[Earth, June 2018]
“Slow down- slow down seriously! I’m totally not kidding!”
Pepper slowed her pace, laughing as she eventually came to a stop.
Now, Tony managed to catch up to her. In contrast, panting heavily as he was finally granted the rest he had been pleading for the last quarter mile.
“Seriously, woman. You can’t be doing this to me this early in the morning,” he complained loudly.
The other smiled, shaking her head lightly. “It’s nearly noon! And you need this. You’ve been behind a desk for the past months-“
He threw Pepper his trademark smirk, which only made her smile wider.
“Heavy that wears the crown.”
“So…” Though she paused. Waiting for a group of joggers to pass them. Then lowering her voice a level, “…The Council finally starting to catch on to what you’re doing?”
“I’m sure they had an idea from the start. Just couldn’t do much to stop me.”
The next time they locked eyes, Pepper had on a worried look. One that Tony was awfully familiar with. Soon, a firm hand found its way to his forearm.
“Tony, I want this for you. I do. …But you’ll be careful, won’t you?”
He smiled, giving a short nod.
And another squeeze, then she let go. Turning her sights to the trail up ahead.
He can see the little hints of worry still. In the stiffness of her shoulders, the traces of hesitance a sharp contrast to the usual clear gaze.
He understood. Appreciated it. Though this time, Tony was quite sure her worries were for naught.
This wasn’t one of his reckless whims. He knew exactly what he was doing. Had a plan.
And it was working. Actually working. Perfectly. Everything about the situation was playing in his favor. Every piece in his corner. Everything from Cap and the rest being declared fugitives to Fury still wanting to be perceived dead. Sure there were still Everett Ross but he had his shortcomings and Rhodey was still recovering.
All in all, there was a power vacuum that was getting bigger and bigger and slowly… but surely, Tony was grabbing it bit by bit and tucking it into his pocket.
It wasn’t even all too hard really. At times it was as simple as lightly offering help, assistance, advice. With there being not much other options many took it gladly or eventually did when situations eventually became dire. And when it got dire, the billionaire made sure he was always coincidently at the right place at the right time.
He spent months trading small favors, establishing goodwill. Doing large favors but not cashing in... yet. It was evident more recently now that he was the one everyone contacted first when something major happened. Those with influence called to ask for his opinion, some bluntly and some in a hushed whisper.
There were talks about re-establishing SHIELD. Inevitably needing to form a new team of Avengers.
At the moment, Tony wasn’t even sure what he exactly wanted. Being the new director? Finally, become the sole leader of the Avengers? … maybe both.
But one thing was for certain. The Council, the governments, anyone with any influence or in the circle really… all seem to recognize the inevitable. He, Tony, was the last one standing. One with the most influence in this playing field now. That any before standing in his way, who could have vocally opposed were gone. Few may still be unhappy about it but all they can do is watch.
And sure, the road to power can be a dangerous one. Risky. Can change with the next day’s wind. But this time it will be different. His plan, his moves were good. Perfect. Had the stamp of approval from the cunning god who seems to have millennia of experience. Double-checking all his moves, being a second pair of eyes. And when it was absolutely necessary… helping Tony cheating the system a little with some very useful tricks.
Though he had to admit, it was starting to worry Tony just how long ago he had last seen the Asgardian. It wasn’t like the god to disappear like this for weeks without so much as a whisper or prior warning. The first week he assumed Loki simply got caught up in playing king. By the second, wondering if some disaster had struck Asgard. And by third…
Tony half-heartedly flipped through the last interaction of theirs he could recall. If perhaps it was something he had done or said that could have set Loki off. But he really couldn’t think of anything worth noting.
The last time things got heated was way before the start of Loki’s absence. During that final conclusive confrontation about Stephen’s death…
That snapped Tony’s attention right back to reality. Worried he may have started accidentally voicing his thoughts out loud.
But when his sights fell on Pepper, she wasn’t looking at him at all. Her gaze was dead set somewhere over his shoulders. An odd look coming over her that sent a chill up Tony’s spines.
He didn’t want to. He really didn’t. But slowly Tony turned.
And… it stopped. Everything stopped. His thoughts, his heart, his world… stopped.
As it always did. …
Of course, it did.
Just when he felt like he had a grasp on things. Just when it felt like things were under control. Like he found a new rhythm, a path, knew where he was going, headed…
Of course, it would be flipped upside down. Again.
Just with a single look.
Those piercing gray-blue that Tony would love to pretend doesn’t make him feel so…
“Tony… I need you to come with me.”
“From the dawn of the universe, there was nothing. Then, boom! The Big Bang sent six elemental crystals, hurling across the virgin universe. These Infinity Stones each control an essential aspect of existence…”
Stephen briefly glanced towards the couch where Tony still sat. His ex
, he thought with a slight tinge of bitterness, hadn’t moved from that spot since they arrived at the sanctum. Kept uncharacteristically quiet, eyes purposefully fixated on Doctor Banner and now Wong...
But never at Stephen.
Quite frankly, even Doctor Banner showed more reaction than his ex upon recognizing Stephen’s name. Though one sharp look from Tony and the other silenced his questioning and let the subject drop.
