Earth-199999: February 2024
Stephen found that he was rather good at card games.
It took a while to get there, as the cards were thin and the strength of his hands didn’t extend to gripping suchlike. He had a tendency to drop them, to knock over the stack when drawing, and to otherwise showcase his hand to the ruthless teenager playing against him.
But after Peter came the fifth time with a rubber gadget clutched in his fist, things had turned on their head. Drastically.
“What is that?” Stephen had demanded, for Peter had looked so triumphant.
“This,” Peter grinned and waggled his eyebrows, “is your salvation.”
It was a disk of rubber with a slit carved in the side, easily gripped in Stephen’s palm. Cards slotted between the flaps of the device, fanned out due to the pressure of the rubber, and suddenly holding a hand of playing cards was the least of Stephen’s worries.
And beating Peter rocketed up to top priority.
“Okay, you have to be cheating, now,” Peter muttered as he moved Stephen’s cribbage peg twenty-one spaces.
“Nope.” Stephen couldn’t contain his smirk as the Cloak layed its cards down, crossing its collars in irritation when they only totaled four. “Pretty sure it’s impossible to cheat at cribbage.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you, magic man,” Peter sighed, counting his own points and laying out his crib. He didn’t do too badly; ten in his hand and eight in the extra one. “Scott palms cards all the time.”
Stephen huffed. “He’s not actually magic.”
“No—” Stephen cut himself off when he saw Peter biting his lip, holding in a laugh. He huffed, and the Cloak swatted Peter’s ear somewhat aggressively.
“Hey! Not my fault your wizard’s so easily antagonizable,” Peter said, poking back at the Cloak. “I wonder if he could win against Lang.”
“Let me beat you, first,” Stephen said. He began the arduous process of shuffling, and the slow, clumsy movements of the deal.
“For the sixth time,” Peter grumbled. He watched Stephen, lapsing into a thoughtful silence, and for a moment the only sound was the repeated slap… slap… slap… of cards on cards. Stephen braced himself. When Peter was quiet, it either meant something very profound or very random was about to be voiced for consideration.
He didn’t disappoint.
“I wonder who would win if we got all the wizards together,” Peter mused.
Stephen attempted not to roll his eyes. The Cloak wasn’t so subtle, crooking its collar and slumping its shoulders in that way it did when it was profoundly exasperated.
“At cribbage, or in a fight?” Stephen asked.
“Either. How many wizards do we have?”
Stephen shuddered. “Don’t make me name off the masters and novices, please—”
“No no, not your sorcerer clique.” Peter waved a dismissive hand. “The Avenging wizards.”
Stephen, slowly, raised an eyebrow.
Peter was on a role now, his brow furrowed, his gaze staring forward but not really focusing as he spoke. “That’s you, and Maximoff, and… Loki? Did he count?”
“As an Avenger? No. As an Avenging Wizard? You haven’t defined the criteria of that particular sect.” Stephen picked up his hand, shoving Peter’s cards toward him. “My crib.”
Peter pried his cards from the surface of the table, a bit lethargically. “Yeah, so you, Wanda, Loki, Scott—”
Stephen stiffened involuntarily, and Peter nearly choked trying to contain his laughter.
“Kidding, kidding,” the boy said. “I’m inclined to think you’d win in this scenario.”
“In this afterlife-spanning cribbage match? I’m glad.”
Peter shrugged, pulling two cards from his hand and sliding them across the table to join Stephen’s crib. “Only one of the participants is dead.”
“Yes, but that still requires supernatural—”
Stephen broke off.
Loki had died in Thanos’s assault on the Asgardian refugee ship. A victim of the Titan, but not of the Decimation, snuffed out by Thanos’s own hand—Thor had said as such in about seventy-five of the futures.
Loki was a sorcerer, a warrior, a powerhouse. He wasn’t helpless. And he’d died before.
If he’d survived those, why not this one? He could have. He hadn’t, of course, but he could have.
And possibility was all the timeline needed.
Someone he could save by letting them die.
Stephen stood, his card-device dropping from his hand.
“Doctor Stra—” Peter began, his tone confused. He stood, too, his muscles already coiled to face unknown threat.
Stephen wasn’t really looking at him, wasn’t really looking at anything as he started toward the stairs to the library. He spoke mostly for his own benefit when he said, “I need to speak to the Guardians of the Galaxy.”
As it turned out, getting in contact with spaceship-contained, space-traveling convicts was far easier than Stephen had expected.
Namely, their engineer had email addresses.
Stephen had holed himself up in the library, the Cloak fluttering around him with varying amounts of emotion, and managed to compose something moderately articulate with his shaking fingers on his phone’s tiny keys. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d used the thing for precisely that reason.
