Tony opened his eyes four days after he arrived back home to find himself not in a hospital, or the compound, but in a gently scented, warmly, but softly lit ancient bedroom in what he realized had to be the New York Sanctum. There was no sign of hospital equipment, so he hadn't needed an IV, at least, not at the moment, and if any monitoring had to be done, it hadn't been done with machines, but by the man who stood at the window.
He should be asking him questions, there were things he needed to know, like how he was standing at a window in New York, instead of - no, he wasn't ready to know the answers, he couldn't begin to even form the questions, and all thoughts stopped as Stephen turned to face him and with a wave of his fingers created a single blue butterfly, which glided across the room and landed on Tony's outstretched hand. He remembered when he had asked him what he did besides make balloon animals for birthday parties, and examined the butterfly that for all appearances seemed real until Stephen blew a puff of air in his direction and the butterfly became an apple, the most perfect, reddest apple he had ever seen in his life and all he could do was roll his eyes.
"I suck at balloon animals, they all look like giraffes."
"Doc?" His voice sounded odd, and small to his own ears, and tried not to consider what Stephen thought of him. He had failed, failed the one time when it really mattered, the universe, at least half of it, had depended on him and he had failed to save it. Failed completely, and yet. They had both made it home, or some version of home, but was it as fake as the butterfly that had vanished from his fingertip, or -
"The apple is quite real, thought you might be hungry. You did not fail, Stark. I know that's what you thought, what you think, even now. I've never seen anyone fight harder than you, even after we lost, after, you didn't give up, you found a way to stay alive until you could be brought home."
Tony held the apple to his nose and breathed in its scent, then bit into it and realized he had never eaten an apple before. He took his time and relished each bite before the core disappeared into thin air. "It's what I'm good at. Surviving, finding a way out, I can always find a loophole." He cleared his throat, and swore as he felt the first tear run down his cheek. "Tell me." He watched as Stephen crossed the room, dropped lightly into the chair next to his bed, folded his long fingers together and began.
"Everyone is home. I'm still not even clear how it happened, and I should know, seeing as I'm supposed to know how the mystical side of the universe works, but I don't. All I know is that five days ago, I found myself here, and a day later, you were brought to my door. They asked me to keep you safe, and to let you know when you woke up that you had not failed."
"How can you say I did not fail? I couldn't stop him, after all those years, when I knew, I knew he was coming, and I couldn't stop him from getting all the stones and snapping his fingers? I saw everyone around me, everyone, except Nebula turn to ash, after you gave up the time stone to save me, and I held Peter in my arms as he crumbled to dust. How did I not fail?"
Stephen sighed and shook his head, then reached out a trembling hand and carefully picked up Tony's and brushed his lips over bruised and battered knuckles. "Am I dust, Tony? You did not fail me, or Peter, and you did it by surviving, by finding the loophole, time after time, you have found a way. I don't know you very well, but I do know the toll that has taken, I can see it in your eyes, I know how hard it was for you when I made the choice I made to save you, but it truly was the only way I could see. I wish I could have found a different way, but he was too strong for me. If anyone failed, it was me. I failed you, Tony, I had given everything I had to give, and it wasn't enough. And yet -"
"Yet, here we are," Tony whispered, as he looked into Stephen's glowing eyes. "The universe works in mysterious ways, Doc. Who am I to question the universe, when it brought me home to you."