It irritates him in ways he doesn’t know how to fully phrase it. No anger, no shouting, no endless questions like Stephen imagined every time he allowed himself to… fantasize their reunion. Just… nothing. As if… it didn’t matter at all. As if they were nothing at all.
Tony practically acted as if they were strangers. As if that’s what he wanted. Perhaps that’s what he needed in order to deal with this whole crazy situation.
Or maybe… they were.
And that… hurt.
But Stephen supposed… considering the last conversation they had before his departure this may all be... fair.
“…Space. Reality. Power. Soul. Mind. And Time,” Stephen said as he briefly opened the Eye of Agamotto, revealing the Time Stone.
“Tell me his name again.”
At that, his gaze automatically snapped up, was about to respond when it became quite obvious it wasn’t he who the question was meant for.
If the situation wasn’t so serious it may have been almost comical.
Wong was already giving him a knowing look, one that was mixed between amusement, teasing, and pity.
“Shut up,” Stephen tried to silently convey to the other in a glare.
Completely unaware of the silent exchange, however, Bruce stepped closer to Tony, speaking fast now. “Thanos. He’s a plague, Tony. He invades planets. He takes what he wants. He wipes out half the population-”
Tony slowly stood to his feet. Crossing the floor, closer to his former teammate as he listened intently. But then…
“He sent Loki!”
Tony suddenly froze.
Stephen, in turn, frowned. Couldn’t help but to search within that look.
“…The attack on New York. That’s him!”
There was a brief pause, a forced calmness before, “…Where is he?”
Concern. That was pure concern.
Stephen crossed his arms tighter, had to turn away. Was already gritting his teeth before he even consciously recognized his own impulsive reactions.
Because he knew. Sure he had to bite his tongue as to how or why but he definitely knew what this was about. Who Tony meant and possibly why.
Though it seemed Doctor Banner… didn’t. So Loki must have not mentioned his time back on Earth. The endless amount of time he seemed to have spent with Tony at the compound. Or perhaps he never got the chance.
“Thor…?” Bruce questioned with a small frown.
Tony quickly cleared his throat before facing away. “…Yeah. …And Loki. You said you all were on your way here.”
“…They… probably didn’t make it.” There was a slight break in the doctor’s voice. “…We got as many civilians out on evacuation pods as we could. They’ll probably be here soon. But… But when Thanos came… Thor of course tried to fight. Hold them back so more can escape. …The last thing I saw was Loki trying to protect him and...”
They couldn’t see Tony’s face anymore, definitely not his expression. The billionaire casually walked towards the direction of the stairway, leaning on the cauldron, and… stretched his legs.
If Stephen didn’t know him any better he would have thought this was odd behavior, too nonchalant for someone who was being told his friend and former teammate was most likely dead.
But the truth was he did know Tony. He would like to think he still did. And all this act, it was such an overcompensation. Overcompensating that everything was fine… because it really wasn’t.
Stephen doesn’t want to imagine it. Why Tony may be this upset over Loki’s possible death. He doesn’t want to go down that rabbit hole.
“…So what’s our timeline?”
“No telling.” Bruce let out a sigh. “He has the power and space stone. That already makes him the strongest creature in the whole universe. If he gets his hands on all six stones, Tony…”
His voice trailed off, shaking his head slightly before turning to him and Wong.
“He can destroy life on a scale hitherto undreamt of,” Stephen finishes for him.
But without realizing it, he must have taken a step or two closer. Closer to where Tony stood.
Because Tony… practically bristled.
There was a moment in which all of them froze on spot. Both Wong and Bruce carefully glancing from Stephen to Tony.
But eventually, the latter broke the silence.
“Did you seriously just say hitherto undreamt of?” Tony said, a bit sharp in tone.
Though before he could bite his tongue Stephen found himself already snapping right back. “Are you seriously leaning on the Cauldron of the Cosmos?”
The billionaire let out a soft scoff. Still defiantly not looking at the sorcerer directly as he muttered, “Is that what this is?”
For a moment Stephen grimaced, silently chiding the cloak.
But that made Tony spin around, almost impulsively. Finally facing Stephen for the first time since the park. And the Sorcerer Supreme couldn’t help but be satisfied finally at given some amount of actual attention.
At first, Tony seemed rather startled, giving him a once-over with a heavy frown. But after a second, then two, a silent deliberation…
“…I’m going to allow that.”
Stephen tried not to smirk.
They say old habits die-hard. Tony was feeling that times a million.
They bickered as they marched into the street. And it started with Tony… freaking out.
Again, old habits die-hard.
The thought of Stephen so close to danger. Deliberately walking into a battlefield raised all sorts of red flags in his brain.
He knew he was being ridiculous. Not even just about the part where his ex-boyfriend was now apparently some all-powerful wizard
and most likely stronger than him when it came to sheer powers and abilities.
No. …But also about how… he didn’t have the right. Tony doesn’t have the right anymore.
They broke up literally years ago. They haven’t spoken since then.
Just until this afternoon Tony seriously believed Stephen was dead. He mourned for him. God, now he was sounding like Thor. He sort of felt bad now for all the snappy jokes he made about Thor with Loki.
But anyway, the point is, it literally was not his place to be this concerned anymore. He didn’t have the right to tell Stephen off or freak out. There was no excuse anymore, no endearing sentimental explanation for this type of behavior.