But this was worth the onerous task of typing, slow and painful, a message. It took about half an hour, but Stephen was rather pleased with what he ended up with.
‘Hello Rocket and Crew,
‘I am Doctor Stephen Strange; a few of you met me five years ago. I need to speak to Thor; I understand he is on board your ship. If you provide me with a photo, I am capable of portaling myself to your location so the conversation can be carried out most efficiently.
It was short, but it was complete, and he managed to write it without throwing the stupidly tiny, unwieldy phone at the nearest wall. Not that there was anyone around to scold him for it, of course.
Stephen had had more interaction in the last two weeks with Peter’s annoyingly, endearingly consistent visits than he’d had in all the weeks since September combined. Pizza deliveries included. And though he never would have truly believed it, he felt better for them. It was as though Peter’s acknowledgement of his existence had become justification of his existence, proof of it.
Stephen still was somebody.
Not that he knew who that somebody was. But he did live, and he lived here, in this universe, in this reality, and not in the endless undulations of Time.
Because he had memories, now. Real ones. Ones he could fall back on when he woke up to a thousand different stories clawing at the inside of his skull, screaming for his recognition, screaming for him to remember them, accept them, believe them.
He’d never played cribbage in any of the millions of futures. Never. So that’s what Stephen thought of, hands curled at his temples, ripping at his skin—how ridiculous the Cloak looked when it held its hand of cards, how comically shocked Peter had been when Stephen first beat him, how cards sounded when they hit the table.
Stephen fiddled with the smooth case of his phone, watching his reflection in the now-black screen. He needed to shave again. And he needed a haircut. But the blankness of his eyes had filled with something that might be hope.
The image disappeared as Stephen’s phone lit up.
That was quick. Not that he was complaining.
The response was short, curt, and somewhat crude:
‘The fuck do you want with the pirate angel?’
Stephen assumed, for the sake of his own sanity, that the last was referring to Thor Odinson, former king of Asgard. He waited hopefully for a moment, but no photo arrived in the email chain, and Stephen resigned himself to another aching typing session.
‘I have questions to ask him about past events. His brother, specifically. Stop the ship when you send the photo or I won’t be able to portal.’
The response was all but immediate, this time.
And kept waiting
And then, some minutes later, the photo came, zipping open in Stephen’s inbox like the poor, Earthen phone had only barely managed to display it. Stephen couldn’t fault the electronic device; the image was so detailed, so high quality, that he could almost smell the grease and body-odor of the ship and the aliens it contained.
Thank you, Stephen thought.
A few seconds later, his feet were echoing on metal grating floors, and a thousand different smells and feelings and auras slammed into his perception.
The portal closed behind Stephen with his slight, almost imperceptible stumble. Transitioning instantaneously between drastically different locations didn’t usually affect Stephen, but he wasn’t just jumping continents this time. Stephen had jumped half a universe.
He allowed himself a moment to get his bearings and acclimate himself to the atmosphere of the ship.
The other passengers of the ship were not so frivolous with their moments.
“You really did meet a wizard, then!” barked a higher, sharper voice with a bit of perpetual sneer behind it.
“See, proof,” said a second. “You haven’t provided any for your fantastical jaunt with dwarves, I’ll remind you.”
Stephen suddenly remembered just how tiresome the Guardians of the Galaxy really were. He blinked once, slowly.
Then he turned, the Cloak situating itself on his shoulders, to face the team facing him.
They were… somewhat of a sight to behold, simply because of the familiarity oozing sickeningly from them. Six individuals stood aside each other in an order that seemed perfectly natural, at ease with themselves and at ease with the rest. Even Thor, their newcomer, their ‘pirate angel’, seemed to have a niche within the skyline the five others created.
But there was a hole.
Slightly to the right of the center of the group, a strange emptiness lurked. It shouldn’t have been so glaringly obvious—it wasn’t as though Thor, Quill, Drax, and Mantis had separated themselves from Rocket and Groot—but Stephen could sense something, someone, missing all the same.
He cleared his throat and decidedly did not look at the gap.
“Hello,” he said.
Silence. And then:
“Infinity beer Wizard!” Thor boomed, his voice echoing in the small space.
Everyone suddenly got a lot more friendly-looking.
“What?” Quill said in Rocket’s direction. “Magic does that?”
Thor ignored the conversation flaring up behind him in favor of approaching Stephen amicably, and thumping him on the shoulder. “It is good to see you,” he said. His voice was softer, earnest, and Stephen couldn’t pretend he wasn’t surprised.
“Good… to see you too,” Stephen tried. The Cloak tightened its corners around his hands reassuringly. The spot behind his ear itched.
Thor nodded. “Have you met my friends?”
Not ‘team.’ Not ‘comrades’. Friends.
