Earth-199999: September 2023
The Time Stone drifted slightly above Stephen’s shaking fingers as he lifted it from its niche in the briefcase. Rocking back onto his heels, he fumbled with the glimmering jewel, trying to remember how to hold it, how to ignore its oily intoxication of power, how to breathe through his hatred of it.
The things this Stone had done to him… and the things it had done for him. Stephen didn’t know what to think of it anymore, or what to remember about it. The deaths it forced on him, or the lives it saved? The screams and blood and pain that haunted his every moment, or the wondrous capabilities it had provided him?
“Hello, old friend,” Stephen murmured, sliding a knee beneath him to fold into a more comfortable position. “It’s been a long time.”
The Stone pulsed with a thousand voices and a million silences. Stephen turned it over in his palm, coughing through the cloying power wrapping around him.
He’d never held the Stone without the protection of the Eye, before. Or at least, not for long. There’d been a moment when he’d relocated the Stone into his transcendental pocket universe on the donut spaceship five years ago that he’d brushed it, and a few seconds in a few futures, but that was all.
“One more favor,” Stephen said, cupping his other hand over the Stone. He took a breath—a long draw of the Earth’s air, of the oil and grease scent of the Stark’s barn.
And then Stephen Strange closed his eyes and dived into the emerald depths of Time.
A curtain, a blanket, a tapestry, woven of life and light and death and dark and purpose and intention existed in the nothingness. It did not float, nor did It drape, as that would imply space or sight. No, the Tapestry was simply there, just as he was simply there.
He watched the undulation of the curtain through a silver of perception—he could not sense any wider else the majesty of the Tapestry tear him apart.
He had a mission, here, between these threads of Everything. Slowly, curiously, cautiously, he moved closer to the emerald threads.
They groped at him with phantom fingers he couldn’t feel, roared with silent voices he couldn’t hear. Like a creature emerging from the depths of Earth’s sea, peering with milky eyes through alien kelp and towards glimmering colors never before seen, he wove through the Tapestry. He perceived each thread with a thousand squinting gazes.
Each told a story, a story of all and any kind. He read of stars burning for eons, exploding and fusing and birthing the source of all things in the universe. He read of minds bursting into life for a single moment, living to their fullest for mere hours, mere minutes. He read of the cycle of a stone as it tumbled through Earth and space. He read of life and stone and plant and ecosystem and land and world. He read of time.
The maze of threads ensnared him, swallowing him. He drifted through the Nothingness, through the Existence, guided by an intuition he couldn’t place. He had a mission, a purpose—he was here for something.
The labyrinth of Time drew him deeper, drew him further. The emerald threads became deeper, longer, darker. They told stories of sentience—stories of people, who remembered and felt. Who created a history.
These strands were harder to pass through, as they were wound and woven through each other in intricate and inseparable relationships. He shoved himself through their coils, fluttering between them with grunting effort, but never touching. It’d be an invasion to touch them, he knew, a betrayal of trust and the laws of nature.
He’d had sworn an oath to those, once. Never. Always. Someday.
Not that he was doing a very good job keeping that oath.
Not that he was doing a very good job doing anything, lately.
At the thought, the Tapestry crowded a little closer, roared a little louder, shone a little brighter.
Stay with us, the threads sung. This is where you belong, where everything belongs.
He looked behind himself, just for a moment, watching his own thread curl away into the nothingness. To weave himself within the Tapestry, to remain here forever and for no longer… it was inviting.
But he had a mission. A mission he intended to complete.
So with a flutter of a thousand iridescent wings, he shook off the song of the Tapestry and kept moving, sorting through the threads as they became ever-more complicated.
It was blinding, when he found the Six.
The entire Tapestry was blinding, but this was the Center, and he knew there had never been a place of such concentrated power. There never would be. This was the multiverse, right here in front of him, woven into six thick, glimmering strands of the Tapestry.
As he forced himself closer, he knew he was no longer in the Tapestry, however. The threads had fallen away, fallen back, as the Six came into being.
They were life, they were death, they were the cycle and the fight and the knowledge and the world.
And they were his mission.
Slowly, cautiously, haltingly, he moved next to one of the trunks of the multiverse, pulsing emerald and extending throughout the whole of the Tapestry.
As if recognizing him, as if knowing he was Of a Different World, the green of the Six undulated toward him. Lazy, lethargic, it called to him—it had all the time in the world, after all.
With a limb made of dozens of vibrant butterflies, he seized the strand.
A being brought it to the Earth, at the planet’s birth.
The being had tried to use it, to harness it to her will, and found more than just power within its depths. She’d found salvation, damnation, Infinity.
So she’d cast it away, knowing she was unworthy of its might—and it had fallen to rest against the smoking, burning land of the Earth.
