speed once he'd conquered the corner. His suit wasn't practical for flying indoors. It was faster than running, so Tony had no choice.
"Stand your ground and fight!" Thor hollered. He made a sharp turn and nicked a stone pillar with his hammer.
Maw didn't dignify them with an answer. What was worse than fighting an enemy who could fly and move objects with his mind was chasing one.
"We've almost reached the treasure vault." Thor created a shortcut by punching straight through the wall and into the next hallway.
Tony cursed. The tesseract was in the vault. They had no clue whether Maw knew how to use it – they certainly didn't – but if he did, he wouldn't even need to fight his way out of the palace.
They should have waited in the vault. They should have taken the tesseract elsewhere, but no – Thor's dad just couldn't help himself and insisted on being a stubborn moron.
"Take heed," Thor called.
They rounded another corner. A large set of wooden doors was blown out of its hinges and revealed a giant chamber that reminded of a museum. Tony faltered but pushed on, forcing himself to step through the doors and into the open treasure chamber.
Maw stood at its center, holding the tesseract.
A net of electricity crackled around Mjolnir, though Thor didn't dare release it. Tony charged his repulsors, but didn't fire. He'd felt useless before, knowing that he wasn't where Thanos was. This was worse. He couldn't even get this part of the plan right.
"What marvelous power," Maw muttered, regarding the tesseract reverently. He seemed hesitant to even touch it. "Lord Thanos will be pleas–”
A jolt of energy hit Maw's hand and sent the tesseract tumbling to the ground. Maw hissed and jerked back, clutching the burnt appendage to his chest. His gaze looked murderous.
"I had not taken you for such a formidable opponent," boomed a voice much like Thor's in terms of volume and boisterousness. Unlike Thor’s, there was arrogance dripping from every word.
Thor stiffened. "Father."
Maw sneered. "So the wise king makes an appearance after all."
"You've broken into my palace." Odin eyed the tesseract. "It would appear that my sons have told the truth about you. Where is that master of yours who is supposed to bring about the end of the world?"
"He has no need to lower himself to a trivial task such as this." Maw reached for the tesseract and found it surrounded by an impenetrable barrier. His lips twisted unpleasantly. "Your realm is not worthy of his attention any more than the dust beneath his–”
Odin brandished his sword and forced Maw to leap back. Tony had trouble placing the glint in his visible eye. "Allow me to teach him better."
Tony shared a glance with Thor. If the actual Allfather wanted to back them up, he was the last person to complain.
"If you insist," Maw spat out. He straightened his spine and narrowed his eyes.
Energy flooded Odin's spear and thunder shook the entire palace. Tony had to wonder what he was doing, treading the same ground as deities.
Thanos' daughter stopped fighting back after about a dozen portals. She lost her glider in a Norwegian fjord and her sword in the Atlantic ocean. The Ancient One waited patiently as she coughed up water in the Mojave Desert before she drew the next portal and sent them on their way.
If Nebula's plan was to aid her father in destroying the planet, it was only right for her to take a closer look at what she was ruining.
"Just get it over with!" Nebula burst out after tripping over a root in the Valdivian rainforest. She growled, dodged the next portal and stumbled backwards against the nearest tree. Her hands clenched to fists, trembling as though they weren’t used to being empty.
The Ancient One suppressed a smile and lowered her hands. "Get what over with?"
"Just kill me," Nebula spat. A rodent skittered out of the underbush at her feet. She picked up a pebble. It hit the mark. The animal noises ceased.
"I could," the Ancient One allowed. "Although I have to wonder for what reason you wish me to."
Nebula's brows knit together and darkened her expression. "Better to be slain in battle than to live with the knowledge of my failure."
"Would your father not attempt to save you?"
Nebula's eyes flickered away. Her fist trembled with lowly suppressed rage.
The Ancient One hummed. "I see."
"You know nothing." Nebula took a step forward, her wariness forgotten. "None of you backwater vermin do. You would not dare to resist, knowing what awaits you once he decides you have angered him."
She did not sound prideful when she said it. Rather the opposite. "You're afraid of him," the Ancient One realized, and Nebula's role in the other reality immediately made more sense.
Nebula disapproved of her deduction. Her body shook with the force of her anger, and she forgot that she'd meant to keep her distance lest be swept away by another portal.
The Ancient did exactly that. She pictured New York and reappeared on top of its skyscrapers.