But again, old habits.
So yes, he told Stephen to stay back, tried to even blame it on the fact they shouldn’t have the time stone near.
Stephen of course, dismissed him.
Tried to even show off a little with the air-bending thing. The little shit even winked.
Tony was begrudgingly amused. At least briefly.
And that was the other thing that was sending the billionaire slowly into a mental meltdown.
Unless he was utterly crazy and seeing something that isn’t there… Unless this was all being cooked up in his brain by the bit of pathetic hopefulness he may have …or simply a wake-up call from the world he had been too alone for far too long… For someone who ran into their ex whom he had left claiming he didn’t want anymore, Stephen was being awfully-
Was Stephen always this flirty with everyone…?
Actually, why did it even matter?
Why does it bother him.
Fuck his life.
But whatever disagreement, whatever glaring and spitting of words, it ended the moment one of Thano’s henchman decided to make an insult.
And apparently… even after years apart, even though they are no longer romantically involved or quite frankly, even friends… they do the pushing aside their own issues and rounding on someone else -thing very well still.
And only a few minutes into the battle, Tony had to admit, Stephen was completely right in dismissing his concerns.
It was clear Tony alone would not have been able to stop these two aliens, especially with Bruce having his own issues with the Hulk.
And Stephen… he was strong. Powerful. He was using spells and attacks that Tony couldn’t fully make sense of, that defied all logic. But very effective.
They fought together as if it was the most natural thing. As if they have been doing so for years. Stephen seemed to be able to read his next move, accommodated. They knew each other’s blind spots, knew almost instinctively what the other needed before it was even asked.
At that moment, Tony felt a high. God, it was such a high. He felt like they could take on the world. Felt like even with all this crazy shit around them that it was going to be okay.
He felt grounded. Felt safe.
Till he didn’t.
Apparently, the world loves throwing him a curveball.
Like throwing Peter into the mix and somehow the bad guy managed to get a hold of Stephen the split seconds Tony was distracted.
“Kid! That’s the wizard get on it!”
Fuck my life.
This wouldn’t have been Stephen’s first choice.
If for one second he could pretend the universe was kind, he didn’t have such poor luck at the worst of times, that he had a choice … this wouldn’t have been how Stephen chose their reunion to go.
But well… Universe was not kind, Stephen had shitty luck, and when did he ever get a choice really.
One can argue he sort of had a choice though. He could have decided to march up to the Avengers Compound any time the past few years he was in New York, had the guts to knock on that door and- … but he wasn’t going to go into that. He was having a shitty day already as it was, thanks.
Though, if anything about the last several years, the accident, all the lessons at Kamar-Taj, have taught him anything… it’s that he can’t really control everything. Or anything really. Sometimes he had to just roll with the punches. Play with the cards he’s dealt.
And it wasn’t… all bad.
Sure they had a rough start. Tony seemed unwilling to even acknowledge his existence at times. He really was hoping for more-… Quite frankly, he wasn’t sure what he was expecting but he didn’t like that there was so… lack of attention.
But there were still moments.
He can still see the little tinge of joy behind Tony’s gaze at their banter. The way they fought so effortlessly together in the field, still felt like they had an understanding. A connection, gravitational pull that was far from anything logical and can’t fully be explained in words.
Okay so getting kidnapped himself was… unfortunate.
Stephen was embarrassed to say he didn’t see it coming. Had been a bit distracted when Tony literally was knocked through several buildings and the arrival of one Peter Parker…
Either way, again, not ideal.
Not only was it the exact opposite of what they were trying to accomplish – get the time stone far away from Thanos’s grasp. It was too close a call. Dangerous. But also…
This was definitely not how he pictured showing Tony his new life. He wanted to, if he was being truly honest, show off. Show the extent of what he could do, how great he can be.
Not get kidnapped and need saving like a damsel in distress.
So that part was very unfortunate.
Stephen tore his eyes away from the large hole he had just mended with the help of the Iron Man armor he was wearing. Through which, moments prior, Ebony Maw had been blasted off into space.
Part of him can already guess what he may find once he turned. Though knowing didn’t make him feel any less panicked.
There was a large amount of debris about to fall from overhead. Below, Tony was sprawled on the floor and seeming unable to get up. For a moment Stephen had thought the cloak may be able to fly them out but… he spotted the large boulder holding down the relic in place.
And in that moment, Tony didn’t have the Iron Man armor.
Didn’t have the armor because the idiot gave the armor to him. To protect Stephen against Ebony Maw’s needles.
He didn’t have much time to think. The sorcerer darted forward, firing up the jet boots in full capacity, the helmet encapsulating over his face once more.
He got there just in time, landed right over Tony.
The first several rubbles hit the back of the armor. Stephen felt it though it didn’t hurt, the armor absorbing most of the impact. Then quickly, conjured a shield over them.
“I got you.”
Stephen said it without really thinking. And almost immediately he was reminded so vividly of another very similar event long years back. That day in Malibu. After starting a war with the Mandarin.
Tony stared at him, a bit surprised at first. Then relief… Then... there was something else.
A ghost of a smile tugging at the brunette’s lips.
Yes, over the past couple of years Stephen had gotten better at focusing on the positive side of things.
And hey, at least Tony couldn’t stop looking at him now.