No, not this. Too soon.
He kept searching.
The first words it heard were those of a goat herder, in a language long since lost.
She’d dug it from the ground on a stroke of fate. Its glow mingled with the sunlight of the juvenile Earth until it outshone it, brighter than the sky and brighter than fate. It was fate.
It had killed that young, curious goat herder, for it hadn’t understood the fragility of life yet. It hadn’t realized how easily its power tore them apart.
Nothing ever touched it again.
To protect them.
Later. Much later, he needed millennium later.
The butterflies retreated, then warped again, long in the future.
It had never been handled by someone quite so… brave, before.
Or perhaps stupid.
The man wrapped its power about scarred, shaking hands and pulled, demanding something it was all too eager to give. Time flowed like liquid gold, pooling in the cracks of this universe and bending to the man’s will.
He’d never held it before.
Perhaps he was not stupid. Perhaps he was simply inexperienced.
Well, relatively. In the scale of this universe, he was moments away. That man using the Stone was just one of thousands who had and will brush its power. He was the blink of an eye, the single flutter of a butterfly’s wing.
And he had a mission.
It felt the call of its fellows for the first time since the birth of the universe.
Four of its brothers, so close, a mere hairsbreadth from the distance they usually existed—it vibrated with the aura of imperceptible power between them.
The world was like a rubber-band. And they were about to snap it.
It’s doctor held it between forefinger and thumb. He’d held it like this before, in looping universes tucked into crevices of the timeline, but it was still unusual. Usually, its doctor wore it against his chest as it peered through the lids of the Eye.
Its power pulsed with the unconscious need to weave magic, to bend universes, to pull lives and to snap them. So when its doctor’s shaking hands spread wide, sending it hurling into space, its power clutched at him. It tried to control him, tried to order him, but the man’s will kept it curling through the dimension—
Until it was caught again.
By new hands. Different hands. Hands with the strength of planets and the resolve of time, gripping it in gold and uru, uniting it with its siblings.
Everything was power and reality and soul and space and time, and the universe was fraying at the seems as the crackle of their united location sent tremors into the very fabric of existence.
The rubber-band was about to snap.
He knew those hands, too.
But he knew them as enormous and powerful and controlling, knew the way they felt around his throat and against his form. Knew how easy it was for them to break bones, pierce bodies, drive magic from places it shouldn’t belong.
Butterflies shivered, flapping their iridescent wings defensively. But he wasn’t done yet; he was closer. Just moments from this point, really.
He kept searching.
They were all there.
All together, still humming with power despite the enormous explosion of energy they’d released moments, weeks, years ago. Time was nothing to them, wrapped up together in the Titan-hand.
But not a god-hand. They’d been held by gods, and this was not one of them.
They yearned to create, to destroy, to cause havoc in this world. The energy built up inside them was so much greater than the rest of the universe, and it itched to be equalized. It was only natural, after all.
The equilibrium of chaos.
It happened in a mere moment. The order of the Titan, channeled through their energy, turned them on each other. Destroy, he demanded. Destroy.
They were all too happy to oblige.
Power cascaded into the dimension, viciously clawing at the forms of the others, at their physical manifestations. To free the energy within. To equalize the universe. Destroy, destroy, destroy—
Every butterfly snapped its wings open.
There was an order. Another order, in a voice it recognized.
The order came from somewhere else, through something else. But time didn’t matter to it—it was time, and it had all of it in the universe.
Its siblings were weak, now. Nothing but the dregs of the universal power, nothing but moment-to-moment energy left over from the dawn of the dimension.
Not it. It was reborn every moment, its power refilled with each incarnation. It was forever, and it couldn’t be broken.
But it could do the breaking.
This was working, he was doing it—the relic and the tome hadn’t lied.
There was hope. Hope, and time. Eternal, everlasting time.
Power wreathed it, pouring from the shards of its siblings, joining the song of the universe. The everlasting song that it conducted. Under its concentrated assault, its siblings exploded into nothingness, sending tidal waves of energy rippling through reality, through the Titan that held them.
The universe wobbled, destabilized as the supports disintegrated.
But its power wasn’t yet exhausted, would never be exhausted, and it seized the dimension by its throat and forced it into stability, into continuation.
FREE, it told it, LIVE.
And the universe did.
Now. Come on, now.
His first order had been followed, but everything hinged on the next one.
It was Time, it existed everywhere and nowhere. It could linger in this moment for eternity, or leave, skipping thousands of moments to come and appearing elsewhere.
The order was still coming, still pleading, from somewhere in the future.
Or from a nanometer away, for all it mattered to it.
Only a blink of power was required for it to slide out of the timeline. The Titan would never know, thinking it gone with the others.
