Doctor Strange was panting as if what he’d just done had taken a great effort. Tony wasn’t sure what the stress of using magic was, but the man had just been floating in the air surrounded by green energy and that wasn’t a Stark definition of healthy exercise. “I went forward in time to view alternate futures,” Doctor Strange said between breaths. “To see all the possible outcomes of the coming conflict.”
“How many did you see?” Quill asked.
“14 million six hundred and five,” Strange said.
“Seriously? That was, like, 10 seconds,” Quill yelped.
Tony ignored the half-human’s disbelief. “How many did we win?” he asked instead, focusing on the important part.
Strange cocked his head to the side as he considered Tony Stark, intent on the man in the battered suit. “One.”
There was silence for a moment as they allowed that to sink in, Quill cursing and Mantis looking like she would burst into tears with the stress of everyone’s emotions. “How do we do it?” Tony pressed. He wasn’t about to let the odds prevent him from pushing forward. The odds had been against him Afghanistan, they’d been against him when the Chitauri came, and they’d been against him in Siberia. He’d survived.
“You just heard the odds,” Doctor Strange said. “From this point in time it is nearly impossible.”
“Nearly,” Tony emphasized. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. You said there was one way we win.”
“It’s not impossible, but there is a way to - let’s call it increasing our odds,” the sorcerer said.
“Let’s do it then,” Spiderman said. “Whatever it is, let’s do it.”
“Only one of us can do it, and it has to be Stark. And you have to do something I’m not sure you’re capable of,” Strange said.
“Well that sounds judge-y,” Quill commented with a scoff. “Way to encourage.”
“I disagree,” Drax said. “That is not a way to encourage. It is, in fact, discouraging. That is a falsehood.”
“It was sarcasm,” Quill grit out through a pout. “Okay? You’ve been around Rocket, how have you not learned sarcasm?”
Dark eyebrows furrowed as Stark continued to ignore the Peter from Missouri and the blue alien. Apparently whatever needed doing was something only he could do, and there was really only one thing he was the best at. “Look, Strange, if you need me to build something just say the word. I can figure it out. I will make sure I get it done.”
“Can you figure out forgiveness for a sin that hasn’t happened yet?” Strange asked.
“The hell?” Tony balked. “The hell does that mean?” He was an engineer. What did forgiveness and sins have to do with engineering? Better yet, what did it have to do with infinity stones and half the world dying ?
“Mister Stark can do it,” Peter said encouragingly. “He can do anything.”
“ That is encouragement,” Drax pointed out somewhere behind Tony.
“That’s a lot of pressure, kid. What have I told you about pressure? Also, water. You need it. Go,” Stark ordered. The red shoulders of the Stark-tech suit drooped.
“Stark, I need you to be serious,” Strange cut in before they could descend into mindless banter. “Doing this could break you.”
Tony stayed quiet for maybe half a minute, waiting to see if there was more. He was almost disappointed that Peter hadn’t listened to him, but he had to admit that the sorcerer’s words were somewhat compelling. Mostly because they had stopped. “That’s it?” he asked. “No grand declarations or warnings of what exactly that means? Just ‘this could break you’? How generically ominous. Did HYDRA teach you that?”
Strange looked at the others for a moment, and then he did something. The world tilted for a moment and Tony almost tripped over nothing - he wasn’t even moving, how could he trip? - and the rest of the planet was still. “We’ve both been broken before,” Strange said. “I didn’t think the kid needed to hear about it. What is he, your son or something?”
“You seriously see me having kids?” Stark scoffed. “Have you seen where we are? What about this situation makes you think I am even remotely parental?”
Strange cocks his head as if seriously considering the thought. “You’re right, I can’t see it. But you may want to consider it. Because you have a choice to make. Either you can do this to increase our odds and save that kid - or you don’t. Because in more than half of those potential futures? Parker is going to die.”
“Then it’s not a choice, is it?” Tony asked, not even stopping to think.
“It is a choice,” Strange countered. “It has to be. Because I’m not joking about this breaking you. All those times you thought you were at your lowest before? The times you almost died? They don’t even compare. You won’t have anyone to reach out to for help. You will know things that haven’t happened, and you will have to shape them even when it hurts.”
“What are we doing, exactly?” Tony asked, suspicious.
“We will have to work quickly, before Thanos arrives,” Strange said - and suddenly the world was moving again. “I will send Stark back in time and he will work from the past to shape the future. This future.”
“Wait, what?” Parker asked. “What do you mean, shape the future?”