Even if the sorcerer can guess what came next was probably…
“Admit it! You should have ducked out when I told you to! I tried to bench you. I told you to stay back. I told you it was dangerous. You refused!”
“You don’t get to bench me, Tony! This isn’t like before where you get to make all the calls! Treating me like some fragile-“
“Oh, I'm sorry and who just saved your magical ass?!"
"I had to save you just now too because you tripped over the cloak!"
"-And due to the fact we’re now in a flying donut billions of miles away from Earth with no backup-“
“I’m back up-” Peter interjected suddenly. Though the teen looked rather confused for the most part at the rest of their conversation.
Tony turned to him sharply, waving a finger. “No. You’re a stowaway. The adults are talking.”
Stephen glanced towards the teen before rounding back on the other. “And why is your kid here?!”
It felt like a blurted-out statement. One that was carelessly tossed from all the anxiety, adrenaline still lingering in their system.
But it still threw Tony off. “…My-…wait-” Something about that statement was odd. He couldn’t put a pin on exactly as to why but something was flashing in his brain as odd. That word choice, the lack of question, the assumptions.
Though before Tony could further press on the matter, Peter stepped forward. Doing the most Peter thing to do.
The kid cleared his throat, “I’m Peter, by the way.”
“…Doctor Strange,” Stephen replied automatically.
“Oh, we’re using our made-up names…” A short pause as the teen straightened himself up a little. “Uh… I’m Spiderman, then.”
Tony stood completely still, biting on his lips, trying to force down a laugh.
Stephen soon glared at him. As if daring him.
He quickly cleared his throat. “Pete. Go-…” But his voice trailed off. On second thought, Tony really didn’t want Peter out of his sight at the moment. Especially not inside an unfamiliar alien spacecraft. “…Turn around and plug your ears.”
Peter gaped at him. “But-“
Grudgingly, the teen turned, taking few steps away again as he plugged his ears.
With a sigh, Tony set his sights back on the sorcerer.
“…This is self-correcting its course. Thing’s on autopilot,” he stated as calmly as he could. He glanced around the ship, making mental notes about the mechanics he could recognize, guess.
“Can we control it? Can you get us home?”
He grimaced. “You’re a goddamn wizard now!” Tony snapped with a huff. “If you want to run you can go zap yourself back. I saw that sparkly circle thing you do. While you’re at it take Peter with you-”
But Stephen cut him off sharply. “Because you won’t come with me!”
He was close now. Standing far too close. It shouldn’t matter this much to Tony but…
And he was going onwards. Wasn’t shouting, wasn’t raising his voice anymore but the words still cut through.
“Because you’ll… go alone. Try to carry out this plan alone. Under no circumstances can I bring the Time Stone to Thanos but-…” Stephen's voice faltered, he seemed to be chewing the inside of his mouth. “…I don’t think you understand what’s at stake here, Tony.”
“No. It’s you who doesn’t understand, Stephen,” Tony retorted right back. “Thanos has been inside my head for six years! Since he sent an army to New York and now he’s back. And I don’t know what- …But I know… he has to be stopped. Now I’m not sure it’s a better plan to fight him on our turf or his but you saw what they did, what they can do. At least on his turf, he’s not expecting it. So I say we take the fight to him.”
He took a wide step forward. Now there was hardly any space between them.
“I have to… try. Someone has to do this. …You’re right. It isn’t like before. You’re… you have powers. I have to better acknowledge what you can do. …I also can’t tell you what to do. I can’t call all the shots. …So I’m asking you to stand with me. Help me finally stop Thanos. For good.”
They both stood still, eyes lock onto the other.
Both searching, trying to understand…
“…Wait… so… you guys… already knew each other…?”
And like that, the tension broke.
Tony fixed the teen with a look. “Pete.”
“Sorry,” the kid quickly replied, spinning right back around.
He sighed. Glancing back to Stephen with both hands on his hips. Waiting.
Stephen gave him a look. One that Tony couldn’t fully understand. He was shaking his head slightly, letting his gaze fall for a brief moment.
“I can’t… protect you. We do this and I won’t be able to- …If it’s between the time stone or you… or the kid- ...I have to… I have to-…”
Without really meaning to, Tony let out a harsh laugh.
It such an impulsive reaction.
“Of course…” he muttered, spinning on his heels. Taking couple brisk steps away, turning his back.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Stephen said with a frown.
The offense in that tone, the irritation in those words, however, made Tony spin right back around. “IT MEANS I ALREADY GODDAMN KNOW! YOU ALREADY CHOOSE…” he gestured vaguely to Stephen’s outfit. “…THIS. Whatever this is! Magic and power and whatever goddamn else!”
That… didn’t quite make sense.
And Tony knew it.
He surprised himself with the outburst. Quite frankly he wasn’t even sure he was making any sense with this leap. Wasn’t even sure why exactly he was angry he just knew he was.
He didn’t get a chance to digest any of this. To process. They didn’t even get a chance to fully talk. Everything was jumbled in his head, all theories and explanations just fighting to get ahead.
There was so much bitterness, resentment, anger threatening to spill over inside him for reasoning Tony wasn’t even sure were justified.
And he can see Stephen now was just as confused. The wheels visibly turning in his head tried to make sense of what Tony had just said.