It splashed back into the universe directly When it desired. Time was only what it desired, anyway. But it wanted something familiar, wanted the promise of more use, so it fizzled back into existence somewhere it knew.
Its doctor’s hands still shook.
He broke away from the strand, butterflies flurrying with excitement and exhaustion.
He’d done it.
The timeline was still intact—he hadn’t truly changed anything. The Stone would go back with the Soldier, healing a split before it began, and continue on until the Titan destroyed the Stones.
All but one.
And now he had a tool, a possibility, a hope—time was no longer the enemy in this half-formed, two-thirds understood, entirely crazy idea of his. Time knew him, time would work with him; and apparently, as he’d seen within the thread, time remembered him.
He drifted backward into the Nothingness, sending a shimmer of vibrant life through the Tapestry. The threads wound around him, tight and whispering, and he forced himself to keep his concentration. The labyrinth of the Tapestry still called to him; he wasn’t out yet.
As he swum, winding between the pillars of Time, he let himself hear the calls of the strands. He let himself identify their voices, their words.
He let himself recognize them.
And it was all the harder, now, to push his existence forward, to unwind himself from the alluring patterns of the Tapestry and find his way back to the physical. The threads were no longer tools, no longer just memories. As their voices tumbled through his consciousness, disturbing the wings of the butterflies, he heard stories, truths, friends.
He heard secrets.
He kept himself close, bundled up into something infinitesimal, both yearning to and terrified of touching the threads around him. The Tapestry was thinning, marking the edge of conscious time, becoming individual and eternal as he reached the edge of the universe.
And began to hear new voices.
Stephen snapped back into his body with a gasp, the sensation of physical perception slamming against him with unforgiving force. His breath shuddered through his teeth, one weak hand clenched around the other’s wrist as it held the Infinity Stone a mere hairsbreadth from his bare skin. Sight drifted back in splotches as his vision faded in and out, in and out.
“Strange, what the hell are you doing?”
That was Captain Rogers, his exhausted mind hypothesized. His quest must have taken longer than he’d thought.
Stephen convulsed over his hands and hacked up a turquoise butterfly, its wings light against his teeth.
Rogers’ irate voice paused for a blissful moment as the butterfly circled up into the rafters of the barn. Achingly, Stephen relaxed his fist, his hands shaking ever-harder. The Time Stone dropped out of his grip and thumped against the ground between his knees, leaving a tiny crater in the dirt.
“What did you do?” Rogers demanded, kneeling next to Stephen. His voice was low and dangerous—terrified.
“What did you do?”
Forcing his eyes open again, Stephen braced his hands on his knees and looked toward the Captain. “A stabilizing spell,” he lied easily. “It should support your endeavors in the past, keeping the universe wholy on its axis in the 4D multiverse as you tamper with healing dimensional splits. We can’t afford you splintering our timeline even furthur.”
He felt like he was speaking through dust, through layers and layers of timelines and worlds. He felt wings in his throat and in his mind and in his soul.
A butterfly crawled from beneath the collar of his shirt and flapped blood orange wings to rise into the cool, stale air.
“Is that… normal?” wondered Rogers, pale blue eyes following the insect as it spiraled through the barn.
“Perfectly,” Stephen lied again. He wasn’t sure what symptoms sorcerers who tampered with time usually exhibited, though—this could be normal. And there were worse creatures than butterflies. He was quite attached to butterflies, actually, wandering insects with an eerie sort of beauty and a freedom no one could catch.
Stephen stood on unsteady legs, scooping up the Time Stone and reaching for the empty silver briefcase. Rogers beat him to it. They watched each other for a few heartbeats before the Captain snapped open the case, fiddling with the lock-dials, and offered it to him.
Stephen tossed the Infinity Stone into its niche with far too much nonchalance, enjoying the discomfort on Rogers’ face.
“All yours,” he said. “Good luck today. And in all the days to come.”
He had to wish him that—a lifetime worth of good-will. The Avengers had tasked Rogers with the return of the Stones; they were giving an old warrior, a frozen soldier, a man lifted out of his life and shoved into an unfamiliar future, the responsibility of time travel.
No, Stephen didn’t think he’d be seeing the good Captain again.
“You too,” replied Rogers. His eyes were still puzzled, still distrustful; how terrifying it must have been to step into the barn and see a stranger holding one of the Stones, unresponsive and wreathed in power. Stephen didn’t blame him for his hesitance.
Without another word, Stephen lifted his sling-ring and stepped through space, away from the eyes of Rogers and the empty memories of Stark and into the warm, empty Sanctum.
As soon as the portal closed behind him, he started running.
He caught the Time Stone as it fell out of thin air, snatching it from the sky moments before it clattered against the floor of the library.