A lot could change in five months.
“I have, some of them more briefly,” Stephen said, not sure if it was a lie or not. He glanced over Thor’s shoulder towards the group; Mantis waved. The Cloak waved back.
“Just so we’re clear,” Quill said, raising a hand, “I strongly advised not letting you onto my ship.”
“The ship.” That from Rocket, supported with a hearty ‘I am Groot’ from his left.
“How is it that you must acquire an image to… arrive?” asked Mantis, skirting forward a bit. The conversation sliced itself in two again as the males kept hissing at each other in the corner.
“It’s an energy thing,” Stephen said. He tried to keep his focus on both Thor and the antennae girl, though keeping the fidgeting to a minimum while doing so was giving him some trouble. “I need to be able to quantify the specific multiversal location of where I am portaling to, in terms of time, form, and position.”
“And a photograph allows you to do so?”
Stephen nodded. “And I needed you to stop the ship, for if you were traveling fast enough you would have passed through my portal and I would have been sucked into space, along with a cylinder sliced out of your spaceship.”
“That is very interesting,” said Mantis, bobbing onto the balls of her feet. “I have been wondering such questions since our last encounter.”
“A long time.” Stephen offered a smile.
“Not for us.”
Thor tapped his shoulder, and Stephen turned away from Mantis to face him again. It seemed the god was all too keen about the purpose of this visit; Stephen could see something hesitant and warm flickering behind his eyes.
“Let us sit as we speak, should we not?” said Thor. Stephen could only nod.
But as soon as he found himself curled in a spinning pilot's chair, pivoted slightly to face Thor and the Guardians behind him, he forced himself to clarify what none of them wanted to hear.
“I can’t bring him back,” he lied. “That isn’t what this is about.”
It was. But he couldn’t give Thor, give them all, a hope that might be wrong, might be just another one of Stephen’s lies to the inhabitants of this universe.
“I know,” Thor was quick to assure. But the light behind his gaze winked away, so quietly, with such finality.
Stephen swallowed hard.
“You’re cataloguing… threats and suchlike,” the god continued, more to himself than the wizard before him.
“And suchlike,” Stephen agreed softly.
Thor took a breath, then scooted closer in his chair, clasping his hands in his lap and gracing them all with a wide smile that wasn’t quite completely fake. “What is it you need to know?”
“How did he die? Your brother,” Stephen inquired, trying to keep the question as soft as possible.
Thor looked away. “Thanos strangled him. Broke his neck.”
Stephen heard the sickening crunch in a memory not his own and contained his shiver. “What happened directly before that?”
“He provided us all with a traitorous little act, some sarcasm, and an incredibly brave— stupid assassination attempt.” Thor’s voice was half anger, half pride, and Stephen had the urge to reach out and pat the enormous knee before him.
“And before that?”
“He… disappeared. Thanos fought Banner for the Tesseract, and Heimdall…”
Stephen could see Thor contracting in, spiraling into something dark and empty and somewhere far away. His shoulders had tensed, his hands clenching over the armrests of the captain’s chair.
“Thor?” Rocket was leaning forward, ears swiveled toward the god. “Thor!”
Stephen moved in an instant, laying his scarred and trembling hand atop the Thor’s, speaking to him directly, only.
“That was five years ago,” Stephen said. “Almost six. You are here now, remember? You exist.”
They were the words he told himself each morning, and they settled almost visibly within Thor’s chest. Slowly, achingly, the god’s gaze swam back to focus.
Stephen held it the whole time.
“That’s all I need,” Stephen said firmly. “Thank you.”
“Are you sure?” So obviously both relieved and disbelieving, Thor cocked his head.
“Really? Great,” Rocket’s voice was curt, the protective hostility crackling beneath it like lightning. “Stop talking, then.”
“He was not speaking,” Drax pointed out, to no one’s surprise.
“And get off my ship,” Rocket continued, ignoring him.
Thor began, “now wait a moment, Rabbit, there may yet be more—” at the same time Quill growled, “my ship.”
Stephen stood, smiling a bit. “I do apologize for the interruption of whatever great quest you happen to be on,” he said.
That shut everyone up, and filled the cabin with a guilty energy.
Stephen shot Rocket a pointed look, enjoying the way the raccoon bristled defensively, and slipped gracefully from his chair. He wondered if Quill would have reacted the same way.
As he fiddled with his sling-ring, Stephen saw Mantis and Groot sidle closer to Thor, saw Quill and Rocket watch him unblinkingly, saw Drax loom like an unending reminder of something and nothing. And still, there was that hole, that circle of space, drawing his eye like an emerald in a field of rubies.
Stephen wondered if maybe, just maybe, he could fill that hole again, too.