Wanda looked up briefly, but was not startled into attacking her. Her hands overflowed with her unique shade of crimson mist, and she continued where she'd left off.
Had the Ancient One not stopped Nebula, she would have hurt countless civilians as collateral damage. She did not seem like the sort of person capable – or willing – to change her ways. Yet, she'd done exactly that in another reality. Given the chance, would she do the same in this one?
The Ancient One took a step to the side as Nebula tumbled through the portal after her. She considered her options. Nobody had said it was her decision to make alone.
Tony couldn't get closer to Maw than five feet. There may as well have been a barrier surrounding him – whenever he came close enough to attack Maw would swat his hand and send him hurling away.
Tony launched missiles from his suit, dozens of them hurling at Maw in a swarm of explosives. Maw redirected them with a curt wave of his hand. One of them headed straight for Thor. He knocked it away with his hammer and sent it swerving into a stone pillar.
Tony hoped that Odin's stormy expression was aimed at Maw instead of him. He wasn't sure how Earth currency compared to the Asgardian one, but he doubted even he was rich enough to buy forgiveness after the father of gods decided he was responsible for the collateral damage to his palace.
"Pitiful.” Maw turned to Tony with a vicious grin. His hand shot downwards like a guillotine. Tony had time to register Thor's alarmed shout when the palace ceiling caved in right above his head.
Tony threw up his repulsors and let them blast him backwards, right into some kind of podium. The stone ceiling crashed onto his legs instead of burying him alive.
"The armor has taken mild damage," JARVIS said. The nano tech was already patching itself back together. "I am unable to detect injuries upon your person."
The sharp pain in Tony's legs begged to differ. "Wonderful," Tony grunted, pushing off the largest pieces of debris to free his legs.
"You misunderstand. I am unable to detect injuries as a significant energy source is interfering with my scans."
Tony's HUD flared up in color. It was the brightest in between the chunks of stone, right where… "Huh." Tony stepped up to the blue, square-shaped object. He must have knocked it down when he'd crashed into the podium.
It looked like a treasure box made from murky, half-see through glass. Instead of jewels, a miniature blizzard swirled at its center.
"Desperate times," Tony muttered. He picked up the box and fired up his repulsors to find a path around the cave-in.
The Ancient One entered the mirror dimension with Nebula and left it without her. She'd be unharmed, but unable to escape. Perhaps Stephen would decide that their streak of rehabilitating former enemies had not yet come to an end.
The good news was that even Maw's powers were ineffective against the gigantic blizzard that burst out of the treasure box. The bad news was that the same could be said for Tony's suit. And Thor and Odin's powers, apparently, seeing as the storm kept raging and nobody seemed able to do anything about it.
Tony cursed under his breath. The words were lost amid the roaring sound of hail pouring out of its container. It had torn itself out of Tony's grip and hurtled to the ground after the first onslaught.
"The temperature is dropping rapidly," JARVIS informed him helpfully. "Activating the internal heating system now."
A thin sheet of ice formed on the surface of Tony's armor. He couldn't see anything through the dense cloud of ice and snow.
"J, help me out here." Tony threw himself forward, leaning his weight against the force of the blizzard. "Your scanners any good?"
"Regrettably no, sir. I have no read on either lifesigns nor infrastructure."
Improvising it was. Tony braced himself, hail thundering against his armor, and took step after step towards the densest part of the blizzard. He couldn't make out anything beyond the snow, so he searched the floor blindly. Something nudged the tip of his glove. Tony grabbed for it, squeezed his eyes shut to block out the blinding whiteness and wrestled the treasure box closed by throwing his entire weight on top of it.
The blizzard subsided. The snow settled in a soft cushion that covered the entire floor. At the center of the chamber stood Maw's frozen figure – as well as Thor's and Odin's.
Tony sucked in a sharp breath. They'd be fine, probably. Asgardian durability and all. But would Tony be? "Do you think Odin is the forgiving type?"
The ice around the Allfather cracked and shattered with an almighty bang.
"I believe you are about to find out," JARVIS said.
Tony supposed that as far as heroic deaths went, he could do worse than going down at the hands of a furious Allfather.
(Maw died floating in the depths of space, and it didn't make a difference.)
Maw lived, but not for long. Odin was done underestimating his enemies.