“I…” the sorcerer started, a bit cautiously. “I didn’t choose to be the Sorcerer Supreme over being with you. It was never a choice between the two.“
Perhaps it was meant to be comforting. But it had the opposite effect.
As if someone stabbed a knife directly into Tony’s heart and twisted for good measure.
This… this Sorcerer Supreme business, the time stone, Stephen’s new life… had nothing to do with him. Never did.
Stephen chose to leave him back then. Made the decision to leave because he wanted to leave. Simple.
Didn’t want him, was tired of him, as the other had said that day.
And somehow, found a new life down the road.
Two were not… correlated.
A part of Tony… A small, hopeful, pathetic part of him wanted to believe perhaps, just maybe, Stephen left for his benefit. Some stupid altruistic reason of not wanting to constantly be protected after the permanent injury to his hands. That he didn’t actually want to leave, he just didn’t want to be a burden. Tony would have argued how stupid it was but… at least…
At the very least that meant…
But well, that little hope was crushed today. Completely utterly crushed. Because if that were the case, Stephen would have come back to him, right? After gaining all this magic, all this power, apparently being one of the most powerful sorcerers even. And when he was so conveniently still residing in New York, completely settled it seemed…
If Stephen didn’t actually want to leave him originally, he would have come back to him as soon as he thought he could, was able, felt he was capable.
He moved on. Moved on the moment that call, that horrible call, ended.
Left what he wanted to leave behind and went on with his life. Found a purpose, meaning, became a hero in his own right.
Tony wished he could say what would be “correct”. Especially being in this type of lifestyle himself. Wished he were a better person and say how great it is. How happy he was for Stephen and the world that benefits.
But selfishly… it hurt.
Stephen didn’t owe him anything. He was clear about why he was leaving from the beginning. It’s not like he up and disappeared one day. He told Tony he was leaving him and why.
He didn’t owe Tony an explanation about his life thereafter. Of course, he had no reason to seek Tony out after he became a sorcerer. Was in no way obligated to keep in contact. Tony had no right to be upset about… any of this.
So he, Tony, was literally, pathetically… upset that the man he probably still
loves… didn’t want him anymore. Didn’t want him for… years now. Practically just throwing a tantrum like a child because he couldn’t get what he wanted. That in reality, he, Tony, was the only one who didn’t move on. Deluded himself into thinking Stephen maybe still needed him, even. Formulated some story in his mind of how he should have helped Stephen, needed to find him, how he may be in danger somehow… when… apparently, Stephen was completely fine on his own.
It was all in his head.
He can see it clearly now. Just how much he had… chose to disregard all the obvious.
“Right…” he cleared his throat, loudly. Mentally reigning in all the pesky little emotions. “…You chose… that even before all this. …You were just… tired of me.”
It came out calm, composed once more. Factual. He needed to say it out loud. Remind himself what was the reality.
“Tony…,” Stephen started, his voice low and questioning. “I-…”
Then something changed in the other's expression. As if he put two and two together. As if he finally understood.
And Tony had to look away. Suddenly feeling too bare.
“…Do you… still…”
“Don’t,” he cuts in hurriedly. He took another further step back, glaring. “…Just-... No. …I know… I’m not being reasonable. A momentary lapse of judgment. I… I don’t even know why I’m so-... I’m being-… But we literally cannot do this right now. We can’t have this distraction. I need to shelves all this away because literally, the faith of the universe is at stake- And I will.”
That shut Tony right up.
Stephen took a cautious step forward. Trying to bridge the gap once more. “…Perhaps after… we can talk…”
He wanted to laugh. God, this was so… fucking pathetic. “I don’t need you to take pity on me, Stephen. I’ll get over it.“
Such a lie. Such an utter lie. He still didn’t get over it and it’s been how many years?
But this time, before he can pull away, physically and mentally, Stephen reaches for him. The trembling hands now holding firmly onto his wrist.
“No. I want to talk. …So if you are willing… I want us to talk. …About the past. …About… maybe… where to go from here…”
Tony chewed his lips, looking away. Trying to focus his brain onto something else, anything else.
But he couldn't. Of course, he couldn't.
But he wasn’t sure he wants to do this again. Fool himself into thinking and hoping…
“…Ohhh… you two were…” Peter, once again, was staring at them. Though this time, appeared a bit shocked himself at his own outburst. One that he couldn’t swallow down once realizing. “I get it now. …So you’re …that doctor. …You’re actually a doctor.”
Tony could quite literally feel Stephen’s silent exasperation.
That probably shouldn’t make Stephen feel better but it does. It was better than the nonchalant air Tony had been treating him with earlier.
Anger, he was prepared for. Anger, he expected. Anger… proved Tony still cared. Or at least he could hope.
And if he was correctly reading this. Really thinking back to all the things said…
There was something still here. He, Stephen, wasn’t the only one who was feeling like there was something here…
Of course, the sorcerer knew better than to get his hopes up too high. It wasn’t as if they had a shortage of problems. They would need to talk. Surely, address how Stephen left back then.
But he can explain all that, right?
Sure, he had… some reserves about telling the full story. He had so much time to think in the last several years. Mulled over everything that happened, what Natasha said, all the oddness surrounding the whole incident… something was odd. As if he didn’t get the full story. And something… was telling him it was important.