“There are certain things which cannot be changed,” Strange explained, as much to Tony as to the high schooler. “No matter what you try, there are certain events which are inevitable. But you can change how they happen.”
“I’ve always been a futurist,” Tony joked. “Didn’t think it’d be a literal thing, but I can roll with it.”
“Is that agreement, then?” Strange asked.
“Yeah,” Tony sniffed. “Yeah, it’s agreement.”
“You should probably say your goodbyes then.”
“Wait, what?” Parker asked. “Why’s he saying goodbye?”
“I just said I’m sending him to the past,” Doctor Strange said, rolling his eyes. “Were you not listening?”
“But he’s going to be back, isn’t he?” Quill asked. “To fight Thanos?”
Strange hesitated, and suddenly Tony understood what he meant about being broken.
“I’m going to have to come back the long way,” Tony said. “I’m pretty sure you don’t want an old man out here getting in the way.”
Mantis was hovering at the edge of the group, looking nervous, and Tony shifted Quill’s focus to her and containing Drax’s excitement at testing his skills against a titan.
“You’re going to be okay, aren’t you Mister Stark?” Parker asked, his lower lip shaking slightly. “What Doctor Strange said about breaking - that, you’re not going to do that, right?”
“I’m going to try my best not to,” Tony admitted. “It sounds painful. Probably should avoid it. Look, kid.” Tony shifted and tapped the reactor, his armor retreating back into the housing. “I’m going to the past. Pretty sure I can’t take this with me. There’s probably all sorts of rules about bringing future technology to the past, and Strange seems like someone who breaks some rules - but this one seems like a good one to keep. Just think, how would Friday react to another Friday?”
“She’d probably freak out,” Peter said.
“Is that what they call it now?” Tony asked. “Wow, who knew? Anyways, yes, AIs meeting themselves is probably not a good idea. So I’m going to leave her with you, okay? Think you can take care of her?”
Peter nodded. “Of course. Until you get back, and then I’ll give her back.”
“Right,” Tony said. He nodded sharply. “Right. She’ll integrate with your suit a bit. It’s not ideal, but it’s something.” He handed over the reactor.
“Thanks, Mister Stark,” Peter said quietly as he took the device being handed to him.
“Don’t thank me yet, kid. I’ve got a past to shape. Or a future. Whatever.”
He didn’t bother saying goodbye to Quill, Mantis, and Drax. He didn’t know them well enough, and they needed to get this finished before Thanos showed up demanding the stone. Strange was ready for him; the time stone glowed inside the open pendent. “Peter’s going to be okay, isn’t he?”
“We’ll see, I guess,” Strange said.
“No, he’s going to be okay. I’m doing this so the kid can be okay,” Tony growled.
“That depends on you,” Strange countered. “This isn’t something that can be done lightly , Stark. I’m sending you to the past, and that’s going to break the present.”
“ What ?” Tony did his best not to shout, but that sounded too much like dying for his comfort. “Stop speaking in goddamn riddles!”
“Do you want to do this, or do you want me to take the time to explain and chance getting killed by a purple alien?” Strange glared.
“Explain enough,” Tony growled, and hoped Strange knew what he meant.
“The stone will take you to a point in the past which I have negotiated with it. We have agreed that you are the key, but not Tony Stark. Just you. Which means you have the ability to shape the present. But when you go to the past the present will not have happened. You’re going back in time, Stark. You have to be strong enough for that not to break your mind.” Strange’s voice was quick and stern. “Remember the timeline you came from, but also remember that it never happened .”
“God, I’m going to throw us all into a paradox, aren’t I?” Tony moaned, rubbing his hand down his goatee.
“No, the stone will handle that. It - well, it makes allowances,” Strange said, cocking his head slightly. “Time itself cannot be broken. Just the present, or the future.”
“Right. Just. Get on with the voodoo,” Tony said, waving his hand. There was a bright flash, and Tony shielded his eyes.
“Oh, come on, it’s just a camera,” sneered a voice Tony had never heard before. He looked up to see a blonde man in army fatigues behind a camera so old it probably predated film. “How the hell you scrawny dumbasses make it through training is beyond me,” he grumbled.
“Uh-” Tony hesitated.
“Through the door,” the man grumbled, jerking his thumb towards an opening that might have once had a door, but now was just a frame going from one room to the next. “You’ll spot the rest of the R&D crew when you - oh. Anthony Edwards. You’re Stark’s nephew. No wonder a brainless wonder like you got in.”
“I - should probably go,” Tony said, inching away and then bolting when the man nodded. Stark’s nephew? When exactly did Strange send him?