(Stephen and Stark had no time to learn more about their unexpected allies. They had to trust that the Guardians of the Galaxy wanted Thanos dead as much as they did and figure out the rest from there.)
(Stephen tried not to think about the outcome of the battle depending on them working together with people they hadn't so much as exchanged names with.)
"Stephen!” Sam called. “Little help here?"
Stephen's head whipped around in time to watch Thanos unmake the ground on which they stood. He conjured platforms for Steve and Clint while the others took to the air or – in Natasha's case – leapt from one nearly disintegrating boulder to the next.
"Should have gone with Tony," Rhodey muttered over the coms.
Clint snorted a laugh. Stephen imagined he'd have come up with a witty retort, were he not preoccupied with avoiding a plunge to his premature doom.
(Stephen emerged from his spell that showed him thousands of realities and felt as though they'd already lost. They'd done too little. Perhaps if they'd acted sooner, they would have more than a single chance of defeating Thanos in the far, distant future. One that didn't rely on billions dying first. If they'd known to prepare sooner–)
(They didn't. And they hadn't. It was too late to make amends, and Stephen would have to accept the hand they were dealt.)
This time, Stephen had no countless number of realities telling him whether their actions were doomed to fail. He didn't know a single possible outcome, and he didn't particularly want to.
Perhaps if he did, he wouldn't be quite so taken aback by a clone of his he didn't remember creating.
Were Thanos not distracted by Vision and dodging an uppercut from Captain America, Stephen would have suspected a trick from the reality stone meant to catch him off guard.
Other Stephen put a finger to his lips and grinned. The expression looked as wrong on Stephen's face as a moment of selfless heroism on Loki’s.
The imposter changed his shape and turned into Clint. Stephen took a gigantic, reckless leap of faith. He took his eyes off of the imposter and gathered as much magic as he managed without draining himself entirely.
(Thanos had four of the stones. It happened just like in all the realities in which they'd decided to stand their ground on Titan. Stephen fought despite knowing that there was no point. He fought knowing that no matter what they did, it wouldn't be enough.)
(He fought, knowing that they'd already lost. Their only chance lay years ahead in the future. And Stark needed to be alive for it.)
("Don't," Stark choked out in horrified incredulity.)
(The time stone floated between Stephen's fingers. This was the only way.)
(But was it? If they'd known sooner to prepare, and if they'd had more warning...)
(Thanos tightened his grip around Stark's throat. "The stone," he said, holding out his hand expectantly.)
("It's our best chance," Stephen said, looking straight into Stark's – Tony's – eyes.)
(None of the possible realities he'd seen were ideal. None of the pathways he saw extending from this point in time were pleasant. So, Stephen refused.)
(The time stone lit up. Thanos, the planet, the Guardians, everything was swallowed in green light.)
(Stephen woke up in his apartment, the light of the time stone imprinted into his mind and Titan a rapidly fading memory.)
Matter folded and morphed under Stephen's grip. The planet wavered. The skies dipped low. Thanos unmade the debris and dust whipped by the wind into his face, but no matter how many of Stephen’s spells he reversed, he couldn't unmake magic.
Reality bucked and crumbled under the force of the reality stone. The landscape tilted as though the planet was thrown off its axis. The heavens screamed and the ground leaked starlight, and the stone in Thanos' grasp dyed the planet with heat.
Other Clint copied Natasha and leaped from boulder to boulder towards Thanos. The real Clint had found purchase beyond the worst of the destruction and fired arrow after arrow at the reality-shifting titan. Some of them vanished before they hit, some changed direction, and some exploded in mid air, enveloping Thanos in a cloud of smoke.
Stephen split his form into several – actual copies, as many as he dared – and drew Thanos’ attention onto himself.
Thanos clenched his teeth. He raised his hand, took a step forwards and stumbled, green magic trapping his feet. Natasha threw a wire around his neck. Vision phased through the ground and grabbed the arm that wasn't wielding the stone. Steve came from nowhere, pinning the other with his shield.
The Cloak propelled Stephen forwards. His hand crackled with energy. One strike, and it was all over.
The reality stone fell to the ground. Reality righted itself. Other Clint turned into Loki, and Thanos was no more.
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"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.”
That's a wrap, guys!
Thanks for sticking along up to this point, and giant thanks to Mockingone, PyrothTenka and Igornerd for being awesome and helping me see this story through to the end!
Please let me know what you think! <3