He was planning to eventually figure all that out. Quietly, subtly. Stephen definitely knew better than to charge into any situation blind. Knew better than to let raw emotion cause the whole situation to get ahead of him. He needed to play that one smart. Especially considering those he could guess he was dealing with.
But for now, he can at least tell Tony how he didn’t actually want to leave. He could try to explain how he didn’t want to be the other’s weakness. It was too dangerous. He certainly didn’t want Tony to be settled with a cripple. As much as he didn’t want to admit it, he wasn’t sure his pride could have handled all that at the time.
It wouldn’t be a lie. It may not be everything but… it would be the parts that mattered. The important part where it could explain he didn’t mean… all the terrible things he said that day. He didn’t actually want to leave. …He didn’t stop loving the other
And hopefully… it may be enough grounds to… at least try. At least test the waters to see if they…
There was suddenly a loud bang. Then, a faint rumbling that was getting louder and louder.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Peter asked, voice tense.
“I think we’re here…”
But the words barely left Stephen’s mouth when the whole ship shook violently. They weren’t slowing down.
“I don’t think this rig has a self-park function.” Tony darted towards the platform, grabbing hold of what looked like a large handle. He was pointing the other one out to Peter. “Get your hand into this steering gimbal! Close those around it, you understand?”
The teen mimicked him. “Yep. Got it!”
“This was meant for one big guy so we got to move at the same time-“
“Okay. …Okay. Ready-“
But then they saw it. They were heading straight towards a large starburst-shaped structure.
Peter’s eyes went wide, “We might wanna turn- Turn, turn! Turn!”
Tony activated his suit. Taking the cue, Peter pulled on the helmet of his own suit. They seemed to be pulling with full strength now and the ship finally pivots. But too late, the back of the ship still hit the monument, snapping the whole craft into half.
A second later, they hit land. A brutal impact.
Tony unlatched his arms from the steering, rushing over to do the same for Peter before practically dragging the teen.
Stephen rushed closer to them but it seemed Tony already had the same idea. They met somewhere in the middle and the sorcerer quickly threw up a complete shield around them.
The ground beneath them shook for a long while, debris and rubbles falling all around but shielded by the magical barrier.
Then finally, after a couple of tense heartbeats, it was completely quiet.
All three of them remained still for a bit longer. Peter and Tony letting out deep breaths. Stephen still holding up the protection barrier just in case.
Eventually, Peter darted away first. Most likely too eager to get a first look at their new surroundings.
Tony, however, stayed put. His hand still holding onto the sorcerer, keeping him near. And Stephen didn’t pull away, didn’t bother to move the hand that had settled onto the other’s lower back.
Even through the many layers of the fabric, he could feel Tony’s touch. Felt so warm. Comforting. Holding him in place.
Then there was that look.
One that Stephen remembers so well.
But just as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, Tony blinked, fast. And as if realizing, looked away. Though he seemed rather distracted still.
“You can keep staring if you’d like,” Stephen said with a smirk.
And that seemed to snap Tony back completely. He was already rolling his eyes. “Oh for fuck’s sake-“
“You’re still attracted to me.”
It wasn’t a question. Stated so matter-of-factly.
Yes, he was just going to rip the bandage right off. Though he was careful in keeping his tone and expression light, almost teasing.
Perhaps some would say he wasn’t being sensitive enough, this wasn’t “proper” but quite frankly when did either of them ever claim they were those things. And perhaps… there never really is a good time, the right time. They just had to steal what they can from the world any chance they get.
Besides, there were too many things, too many shit to still work through. Too many things hanging over them. They can’t possibly benefit from either of them being coy about their intention, wasting time.
“…We said we’d talk about this after,” he heard Tony mutter.
There was hardly any bite to the brunette’s words now. There was even some calmness, less tension in his features.
And Stephen can sympathize. There was something freeing about just showing all the cards, being open.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” he pressed, the smirk widening a little. Though the sorcerer really had to brace himself a little, careful in keeping his voice still casual, “…Are you seeing anyone?”
“What…?” Finally, Tony’s eyes snapped back, fully focusing on the doctor. “No-,” he blurted out. For a split second, Tony appeared embarrassed, taken aback both by the question but moreover the rashness of his own reaction. Then, confused. Then, as if just throwing all caution to the wind, “Are you?”
Stephen smiled. Relishing in the sense of relief. “No.”
A pause. Though soon Tony was shaking his head, huffing out an exasperated laugh.
“You’re impossible.” Then fixing the sorcerer with the glare that didn’t hold any weight, any heat. “…This is ridiculous. We’re doing this now when we’re about to walk into like… the biggest boss fight?”
Stephen threw him a look, “Oh we wouldn’t be us if we weren’t a little ridiculous.”
They simultaneously cracked into a laugh. Both too aware of how absurd this whole thing was.
But once that giddiness faded, this time, however, the silence lingered for longer. Till the laugh stopped and the smile began to fade.
“Just…” Stephen cleared his throat. Though this time he wasn’t sure if he could keep eye contact. He fixed his sights to somewhere over Tony’s shoulder. “…just tell me now then. Tell me I’m wrong. That I’m imagining this. That there isn’t… anything here.”
“Stephen.” He didn’t sound angry but there was a definite weight in the way Tony spoke now. “…You are the one who left. You didn’t want-“
“It was a mistake,” Stephen said briskly. “…Let me… try to explain… after this is over. I know we have to talk and there is no guarantee but… Tell me there is a chance…”
And after another second, then two…
“…Yeah. …A chance...”
That was the only warning that they got. They both glanced down just as a device rolled into view, right under them.
Neither had time to prepare, they were both thrown backward by a pulse of energy.
There was an explosion, many footsteps, someone was yelling, voices that was far from familiar.
“AHHHH! Woahwoahwoahwoah- don’t put your eggs in me!”
“Stay down, clown!”
“Die, blanket of death!”
…What. The. Fuck.
Considering everything that happened in the last 24 hours, after being told off over and over again, after literally just seeing the extent of magic Stephen apparently could wield… Tony honestly thought he was finally getting the hang of this. Thought he was done with his emotional outbursts, the stupid old habits and instincts.
“You’re full of tricks, wizard. Yet you never once used your greatest weapon…”
The moment Thanos had his hands around Stephen’s neck. Grabbed hold of the gold necklace, shattering it to dust.
The moment he saw Stephen being thrown several meters. Heard the sickening sound of his head hitting the ground. As he lay there, unmoving.
Something in him… snapped.
He launched a set of nanites that landed and quickly formed around the palm of Thano’s gauntlet, preventing further movements. Then before the Titan could even take another step, Tony landed before him, between him and Stephen.
“You touch him again… and I’m gonna lose it.”
“You know me?”
“I do. You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge.”
He let out a bitter scoff. “My only curse is you.”
Without a second thought, he launched into an attack.
There were explosions, smoke, shouts, and the familiar buzzing of his suit. Each step, each blow trying to create more distance, away from where Stephen still lay.
Tony gave everything he got. Pulled out every trick in his book. Every arsenal he had combined with reflexes he didn’t quite know he was capable of.
Frankly, part of him knew this would be suicide, the end inevitable.
But he had to try.
You could have saved us. Why didn’t you do more?
There was a sound of shattering as Thanos reached for Tony’s helmet, the nanites crushing into million pieces in its wake. Tony had just enough time to recover, re-form another head protection before being punched dead on.
He tried to breathe, trying to find his ground again. But just as he thought he had managed, he felt it, sensed it. Tony formed a large shield, kneeling behind it, and not a moment too soon a surge of energy hit it with full force. He dug his heels but could feel himself being pushed backward, knew the shield wouldn’t last.
Tony ducked out, letting the angled energy push him to a faster start. Activating full thrusters as he aimed a kick at the Titan with his left foot, catching Thano’s gauntlet by the wrist, then pivoting, fast. His boots turned into clamp as he pinned the hand down. Then…
“…All that for a drop of blood.”
If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in Him.
For a moment, there was satisfaction. For a moment, Tony let out the breath he didn’t know he was holding. But…
He was then sent pinwheeling through the air, landing with a loud thud. He instinctively tried to shield his face, brace himself but wasn’t much of help when the beating started. He can feel it, the full force of Thano’s punch. There weren’t enough nanites, there weren’t enough of a barrier.
It wasn’t long before Tony was once more lifted up forcefully. A blasted from the power stone knocking him back even further.
The gaping in his armor was getting larger, the extent of the damage being too great to recover anymore.
Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?
He wanted to scream. But there was no time.
He fired both repulsor beams, trying to keep the Mad Titan back. But he was getting closer and closer…
Thanos was soon a foot away from him. A simple backhand and it completely shattered what was left of his helmet.
Tony crossed his arms to block the next blow coming down. Then drawing his right arm back, one last desperate attempt, using what’s left of his right glove into a short-sword…
He plunged it towards the Titan.
Thanos broke it off clean.
Turned the blade onto him.
Driving it into Tony’s side.
“You have my respect, Stark…”
He could feel it. Felt every bit of it.
“When I’m done, half of humanity will still be alive. I hope they remember you.”
Tony gritted his teeth. He wasn’t going to scream. At least he wasn’t going to scream.
The Titan raised his gauntlet, closing his fist, the stones starting to glow…
They say when faced with your death, your life flashes before your eyes.
But there was none of that.
No endless memories, no reliving of past regret.
His mind was still fixed on the now. Here, this moment.
But he wasn’t looking at the stone anymore or at Thanos. That wasn’t important.
His eyes landed to his left.
Stephen, who was slowly sitting up with a pained expression.
“…N-no…” It came out shaky, barely above a whisper.
But Stephen was no longer looking at him. “Stop. …Spare his life… and I will give you the stone.”
The Titan turned away from Tony, his sights fixating on the Sorcerer Supreme. “…No tricks.”
The other only shook his head briefly.
Then, Thanos had all four stones pointed at the other, a warning.
“D-don’t…!” Tony tried to move, but he felt his whole body tense horribly, spazzing with sudden pain that radiated.
But Stephen seemed to be deliberately ignoring him now. And slowly, steadily, he reached up with one still trembling hand, plucking out the time stone that was hidden amongst the stars.
Then slowly, though not hesitantly… he opened his hand. Letting the stone float away.
All Tony could only watch. Desperate to move, do something, but his body wasn’t cooperating.
But… there was a shot of fear as the stone reached Thanos.
And as the stone settled onto an empty spot on the gauntlet, Tony forced himself to his feet. Mustering just enough energy, just enough last adrenaline to throw himself in front of Stephen, shielding him as he had done so many times.
This... at least this felt familiar.
He knows that tone. That’s familiar as well.
What wasn’t, what was new, however, was Stephen grabbing him by the middle, roughly pulling him closer, a bit off to the side. The other hand readying.
Tony couldn’t turn fully away, sights still set on the Mad Titan. But at the corner of his eyes, he could see the flickering of magic, feel the buzz of energy that was far different from his own.
For a moment there was silence as Thanos watched them, as if deliberating. But before any of them could further move or speak.
A loud screaming could be heard as Quill charged through the air, straight for Thanos.
The Titan however didn’t even bother engaging. In split seconds, he disappeared. Star-Lord bolting straight through where Thanos once stood, confused as he landed.
“Where is he?! Where- …Did… did we just lose?”
Complete utter silence.
Tony shut his eyes closed. He had to remind himself to breathe. How was it possible to feel this much pain and this much nothingness at the same time?
They actually lost.
“…Tony…” It was softer this time, a hushed whisper.
But Tony didn’t turn to face the other, at least not right away. He just couldn’t.
Silently, he tried to busy himself by stitching up his wound. Though quite frankly it was over in seconds, didn’t take long for the nanotech to seethe fully. Then… allowed himself a couple deep breaths, in and out.
Swallowing up the denial, regret, grief, dread… and whatever else this could be.
Eventually, however, he turned his weight. Getting to a sort of kneeling position to finally face Stephen.
“…Why would you do that…”
He meant it. He really meant it. He couldn’t even hide the disappointment, disbelief.
For the most part, Stephen appeared composed. That same calm demeanor that only looked so… jarring when Tony really got a look at his eyes.
“There was no other way …I… I’m so sorry.”
“…You said you wouldn’t,” Tony spat angrily. “I told you not to-“
A pause. For a moment Stephen downcast his gaze before looking back up. “No. ...I’m not sorry for that.”
“Then what-…” But Tony didn’t bother finishing his question. His thoughts were soon catching up to him.
Half the universe.
That look Stephen had since he went into that trance.
He couldn’t help but simply stare. Just stare as he tried to make out each of the emotions mixed in that beautiful gray-blue.
Tony tried to bite his tongue. Tried hard. But…
“Don’t…” It sounded so broken he hated himself for it. So desperate and needy.
He had wondered.
Since the beginning of all this, he had wondered if once all this was over, if it would be easier if he never saw Stephen again. If they went their separate ways and Tony wouldn’t have to ever see him again, if that was better. If that was what he truly wanted.
But he supposed… now he has his answer.
“…don’t do this again.”
He hated that tone. Hated all the implication he can read. Hated how defeated Stephen sounded.
Because he needed Stephen to do something. Because he, Tony, couldn’t figure out what to do now. There was nothing else he could do.
He needed Stephen here. With him. Because if not…
Because or else…
He wanted Stephen here.
“You can’t.” he continued, bitterly. “…You don’t get to leave me. Not twice-”
Stephen smiled. It was soft and barely noticeable but it was still a smile. And for a moment Tony was hopeful. But…
“…Then leave first,” the sorcerer said in a hushed tone. “…Find Peter.”
And what was left of his heart… dropped.
“…There isn’t much time. So this time… leave first. Leave me. …Be by his side... he’ll be scared…”
Tony swallowed, hard. Blinking away the tears he didn’t even realize were fast forming. He was already shaking his head. To what exactly he wasn’t sure anymore.
“…Tony.” Stephen reached out a hand, the trembling fingers wrapping firmly on the other’s shoulder. “…It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. …And… I-… I never…”
That had both of them tense visibly.
The second call made Tony jumped to his feet. His gaze locking towards the approaching teen. He was at least a good several yards away. A bit too far to clearly make out the details of his expression.
Then… a split second of hesitation. What felt like an impossible decision.
“…Go,” Stephen whispered.
Tony wanted to look. Wanted to look at him one last time.
But knew he couldn’t. Forced himself not to.
Because if he did, he wasn’t sure if he could leave.
Gritting his teeth, Tony bolted. Sprinted as fast as he could, just in time to catch Peter’s weight.
“Peter- … Pete-“
The kid was letting out a pained noise. “I don’t feel so good…”
They stumbled. Tony tried the best he could to lower the teen gently to the ground. Peter was sobbing, clutching tightly to him, practically clawing.
“I don’t wanna go-…I don’t wanna go please. …Please I don’t wanna go…”
If he were a better man... if perhaps he was a better man, he would know what to say. Perhaps he would be able to lie, say it was going to be alright.
But he couldn’t. All Tony could do was hold the kid.
Then for a split second, Peter stopped. Stopped speaking, stopped shaking… looking directly at Tony one last time.
And as the body turned to dust, Tony fell forward from the sudden lack of weight.
His arms felt so empty.
If he closed his eyes… he could still hear the echoes of the desperate cries.
I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go.
Something tells him this will haunt him for years to come.
And when he finally looked up. Finally had the strength to look up…
Stephen’s gone… too.